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.”