The split began with the onslaught on African culture with the spread of Islam into Africa, from the eight century; the process of conversion was a ruthless one.  Christianity arrived much later with its form of conversion which was led by missionaries and traders. The changes were no less brutal than those encountered with islam. 

These great works of art were created by our ancestors, which are the ancestors of many of us in the Diaspora as they were created before the split in our people through our enslavement.  There are many descendants of the Yoruba living in the Americas today. The Yoruba language is still spoken in Brazil and Cuba. There were Yoruba villages in Jamaica and Yoruba nation in Grenada and Cuba, where the enslaved Africans had organised in societies based on tribal affiliation.  

These Bronze treasures that are under the custodianships of museums and in private collections around the world are being kept on our behalf.  They don't own those artefacts; they cannot own them they are mere caretakers. 

The spirit of those objects cannot be owned, they are the representation of our spirit and that can't be owned by anyone.

We have to begin to take back ownership of these objects. The colours of the pieces represent the colours of the early Pan Africanists.  It says Africans should claim these treasures for all Africans where ever they are. They belong to us all.







The Kingdom of Benin and the Benin Bronzes

In the late19th century, the Kingdom of Benin was still an independent state led by an Oba (king), Omo n’Oba (Ovonramwen). The Oba was not only the head of the Kingdom but the spiritual head, a deity who was held in the highest regard. This was also a period of bitter rivalry between the German, French and the British to dominate West Africa. The Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1895 was determined to resist French expansion. The areas surrounding the Gold Coast and the Niger Territories had not yet been ‘defined’ by the European powers. The Oba of Benin was in control of palm oil and other goods within his kingdom.  By 1897, what we now know as Nigeria was a British Protectorate, the Niger Coast Protectorate.

The British attempted to bring Benin under its control by tricking the Oba into signing what he was led to believe was a trade treaty. The Oba discovered the deception and refused to honour the treaty. British traders and agents frustrated by the Oba’s ability to repel their efforts to dominate his kingdom, appealed to the British government to ‘open up Benin territories and send the King into exile’. In February 1897, the British army invaded Benin, they looted the country and exiled the Oba. In the UK, the British press reported that the ‘punitive expedition’ against the kingdom was in retaliation for the killing of a British Counsel and his party on their way to investigate reports of ritual human sacrifice in the city. 

However, the expedition resulted in thousands of priceless artefacts being stolen.  The majority are said to have been purchased by German museums and are still in their possession.  Many are currently held in British institutions, in the US as well as in private collections. Among the ‘spoils’ were approximately 900 Benin bronzes reported to be taken in compensation for the cost of the ‘war’. Benin not only lost its art treasures but the palace and the city were also burnt. The capture of the city and the exile of the Oba brought the independent kingdom of Benin to an end. With the Oba gone, the inspiration and capital for the production of art disappeared and artists moved away from Benin City.


Allison, Phillip (1988) Life in the White Man: A Pictorial Record of the British in West Africa London: Viking

Ben-Amos, Paula (1980) The Art of Benin London: Thames and Hudson

British Museum ‘Benin plaque: the Oba with Europeans’ http://www.britishmuseum.org

Dyde, Brian (1997) The Empty Sleeve: The story of the West India Regiments of the British Army. Antigua: Hansib

Walker, Robin (2006) When We Ruled London: Every Generation Media


Dr. Margaret Andrews.

Oct 2011.

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