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Benin civilization

Updated on July 7, 2016

Benin was the capital of the kingdom of Benin which flourished from 14th to 17th c. It was ruled by the Oba king. Europeans first became aware of the existence of Benin through Portuguese traders in the 15th; it traded slaves, sculpture, ivory, paper to Europe. In 16th c Europe sent Christian missionaries to Benin. Neither conversion nor conquest was the primary motive behind western contact with Benin, it was trade. Benin developed an advanced sculpture of bronze wall plaques, heads of Oba and mast. Many pieces were taken to the British Museum.

The Benin ambassador described by Ruy de Pina was clearly treated with respect. Even bearing in mind the vested interest Portugal had in winning the favour of the Benin political hierarchy, there is little indication here that the ruler of Benin and his officials were regarded, or treated, as savages, though their religious beliefs are once again censured. The Casa de Guiné, trading accounts also mention salt cellars, produced in both Sierra Leone and Benin, and again apparently for export. Other carved figures wear tall hats, beards, decorated doublets and flowered stockings apparently a fanciful version of Portuguese dress. The third form of ivory export was carved hunting horns or oliphants, again adapted for European use by designing them to be blown from the end like a clarinet rather than from the side like a flute, which was African practice. In the British Museum is a small statuette of a Portuguese soldier posed in the act of firing his musket. The half-crouching pose is exceptionally lifelike, and there is much intricate decoration surface detail on the armor.
In Benin the artwork was certainly on a scale and level of quality to compare with art produced under royal patronage in Europe at the time, but because much of it was kept in the palace of the Oba, neither the populace nor the Portuguese traders necessarily had access to it. The relationship between Portugal and Benin during this period was primarily one of trade. Admittedly it was in Portuguese interests to maintain good relations with the Oba, but there is some evidence that when Europeans finally arrived at Benin City, they were genuinely impressed with what they saw. There is no evidence of hostilities between Western Europeans and Benin in this period. On the contrary, at one stage the Portuguese were serving as mercenaries for the Oba. The production of ivory work specifically for the European market implies that Benin craftsmanship was admired in Europe, or at the very least was sought for its curiosity value. The frequent occurrence of Portuguese figures within Benin art, sometimes long after the Portuguese had been superseded by English and then Dutch traders, suggests that the encounter with the Portuguese was highly significant and later associated with a golden age‘ of Benin society.

Finally, it would be anachronistic to propose that relations between Benin and the Europeans were grounded in modern ideas of equality, but they were certainly characterized by a notable absence of hostility. However much at variance the two cultures might have been, successful trading relations demanded a degree of mutual regard, and it is this mutual regard that sixteenth-century Benin art appears to reveal.

Carved spoon.
Carved spoon.

The events surrounding the invasion of Benin in 1897 were followed closely in Britain and Europe. Accounts of travel, exploration and war in foreign lands emphasized the moment of encounter between white European "civilized" culture and the 'dark, dangerous people and places of Africa. Were confiscated by the British forces and brought to Britain where they were sold, in part, to pay for the expedition. Museums, private collectors, art historians and scholars in America and Europe were quick to realize the significance of the Benin artworks and competed to acquire the best pieces.

As British imperialism made ever greater inroads in Africa, travelers, missionaries, capitalists and civil servants sent objects, letters, drawings and accounts of the landscape and people to Britain, where they were reproduced in books, museums, exhibitions and newspaper reports. These accounts were diverse, but stories that told of encounters with native people and emphasized stark differences in appearance, beliefs and practices such as
witchcraft and cannibalism were particularly popular. In 1850 Robert Knox, a trained anatomist and popular lecturer, published The Races of Men. In his book Knox argued that various races had different lines of descent and that, as such, humankind was made up of a range of species with unequal qualities and abilities. This, he argued, was based on observation and experience: Look all over the globe it is always the same; the dark races stand still, the fair progresses'. As such, Knox concluded that there must be a physical and, consequently, a psychological inferiority in the dark races generally‘.
In the context of imperial expansion overseas and competition within Europe for industrial and imperial supremacy, ideas of race, both popular and scientific, were increasingly used to justify hierarchies and legitimize imperial power. British industrial, imperial and administrative capacity was seen by some as evidence of a superior ability to adapt and respond to changing environments. The perceived backwardness of other societies, such as Benin, was taken as evidence of their inability to improve without help. As such, some British contemporaries believed that they had a civilizing mission‘ to undertake, and that the supposed superiority of the British imbued individuals and the government with the responsibility to eradicate the backwardness and superstition they believed existed in other countries. As the Illustrated London News stated, in applauding the invasion of Benin, no successful attempt has up to now been made to rescue the native population from grovelling superstition and ignorance‘.

The artworks were removed from Benin with little attention given to the nature of the objects or the way that they had been displayed and used there. In an atmosphere of intense rivalry between museums and collectors across Europe, they were separated out and sold. But, given the interest across Europe in the history of humankind, they were soon subjected to more sophisticated analysis, and were used to inform debates about race and culture. German and British ethnographers and art historians were anxious to acquire the finest pieces: for such collectors, the Benin war booty‘ consisted of objects and artworks that could afford valuable insight into the artistic life of the Negro‘.

Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Galway
Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Galway

To a very great extent, we know what happened because of the records left by participants. We have a surprising amount of written material for the conquest of Benin. In addition to his official reports, Captain Gallwey gave a speech about Benin to the Royal Geographical Society which was later published. For the events of 1897, we have British government documents. No shortage of first-hand reports on the events surrounding the British conquest of Benin. However, all the sources listed were written by British participants.

The document was written by Henry Gallwey, Deputy Commissioner and Vice-Consul. The document is addressed to Gallwey‘s superior, the Consul-General Claude Macdonald. Macdonald forwarded it to London as Gallwey presumably knew he might. It was written on 30 March 1892, immediately after Gallwey‘s return to his Vice-Consulate. The document is an internal government document. The document can easily be fitted into the narrative account of the conquest of Benin. This is the official report of Henry Gallwey‘s visit and how he obtained the treaty. In one sense it is a factual account – he tells us what happened, when, and how long it took. At the same time, he provides his readers with some impressions of Benin. There are a number of points one might make. I will comment later on how Gallwey obtained the treaty. What struck me is how Gallwey talks about the religious beliefs of the people of Benin, for which he uses the word fetish. When Gallwey first mentions them, it is simply as an amusing (and perhaps convenient?) hiccup in the negotiations, but later fetish‘ is presented as the cause of ‗Terror‘ and identified as a barrier to change. Obviously it would be very helpful if we could compare Gallwey‘s account with another, say from a Benin perspective. All too often in studying history, we cannot corroborate the source by comparing it with others and must look for evidence within the document itself.
Gallwey was writing to his superiors and, if he had invented the whole episode, it would surely have cost him his job and his reputation. We might imagine him exaggerating his role or presenting it in a good light, perhaps even missing out some bits, but it would have been risky for him to stray too far from the truth. The account was written very shortly after the events. There is no reason why Gallwey should not remember them accurately, although a longer time span might have given him the opportunity to place the events in a broader context. We might expect Gallwey to be most accurate when he writes about events he experienced personally. On this basis we might conclude that Gallwey is likely to be fairly accurate when he recounts what he and his companions did.
It is clear from the account that Gallwey did not speak the local language and, indeed, relied chiefly on his own servant for communication. There was enormous room for misunderstanding in this cultural encounter. This approach does allow us to make some progress in assessing the significance of the document. It suggests that we can accept Gallwey‘s report as a fairly accurate account, from a British perspective, of the events which led to the first treaty between Britain and Benin. The document is significant because it tells us when the treaty was signed and how this happened, although the fact that we only know this from one side is limiting. The document also provides some information about Benin, but here the limitations of the source loom larger.

Historians have, in fact, read rather more in it, using it to reach some conclusions that Gallwey does not spell out. Look again at Gallwey‘s account of how he obtained the treaty. Although Gallwey did not know what was being discussed in the royal house, and is at pains to suggest that the Oba was happy with the treaty, there are hints that the Oba felt he was acting under duress.


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