History is complicated. Are we finally learning this lesson? The case of the Benin Bronzes is helping to illuminate its complexity.
On the face of it, the decisions being made by museums like the Horniman to return many of the bronzes to Nigeria, whence they were looted by Britain in 1897, has all the hallmarks of the usual “decolonisation” campaign. Nigeria has been demanding their return for years. Then Black Lives Matter set all sorts of new hares running and the bronzes presumably became a “do something” item on the museum racial justice checklist.
Unfortunately for the Horniman, it has run headlong into a dilemma. It stated proudly that, during its research on the 73 objects to be returned, it had “consulted with community members, visitors, schoolchildren, academics, heritage professionals and artists based in Nigeria and the UK”. Oopsies. It apparently missed out at least one self-appointed set of “stakeholders”: the US Restitution Study Group, a campaign group set up to represent the descendants of slaves.
You see, it turns out that the kingdom of Benin, as well as being an example of Africa’s rich cultural heritage, was also fond of slave-trading and human sacrifice. British visitors described piles of skulls, mass crucifixions and slaves bound and left to die in the sun with their guts hanging out. The bronzes themselves, according to the Restitution Study Group, were largely made from metal that Benin received in payment for the sale of slaves. Several depict and celebrate the trade. In short: help! What is a good decoloniser to do?
In a letter to the Charity Commission published by History Reclaimed, the Restitution Study Group has requested that the quango block the transfer of the bronzes and keep them where they are, to educate the world on the history of slavery. Decolonisers on the other side point out that the bronzes were taken from Benin as booty after a “punitive expedition”, which massacred hundreds if not thousands of innocents (the expedition was itself revenge for the massacre of a British delegation, but it also conveniently met the aims of merchants who had long lobbied London to “open up” trade in Benin).
There is coda to the tale. The bronzes’ arrival in Europe helped to inspire a new artistic movement, modernism, which showed a newfound (if still racist) appreciation of African art. Not that this would have cheered the erstwhile residents of Benin.
Honestly, I feel torn. The Restitution Group’s claim to use cultural artefacts for the universal education of mankind is one that I support. But its reasoning is troubling. The group bases the legitimacy of its claims upon genealogy. It states that it has moral authority because it has “done DNA testing” to identify the extent of Nigerian slave ancestry among Caribbean peoples and African-Americans and that these people ought to be considered “co-owners” of the bronzes.
In short, this claim revives, for political purposes, the use of bloodlines as a legal instrument. On such a basis, we ought all to be calculating our share of the historical pie using genetic analysis and rating our moral turpitude by mitochondrial dipstick. How many Cossacks need to have raped how many Semites before we can start handing Ukraine to the Ashkenazis? What golden share of innocent blood amounts to a fiduciary veto?
No. I reject all of it. This racist line of reasoning is more disturbing than the historical ignorance it is trying to displace. Let the woke monster eat itself. But in the process, let’s all learn something new about our history. The Restitution Study Group has a moral claim not because of its genetic coat-of-arms, but because it is helping to educate the world about real historical events using research and scholarship. That the events it refers to are true is enough to legitimise its claims.
The bronzes should, in short, reside where they can best be protected, studied and appreciated. That does not rule out a system of exchange between European, African or American institutions. But let’s not imagine that such an arrangement would “right historical wrongs” or amount to “reparations”. It would, rather, serve the interests of scholarship and mutual understanding. Whatever our tribe, these are the ideals that should unite us.