Late in the year 1897, a large collection of bronze and ivory artifacts from the Niger Coast Protectorate was sold to European collectors and buyers for museums. Although the lurid tale of their provenance was common knowledge at the time, many buyers were surprised that art of such quality could come out of darkest Africa. Some of the bronze artifacts, such as Head of an Oba (cover), were cast images of the rulers, or Obas, of the Kingdom of Benin. They are assumed to be stylized representations of the power and authority of the Obas, rather than true likenesses. The eyes of this Oba are inlaid with disks of iron, expressing the power to survey his kingdom and peer into the spirit world. The Oba wears a collar of coral beads, which were tokens of authority symbolizing the great wealth that was gained in trans-Atlantic trade. A method of analysis based on lead-zinc quotients suggests that this head was cast in the 17th or 18th century, but stylistic details and the composition of the alloy suggest that it could have been made as long ago as the 15th century. Head of an Oba, Edo, Court of Benin, Nigerian, circa 1550. Brass. Height: 23.5 cm. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (http://www.metmuseum.org/), New York, New York; the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979, 1979.206.86. Photo: Schecter Lee. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource New York, New York. To make the heads, craftsmen of Benin melted down manillas, which were bracelets of bronze and brass received from Portuguese traders in return for peppers, ivory, and slaves. African slaves had been sold to Muslim traders for hundreds of years, but when land was cleared for sugar plantations in the Western hemisphere, the demand for labor to work the plantations skyrocketed. Between 1601 and 1867, an estimated 2 million men, women, and children were shipped out of the wide bay called the Bight of Benin—so many that this region was known as the Slave Coast. And yet for reasons that are not well understood, the Kingdom of Benin stopped selling slaves in the 16th century, relinquishing the profits from this lucrative business to its regional trading competitors, the Kingdom of Dahomey and the Oyo Empire. Benin continued to trade peppers and ivory, and later palm oil, primarily through traders from subsidiary villages such as the Itsekiri, who held the port of Arebo at the mouth of the Forcados River. For this privilege, the Itsekiri paid tribute to the Oba of Benin. Benin enforced the payment of tribute by the threat of military action and also by awing the Itsekiri and other subordinate communities with the practice of Juju, a spiritual belief system that uses amulets, charms, or other objects (bronze heads, perhaps) to invoke supernatural powers in the performance of rituals. The rituals of Benin sometimes involved the killing of slaves. Human sacrifice was a long-standing tradition in Benin, as it was in other West African societies, in ancient Egypt, and in the indigenous civilizations of Mexico and Central America. In Benin, sacrificial rituals were performed to commemorate the death of an Oba or to honor his ancestors, but also to terrorize and control large populations of slaves, most of whom were captured enemy soldiers. With the expansion of West African commerce in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the power of the Kingdom of Benin to threaten military action if its Slave Coast allies failed to pay it tribute was checked by the presence of European trading outposts, whose primary interest was to protect their African trading partners and maintain the flow of trade. To keep its villages in submission, the Kingdom of Benin may have relied more on the practice of Juju than on its military strength. The pace of ritual killings in Benin may also have increased in the 19th century to control swelling slave populations after the British navy suppressed slave trading in the Bight of Benin. Britain continued to trade other commodities with West Africa and to strengthen its political and commercial control over its trading partners. By 1885, Benin was the only African kingdom in the region that retained its sovereignty and trading independence, and the last of the indigenous societies to perform sacrificial rituals openly, a practice the British found abhorrent. The British kept up the pressure, but by 1897 negotiations had broken down and Benin was refusing to sell palm oil. A delegation of British traders and officials mounted a diplomatic mission to persuade the Oba and his councilors to honor their trade agreements, but soldiers from Benin ambushed the delegation on its approach to the capital city, probably to prevent the British from witnessing human sacrifices. Within weeks the British assembled a brigade of 1200 sailors and marines, armed with artillery and automatic weapons and supported by 3000 African baggage carriers, to avenge the massacre of the diplomatic mission. After ten days of fighting, the British columns entered the capital city of Benin to find the remains of hundreds of human sacrifices. The pace of ritual killings had evidently increased as the invasion forces approached. The British forces looted and burned the defeated city. As many as 2500 artifacts, including about 900 bronzes, were sold to defray the costs of the invasion. Today nearly all of them are in private collections or museums, but in 1980 the Federal Republic of Nigeria began the slow and expensive process of buying them back.
– American Medical Association
Published: Apr 6, 2011