Benin Bronzes Looted by the British Returned to Nigeria

A Benin Bronze plaque in the British Museum, London, collection. Photo: Michel Wal, via Wikipedia.
A Benin Bronze plaque in the British Museum, London, collection. Photo: Michel Wal, via Wikipedia.

Hundreds of bronze artworks created under Nigeria’s Benin Empire were looted by the British army during an 1897 raid. Now, well over a hundred years later, two of those statues have been returned to their native land, leading to calls for repatriation of more of the Benin Bronzes.

The two works in question, one depicting an ibis and the other a traditional monarch’s bell, were part of the collection of retired medical consultant Mark Walker, the grandson of one of the soldiers involved in the 1897 attack, carried out in retaliation for the deaths of nine British officers during a trade mission to Benin. The city was set on fire, thousands were killed, and the local leader was forced to flee while his palace was looted of hundreds of objects, including the Benin Bronzes, made from melted down bracelets from 15th-century Portuguese traders.

In a ceremony attended by royal officials and local dignitaries on Friday, the stolen bronze treasures were returned to Uku Akpolokpolo Erediauwa I, the oba, or King of Benin. His grandfather was the oba when the bronzes were taken.

Walker was prompted to return the statues when he read his grandfather’s diary, which described the works as “loot.” “That gave me the idea that perhaps they should go to the place where they will be appreciated for ever,” he told Agence France Presse. “I had no idea it would be regarded with such importance and it is very gratifying to me to have been able to play some small part in the history of the restoration of the bronzes, because I think more will come back.”

Most of the Benin Bronzes now belong to London’s British Museum. Nigeria has repeatedly requested that their cultural heritage be returned, but Walker’s bronzes are the first to make their way back. While calling for the British Museum to follow Walker’s example, the oba’s brother told AFP that he believes this initial repatriation should “contribute positively to healing the bruise etched on the psyche of Benin people since 1897.”


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