Africa is where culture and art first flourished under the skillful hands of the many different tribes that roamed the African savannahs. One of these many tribes were the Edo people. Living in vast lands of what is now known as modern Nigeria, the Edo people flourished until they decide to live together under the protection of the Ogiso or Kings of the Sky. For many years, the first Ogiso king ruled benevolently until his sons took over the reins.
When the last Ogiso king died and the surviving prince returned to become the next king, the Kingdom of Benin was founded. For hundreds of years, the kingdom grew bigger until the 1700’s when the British empire started to wrestle control over trade in Africa from the Benin Kingdom. The Galway Treaty of 1892 further weakened the kingdom’s economic growth until the British started the Benin Expedition of 1897 in order to depose the last Benin king. It was during that expedition where the British soldiers destroyed and looted the Benin palace of beautiful bronze and metal plaques and statues from the Benin king’s castle. These are the Benin Bronzes; antique statues that showcased Benin art and were made from the skillful hands of the Edo people during the 13th century.
The Benin Bronzes became prized among European art and statue collectors. They were awed over the fact that violent savages from Africa could actually create such beautiful and wonderful statues. The most beautiful was the Benin Bronze heads. These commemorative brass heads were made by the most skillful Benin metalworkers for the royal family members. These brass heads were supposedly placed on the altars of kings and were prized possessions by the obas or kings. The subject of the Benin bronze heads was to exalt or praise the king, the queen or any member of the royal family.
Sometimes, famous army commanders and generals were also the subjects of the Benin bronze head. Experts believe that the bronze heads were made to commemorate an important event or as a reward after an important battle. Today, thousands of these Benin bronze heads and other Benin bronzes are protected as exhibits in several British museums. The other Benin bronzes that can be found in museums outside of the UK were brought. In fact, 200 Benin bronze plaques were recorded to have been looted from the Benin king’s castle by British soldiers. The same 200 plaques were sent by the British government to the British Museum as gifts.
The most famous Benin bronze head can be found in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin in Germany. The memorial bust of the Benin king’s mother, Iyoba, is safely stored inside a glass container in one of Germany’s most popular museums. The museum supposedly paid a handsome amount of money for the said Benin bronze head.
Today, there is pressure from both the Oba of Benin and several Nigerian governments to several museums that own Benin bronzes for the restitution of these prized metal artifacts. Negotiations are currently undergoing between the parties so that these treasures that once came from one of Africa’s greatest kingdoms to be returned to where they came.