The Bath Festival: Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes

20 May 2021
20 May 2021

In a time of intense debate about the legacies of empire, loot, museums and history, what does the future hold for the Benin Bronzes, the treasures stolen from Nigeria?

In 1897 Britain responded to the killing of a group of officials by razing an empire to the ground. The men had been travelling to the ancient Kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria, when they were ambushed and killed by local soldiers. Just six weeks later, the British exacted their revenge: setting Benin aflame, exiling the king and annexing the territory. They also made off with some of Africa’s greatest works of art.

Barnaby Phillips, BBC journalist based for over 25 years in Mozambique, Angola, Nigeria and South Africa, tells the story of the Benin Bronzes; their history before the British took them, their fate since 1897, and the intense debate about their future. When first exhibited in London they caused a sensation and helped reshape European attitudes towards Africa, challenging the prevailing view of the continent as ‘backward’ and without culture. But seeing them in the British Museum today is, in the words of one Benin city artist, like ‘visiting relatives behind bars’.