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February 21, 2024 14 mins

One of the world’s cultural treasure troves were created in West Africa. But for over a century they’ve been held in museums outside of Africa. In fact, an estimated 95 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage is kept in museums overseas.

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Hey, and welcome to the short Stuff. I'm Josh, Chuck's
here too, Jerry's here to Dave's not, but you know
the jam and this is short stuff. You go, Okay,
I'll go. So we're talking about the Benin bronzes and
they are a treasure trove of artworks that came out
of Benin, which is a former kingdom. Actually it's still

(00:25):
a current kingdom in Edo State in the south of
Nigeria right now, but before Nigeria was Nigeria, Benin was
a kingdom along West Africa that was a very powerful kingdom.
And one of the things that they did when a
new king, which they called an obah oba or a
new queen mother, ascended to the throne, when there was

(00:47):
some sort of important event or even something that they
just wanted to kind of chronicle, they would make these plaques,
these incredibly intricate, well made ron's plaques. And over time,
over hundreds of years of creating these things and documenting
the kingdom, they ended up with a lot of these things,

(01:09):
and so much so that it became essentially considered a
cultural legacy of the world, but in particular of Benin
in West Africa.

Speaker 2 (01:19):
Yeah. Absolutely, boy, what a set up.

Speaker 1 (01:21):
Thanks. I've been practicing it for like eight days.

Speaker 2 (01:23):
I really know what you're doing. They also serve as
a historical record, of course, because like you said, they
came along when there were new obas and new queen mothers.
So it's art and its history all wrapped up into one.
And one element of the historical part of it is
how it figures in, and this very much figures in
with sort of the story. Here is their contact with

(01:45):
Europeans in Europe and these countries, the first of which
was the Portuguese. When they started trading and having diplomatic
contacts and relations with Portugal, so they were sort of
the first on board. They would send emissaries back and
forth between Portugal and Benin and they negotiated their their

(02:06):
their deal, their trade deal, their sort of how they
were going to work together as people, and that's where
Europe enters the picture basically as far as Benin is concerned.

Speaker 1 (02:18):
Yeah, and it was just the Portuguese at first. That
was I don't know if you said it or not,
but starting in the fifteenth century they made contact and
we're trading with them, and then shortly after that this
is like the Age of Discovery, where people from Europe
just started sailing around being like, hey, hey, who wants
to buy our stuff? And whose stuff can we buy
so or take? Yeah, yeah, exactly. They were very quickly

(02:40):
followed by the French, the Dutch, the English, and Benins
trading with all of these European nations. And they were
already a fairly powerful kingdom from what I can tell,
but they became exponentially powerful because they positioned themselves as
the contact between European traders and countries and kingdoms and

(03:02):
states in the interior. You wanted to trade with any
other groups in West Africa, you needed to go through
the Kingdom of Benin to do that if you were
a European. And so they became very very powerful, and
that's kind of how things went for a couple of centuries.
They became really involved in the West African slave trade.

(03:22):
They supplied slaves to the Europeans, They traded leopard skins, pepper, ivory,
things that were really valued in Europe. They had a
lot of stuff that the Europeans wanted, So, like I said,
they became powerful. But as industrializations started to really take
hold in Europe, particularly in the UK, Great Britain became

(03:45):
more and more powerful, and essentially eventually I should say,
dominated trade with West Africa and Benin in particular. But
they weren't happy with having a monopoly. They wanted to
get rid of Benin altogether and just be able to
trade with people in the er. Why should they have
a middle man, and so they started to kind of
antagonize Benin and things just kind of went south from there.

Speaker 2 (04:08):
It's a little early, but I think we should take
a break because it's such a good cliffhanger.

Speaker 1 (04:11):
Wow, thanks man, all right, we'll be right.

Speaker 2 (04:14):
Back, all right. So when we left off, Great Britain

(04:40):
was like, hey, you know what, we don't need this
gatekeeper anymore. We don't need a middle man. We want
to be able to do what we want in Africa
and Central Africa and not go through Benin. So in
eighteen ninety seven, in January of that year, they supposedly
a peaceful mission, but it was a pretty aggressive, provocative
thing that they did. The British Trade mission went in

(05:02):
and they were attacked when they're on their way to
Benin City, and this really changed everything. There were seven
British delegates who died in this attack. I think two
hundred and thirty of the African carriers died. But as
far as Britain was concerned, is it's on now because
seven of us are dead. And that triggered a full

(05:26):
scale a retaliatory military assault and expedition on Benin, which
of course was no match at all for the British
forces at the time. Yeah.

Speaker 1 (05:36):
No, it was something that Great Britain could point to
and just be like, oh, look, we don't have any
moral quander anymore. We can go take over Benin now
under the guise of revenge. This is called the Punitive expedition.
And so they sent in a bunch of a large
military contingent and they just occupied Benin, killed off a
lot of the chiefs, they exiled the Oba, they pilled

(06:00):
and this is really critical, This is kind of the
point of this short stuff. They pillaged stuff, they found treasures,
they found a Benin and one of the things they
pillaged was the Benin bronzes. And in addition to those
plaques that we talked about, the Benin bronze, that that term,
it's like an umbrella term to describe a whole group

(06:23):
of artworks that were created in the Kingdom of Benin
from about the at least the fifteenth century up until
the nineteenth century, although they seem to have been creating
pretty great artworks even before that fifteenth century, like in
the medieval era. But this it could be made of ivory,
it could be made of brass, it could be made

(06:44):
of bronze. All sorts of different media in making jewelry,
or making busts, or making altar pieces, or making those plaques,
all of those are encompassed by this Benin bronze term.
And all of those were pillaged. I think ten thousand
pieces of art and cultural artifacts were pillaged during this

(07:04):
occupation by the British of Benin.

Speaker 2 (07:08):
Yeah, and a lot of that went back to the UK.
You know, they call that spoils of war, which is
a nice way to say things we stole after we
invaded a country, and some of it they distributed among
some of the people of the expedition, like here, you
take this, you take this, I'll be taking this, and
they basically remove Benin as that gatekeeper, and all of

(07:31):
a sudden, you know, Central Africa was open for all
of Europe to trade with, certainly England, and these artifacts
ended up you know where they always end up in
the hands of nobility, private collections and notably museums, where
a lot of this stuff are still in these museums today, right.

Speaker 1 (07:51):
Yeah, the two largest collections are held by the British
Museum and the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin. And even though
that that umbrella term Benine bronzes refers to a lot
of different artworks, typically you're also really talking about those
plaques that show different you know, different Obasa sending to

(08:12):
the throne, different you know, moments in benin history. And
they're they're considered like a again I think I said,
a cultural legacy of humanity. But they're also just treasure.
I mean, they're worth Chuck, I saw an estimated one
hundred and thirty billion dollars. They are priceless, I guess

(08:34):
not priceless. They were the one hundred and thirty billion,
but they're incredibly valuable, not just monetarily, but also culturally
and historically, and they are outside of Africa. There was
a French report by a restitution group that was commissioned
by Emanuel Macron in twenty seventeen that estimated that ninety

(08:56):
to ninety five percent of Africa's cultural hair is held
by major museums outside of Africa because of something called
the Scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth century, when
all these European powers just invaded Africa and started carving
it up and turning it into colonies. They took all
the stuff that they liked and sent it back to

(09:17):
Europe and it's still in these museums.

Speaker 2 (09:20):
Yeah. But and this is something we've talked about before
in some other art podcasts. Part of that twenty seventeen study.
The whole point of that was repatriation, was getting this
art back into the hands of the countries of origin,
these stolen artifacts. And Emmanuel Macron said, you know what,
over the next five years, we're gonna return the stuff

(09:42):
that we have. Germany got involved the Smithsonian, like individual museums,
the Smithsonian and the met all have said like, all right,
we need to start, you know, returning these these looted
art pieces, especially these were not as spac actually, but
for this episode, you know, notably these bronze plaques from Nigeria,

(10:05):
and so Nigeria is getting so much stuff back that
next year. I don't know if it's still on track,
but in twenty twenty five, they are opening the Edo
Museum of West African Art because they finally have art again.

Speaker 1 (10:19):
Yeah, there was a sculptor from Nigeria called a Hanjazo Gleiley,
He's a sculptor and said that there's an artistic awakening
in Nigeria because of the return of these bronzes.

Speaker 2 (10:33):
Yeah. But I think this one in particular comes with
a little bit of controversy, right because the the current
OBA is that right, Yes, his Royal Majesty Oba Uwaar
the second I'm going with ure the second okay, legally

(10:55):
speaking as the rightful owner of these bronzes. But in
twenty twenty three, Muhammadu Bihari, who is the outgoing president said,
you know, any of this looted stuff that comes back
to the Oba like belongs to the Oba and the
palace of the Oba, and no one can do anything
with it unless the Oba says so.

Speaker 1 (11:17):
Yeah, and if you are in Nigeria and like Benin,
it's still it's just a department, like we said, it's
a not considered like an independent nation state or even kingdom.
I guess it's part of Nigeria. But it's like the
Oba has like a government advisory role to the Nigerian
government like they're they're viewed legitimately in similar lines to

(11:40):
the way the man somebody's gonna kill us for this
little bit. But the royal family is in Great Britain.
They don't actually rule Great Britain, but they still have
they're still consulted on things, they still have some sort
of cultural importance as well. That's the impression that I
have there. But so the Nigerian president doing that makes
total sense in Nigeria, like it was the Kingdom of

(12:02):
Benins to begin with, the Kingdom of Benin is still there.
Though oh Ba is the leader of the Kingdom of Benina,
ancestor or a descendant of these people from whom these
plaques were stolen, it makes sense that it's his. But
outside of Nigeria, if you're a museum curator, you don't
like the sound of that at all.

Speaker 2 (12:22):
Yeah, I mean, there's definitely been some complaints from these
Western museums who are like, you know, I don't know
about returning all this stuff and having it just be
claimed by the palace, and you know, apparently the museum
director there, Philip Ihanako, is how I'm going to pronounce it.
Although I have appealing that I might be silent, said,

(12:43):
you know what, you don't really get a say in
this anymore. Yeah, like you can't loot this stuff over
you know, a long period of time and then a
expect it to be you know, handled like you want
or handled you know, perfectly in a very quick manner.

Speaker 1 (13:00):
And so yeah, the West is like, okay, you know,
we agreed, like these are illegitimately taken from Benin, so
they need to go back to Benin, and they're just
going to have to deal with the fact that this
this cultural legacy of humanity is privately owned by one person,
the Oba of Benin.

Speaker 2 (13:19):
I mean, is it the complaint that it's not going
to be or not necessarily going to be on display.

Speaker 1 (13:26):
I don't know, because they built the Museum of West
African Art, so I don't know that that's it. I
think the idea is in the West, if a museum
owns something, it belongs to everybody, and the museums is
kind of the keeper of that. They protected the keeper shape.
They show you this this stuff, they put it on display.
This is like, no, these things belong to the Oba.

(13:47):
He can do whatever he wants.

Speaker 2 (13:48):
Yeah, essentially, Okay, so they're afraid it's just going to
be like decorating the bathroom or something.

Speaker 1 (13:53):
I guess I think so, I'm not sure. I just
think that they're a little skittish about the whole thing.
And I think the guy who, like Well West needs
to butt out of it and just give us our
plaques back. It's tough not to. It's tough to discount
his thoughts too. Are you got anything else?

Speaker 2 (14:10):
I got nothing else.

Speaker 1 (14:11):
If you want to know more about the Benin bronzes,
go look them up online. They're really fascinating and beautiful.
And since I said that short, stuff's out.

Speaker 2 (14:22):
Stuff you should Know is a production of iHeartRadio. For
more podcasts my heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple
Podcasts

Speaker 1 (14:29):
Or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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