Benin plaque: the oba with Europeans

Contributed by British Museum

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The figure at the centre of this brass plaque is the oba - the king of Benin in Nigeria. In the background on either side of the oba are two tiny figures, identified as Portuguese traders, characterised by their long hair and European-style hats. Two attendants kneel beside the oba, indicating the hierarchical nature of royal power in Benin. In pre-Colonial times the king was regarded as the highest political and religious authority and respected as the representative of the ancestors.

How did European brass spark an artistic renaissance in Benin?

The kingdom of Benin dominated trade with Europeans on the Nigerian coast from the late 1400s to the end of the 1900s. When Portuguese traders arrived in Benin in the 1400s they brought brass bracelets, known as manillas, to exchange for pepper, ivory and slaves. The artists of Benin transformed this European brass into plaques to decorate the oba's palace. When these plaques were first seen in Europe in the late 1890s they astounded art critics who couldn't believe that such technically accomplished sculptures were created by African artists.

There are over 900 brass plaques from Benin in various museums in Europe and America.

The mastery of technology and art

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.

What happened to the Benin kingdom is a reminder of what happened in many, many other parts of the African continent. 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.

Wole Soyinka, Nigerian poet and playwright

The kingdom of Benin

This plaque is one of the relief brass-cast plaques that once used to decorate the palace of the oba (king) in Benin City, the capital of the Benin (Edo) kingdom (in modern southern Nigeria).

The palace complex was set up around atrium courtyards. Some had galleries with wooden pillars supporting the roofwith brass-cast plaques fixed to them. During the British Expedition of 1897 around 900 plaques were found.

The plaques are cast in the lost-wax technique, with relief images. Some of them celebrate successful wars or historical events, while others are a vivid depiction of Benin court life and ritual in the 1500s.

The plaques date to the 1500s and 1600s. That period is known as the time of the warrior-kings and is considered to be the golden age of the Benin Kingdom. It was a time of growth and consolidation under famous rulers such as Oba Esigie (about 1504-1550). They expanded the kingdom and made it a leading military, political, and economic power in the Guinea Gulf. At its peak its influence expanded over a vast territory around the Niger River Delta. In that period Benin achieved great prosperity through military conquests and trade.

The first contacts between Benin and Europe took place with the Portuguese in the late 1400s, leading to intensive trade relations which were maintained until the mid-1500s and brought immense wealth to the kingdom. Following the Portuguese Benin intensively traded with the Dutch and the British, maintaining continuous trade with Europe over centuries. European visitors to Benin were impressed by the city, the king and his court and left accounts describing the size, scale and magnificence of the city.

Benin City was the centre of political control, and the court and palace were the political, spiritual and ceremonial heart of the Kingdom. The oba was a divine king and the spiritual, secular and ritual head of the kingdom. He was the peak of the power system that also included three classes of chiefs – the Uzama (king makers), Eghaevbo n’Ogbe (palace chiefs) and Eghaevbo n’Ore (town chiefs). State affairs such as war, taxes, and dates of important ceremonies, were decided by a state council led by the oba, formed of these three classes of chiefs and other dignitaries.

All the chiefs were under the unconditional power of the oba. The Iyoba – Mother of oba – also played a vital role in the power structure as a supreme moral authority and protective force supporting the oba. The provinces were under the control of the oba and of the power centre in Benin

Claude Ardouin, curator, British Museum

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Comments

  • 7 comments
  • 1. At 10:35 on 21 September 2010, Pink Lady wrote:

    I really enjoy listening to the programme but if I miss it I take a quick look at the web site. It is difficult to know the actual size - it would be really helpful to know the dimensions - could a 'scale' be put by the picture of the object? Thank you

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  • 2. At 12:31 on 21 September 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    A most interesting subject for future contemplation. Why 'manillas'? Etymology please.

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  • 3. At 13:03 on 21 September 2010, David Prudames wrote:

    - Pink Lady
    Great to hear that you enjoy the programmes. Just to let you know that all British Museum objects have dimensions on their respective pages - scroll back up on this page and look to the right of the image.
    This plaque is 43.5cm high, by 41cm wide.
    David Prudames, British Museum

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  • 4. At 15:16 on 21 September 2010, kerniggit wrote:

    Having just studied Benin with the Open University as part of a History degree this was a fascinating programme, but could have done with it 5 weeks ago!!

    The British Museum website is a fabulous source of information on the Benin.

    Thank you BBC :-)

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  • 5. At 19:58 on 21 September 2010, theresa wrote:

    the web page is frustrating. Can you make it possible to enlarge the object to full screen please. it's so frustrating just scrolling round the tiny picture. I agree with a previous writer - something common to us all placed beside the image would help scale it for the viewer. The 100 prog is a BRILLIANT idea and I love the BBC/ Brit Museum for it. the Benin plaques are modern history shattering in what they tell us. Wonderful.

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  • 6. At 08:23 on 29 September 2010, Brian wrote:

    Ref comment 2: There is a very detailed article about manillas, including the etymology in Wikipedia

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  • 7. At 12:52 on 5 October 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    Thanks Brian. Very interesting. It looks like it is the old old story of Curses and charms: the real currency of the ancient world.
    Etymologically from manacle (or mn-ka-li) to manilla and historically from Callabar to Mallaba it is quite conceivable that Solomon The Great married into both ends of this trade route before the tribes were lost to captivity themselves and their precious history and scriptures re-written and handed back to them by their captors on condition of their release.

    So in my mind?s eye I can see trains of slaves so weighted down with their precious manacling manillas making it impossible for the poor sods to run off. Trudging with their precious cargoes of gold and ivory slavery has walked all the way from the times of ancient Egypt to the present day.
    Interestingly, a sort of laboured walk later became a symbol of wealth and prestige amongst the West African slave traders of the 17th and 18th century who were not weighed down.

    So, Well done you traders. On the usual pretext, you have in typical ignorant, blundering, arrogant and slobbering greed destroyed yet another piece of the ancient jigsaw puzzle and then all cock-a-hoop sold it to show off what you can do.
    Hardly surprising such inbred attitudes have driven America and Europe to two world wars and thus far two atomic explosions.
    With a work ethic set to enslave the whole world and an all consuming economy set to fritter away the planets vital life preserving resources it looks like the curse of the ancients is coming true after all and your civilisation won?t be long now in finding its agonising self annihilation.

    Artistically, the image reminds me of the pointy helmets of Europe. I wonder if there is a connection. Also clearly the erect appendage atop the heads is mind numbingly phallic. I wonder whether the religious iconography thus depicted implies a blissful trance induced annihilation similar to many of the esoteric practises commonly found in the semi-secret sub-sects of all the world religions.
    Without the subtle subterfuge employed by later religious artistry it occurs to me we may be looking at artefacts closer to the root of mankind?s religious emergence than any other. Any thoughts?

    West Africa is also an area of stone monuments and circles akin to the megaliths of Malta and Western Europe. Quite by chance 2 degrees west is a line along which quite a considerable number of megalithic sites loosely arrange themselves in a Northerly diection. (Similarly 27 degrees North in an Easterly direction.) Is it possible that peoples from West Africa were the first pioneers to set their course by the stars? Perhaps it is here that we should be looking more closely for the cradle of Mankind?s civilised behaviour. Any thoughts anyone?

    Thank you, as ever, Neil McGregor for stimulating the little grey cells.

    INTERESTING WRITING LIFTED FROM WIKIPEDIA,THE BM AND ELSWHERE FOLLOWS:

    Paul Einzig, one of Britain?s leading experts on primitive money and author of forty books, says that ?you can follow ring money from its early beginnings in Ancient Egypt right to its present-day use in West Africa.? Paul Einzig, one of Britain?s leading experts on primitive money and author of forty books, says that ?you can follow ring money from its early beginnings in Ancient Egypt right to its present-day use in West Africa.?

    Nobody who objectively and dispassionately compares the medieval and modern ring money of Africa with the ancient ring money of prehistoric Europe can fail to be impressed by their astonishing similar ...

    cowrie shells imported from Melanesia and valued at a small fraction of a manilla,...

    Plainer types were apparently bullion monies...

    The British undertook a major recall dubbed "operation manilla" in 1948 to replace them with British West African currency. The campaign was largely successful and over 32 million pieces were bought up and resold as scrap. The manilla, a lingering reminder of the slave trade, ceased to be legal tender in British West Africa on April 1, 1949[4] after a six month period of withdrawal.[7] People were permitted to keep a maximum of 200 for ceremonies such as marriages and burials. Only Okpoho, Okombo and abi were officially recognised and they were 'bought in' at 3d., 1d. and a halfpenny respectively. 32.5 million Okpoho, 250,000 okombo, and 50,000 abi were handed in and exchanged. A metal dealer in Europe purchased 2,460 tons of manillas, but the exercise still cost the taxpayer somewhere in the region of £284,000.

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Location

Benin, Nigeria

Culture
Period
Theme
Size
H:
43.5cm
W:
41cm
D:
10.7cm
Colour
Material

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