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Episode 77 - Benin plaque: the oba with Europeans

Benin plaque: the oba with Europeans (cast in the sixteenth century). Brass; from Nigeria

In 2001, the UK National Census recorded that one in twenty Londoners were of black African descent, and it's a figure that's continued to rise in the years since. Modern British life and culture now have a strong African component. It's a development that's merely the latest chapter in the history of relations between Africa and western Europe. And in that long and turbulent history, the Benin Bronzes, as they used to be known, hold a unique place.

Made in what is now modern Nigeria, in the sixteenth century, the Benin plaques are actually made of brass, not bronze. They're each about the size of an A3 sheet of paper, and they show figures in high relief that celebrate the battles won by the army of the Benin ruler, the oba, and the rituals of the oba's court. They're not only great works of art and triumphs of metal-casting, they're also documents of two quite distinct moments of Euro-African contact - the first, peaceful and commercial, the second bloody.

"This was really our first notable encounter with the European world. People came in looking for trading partners, looking for expansion of their own knowledge of the world - and being astonished to encounter this society." (Wole Soyinka)

Throughout this week we are with objects that describe how Europe first encountered, and then traded with, the wider world in the sixteenth century. But the magnificent sculptures of this programme record the encounter from the other side - from the African side. They offer us a remarkable picture of the structure of this West African kingdom. Their main subject is the glorification of the ruler of Benin, the oba, and of his prowess as hunter and soldier, but they also tell us how the people of Benin saw their first European trading partners. The plaque I've chosen is dominated by the majestic figure of the oba himself.

The plaque is about two feet square (60 cm). Its colour strikes you as coppery rather than brassy, and there are five figures on it - three Africans and two Europeans. In the centre, in the proudest relief and looking straight out at us, is the oba. He's on his throne wearing a high helmet-like crown. His neck is completely invisible - a series of large rings runs from his shoulder right the way up to his lower lip. In his right hand he holds up a ceremonial axe. To either side of the oba kneel two court functionaries, dressed very like him but with plainer headdresses and fewer neck-rings. They wear belts hung with small crocodile heads, and these were the emblem of those authorised to conduct business with the Europeans. And the Europeans are present - or at least part of them. Against the patterned background, we can see floating the heads and shoulders of two tiny Europeans.

The Europeans shown are Portuguese, who were sailing down the west coast of Africa in their ocean-going galleons on their way to the Indies, but they were also seriously interested in West African pepper, ivory and gold. They were the first Europeans to arrive by sea in West Africa, and their ships astonished the local inhabitants. Until now, any trade between West Africa and Europe had been conducted through a series of middle-men, with goods carried across the Sahara by camel. The Portuguese galleons cut out all the middle-men, and offered a totally new kind of trading opportunity. Their ships carried gold and ivory direct to Europe and, in return, brought back larger quantities of European brass than had ever before reached West Africa. This was the raw material which enabled the Benin plaques to be made in the quantities they were.

After the initial arrival of the Portuguese around 1470, the Dutch and the English followed shortly after. All European visitors were struck by the oba's position as both the spiritual and the secular head of his kingdom.

Like some West African music, the Benin brass plaques are principally concerned with praising the oba. They were nailed to the walls of his palace - rather in the same way as tapestries in a European context - and they allowed the visitor to admire both the achievements of the ruler and the wealth of the kingdom. The overall effect was enthusiastically described in detail by an early Dutch visitor:

"The king's court is square. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam. From top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, and are kept very clean."

In short, Europeans visiting Benin, in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, discovered a society every bit as organised and structured as the great courts of Europe, with an administration able to control all aspects of life and, not least, foreign trade.

Because of their ocean-going ships, the Europeans could provide commodities from all over the world that were greatly valued by the oba's court. Coral from the Mediterranean, cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean to serve as money, cloth brought from the Far East and, from Europe itself, the massive amounts of copper and brass needed for the metal-casting. The court of Benin was, in fact, a thoroughly international place, and this is one aspect of the Benin plaques that fascinates the Nigerian-born sculptor, Sokari Douglas Camp:

"The oba has a certain amount of rings on his neck, and even when you see contemporary pictures of the oba, he has more coral rings than anybody else, and his chest piece has more coral on it. You know, the remarkable thing about Nigeria is that all the coral and things don't actually come from our coast, they come from Portugal, and places like that. So all of that conversation has always been very important to me, you know we have things that are supposed to be totally traditional, yet they're traditional through trade."

The brass needed to make the plaques was usually transported in the form of large bracelets - 'manillas' in Portuguese - and the quantities involved are staggering. In 1548 just one German merchant-house agreed to provide Portugal with 432 tons of brass manillas for the West African market.

When we look again at the plaque, we can see that one of the Europeans is indeed holding a manilla, and this is the key to the whole scene. The oba is with the officials who manage and control the European trade. The three Africans are in the foreground and they're on a far bigger scale than the diminutive Europeans, both of whom are shown with long hair and elaborate feathered hats - in fact they look both feeble and ridiculous. The manilla makes it clear that the brass brought from Europe is merely the raw material from which the Benin craftsmen would create great works of art like this one. What we're looking at is in fact a document that demonstrates that the whole process of the trade in brass was controlled by the Africans. And part of that control was a total prohibition on the export of the finished brass plaques. So although carved ivories were exported from Benin in the sixteenth century and were well known in Europe, the Benin plaques were reserved to the oba himself, and they were not allowed to leave the country. None had been seen in Europe before 1897.

On 13 January 1897, the London 'Times' announced news of a "Benin Disaster". A British delegation, seeking to enter Benin City during an important religious ceremony, had been attacked, and some of its members killed. The details of what actually happened are still far from clear, and have been vigorously disputed, but whatever the real facts, the British, in ostensible revenge for the killing, organised a punitive expedition which raided Benin City, exiled the oba and created the British protectorate of Southern Nigeria. The booty from the attack on Benin included carved ivory tusks, coral jewellery and hundreds of bronze statues and plaques. Many of these objects were then auctioned off to cover the costs of the expedition, and they were bought by museums across the world.

The arrival and reception of these completely unknown sculptures caused a sensation in Europe. It is not too much to say that they changed European understanding of African history. One of the first people to encounter the plaques, and to recognise their quality and their significance, was the British Museum curator Charles Hercules Read:

"It need scarcely be said that at the first sight of these remarkable works of art we were at once astounded at such an unexpected find, and puzzled to account for so highly developed an art among a race so entirely barbarous."

Many wild theories were put forward. The plaques must have come from Ancient Egypt, or perhaps the people of Benin were one of the lost tribes of Israel. The sculptures must have derived from European influence - after all, these were the contemporaries of Michelangelo, Donatello and Cellini. But in fact, research quickly established that the Benin plaques were entirely West African creations, made without European influence. It is a bewildering fact that the early, broadly harmonious, relationship between Europeans and West Africans established in the sixteenth century had, by 1900, almost completely disappeared from European memory. Most of Europe had simply forgotten that they had at once admired the court of the oba of Benin. Why this strange amnesia? I think it's probably because the later relationship was so dominated by the transatlantic slave trade, with all its dehumanising implications. Later still, there would be the great European scramble for Africa, in which the punitive expedition of 1897 was merely one bloody incident. That raid, and the removal of some of Benin's great art works, may have spread knowledge of Benin's culture to the world, but it left a wound in the consciousness of many Nigerians - a wound that's still felt keenly today, as Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian poet and playwright, describes:

"When I see a Benin Bronze, I immediately think of the mastery of technology and art - the welding of the two. I think immediately of a cohesive ancient civilisation. It increases a sense of self-esteem, because it makes you understand that African society actually produced some great civilisations, established some great cultures. And today it contributes to one's sense of the degradation that has overtaken many African societies, to the extent that we forget that we were once a functioning people before the negative incursion of foreign powers. The looted objects are still today politically loaded. The Benin Bronze, like other artefacts, is still very much a part of the politics of contemporary Africa and, of course, Nigeria in particular."

The Benin plaques, these beautiful and disturbing objects, speak as powerfully today as they did when they first arrived in Europe, a hundred years ago. To many, they're not only supreme sculptures, but a reminder that in the sixteenth century, Europe and Africa were able to deal with each other on equal terms. In America at the same time, the situation was quite different. There, the terms of engagement between the local inhabitants and the European intruders were profoundly unequal.

In the next programme, I'll be talking about the Spanish conquest of Aztec Mexico, and I'll be looking at it through two pairs of eyes . . . I'll be with a double-headed serpent.

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