Benin Bronze taken by British military to return to Africa to 'recognise the wrongs of the past'

Bosses at a Newcastle museum plan to return a rare artefact, that is confirmed to have been taken during the British colonisation.

Experts at the Hancock Museum discovered that a Benin Bronze in its collection was taken 'violently' from Benin City by the British military as part of the Punitive Expedition of 1897.

The stave, made out of brass, is topped with a sculpture of a bird. Experts at the museum believe it was a musical instrument used in ceremonies.

Given its forceful removal from Benin, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums (TWAM) advised Museum stakeholders - Newcastle University and the Natural History Society of Northumbria - to consider a proactive repatriation of the object to Nigeria.

Experts are now in talks with authorities to return the item.

Keith Merrin, Director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, said: "It is right to return the stave to Nigeria. Repatriation can be a powerful cultural, spiritual and symbolic act which recognises the wrongs of the past and restores some sense of justice."  

The move to proactively repatriate the item to Africa has been praised by a number of organisations and high profile people including Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah, who has welcomed the decision.

Professor Vee Pollock, Dean of Culture and the Creative Arts at Newcastle University said there is no hesitation in the decision to return the ceremonial stave to its place of creation:

"As well as an important cultural artefact for the people of Benin, this brass stave is also a symbol of historic injustice and extreme violence.

"A museum, through what it displays, how it relates to its audiences and what it does, should be a place of learning, and we hope that through this process we can work with partners in Nigeria and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments to facilitate better understanding and enhanced cooperation."

Historians at the Hancock museum say they recognise that some of the items in their collection are "inextricably linked with Britain's colonial past and systemic racism".

It is hoped schemes like this will help to work towards using the collections "in an equitable and just way".

Benin Bronzes factfile

What is a Benin Bronze?

The 'Benin Bronzes' are a group of sculptures made of bronze or brass.

They are elaborately decorated figures which include

  • Cast plaques

  • Commemorative heads

  • Animal and human figures

  • Items of royal regalia

  • Personal ornaments

They were created from at least the 16th century onwards in the West African Kingdom of Benin, by specialist guilds working for the royal court of the Oba (king) in Benin City.

There are over 900 objects from the historic Kingdom of Benin in the British Museum's collection.

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Where are they from?

Benin Bronzes come from Benin City, the historic capital of the Kingdom of Benin, a major city state in West Africa from the medieval period.

Benin City became part of the British Empire from 1897 to 1960 and is now located within the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The modern city of Benin is in Edo State.

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When was the Benin Bronze taken?

By the end of the 19th century, the Nigerian coast and its trade were largely dominated by the British. Historians note that it is in the context of this aggressive expansion of colonial power that the Benin Bronzes came to the British Museum.

In January 1897 an allegedly peaceful but clearly provocative British trade mission was attacked on its way to Benin City, leading to the deaths of seven British delegates and 230 of the mission's African carriers.

This led to a violent retaliation by the British, known as the 1897 'Punitive expedition'.

In February 1897 Benin City was captured by British forces and it was then that the sculpture was likely taken.

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When did the Hancock Museum acquire the Benin Bronze?

The stave was acquired in 1951 (with other items) in the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum's dispersal of non-medical items.

It was incorporated into the collections of the Natural History Society of Northumbria (NHSN).

Newcastle University has overall responsibility for stewardship of these collections, which are managed on their behalf by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM).

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