The Thief Cannot Prescribe: On Barnaby Phillips’s “Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes”

By Nii Ayikwei ParkesJuly 7, 2021

The Thief Cannot Prescribe: On Barnaby Phillips’s “Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes”

Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes by Barnaby Phillips

EARLY IN BARNABY Phillips’s well-researched Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes, he laments the condition of Benin City’s famed earth wall, reputed to be four times longer than the Great Wall of China at the height of the Benin Empire. The wall encircled not just the empire’s capital but also a stunningly deep moat — all part of a robust defense system. But on a recent visit, the author was dismayed: the trenches had filled with sewage.

This is one of a handful of personal moments that stayed with me from Phillips’s vivid history of objects taken from West Africa in the 1890s and sold as “exotic” art on the world market. Prominent among them were the Benin Bronzes, the metal plaques that once lined the royal halls of a monarch called the Oba, the king of the Benin Empire, now part of present-day Nigeria. Of the bronzes, 200 wound up in the British Museum; the rest were scattered to dealers and other museums, and many remain in Europe behind glass or hung on millionaires’ walls. The moment remained with me because it signaled a particular skew in understanding how history affects the present.

Without diminishing the scale of research here, it is important to state outright that the graft and barbarism of the British Empire is not news to us Africans. Any novelty ascribed to Loot derives from a long history of dismissing African memory as ahistorical. The call for the return of African cultural objects is also not a recent development. Half a century ago, my uncle Nii Kwate Owoo made a film, You Hide Me, shot in the basement of the British Museum, revealing the travesty of so many looted objects from Africa just sitting in crates at European museums. He also described the industry of Western “experts” that formed around colonial theft — with historians, curators, ethnographers, art critics, and vendors all making careers as specialists in African plunder.

What Loot achieves with skill is to embed facts about the individual journeys of the Benin Bronzes in compelling narratives, tracing the lives of the British officers who looted the palace of the Oba. They kept choice objects for themselves while reserving a respectable haul for queen and country. Quirky revelations uncover the callous nature of British officials. African soldiers in their retinues were given a quarter ration of water on long treks. Lieutenant Vernon Haggard wrote a letter to his father, in which he gleefully states that one can whack the carriers “as much as you please.” And there is an occasion where journalist Raymond Blathwayt recounts the consul-general of the Niger Coast Protectorate Ralph Moor dining with friends while a man condemned to death was chained to a pillar beneath them. In the morning, the man is executed and his body thrown into the bush “to teach these people a lesson.”

The persistent disregard for Africans delegitimizes any humanitarian claims that the British later used to justify their invasion of Benin. The number of Edo people killed by the indiscriminate use of Maxim guns, explosives, and rocket missiles in the attack on Benin City alone probably accounted for more lost lives than any executions at the Oba’s command over decades. Even worse, after Benin City had fallen, the British carried on burning villages in their quest to capture the monarch, with no regard for the lives and livelihood of the Edo people.

Paradoxically, what is reaffirmed in Loot is the clear commercial end for which the British were prepared to kill in astounding numbers. As 1892 Consul-General Major Claude MacDonald explained, “minerals, gum Arabic, gum copal, palm oil, kernels, etc.” were available in large quantities in Benin’s territory, and, crucially, in preparing to invade Benin City, they had estimated that “sufficient Ivory may be found in the King’s house to pay the expenses in removing the King from his stool.”

The high valuation placed on this invasion might seem like a precursor to the prices that the Benin Bronzes command on the world art market, but I don’t believe so. Some resisted the African provenance of these masterpieces, with one British visitor speculating that “it is probably the Portuguese were the founders of [the] nation,” and the Manchester Courier newspaper asking “experienced travellers” to help “solve the problem of the origin and meaning of the Benin Bronzes.” Ascribing the origins of art for which the likes did not exist in Europe was the height of delusional, imperial arrogance, but it passed for wisdom in a chauvinistic quest.

In present-day Ghana, I can still buy unique brass and bronze jewelry that comes from Mali, Niger, and Chad, where the centuries-old skill of hammering and twisting these metals remains extraordinary. Anyone who was not busy finding ways to deny the humanity of Africans only had to look to other civilizations in the region: in both the Mali and Asante empires, there were industries of bronze-casting using a range of methods, including the lost wax technique favored by Benin’s Igun Eronmwon guild of bronze casters.

The rabid focus on the Oba’s obstruction of British interests likely resulted from Europe’s economic decline from 1873 until the late 1890s — the British needed significant profit from the territories they were exploiting. It might therefore be surprising to read that only a handful of the looters of 1897 sold their ill-gotten objects soon after their return. Many held on to their trophies until the 1930s when a generation of officers were “dying, or retiring, or had fallen on hard times during the Depression.” One thinks of serial killers holding onto grisly trophies. For many of the marauding officers who bulldozed their way through the lives of the Edo people, the value of the Benin loot was more likely to have been the memory of their bloody conquest, a regular boost for their egos.

In fact, I would go further and posit that the initial allure of the Benin Bronzes for collectors was also blood and gore, or, to quote from an Illustrated London News article of August 1897, they were “made more palatable by their association with an emphatic British military victory.” After all, it was British form to collect trophies, some as gruesome as Maori heads and the hair and teeth of murdered sovereigns. And, if the value for the British was ego, then the corresponding loss for the Edo people was dignity. It is not for nothing that even the euphemism that the British coined for their killing and looting — “punitive expedition” — cannot hide its undercoat of egoistic spite.

This brings me back to the moment when Phillips stands at the moat, seemingly not grasping that the disorder of present-day Edo State is the bigger loss suffered by the people of Benin. At the height of their empire, they had a society that was structured to maintain order not just at a societal level but also a broader environmental one. They hunted elephants and harvested palm oil, but the Oba and his advisors controlled the volumes, seasons, and frequency; they were not wed to the notion of ruthless profit. What the British did was to undermine Benin’s societal structures, humiliate the Oba before his people, decimate their culture and cosmologies, and force a consequence-blind, profit-seeking worldview that led to a rapid loss of forests and wildlife in the name of “British interests.” Benin City’s walls were set to crumble in that moment, its moat doomed to stench.

The most lamentable part of this book is its British inclinations: looting British soldiers are humanized through their personal histories, but Africans are only humanized in Western terms, with culture defined through European lenses and no space given to the oral accounts of the Edo people. The author decries the condition of a British war memorial in Ugbine without discussing the unmarked graves for thousands of African and Indian soldiers who were conscripted for and died in British wars. My discomfort intensified in later chapters when Loot seemed to fall into a cycle of trying to justify British actions and present a “balanced” debate about whether the bronzes belong back in Benin. We do not hear people in the Western art world debating whether, when Nazi loot is returned, the owners are obliged to replicate the same conditions as the museums in which they were housed.

The Bronzes were seen as static art by their looters, whereas in Benin the bronzes were integral to daily cultural and spiritual life. Their owners should not have to justify what they will do with their recovered property. In the words of the Benin artist Victor Ehikhamenor, “The thief cannot prescribe to the rightful owner.”

Even with its European focus, Phillips’s Loot is a well-written feat of archival research, and I’m sure that its narrative work will be of value for many in the West. For an African reader like me, however, it reveals how far Europeans — even the ones with good intentions — still have to travel to get away from outdated ideas of the value of African culture, history, and society. An author who asks, “Did anything good come out of the British invasion?” completely misses the point and perhaps should not be writing for Africans about the Benin Bronzes. But perhaps the book was never for us in the first place.


Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a Ghanaian editor, sociocultural commentator, and multi-genre author, primarily known for his acclaimed hybrid novel, Tail of the Blue Bird. He serves on the editorial board of World Literature Today and has served as a judge for several literature prizes, including the Commonwealth Prize, the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, and the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize.

LARB Contributor

Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a 2007 recipient of Ghana's national ACRAG award for poetry and literary advocacy. He is a former International Writing Fellow at the University of Southampton and writer-in-residence at California State University, Los Angeles.


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