About the Benin Bronzes
In 1897 most of the plaques and other objects were looted by British forces during a punitive expedition to the area as imperial control was being consolidated in Southern Nigeria. Two hundred of the pieces were taken to the British Museum, London, while the rest were purchased by other European museums. Today, a large number are held by the British Museum.Other notable collections are in Germany and the USA.
The Benin Bronzes led to a greater appreciation in Europe of African culture and art. Initially, it appeared incredible to the discoverers that people “supposedly so primitive and savage” were responsible for such highly developed art objects. Some went as far as even wrongly concluded that Benin knowledge of metallurgy came from the Portuguese traders who were in contact with Benin in the early modern period. In actual fact the Benin Empire was a hub of African civilization before the Portuguese traders visited and it is clear that the bronzes were made in Benin from an indigenous African culture.
The Benin Empire
The Benin Empire, which occupied parts of present-day Nigeria between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, was very rich in sculptures of diverse materials, such as iron, bronze, wood, ivory, and terra cotta. The Oba’s palace in Benin, the site of production for the royal ancestral altars, also was the backdrop for an elaborate court ceremonial life in which the Oba, his warriors, chiefs and titleholders, priests, members of the palace societies and their constituent guilds, foreign merchants and mercenaries, and numerous retainers and attendants all took part. The palace, a vast sprawling agglomeration of buildings and courtyards, was the setting for hundreds of rectangular brass plaques whose relief images portray the persons and events that animated the court.