Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes by Barnaby Phillips

By the last decade of the 19th century, imperialism had become so commonplace and casual that countries could be taken over at the whim of junior officials. One such was James Phillips, deputy consul general of the Niger Coast Protectorate. At the end of 1896, he decided that the time had come for Britain to impose itself over Benin, a kingdom in what is now Nigeria. As members of the Royal Geographic Society in London had been told a few years earlier, the country was a source of “many valuable trade products” which were “lying untouched.”

To men like Phillips, the unwillingness of the Oba—the Benin ruler—to open his country up was intolerable. “There is only one remedy,” he informed his superiors. “That is to depose the king of Benin from his stool” and “take such further steps for the opening up of the country as the occasion may require.”

This set in motion a sordid chain of events. Not surprisingly, the Oba responded badly to this pressure from the British, attacking and killing many who took part in the expedition—including Phillips himself.

The press in London howled in anger, demanding reprisals. People around the world, thundered The Daily Telegraph, knew that “not only is English faith to be trusted and English friendship to be sought after,” but that English justice “is something to be feared.” Faith and friendship were firmly in the eye of the beholder.

A punitive expedition was immediately dispatched. Within weeks, Benin had been taken over. Those who resisted “fell like nuts” when strafed by Maxim guns in the forest. The Oba was forced into hiding. When he finally emerged, he was made to pay obeisance before being told that “the white man” was now “the only man who is king in this country.”

Those who delivered “justice” were fêted back at home—some were knighted, others promoted. No one involved showed contrition, as Barnaby Phillips’s sobering book shows.

The Sack of Benin

The author—no relation to James Phillips—can barely conceal his shock at the views and comments expressed in letters, interviews, and obituaries. The people of Africa “always seemed to me to be of a lower creation,” said one who was involved; the “only redeeming feature” of the people of Benin, wrote another, was “their fear and respect of the white man,” and the fact that “one can whack them as much as you please.”

British soldiers with looted art in Benin, 1897.

The triumphalism, self-righteousness, and despicable views about race on the part of those who saw themselves, ironically, as part of a “civilized world” provide one part of the story of Loot. But much of the focus falls on the glorious bronze, brass, and ivory objects seized in the raid of 1897 that have become collectively known as the Benin Bronzes.

The works were so exquisite that few believed that they could have been made locally rather than by Portuguese visitors or “Egyptians”—yet another indication of the way in which Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th century conceptualized the world. The haul included many busts of Oba rulers dating back centuries, which had important ritual, ceremonial, and religious significance for the people of Benin. Within months, these were being sold off to collectors.

The Benin Bronzes have been popular items since and continue to change hands for millions of dollars today. The plaques and busts are star exhibits in museums all over Europe, the U.S., and the U.K., where the British Museum collection alone numbers more than 900, only a fraction of which are on display.

The country was a source of “many valuable trade products” which were “lying untouched.”

They should all be in Benin. That they are not speaks volumes of the way that cultural imperialism is alive and well in today’s world. As Barnaby Phillips’s well-balanced and highly readable account explains, some people have taken matters into their own hands—such as Mark Walker, the grandson of the intelligence officer who took part in the expedition of 1897, who flew to West Africa a few years ago and handed objects back to the descendants of those from whom they were taken. But museums (not to mention private collectors) tend to go to great lengths to muddy the waters, to enter into “dialogues” about the complexities of giving back parts of their collections rather than actually doing it.

As Phillips notes, great progress has been made with the victims of other historical persecutions and forcible seizures—not least in the case of artworks taken from Jews by the Nazis. That Benin and its bronzes are treated differently is hard to disagree with—as is the fact that the objects continue to be widely seen as totemic for the art of Africa as a whole. “I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France,” said President Emmanuel Macron in 2017. Given that it remains there today makes such comments smack of the classic virtue-signaling of words without action.

In recent weeks, things have started to change. Auction houses offering plaques that were almost certainly looted in 1897 have canceled sales after being challenged about provenance. Calls by scholars such as Dan Hicks to return stolen objects back to Benin are finally being heeded, with many—though not all—discussions now taking place around how to do so.

Not everyone is waiting for public debates to be resolved. In March, German museums announced that they will hand back their collections of items stolen from Benin, perhaps by the fall. This may not be coincidental, given the ways that Germans have had to face up to the past on multiple occasions. That others have not done so, and still claim the fruits of empire, pillage, and suffering, shows how many more lessons still need to be learned from history.

Peter Frankopan is a professor of global history at the University of Oxford and the author of several books, including, most recently, The New Silk Roads: The New Asia and the Remaking of the World Order