Nollywood meets History: The Bronze artworks of the ancient Benin kingdom
The unfortunate historical invasion of the ancient Benin Kingdom and the theft of her bronze artworks in 1897 by Britain has become a core part of the history of ancient Benin Kingdom and indeed Nigeria’s colonial history. Effective from the 2009/2010 academic session, the teaching of history as an independent subject in Nigeria’s secondary schools was abolished; efforts were only made recently to restore history into the country’s secondary school curriculum. Thus, an important way to learn about the country’s past for many young Nigerians is through Nollywood movies that capture issues of historical relevance. The film, ‘Invasion 1897’, provides a historical account of the late 19th-century invasion of Benin Kingdom by Britain.
Invasion 1897 is a Nollywood movie written and directed by Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen and was released on 21 December 2014. The movie was produced by Iceslides Films and Wells Entertainment and can be classified under ‘[t]he epic’ film genre.1 It re-enacted the British invasion of the ancient Benin Kingdom and the deposition of the last African king- Oba Ovonramwen, based on the perspective of the Benin people.2 The movie began with scenes in London chiefly portraying a Nigerian student of African History in a United Kingdom (UK) university. Whilst on a visit to the ‘Benin Empire Art Gallery’ in the UK, he noticed some artefacts from the old Benin Empire that were showcased in the Gallery. He returned in the night to pick up some of the artefacts but was caught and charged to court for attempted robbery. During the legal proceedings, he pleaded innocent to the charges filed against him and argued that he did not steal but only attempted to return artworks that were stolen by the British colonial government. The succeeding scenes recount events from 1892 onwards of how the British invaded the ancient Benin Kingdom, sent Oba Ovonramwen (king of the old Benin Kingdom) on exile and stole the artworks of interest. After the historical accounts (the defence of the Nigerian student in the court room), the final scenes were in the UK court. As a final judgement on the case, the judge found him not guilty of the crime but declared that it was beyond the court’s jurisdiction to determine the actual ownership of the artworks in question. The use of ancient mud houses, local guns, arrows, and the production of bronze artworks painted a convincing picture of the ancient Benin Kingdom. On the whole, the movie is highly educative.
The Benin Kingdom was a pre-colonial kingdom that existed in today’s Southern part of Nigeria. The headquarters of the kingdom was located in Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria. The Kingdom dates back to approximately 900 A.D.
The Kingdom was ‘one of the most socially and politically sophisticated polities all over precolonial Africa’.3 Whilst the oba (i.e. the king) was the traditional head of the Kingdom, ‘[t]he head of the village was the eldest man known as Odionwere or Okaevbo‘.4 Prior to British colonial rule, Nigeria was organized into several empires and kingdoms including the kingdom of Nri, Oyo Empire , and the Benin Empire. Britain took over control of kingdoms and empires through formal treaties and punitive expeditions. For instance, on 6th August 1861, Lagos became a British possession upon signing a formal treaty.5 An important question at this point is why did Britain invade Benin Kingdom? The invasion was due to trade disputes between the Kingdom and British officials. The results of the trade disputes, inter alia, were the ambush and killings of virtually all British delegates entering the Kingdom, including the acting Consul-General in the region- James Phillip; and the subsequent invasion of Benin Kingdom in February 1897 by British forces. The king, Oba Ovonramwen, was exiled to Calabar (the capital of today’s Cross Rivers State in Nigeria) by Consul-General Ralph Denham Moor
‘Religious art[e]facts, Benin visual history, mnemonics and artworks were taken to England’.6
‘The looted Benin royal court arts by the British soldiers were auctioned in Paris in late 1897 by the government agents, the proceeds was [sic] used to defray the cost of the expedition. Most of the items were bought by the Germans; later British government repurchased some of these and took them back to London at the British Museums’.7
At least 6500 Nigerian arts, which are mainly Benin bronzes are being held in overseas museums and homes of private collectors; with about 700 in British Museums and 500 in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, Germany.8
Are there attempts to repatriate these stolen artefacts to Nigeria? Several attempts have been made by the government of Nigeria, civil societies, scholars and foreign actors to return these and other historical collections.
‘In 1968, Nigeria submitted a restitution project to ICOM (the International Council of Museums) requesting Western museums to make available and return several significant pieces of cultural heritage originating from Great Benin to the national museum that had just been opened in Lagos—they never received any response whatsoever‘.9
In November 2018 an agreement was reached by the Benin Dialogue Group for the temporary return of some of these historical collections to form part of exhibitions at the Benin Royal Museum in Edo State, Nigeria. In France, a report by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy recommend, amongst others, the return of Benin Bronze Arts that were taken during the invasion by Britain.10 In Germany, there have been several movements and calls for the return of historical artefacts. Despite the aforementioned and many other unmentioned attempts, the artefacts that were stolen by British forces during the Benin Expedition of 1897 are yet to be fully and permanently repatriated to Nigeria.
1 O.S. Omoera,‘The Invasion 1897 Agenda in the Benin Language Film Segment of Nollywood’, Ekpoma Journal of Theatre and Media Arts, vol. 5, no. 1-2, 2015, p.308.
2 O.S. Omoera, 2015, p.305.
3 D.M. Bondarenko, ‘The Benin Kingdom (13th-19th Centuries) as a Megacommunity’, Social Evolution & History, vol. 14, no.2, 2015, p. 47.
4 O.B. Osadolor, ‘The Military System of Benin Kingdom c.1440-1897’, PhD Thesis, University of Hamburg, 2001, p.65.
5 E.I.Utuk, ‘Britain’s Colonial Administrations and Developments, 1861-1960: An Analysis of Britain’s Colonial Administrations and Developments in Nigeria’, Master’s Thesis, Portland State University, 1975, P.9.
6 C.O. Osarumwense, ‘Igue Festival and the British Invasion of Benin 1897: The Violation of a People’s Culture and Sovereignty’, African Journal of History and Culture, vol.6, no.1, 2014, p.5.
7 C.J. Ananwa, ‘ Internationalisation of Benin Art Works’, Journal of Humanity, vol.2, no.1, 2014, p. 48.
8 C.J. Ananwa, 2014, p.49.
9 F. Sarr and B. Savoy, ‘The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics’, 2018. Available from: http://restitutionreport2018.com/sarr_savoy_en.pdf(date accessed: 24 February,2020), p.18.
10 F. Sarr and B. Savoy, 2018, pp.53-54.
Ananwa C.J., ‘Internationalisation of Benin Art Works’, Journal of Humanity, vol. 2, no. 1, 2014, pp. 41-53.
Bondarenko D.M., ‘The Benin Kingdom (13th-19th Centuries) as a Megacommunity’, Social Evolution & History, vol. 14, no. 2, 2015, pp. 46-76.
Omoera O.S., ‘The Invasion 1897 Agenda in the Benin Language Film Segment of Nollywood’, Ekpoma Journal of Theatre and Media Arts, vol. 5, no. 1-2, 2015, pp. 303-311.
Osadolor O.B., ‘The Military System of Benin Kingdom c.1440-1897’, PhD Thesis, University of Hamburg, 2001.
Osarumwense C.O., ‘Igue Festival and the British Invasion of Benin 1897: The Violation of a People’s Culture and Sovereignty’, African Journal of History and Culture, vol. 6, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-5.
Sarr F. and Savoy B., ‘The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics’, 2018. Available from: http://restitutionreport2018.com/sarr_savoy_en.pdf (date accessed: 24 February, 2020).
Utuk E.I., ‘Britain’s Colonial Administrations and Developments, 1861-1960: An Analysis of Britain’s Colonial Administrations and Developments in Nigeria’, Master’s Thesis, Portland State University, 1975.
About the author
Orhero Ansel Omamuyovwi holds a Bachelor of Science degree, with honours, in Economics & Statistics from the University of Benin in Nigeria. He is currently a Master of Arts candidate in History and Economics at the University of Bayreuth, with a specialization in Quantitative Economic History. Prior to commencing graduate studies, he worked as a Research Assistant with the Directorate of Research and Statistics of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission, Abuja, Nigeria. Whilst at ECOWAS, he was a part of the ECOWAS-UNECA team that developed the ECOWAS Statbase and participated in the ECOWAS-ILO workshop for the development of a sub-regional decent work programme for the ECOWAS region. Mr. Orhero has a keen interest in African issues and actively seeks to participate in activities that are pivotal to the development of the African continent. He is the current Commissioner for Finance of the Model African Union Association in Bayreuth.