The incomparable History of the World in 100 Objects on BBC Radio 4 is now approaching the finishing line. Has this been the best radio documentary series ever? Each episode, presented by Neil MacGregor of the British Museum, where all the objects are located, has managed to compress into less than 15 minutes a description of the object and its historical context, as well as assessing its contemporary and present-day significance.
A recent episode focussed on the Benin plaques, made in what is now modern Nigeria, in the sixteenth century. Made of brass, they show figures in high relief that celebrate the battles won by the army of the Benin ruler, the oba, and the rituals of the oba’s court. They’re not only great works of art and triumphs of metal-casting, they’re also documents of two quite distinct moments of Euro-African contact – the first, peaceful and commercial, the second bloody.
This was really our first notable encounter with the European world. People came in looking for trading partners, looking for expansion of their own knowledge of the world – and being astonished to encounter this society.
– Wole Soyinka
The discussion of the significance of the Benin plaques reminded me that this year African nations have been marking 50 years of independence. Before 1960, only seven African countries gained their independence, most notably Ghana in 1957. But 1960 itself saw independence sweep across large swathes of Africa. Fourteen countries ceased to be French colonies, while the Belgian Congo became Zaire and Somalia and Nigeria, source of the Benin treasures, broke from British control.
Those were heady days of optimism, reflected in the political aspirations of the new African leaders and in the music that emerged from confident new states such as Guinea, Mali, Ghana and Nigeria – to take just four examples. Often the music was subsidised by the state as a means of establishing national identity and restoring respect for ethnic cultural traditions. Guinea was the first sub-Saharan country in Francophone Africa to celebrate its independence, in 1958. The president, Sékou Touré, promoted a number of government-sponsored bands, such as Bembeya Jazz, whose music has transcended their era. Mali followed suit, with several state-sponsored bands, including the Super Rail Band de Bamako which blended Latin rhythms with traditional instruments with the Mande griot praise singer tradition, and initiated the careers of Salif Keita, Kante Manfila and Mory Kante. The aim was to give ethnic traditions a modern context and to promote the ideology of national revolution. From Ghana and Nigeria the new urban sounds of highlife, afrobeat and juju music swept across West Africa, developing the cultural identity of the newly independent countries.
Returning to the Benin bronzes. The Europeans depicted are Portuguese, who, in the 16th century, were sailing down the west coast of Africa in their ocean-going galleons on their way to the Indies. They were were the first Europeans to arrive by sea in West Africa, and soon developed a trade in West African pepper, ivory and gold.
The oba is with his officials who manage and control the European trade. The three Africans are in the foreground and they’re on a far bigger scale than the diminutive Europeans, both of whom are shown with long hair and elaborate feathered hats – in fact they look rather ridiculous. One of the Europeans is holding a manilla, the ‘bracelet’ currency of West Africa, and this, MacGregor argued, is the key to the whole scene. It makes it clear that the brass brought from Europe is merely the raw material from which the Benin craftsmen would create great works of art like this plaque. What we’re looking at, he argued, is a document that demonstrates that the whole process of the trade in brass was controlled by the Africans. And part of that control was a total prohibition on the export of the finished brass plaques. The Benin plaques are a reminder that, at this point in the sixteenth century, Europe and Africa were dealing with each other on equal terms.
So how did the Benin plaque end up in the British Museum? In 1897 the British, in revenge for the killing of members of a British delegation, mounted a punitive raid on Benin City, exiled the oba and created the British protectorate of Southern Nigeria. The booty from the attack on Benin included carved ivory tusks, coral jewellery and hundreds of bronze statues – and the plaques. Many of these objects were auctioned off to cover the costs of the expedition, and they were bought by museums across the world.
The arrival of these completely unknown sculptures caused a sensation in Europe, changing European understanding of African history.The British Museum curator Charles Hercules Read at the time was perplexed:
It need scarcely be said that at the first sight of these remarkable works of art we were at once astounded at such an unexpected find, and puzzled to account for so highly developed an art among a race so entirely barbarous.
The plaques must have come from Ancient Egypt, or perhaps the people of Benin were one of the lost tribes of Israel. But in fact, research quickly established that the Benin plaques were entirely West African creations, made without European influence. Most of Europe had simply forgotten that they had at once admired the court of the oba of Benin. Why this amnesia? Neil MacGregor again:
I think it’s probably because the later relationship was so dominated by the transatlantic slave trade, with all its dehumanising implications. Later still, there would be the great European scramble for Africa, in which the punitive expedition of 1897 was merely one bloody incident.
Wole Soyinka, Nigerian poet and playwright, sums up the significance of the plaques for Nigerians today:
When I see a Benin Bronze, I immediately think of the mastery of technology and art – the welding of the two. I think immediately of a cohesive ancient civilisation. It increases a sense of self-esteem, because it makes you understand that African society actually produced some great civilisations, established some great cultures. And today it contributes to one’s sense of the degradation that has overtaken many African societies, to the extent that we forget that we were once a functioning people before the negative incursion of foreign powers. The looted objects are still today politically loaded. The Benin Bronze, like other artefacts, is still very much a part of the politics of contemporary Africa and, of course, Nigeria in particular.