1 April 2021
The Brutish Museums(The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, and Cultural Restitution) By Dan Hicks Pluto Press. Reviewed by Tony Richardson.
This book by Dan Hicks, who is Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, is a brilliant addition to the work around the history of what he calls corporate military colonialism. He of course examines the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford High Street. It is so relevant today. The Tories want to ban removing statues and defend ‘Britain’s great Colonial history’. The director of Kew Gardens announced it could no longer stay silent on Britain’s exploitative colonial history and modern-day race issues. Kew would explore the Gardens’ links to colonialism and imperialism. Straightaway he was attacked by a Tory MP saying he was “out of touch with the sentiment of patriotic Britain”. The National Trust has been similarly attacked. Remember the Tories are threatening the state funding of cultural organisations such as universities and the BBC.
Hicks’ book concentrates on the Benin Bronzes. He argues the 1897 massacres of the Benin court and city were a major turning point in Britain’s African operations. But he also explains the specific importance of the looting and the subsequent filling ‘ethnological’ museums as a further form of racial violence against these African populations.
The early part of the book outlines this historic role of the British, German, and US museums. The end of the book lists all the known places that have Benin Bronzes.
He starts with the display in the Pitt Rivers and then moves through other museums. The descriptions on the exhibits may have been changed, but the overall ideological framework remains the same. He very specifically shows that the information provided on the British massacres state it was in retribution for the killing of 5 envoys to Benin, who had been asked not to come. The book goes into great detail about the prior events and context. He shows that all previous raids, the looting, and forced removal of kings were declared to be in retribution. Yet he says all the previous killings of Africans are ignored.
Another chapter shows how the ‘Royal Niger Company’ clashed with Benin because they were not supplying palm oil and other goods. After all the raids Britain gained control of the whole area and they established the country of Nigeria. The Royal Niger Company ceded total control to the British empire, for which they received massive compensation and 50% of all mineral profits for 99 years, including when it ended up as part of the Unilever company.
Lies of official history
British ‘official history of this period uses the term ‘small wars’ to describe British action to take control of this part of Africa. These small wars are in reality the burning of villages the flattening of towns and the massacres of vast numbers of people.
Hicks’ descriptions of these are graphic, particularly of what happened in Benin. It all came down to firepower. The newly developed Maxim machine gun was capable of firing 600 rounds a minute, cutting down large numbers of soldiers or civilians in almost an industrial way. The cannons also killed huge numbers. The Royal Niger company with its own battleships and the British Navy contributed to the genocidal violence.
The excuse used was they were dealing with savages, who owned slaves (by this time Britain had abolished its own slavery) and they carried out human sacrifice. They had never noticed or complained about what was going on when they were buying slaves previously from the kings. It is difficult to believe any of the propaganda because it only came out when they had difficulty trading in a particular area. They themselves carried out the killing of vast numbers of Africans.
The description of the looting of the palaces is detailed. Some artefacts were taken back to the UK and sold to pay for the expedition, some were given to Queen Victoria for her Golden Jubilee. Vast numbers of items were given to officers, company officials, and some were taken by soldiers.
Much of it has ended in the British Museum, a lot in Germany, and the rest is now scattered all over the world. At first, the racist ruling class could not understand how savages could produce such art, they claimed it must have been artisans from the north or it must have been an earlier higher civilisation.
Campaign for restitution
Hicks shows the Bronzes are covered in blood and should be returned. He ridicules those who argue it has been conserved by Britain and would not have survived. Britain killed vast numbers of the people they belonged to and then took them back to sell on the open market. In many cases, they ended up in private collections. The BBC blog reveals the case of a magnificent head that the owner had left in a safety deposit box. It was only discovered when the owner died and his daughter found it. It sold for $10 million)
Several museums have come together, led by Neil Macgregor of the British Museum, to argue that they are world museums and should keep these items for the world. Hicks ridicules this and says that they are covered in blood and they were removed to take away a countries culture and history. Not only should they be returned but their history should be told and the people of Africa should be compensated. The stealing of this history is carried on every time the museum opens its doors. The major ‘Benin Kings and Rituals’ exhibition in 2007/8 went to Vienna, Paris, Berlin, and Chicago, but not to Nigeria, which just shows the nature of the ‘world museum system’ that they are talking about.
He shows how museums like Pitt Rivers, funded originally by wealth from the slave trade and heavily subsidised by the British States compensation to traders for the loss of their slaves, were then able to buy these national treasures of Benin.
This book brilliantly shows looting, art, and blood go together. Just as there are rules to return holocaust art, and human remains from museums so there should be for this African stolen art.
Brutish Museums can be purchased from Pluto Press here.