The Art of Benin
A. Cultural Encounters Between Europe and Benin from the Fifteenth to the Twentieth Century 1. The trade in objects in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries 2. The imperial confrontations of the late nineteenth century 3. The engagement with ideas about art in the twentieth century B. European Contacts with Benin
Europeans first became aware of the existence of Benin through Portuguese traders in the fifteenth century. The accounts left behind indicate that the first contacts between Europeans and the people of Benin were based on the exchange of goods, which included ivory carvings. Direct European contact with Benin was limited during the era of the slave trade (approximately 1650–1850) and little more was learned about the kingdom until British imperial forces conquered it in 1897.
The encounter between British and Benin culture continues. Migration and globalisation have made people more aware of the way that their different histories are interlinked. In this spirit the British Museum now displays its treasures, including the Benin artworks, as an archive of global, intertwined histories kept in trust for all mankind. On the other hand, some African leaders and scholars argue that the looted Benin objects fulfil a different function in Nigeria from that represented in European museums and galleries. In Benin, history has traditionally been recorded through the arts – through songs, art objects and ceremonies – rather than written down. As such, works of art constitute a crucial repository for representing the past and, it is argued, they should be returned to Benin. II. The Art of Benin
Activity (p. 5)
This brass head of a Queen probably dates from the early sixteenth century and was made in Benin (Plate 3.1.1). Examine it carefully. If you have expectations of African art, does this conform to them? Choose three or four words to characterise this sculpture. Discussion
‘Surprising’, ‘sophisticated’ and ‘skilled’ are the words I chose to characterise this sculpture. It is a ‘surprising’ sculpture because of its very early date and because it is so unlike the sorts of African art that I am familiar with and which so influenced western artists from the beginning of the twentieth century, such as carved wooden masks (see Section 2.2). I described the head as ‘skilled’ because, as we shall see, the process of casting brass is technically difficult, and this is quite a complicated piece. It is a ‘sophisticated’ work partly in a technical sense, notably in the decorative detail of the headdress, and partly because to me the head projects a particular royal image, just as an official photograph of a ruler might do today. A. A Detailed Description of the Brass Head of the Queen (Plate 3.1.1)
Almost certainly a representation of Queen Idia, the Queen Mother, this sculpture dates from the reign of her son, Oba (or King) Esigie, who ruled Benin from c.1504 until c.1550. Oba Esigie is said to have ordered a representation of his mother in recognition of her services as an advisor and warrior. Her tall pointed headdress and the four scarification marks (deliberate, decorative scarring) above each eyebrow mark her out as female – men in Benin had only three marks above each eyebrow. The lattice work decorating her headdress is of simulated coral beads, and a long fringe of coral beads hangs from the bottom of the headdress, almost like hair. Coral beads are again the material imitated in the necklace, which completely covers the figure’s neck. Coral, like brass, was one of the materials appropriated by the royal dynasty in Benin. It is supposed to have been Oba Ewuare, the ruler who built up the kingdom of Benin in the fifteenth century, who began the custom of the ruler wearing coral beads. Hence, the coral beads so obvious in this brass head are an attribute of royalty.
Although in one sense very lifelike, this brass head is idealised. This means that rather than following the uneven contours of a real human face, the shape of the head as a whole is a series of elegant concave and convex curves, the ears are a decorative pattern rather than a real part of the human body, and the regular youthful features betray flattery in what was supposed to be a woman old enough to be the mother of a king. In other words, it is not a portrait. The eyes of the figure are slightly downcast, an attitude probably determined by the gender of the sculpture, for, despite Queen Idia’s evident status, the rulers of Benin were resolutely male. The inferior status of women in society is confirmed by the fact that although men could not be sold into slavery outside Benin, women could. B. Contrast Between Two Genders
By contrast the eyes in a brass head of an Oba (Plate 3.1.2), again dating from the early sixteenth century, gaze straight ahead at the viewer. Although similar to the sculpture of Queen Idia in its regular features, youthful appearance and smoothly curving forms, and although again decked with royal coral beads imitated in brass, by its outward gaze this head conveys great authority, appropriate for a ruler. It differs from the sculpture of the Queen Mother in having a hole in the top of its head. In later times, intricately carved ivory tusks were inserted into the hole in the top of heads like these, but whether this was the practice at the time this head was made is less certain. Tusks were one of several valuable commodities traded in West Africa. Like brass and coral, ivory was a material associated with royalty, and one tusk from every elephant hunted in Benin was appropriated in tax by the Obas. C. Benin Bronzes
From at least the fifteenth century until the present day, Benin has been renowned for its production of brass sculpture. Although often called the ‘Benin bronzes’, these sculptures were not made of bronze but of brass. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin and sometimes lead; brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. D. Process of Casting Bronzes
Brass and bronze sculptures were made using the so-called ‘lost wax’ method of casting. A full-scale model of the sculpture is made in wax over a clay core. The wax image is then coated with the same materials used to make the core. When this outer coating is hard, the wax is melted out through vents, leaving a cavity between the core and the outer coating corresponding to the lost wax image. Pegs are needed to keep the core and outer layer in the correct relationship with each other. This cavity is then filled with molten bronze or brass, which takes on the form of the original wax image. Once the metal has cooled, the outer coating is removed and the surface of the cast can be smoothed and refined using a variety of files and chisels. Although stylistically different from western bronze sculpture, Benin brasses were made in a very similar way. E. The Source of Alloys’ Supply
Zinc, one of the alloys used in the casting process, was relatively readily available in West Africa, but copper was not. There is no consensus about where Benin obtained its copper before the arrival of Europeans. In the fourteenth century there was a legendary copper mine further north in what is now the modern state of Niger (Mauny, 1962) and further deposits to the south within Congo and Angola. Since Benin was not on the caravan routes across the Sahara, it seems unlikely that Europe was the main source of metal supply before the Portuguese reached the kingdom of Benin. Equally it is clear that Benin craftsmen did not learn how to cast from Western Europeans. III. The Europeans and Benin
A. The First Europeans in Benin: the Portuguese (around 1474)
The Portuguese were in West Africa not as conquerors but as traders. Although valuable commodities were to be obtained from Benin, notably pepper and ivory, initially the main objective was the acquisition of slaves to be resold to pay for gold further west along the coast, nicknamed the ‘Gold Coast’. Hitherto the gold trade had centred upon the legendary desert caravan centre of Timbuktu. Although later there was a demand for African slaves in the Americas and in Europe itself, initially the Portuguese participated in a slave trade indigenous to Africa. Activity (p. 8)
Read the extracts in Readings 1.1–1.3. These are from contemporary documents concerning Benin. Reading 1.1 is an account by Duarte Pacheco Pereira, one of the Portuguese explorers of the West African coast, written c.1505–8 to advise fellow mariners. It may be taken as first-hand evidence of reasonable reliability, which was written not too long after the events it describes.
Reading 1.2 was written by a Portuguese historian, Ruy de Pina (writing 1497–1521), in the reign of John II of Portugal. His position would probably have enabled him to access accurate accounts of the visit of the Benin ambassador to Portugal c.1486.
Anthony Ingram’s first-hand account of the 1588 English voyage to Benin (Reading 1.3) was recorded by Richard Hakluyt in The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffics and Discoveries of the English Nation (first published in 1589), an anthology justifying and charting England’s contribution to the voyages of discovery.
In each instance, outline in one or two sentences what you think these documents tell us about European contact with the culture and art of Benin. Discussion
From Reading 1.1 we learn that the copper bracelets or brass manillas were used as currency in the slave trade. They could clearly be melted down to make the brass work for which Benin is famous, vastly increasing its supplies of metal. Pereira evidently has a low regard for Benin culture, but he acknowledges that Benin City is ‘great’.
The Benin ambassador described by Ruy de Pina in Reading 1.2 was clearly treated with respect. Even bearing in mind the vested interest Portugal had in winning the favour of the Benin political hierarchy, there is little indication here that the ruler of Benin and his officials were regarded, or treated, as savages, though their religious beliefs are once again censured.
In Reading 1.3 Ingram pronounces Benin City to be a great city, where its nobles and factors are addressed in a manner not very different from persons of a comparable social rank in the west. The king’s status was evidently supreme and it’s of interest that he dealt with the English traders in person.
In none of these extracts do the Europeans comment on the art of Benin. Traders did not necessarily go to Benin City at all. Even for those who did, there is no first-hand evidence from this date that they entered the parts of the palace where the brass sculpture was kept. B. Benin Art Works
1. Bronze/brass works: sculptures & plaques: Not for export to Europe
2. Ivory works: produced specifically for export
b. salt cellars
c. hunting horns or oliphants
C. The Impact of the Portuguese Explorers Was Felt in the Subject Matter of Benin Brasses!
In the British Museum is a small statuette of a Portuguese soldier posed in the act of firing his musket (Figure 1.3). The half-crouching pose is exceptionally lifelike, and there is much intricate decoration surface detail on the armour. In the early sixteenth century Portuguese soldiers served on occasions as mercenaries for the Oba of Benin, although this statue has been dated provisionally to the seventeenth century. Portuguese figures recur in other Benin art forms, as we shall see. IV. Discovering Benin sculptureS
The cultural encounter between the Portuguese and Benin fuelled the supply of metal in the form of brass manillas, the metal bracelets traditionally used as a medium of exchange, affected the subject matter of Benin brasses, and seems to have prompted the production of works in ivory specifically for export to Europe. A. Bronze Sculptures/Heads & Their Functions
1. To Be Used in Formal Ceremonies
In the absence of written explanations, the main sources of information are oral traditions preserved within Benin and evidence within the works of art themselves. Benin oral tradition suggests that different Obas might inaugurate specific ceremonies for which particular sculptures might be devised, though customs may have changed or been reinterpreted over time. 2. To Commemorate Deceased Kings and Queens
The remaining altar in the Oba’s palace at Benin City includes several brass figures and brass heads of Obas, each with a huge ivory tusk fitted into their open tops. In 1897 there were several compounds with such altars within the Oba’s palace, each dedicated to different deceased Obas. This suggests – and oral tradition bears this out – that brass heads were associated with the commemoration of former rulers. It is Oba Ewuare (c.1440–c.1473) whom oral tradition credits with first honouring royal ancestors (Ben-Amos, 1980, p. 20). 3. To Be Sent to Rival Rulers as a Warning
According to Benin brass caster Chief Ihama, the heads of defeated kings were cast as trophies and could be sent to subsequent rival rulers as a warning of possible retribution should they defy Benin power (Ben-Amos, 1980, p. 18). Hence some of the Benin brass heads appear to represent not Obas, but enemies. B. Bronze/Ivory Masks
Another genre of art particularly associated with Benin is the mask, made in either bronze or ivory. The eyes of an ivory mask of a ‘Queen Mother’ in the British Museum are outlined using copper wire and, as with many of the brass heads, two iron bars were formerly set into the forehead (Plate 3.1.7). The headdress is decorated with the tiny heads of Portuguese. The fact that the eyes, nose and mouth are solid, and that this mask is far smaller than an average human face, suggests that it was not intended to be used as a mask. By contrast some Ife bronze masks have eye slits and were clearly meant to be worn. In 1897, the British found this mask along with another very similar one in the Oba’s bedchamber (Levenson, 1991, p. 182). This suggests a different significance from the brass heads that were discovered on altars. Carved loops above the ears suggest that a cord was intended to be threaded through them so that the mask could be worn around the neck. C. Brass Wall Plaques
Of the dozens of brass wall plaques from Benin now in the British Museum, one shows exactly how these plaques were originally used (Plate 3.1.8). It depicts four warriors in front of an open palace – evidently the palace of the Oba in Benin City. The palace roof is supported by pillars around which decorated brass plaques are bent and attached by nails. Many of the brass plaques in the British Museum show traces of this usage: nail holes are still visible, and sometimes the bent edges. The subject matter of some of the plaques bears witness to the cultural encounters between Benin and the Portuguese. One shows three warriors carrying bronze manillas, or bracelets, the commodity that the Portuguese traded with Benin (Plate 3.1.9). Another shows a Portuguese mercenary (Plate 3.1.10).
The palace of the Oba evidently included other sculptures in bronze, as shown in some of the bronze plaques. The roof of the Oba’s palace in Plate 3.1.8 is decorated with a brass snake, possibly a python. In an engraving in a seventeenth-century book on West Africa by the Dutchman Olfert Dapper (Figure 1.4), the towers on the Oba’s palace are surmounted by brass birds, said to bear symbolic associations. Activity (p. 13)
Study Dapper’s engraving in Figure 1.4 and then the cast brass leopard in the British Museum (Plate 3.1.11). Look carefully at the dimensions of the leopard given in the plate caption. 1. Comment on the way that the leopard is represented. Think, for example, about any lifelike qualities and about decoration. 2. What do you think this leopard might have signified?
1. The leopard seems to me to be primarily decorative: look at its leaflike ear, for example, and the pattern covering the creature’s body. Its upright stance and bared teeth make the creature look impressive. 2. If you look carefully at the Dapper engraving you will see that there are leopards in the foreground of the royal procession. This suggests that leopards were one of the many attributes of kingship in Benin. So the bronze leopard shown in Plate 3.1.11 was probably associated with the Oba in some respect. Note that cast leopards also appear at the entrance to the Oba’s palace in Plate 3.1.8.
What cannot be seen in the photograph is that there is a channel in the top of the leopard’s head through which water could flow and then stream out of the creature’s nostrils. It has been suggested, therefore, that it served as an aquamanile, a vessel for pouring water in ritual ceremonies performed by or surrounding the Oba. V. A Royal Art
A. Royal Art in Benin
We have seen that brass, coral and ivory were materials particularly associated with the Oba. Benin chiefs did commission works of art, but these tended to be of wood. At the time that the Portuguese arrived in Benin, metal casters (Igun Eronmwon) and ivory workers (Igbesanmwan) were grouped together in guilds within the royal compound of Benin City. (The brass quarter still exists in Benin City and is now a World Heritage Site.) The export trade in ivory spoons and salt cellars evidently took place with the Oba’s consent unless these ivory workers were based in the port of Ughoton, beyond the control of the royal ivory guild.
In Benin, royal control over the arts was far more absolute than anything typical in Western Europe in the same period. In Western Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the towns had guilds of craftworkers rather than the courts; those employed by royal or regional courts were usually exempt from guild control. The monopolistic control of raw materials, namely brass, and the heavy royal tax on ivory in Benin had no counterpart in European courts. B. Royal Art in Europe
In Western Europe royal art was often used for propaganda. Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor 1493–1519, and therefore overlord of much of northern Europe excluding France and England, planned a lavish mausoleum intended to contain 40 over-life-size bronze figures of his ancestors (of which 28 were made), together with 100 figures of saints (of which 23 were completed) and 34 busts of Roman emperors which were never installed (Plate 3.1.12). A collaborative project that continued long after Maximilian’s death, and eventually relocated from Vienna to Innsbruck, the mausoleum involved specialist bronze founders and sculptors in royal employment in Innsbruck, but also provided temporary employment of some of the best sculptors working in other German cities, with artists including Dürer producing designs.
In Benin the artwork was certainly on a scale and level of quality to compare with art produced under royal patronage in Europe at the time, but because much of it was kept in the palace of the Oba, neither the populace nor the Portuguese traders necessarily had access to it. The extent of the brass working tradition within Benin may have been revealed to Europeans only on the sack of Benin City in 1897.
Summary (p. 15)
1. How would you characterise the relationship between the Portuguese and the rulers of Benin in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? 2. How was the encounter with Western Europeans reflected in the works of art produced in Benin in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries?
1. The relationship between Portugal and Benin during this period was primarily one of trade. Portuguese trade appears to have been welcomed by the Obas of Benin. Although the Portuguese clearly condemned Benin religious practices, the Oba, his officials and the ambassador he sent to Portugal were treated with respect. Admittedly it was in Portuguese interests to maintain good relations with the Oba, but there is some evidence that when Europeans finally arrived at Benin City, they were genuinely impressed with what they saw. There is no evidence of hostilities between Western Europeans and Benin in this period. On the contrary, at one stage the Portuguese were serving as mercenaries for the Oba. 2. Reference to Western Europeans is to be found in bronze plaques, in the borders of the ivory mask of the Queen Mother, and in individual brass figures. The production of ivory work specifically for the European market implies that Benin craftsmanship was admired in Europe, or at the very least was sought for its curiosity value. C. The “Golden Age” of Benin Art
The frequent occurrence of Portuguese figures within Benin art, sometimes long after the Portuguese had been superseded by English and then Dutch traders, suggests that the encounter with the Portuguese was highly significant and later associated with a ‘golden age’ of Benin society (Blackmun, 1988). VI. Cultural/religious relations between Europe and Benin
Christian values always proved a stumbling block in the encounters between Western Europeans and non-Christian cultures. Christian missionaries were despatched to Benin in 1514 and the Oba Esigie’s son Orhogbua was among the few who were baptised as Christians (Blake, 1942, Docs 29 and 36). The high death rate among the missionaries was among the causes of their ultimate failure, despite spasmodically renewed efforts. Neither conversion nor conquest was the primary motive behind western contacts with Benin: it was trade.
It would be anachronistic to propose that relations between Benin and the Europeans were grounded in modern ideas of equality, but they were certainly characterised by a notable absence of hostility. However much at variance the two cultures might have been, successful trading relations demanded a degree of mutual regard, and it is this mutual regard that sixteenth-century Benin art appears to reveal. As you will see, the situation altered radically by the end of the nineteenth century. VII. The Conquest of Benin in the 1890s
In 1897 Benin was conquered by the British. This was not only a traumatic break in the history of Benin, which brought to a sudden end the independence of the centuries-old kingdom; it was also a key ‘cultural encounter’ in the discovery of Benin art by Europeans. A. Historical Sources: Primary and Secondary Sources
1. Written Sources
To a very great extent, we know what happened because of the records left by participants. We have a surprising amount of written material for the conquest of Benin. In addition to his official reports, Captain Gallwey gave a speech about Benin to the Royal Geographical Society which was later published. For the events of 1897, we have British government documents, a book by one of the two white men who survived the ambush (Boisragon, 1897), another book by the intelligence officer of the invasion force (Bacon, 1897), and an eyewitness account by a doctor (Roth, 1972 ).
We have, therefore, no shortage of first-hand reports on the events surrounding the British conquest of Benin. However, all the sources listed were written by British participants. Benin was an oral society and there are no accounts written at the time by the people of Benin. Nor is this simply a story of two sides. The British expeditions used large numbers of African carriers, and most of the soldiers involved in the conquest of Benin were also African. The written accounts all come from a small and quite atypical group of witnesses. 2. Oral Sources
However, the written accounts were not the only way that the events were remembered. As in many oral societies, oral records were important in Benin society: ‘the recounting of history has been a highly valued form of intellectual activity […] The transmission of oral tradition in Benin is done through story-telling’ (Layiwola, 2007, p. 84). A first written history of Benin based on such sources was published as early as 1934 (Egharevba, 1960 ). Oral narratives, many of them relating to the royal house, and often supported by mnemonic devices – songs, proverbs, or visual artefacts which prompt memories and act as reference points – are an important source of information about Benin’s past. The events of 1897 were also integrated into oral narratives, which are widely remembered in Benin to this day. 3. Difference Between the Written and Oral Sources
Oral narratives work in a different way from historical documents. Whereas a written source preserves the words used at the time, so that the problem for the historian is to understand the document in its contemporary context, in memories and oral traditions ‘the past provides a subject in which the present continually interacts in order to produce a new consciousness’ (Layiwola, 2007, p. 83). Oral tradition does not preserve the sources in an independent form. Instead, it provides a continually developing interpretation which helps explain past events. It would be easy to see this distinction as the same as that between history and myth which you encountered when exploring Stalin’s reputation earlier in the course. Myth, you will recall, was defined as a ‘popular idea concerning historical phenomena’, whereas history is ‘an account of past events based upon the interpretation of all the available evidence’ (see the introduction to Chapter 5 in Book 1). In fact, oral tradition has made a major contribution to African history. Activity (p.20)
Read Henry Gallwey’s ‘Report on visit to Ubini (Benin City) the capital of the Benin country’ (Reading 1.4). In Book 2, Chapter 5 you were introduced to a set of standard questions one might apply to any historical source. Now apply them to this text.
1. Who wrote it?
2. Who was the intended audience?
3. When was it written?
4. What type of document is it (public, private, official, published, etc.)? 5. What is its historical context?
6. Do you have comments on specific points in the text?
1. The document was written by Henry Gallwey, Deputy Commissioner and Vice-Consul. 2. The document is addressed to Gallwey’s superior, the Consul-General Claude Macdonald. Macdonald forwarded it to London (as Gallwey presumably knew he might). 3. It was written on 30 March 1892, immediately after Gallwey’s return to his Vice-Consulate. 4. The document is an internal government document.
5. The document can easily be fitted into the narrative account of the conquest of Benin. This is the official report of Henry Gallwey’s visit and how he obtained the treaty (see Figure 1.6). In one sense it is a factual account – he tells us what happened, when, and how long it took. At the same time, he provides his readers with some impressions of Benin. 6. There are a number of points one might make. I will comment later on how Gallwey obtained the treaty. What struck me is how Gallwey talks about the religious beliefs of the people of Benin, for which he uses the word fetish. When Gallwey first mentions them, it is simply as an amusing (and perhaps convenient?) hiccup in the negotiations, but later ‘fetish’ is presented as the cause of ‘Terror’ and identified as a barrier to change. B. Evaluation and Assessment of Gallwey’s Document
How useful is it as an account of Gallwey’s journey to Benin? Is it reliable? How can we know?
Obviously it would be very helpful if we could compare Gallwey’s account with another, say from a Bini perspective. Although, as will be explored below, Bini oral traditions can give us insights into events surrounding the British conquest, they do not allow us to check the details of Gallwey’s report. All too often in studying history, we cannot corroborate the source by comparing it with others and must look for evidence within the document itself. One way we might do this is to start from our answers above. Knowing what we do of the text, its author, audience and context, we might ask: Was Gallwey likely to tell the truth? Is it probable that he could remember the events accurately? How much was he likely to have known about his subject matter?
Thinking about the value of the document in this way might lead to the following assessment: Gallwey was writing to his superiors and, if he had invented the whole episode, it would surely have cost him his job and his reputation. We might imagine him exaggerating his role or presenting it in a good light, perhaps even missing out some bits, but it would have been risky for him to stray too far from the truth. The account was written very shortly after the events. There is no reason why Gallwey should not remember them accurately, although a longer timespan might have given him the opportunity to place the events in a broader context. We might expect Gallwey to be most accurate when he writes about events he experienced personally.
On this basis we might conclude that Gallwey is likely to be fairly accurate when he recounts what he and his companions did. Where he is less likely to be reliable is when he writes about Benin – consider, for example, the paragraph starting ‘At present the whole Benin country is, and has been for hundreds of years, steeped in Fetish’. How did he know this? It is clear from the account that Gallwey did not speak the local language and, indeed, relied chiefly on his own servant for communication. There was enormous room for misunderstanding in this cultural encounter.
This approach does allow us to make some progress in assessing the significance of the document. It suggests that we can accept Gallwey’s report as a fairly accurate account, from a British perspective, of the events which led to the first treaty between Britain and Benin. The document is significant because it tells us when the treaty was signed and how this happened, although the fact that we only know this from one side is limiting. The document also provides some information about Benin, but here the limitations of the source loom larger. Note, too, that our assessment is not unqualified. It is linked to the questions asked: it is not that the document is or is not reliable, but that it is more likely to provide accurate answers to some questions rather than to others. Furthermore, there might be all sorts of factors which we do not know at present and which, if they emerged, would make us reassess our judgements. C. Reading Between the Lines
Is this all that the document tells us? Historians have, in fact, read rather more in it, using it to reach some conclusions that Gallwey does not spell out. Look again at Gallwey’s account of how he obtained the treaty. Although Gallwey did not know what was being discussed in the royal house, and is at pains to suggest that the Oba was happy with the treaty, there are hints that the Oba felt he was acting under duress. On the one hand, he was reluctant to meet Gallwey; on the other, he clearly felt he could not afford to let him depart without a meeting. When, on the third day, after many delays, he finally grants Gallwey an audience, he avoids touching the pen personally. We cannot know why this was so, but it does suggest some anxiety, as does his insistence that there should be no ‘war palavers’. As A.F.C. Ryder concludes: ‘the menace always implicit in Gallwey’s attitude doubtless contributed to this nervous anxiety; failure to conclude a treaty would clearly entail unspecified unpleasantness’ (1969, p. 270). VIII. 1897: the ‘punitive expedition’
I would now like to jump forward five years and look at a document written in the aftermath of the British conquest. Read the extract from Benin. The City of Blood (Reading 1.6) and compare what its author, Commander Reginald Bacon, has to say about Benin with Gallwey’s accounts. Discussion
I hope you started by analysing the document. If so, you will have noted that it was written by a participant shortly after the events, and that it was written for a very broad audience – the book-reading public. We might go on to question its accuracy, since it contains many judgements on Benin. Indeed, the contrast between the claim made in the Preface (quoted in the marginal note) and the extract selected is jarring: perhaps unfairly so, since most of Bacon’s book is a long and factual account of the expedition, for which we can assume his knowledge was precise. But in this extract, in which he describes Benin City, the narrative is far from ‘bald’, and justifies the sensationalist title chosen for the book.
In places, the text contrasts sharply with the two extracts from Gallwey’s documents. Consider, in particular, the issue of human sacrifice: this certainly figures in Gallwey’s accounts and he does describe Benin as a ‘city of skulls’. Human sacrifice, however, dominates Bacon’s narrative. Nor is this just a question of style: whereas Gallwey saw ‘no less than four crucified victims’, Bacon implies that they were beyond counting. Gallwey was happy to sleep in the house provided and, indeed, describes it as ‘very decent’; Bacon was ‘practically sick’ from the smell and his party slept in the open. A. Human Sacrifice in Benin
The reasons for killing slaves or captives varied widely between West African societies (Law, 1985). European visitors often found it difficult to distinguish: 1. ritual killing for religious reasons or out of respect for ancestors, from 2. capital punishment (which was, of course, widely used in their own countries) or, indeed, a desire not ‘to contaminate the sacred earth with the bodies of criminals’.
We can gain insights into the role of human sacrifice in Benin from oral traditions. These reveal that human sacrifice was linked to certain annual rituals surrounding the royal court. Drawing on such sources, historian Philip Igbafe argues that Bacon was certainly wrong about the reasons for human sacrifice. It was allowed only in special circumstances: ‘the threat of a national calamity and the desire to appease the gods to avert the danger was one condition for making human sacrifices in the Old Benin kingdom. Other circumstances were comparatively few’ (Igbafe, 1979, pp. 70–1). Thus, many sacrifices were made in 1897 to stop the British advance (Egharevba, 1960 , p. 52). One explanation for the contrast between Gallwey’s and Bacon’s reports is that the circumstances were different. When Gallwey visited Benin he represented a threat; Bacon arrived during the kingdom’s terminal crisis. B. The Reasons for the British Conquest of Benin
It was part of a process of British aggression throughout southern Nigeria which led to many small wars (Isichei, 1983). Some historians have highlighted economic reasons for British expansion and it is true that British traders were eager to see British power used to improve their access to the interior (Ikime, 1985). But merchants had little influence on government policy and London was often anxious to delay action on cost grounds. As important were often the actions of local officials: it is significant that Phillips set off for Benin without waiting for instructions. Men such as Gallwey and Phillips had contacts with merchants, but were hardly their agents – as soldiers and government officials they were often contemptuous of ‘trade’. C. The Way in Which Europeans Thought about Change in Africa In their eyes, commerce and Christianity were closely linked; both were essential for the ‘civilisation’ of Africa.
African societies, like others regarded as primitive, were seen as changeless or regressing (you can find this in the texts by both Gallwey and Bacon) and only western contact would lead to progress. Treaties, such as that with Benin, followed a standard format which included clauses opening access to both trade and Christianity. Resistance to merchants or missionaries was ascribed to the continued power of ancient superstitions. Thus, in forwarding Gallwey’s report to London, Consul-General Macdonald claimed that ‘trade, commerce and civilisation, however, are paralised [sic] by the form of fetish government which unfortunately prevails throughout the kingdom’ and hoped that the treaty would overcome these barriers (quoted in Igbafe, 1979, p. 44).
In his report, Gallwey too was optimistic that ‘the Treaty may be the foundation of a new order of things’. What changed expectations was the ambush of Phillips’s expedition. Phillips set off determined to open Benin to trade; his ambush led to what was termed a ‘punitive expedition’. When the Oba and his chiefs were put on trial, it was for ‘the massacre of the unarmed white men of Phillips’ peaceful expedition’ (Roth, 1972 , Appendix II, p. xiv). It was resistance to the British advance that provoked the invasion, not the practice of human sacrifice.
Yet, in British eyes, the two were inextricably linked. Benin had failed to open itself to Britain and civilisation, and no clearer symbol of this existed than the continued prevalence of human sacrifice. When Bacon and his colleagues arrived in Benin City they expected to find certain things, and it was easy to interpret what they found in terms of their expectations. The fire that destroyed the town in the next days changed it forever. Curiously, however, within the British records there is some evidence that sheds a rather different light on the last months of Benin independence. Activity (p. 28)
Read the ‘Trial of Chief Ologbosheri’ (Reading 1.7). What does this source tell us about the causes of Benin resistance? Discussion
Analysing the document throws up some unusual answers. The extracts are taken from the second Benin trial in 1899, when Ologbose (see Figure 1.9), who had recently been captured, was found guilty of organising the ambush. Although both statements are by natives of Benin, the texts must have been translated and written by someone else, and we cannot know how closely they correspond to what was said even though they were written at the time. Who was the audience? We might conclude that it was the British officers who, as the marginal note makes clear, ran the trial. Nevertheless, the extracts do give us a Bini voice, even if it is one that reaches us through British records and is likely to have been significantly affected by the context of its creation.
The texts create a confusing picture of messengers passing back and forth along the pathway between Ughoton and Benin City, and of contradictory instructions. Who gave the order to attack the British (if anyone did) is unclear. Yet, even if the leaders of Benin misjudged the intentions of Phillips and his colleagues, they correctly understood that the British expedition threatened their independence. The issue was how best to respond to this threat. Perhaps you noticed that there is no mention of gods or priests – nor is there elsewhere in the witness statements. Resistance was decided at a mass meeting of the Benin chiefs and not by a ‘powerful theocracy of fetish priests’. IX. Looting the art of Benin
Activity (p. 28)
At the beginning of this section, I asked how well we can write history when we rely so heavily on written documents written by one party. On the basis of the discussion of sources in this section, what answers can be given?
There are perhaps five points to make:
1. It is essential to read and analyse sources carefully. To evaluate the significance of a document we need to think about the author, the audience and the context. 2. A careful analysis of sources may reveal more information than was intended. Historians sometimes talk of ‘reading against the grain’ of the source. As well as considering what the author is telling us, we need to think what the source unintentionally tells us about the author’s assumptions, what the source does not say, etc.
3. The sources available may be more varied than might appear at first sight. Comparisons may reveal interesting differences between apparently similar texts. In this case, the British sources do in fact contain some evidence from Benin, even if we need to approach it with care. 4. Sources need to be placed in a broader picture. Where possible, British documents need to be compared to Bini sources, or seen in the context of an expanding empire. 5. Historians should not ignore evidence that comes from non-standard sources. In the case of Africa, oral sources and traditions have been used extensively to add to our knowledge of the past.
Activity (p. 30)
Finally, what of the Benin bronzes? Look through the texts by Gallwey and Bacon again. What do they have to say about artworks?
Gallwey barely mentions it. In his paper for the Royal Geographical Society he notes that Benin has a reputation for metal work, although he has not seen any himself. There is more in Bacon, however. He refers to tusks and bronze heads on the altars, brass work on the palaver and king’s houses, and in the storehouse. He suggests it is left over from the past: the bronzes are discovered ‘buried in the dirt of ages’, the carved ivory is ancient, and there is no local industry, save a blacksmith’s shop.
Activity (p. 30)
Look now at Plate 3.1.14. What does this photograph tell us about the British capture of artworks?
Historical images, like written sources, need careful analysis. We need to think about context and composition: when and where the photos were taken, and what they are meant to show. This photograph has clearly been carefully arranged with the artefacts in the foreground and the men posing in the centre. In the background we can see what seems to be an important Benin building: perhaps the palaver house described by Bacon with its serpent. The captured artefacts are displayed as booty. One does not know who the intended audience is, but the whole effect suggests triumph.
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