Author:Shyllon, Folarin

In 1897 a great tragedy befell the kingdom of Benin when a British punitive expedition looted the treasury of treasures in the royal palace and plundered artefacts including those of great spirituality to the Bini people. And although this is often glossed over or never mentioned the so-called punitive expedition entailed "the death of untold numbers of its [Benin City] inhabitants". (1) The Oba Ovoramwen Nogbaisi was humiliated and sent into exile where he died. Benin kingdom is now part of Nigeria and, since Independence in 1960, Nigeria and also the Benin Royal Court have been anxious for the return of iconic and spiritual items among the plundered cultural objects. The efforts have until recently been unsuccessful. President Emmanuel Macron of France in his Ouagadougou declaration has given momentum to the issue of restitution. Various arguments have been used to dismiss the requests for return. They include the assertion that public international law at the time permitted such seizures and the contention that it is important to preserve the status of 'universal museums' in the various European countries where such treasures are held. These arguments ignore the concepts of what is right and wrong, and the need for ethics-based repatriation. The paper examines the various issues surrounding the claims for return and concludes that only insistence on imperial rule of law or illegal rule of law can sustain the long-standing refusal to contemplate restitution.


The Greek historian Polybius (202-120 BC) wrote that the laws and the right of war oblige the victor to ruin and destroy fortresses, forts, towns, people, ships, resources and all other such like things belonging to the enemy in order to undermine his strength while increasing the victor's own. But the pointless destruction of temples, statues and other sacred objects is the action of a madman. The aim of warfare for the Romans was conquest, and conquest was accompanied by massacres, destruction and pillage. Cicero on the other hand recommended moderation in pillage saying that it was not right for people to pillage for themselves, but only to enrich or embellish their motherland. The situation in the Middle Ages was not very different. Towns, villages, castles and even churches were destroyed. The Germanic armies and the Crusaders laid everything to waste as they went. The church attempted to mitigate the consequences of war but did not forbid it, even though Saint Augustine had preached that the taking of booty was a sin. To protect churches, the Germanic emperor, Frederick I (1152-94) promulgated an edict in 1158 by which he forbade pillage. This edict and other prohibitions issued at the same time were little heeded. On the contrary, rules and customs concerning the division of booty multiplied. (2)


The first stirrings of a wish to protect works of art were to be seen during the Renaissance. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the first references to the protection of cultural property appeared among writers on international law. Jacob Przyluski, for example, put forward the idea that every belligerent should show regard for a work of art, but not solely because of its religious nature. Alberic and Justin Gentilis held similar ideas. Beginning with the Peace of Westphalia (1648), we find more and more examples of clauses providing for the restoration of things to their places of origin, first of archives alone and then of works of art, displaced in the course of war. (3)

Thus appropriation of a nation's art treasures has always been regarded as a trophy of war which adds to the glory of the victor and the humiliation of the vanquished. The practice has however often been condemned in the past going back to classical times. It suffices to cite two modern (i.e. non classical) examples. In 1812, Sir Alexander Croke had a collection of prints and paintings returned to the Philadelphia Academy of Arts on the grounds that the arts and sciences are recognised by all civilised countries as forming an exception to the strict laws of war. To return them would therefore be in conformity with the law of nations, as practised by all civilised countries. During the wars at the time of the French Revolution, the booty of war included objets d'art and scientific objects. Restitution was made in 1815 of some of the items received as booty, when the Duke of Wellington declared that these annexations had been contrary to the practice of war between civilised nations. Similarly Lord Castlereagh in a memorandum circulated at the peace conference, maintained that the removal of works of art to France by Napoleon was "contrary to every principle of justice and to the usages of modern warfare." (4)


In 1897 a British expedition led by Consul James R. Phillips tried to reach Benin City in today's Nigeria. It was motivated by the British desire to put an end to the restriction on British trade which had been imposed by the Oba (King) of Benin. In a letter written in November 1896 to the Under-Secretary of State in London, Phillips indicated that "sufficient ivory may be found in the King's house to pay for the expenses incurred in removing the King from his stool." (5) The expedition was ambushed on its way to Benin City and seven out of nine members were killed. The British reaction was swift. The city was invaded and the palace where some tens of thousands of works of art in wood, ivory and bronze were kept was looted and eventually burnt down. Untold numbers of Africans were massacred. The King was banished. The thousands of art pieces involved were first removed to London as spoils of war from where they were dispersed throughout the world. Many of the bronzes were sold by the British at auction to defray the expenses of the expedition. And "it was really owing to the initiative of the Germans, who secured the majority of the work for their own museums, that Benin became famous." (6) The importance of the Benin pieces was immediately recognised by the early German Africanist Felix von Luschan. Writing in 1919, he described them in glowing terms:

Benvenuto Cellini could not have cast them better and nobody else either, before or since Cellini... These bronzes are technically of the highest quality possible." (7) The result of the auction is that the bronzes and plaques have been scattered all over the world in museums and private collections, and they are almost inaccessible to an African audience.


The article in The Economist of 10th July 1999, captioned 'Let's Have Our Treasure Back, Please', (8) opened with the following account of the plunder of Ethiopia's cultural treasures in 1868 by British forces:

It took 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry off the loot from Ethiopia's old capital, Magdala. The brutal sacking of the mountain-top city in 1868, Britain's revenge on Emperor Tewodros for taking the British consul and a few other European hostages, razed the city to the ground. The hostages were released unharmed but the battle turned into a massacre and treasure hunt. Tewodros committed suicide and British soldiers stripped his body naked for souvenirs. They carted off his library and the treasures from a Coptic Christian church nearby. For 4 [pounds serling], Richard Holmes, the British army's "archaeologist", acquired the crown of the Abun, the head of the Ethiopian church, and a solid gold chalice from a soldier who had looted them. The booty was collected and auctioned off near Magdala. Holmes bought 350 illuminated bibles and manuscripts for the British Museum. Other books went to the royal library at Windsor and libraries at Oxford and Cambridge. They are still there, though odd treasures have been returned--usually the less valuable one--as gestures, whenever the British needed to court Ethiopia. The BBC's account of the sacking of Maqdala repeats that the British needed fifteen elephants and 200 mules to carry away the treasures. It goes on to give its own details of the bounty carried away:

The forces left with more than 500 ancient parchment manuscripts, two gold crowns, crosses and chalices in gold, silver and copper, religious icons, royal and ecclesiastical vestments as well as shields and arms made between the 14th and 19th centuries. (9)...

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