Benin Bronzes must not be returned to Nigeria as it ‘profited from slavery’

A plaque which forms part of the Horniman Museum's collection of Benin Bronzes
A plaque which forms part of the Horniman Museum's collection of Benin Bronzes

The Benin Bronzes must not be returned to Nigeria because the African nation profited from slavery, a US civil rights group has warned the Charity Commission.

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have decided to repatriate hundreds of artworks taken from the Kingdom of Benin - now in modern-day Nigeria - by British forces in 1897, a decision which must be signed off by the Charity Commission.

But African-American campaigners have demanded the regulator refuse permission because it would benefit “the descendants of African slave traders”.

The New York-based Restitution Study Group, which runs legal campaigns to secure reparations for the descendants of slaves, has written to the Charity Commission to request that it keeps the Benin Bronzes in UK museums.

The letter states: “We ask that you reject any request to transfer them to Nigeria.

“The Kingdom of Benin, through Nigeria, would be unjustly enriched by repatriation of these relics.

“Black people do not support slave trader heirs just because they are black. Nigeria and the Kingdom of Benin have never apologised for enslaving our ancestors.

“We ask that you not approve the transfer of these relics.”

The Kingdom of Benin grew wealthy by capturing men, women and children and selling them as slaves to European and American buyers. Many of the thousands of Benin Bronzes - artworks which decorated the kingdom’s royal palace - were made from melted-down currency earned from the trade in African slaves.

Nigeria, the successor to the Kingdom of Benin, has pushed for their repatriation with a campaign which has led to Oxford, Cambridge, and the Horniman Museum in London agreeing to return the artworks in their collections. As charities, these decisions must be approved by the Charity Commission.

Benin Bronzes on display at the British Museum - Alamy
Benin Bronzes on display at the British Museum - Alamy
Benin Bronzes - Alamy
Benin Bronzes - Alamy

The Restitution Study Group has insisted no approval should be given to the universities, and that the previously made Horniman decision be reserved, arguing that Nigerian museums would unfairly profit from objects initially made with the wealth from the slave trade.

The group’s leader, lawyer Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, has also argued that they should stay in Western museums so that the diasporic descendants of slaves - and not the descendants of African slave traders - can more easily access them and learn about the slave trade.

She said: “We want France, UK, USA and other museums to know they should keep the Benin Bronzes for the real victims, the descendants of the enslaved who paid for them with their lives, not the slave traders’ descendants.”

Ms Farmer-Paellmann has filed lawsuits against major companies, including Lloyds, in a bid to gain reparations from businesses which once had ties to the slave trade.

She has stated that the Benin Bronzes were created from the wealth derived from slaves and that the descendants of these slaves in the US and elsewhere should be entitled to co-ownership of the pieces, in an arrangement which would see them retained in museums for educational purposes.

Nigeria has sought to obtain the bronzes from museums in Europe and the UK, recently securing all the pieces held in German institutions, and promises from Oxford and Cambridge that they would return 213 artworks pending approval from the Charity Commission.

The commission has already signed off on the decision by the Horniman Museum in south London to return 72 Nigerian artefacts.

The bronzes were seized by British forces in an 1897 raid on Benin City, which resulted in the collapse of the Kingdom of Benin.

The Charity Commission has been contacted for comment.