Disclaimer: This is an example of a student written essay.
Click here for sample essays written by our professional writers.

Information contained within this essay does not constitute legal advice or guidance and is intended for educational purposes only.


Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Law
Wordcount: 3016 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

Reference this


In this action, the Oba of Benin Kingdom seeks the return of the Benin Bronze which is in the possession of the British Museum. The Oba argues that the Benin Bronze was stolen from his ancestors.


During the days of the Britain colonial aspirations in West Africa, the ancient city of Benin was one of the cities targeted by the British government due to its amassed wealth.

In 1897, the Vice-Consul of the British Trading Post, G. R. Philips wanted to pay a visit to Benin Kingdom to supposedly reprimand the Oba for failing to adhere to their trading agreement[1]. The Oba had sent a message sending the British representatives away as it was the period of a sacred festival (Igue) where foreigners were prohibited from visiting Benin. Philips ignored the Oba’s reply and went on with his mission only to be met by an ambush set up by two of the Oba’s Chiefs. This ambush was set up without the permission of the Oba[2] and it might have been done as a means of protecting their tradition. As they approached the borders of Benin, they struggled with the Benin warriors who attempted to drive them back and this led to the death of some of the members of the Vice-Consul’s group.

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Essay Writing Service

This action resulted in the British expedition led by Admiral Rawson. A punitive raid was carried out with over 1500 men and numerous Benin people were killed[3]. The expedition has been described by the Benin people as a massacre where several people in the palace were killed. The chiefs who conspired the ambush were hung and the Oba was banished to a foreign land (Calabar). The British government were able to take over Benin Kingdom and establish its reigns.

The British government argued that the raid was only aimed at putting an end to human sacrifice in the Benin Kingdom[4], but this seems like a revenge motivated act as they not only destroyed Benin, but they confiscated over 2,000 brass castings as loot from the king’s palace along with myriad carved ivory tusks and other valuable objects. These objects were then auctioned and sold in Europe to offset expeditionary costs and they now reside in major Western museums and private collections.

In October 1897, the objects were offered by the Crown Agents of Colonies on behalf of the Foreign Office for a temporary exhibition in the British Museum[5]. This is how the British Museum came across their extensive collections on Benin Bronze.

The Benin Bronze is now used as a term for describing the objects produced by the Benin Empire and that was removed during the 1897 expedition. The Benin Bronzes consist of several thousand commemorative plaques and sculptures that were made of brass of variable composition (despite being called ‘bronzes’)[6].


Cultural, Historical and Political Background of the Benin Bronze

The history of the Benin Bronze and Plaques has been traced to the second Benin dynasty. This is when the Ogiso (sons of god) was believed to have stopped ruling the Benin kingdom and the first king of the second dynasty Eweka I ascended the throne[7]. Eweka I was sent by his father Oranmiyan from the neighbouring kingdom of Ife.

However, the history of how Bronze work started is still contested. Some of the most popular stories are;

•                      The possibility that the Portuguese introduced Bronze casting. Some people argue that the Portuguese introduced it as their arrival brought the increasing availability of Brass and Bronze. It is argued that a white man, Ahammangiwa[8] brought the bronze work to the Benin Kingdom and because he was childless, the king commissioned him to teach young boys his technique of making bronze work.

•                      Though, this history has been contested as some people argue that the skills were learnt from the people of Ife even before the Portuguese arrived. Evidence supporting this was found during an excavation in 1938 when 18 Bronze heads were discovered near the palace of the Ooni of Ife[9]. Archaeological evidence suggests that these Bronze were made in the 12th century which is before the Portuguese arrived[10].

This judgment will be based on the second story as there is Archaeological evidence supporting it. However, we will also be taking into consideration the fact that the Portuguese may have influenced the style and technique of the subsequent Bronze being made in the 15th century.

Cultural and Political Significance

The Benin Bronze has been described by Kathryn Gunsch as the single monumental installation art[11]. It is seen as a recording of past events in a time where photographs were not used.

The Benin people believe that Oba Oguola introduced the Benin Bronze in the 13th century as a way of preserving events. He had seen and learnt it from the people of Ife who were naturalistic bronze heads. The influence of Oba Ewuare the Great and Oba Esigie, in 1440 and 1517 respectively also increased the use of Bronze and Plaques in the Benin Kingdom.  They both enforced the use of the Bronze to record their successes in wartime.

The Benin Bronze was made by the Igun Bronze Casting guild to honour the reigning Oba. It is a sign of respect and loyalty to the crown (Oba).

The Benin Bronze heads were also used as chronological records which represented the previous Obas. When an Oba died, a formal head was cast in bronze and then placed in an altar erected in his memory[12]. These bronzes were used to honour his memory and included in sacred rituals. The successive Oba used the commemorative bronze heads to honour its deceased predecessors[13].

While the Plaques were created to address the specific needs of the court at a particular time, it shows how the court was assembled in that period and what happened in that era[14]. For example, the plaques show the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century. They also show when the Portuguese helped the Benin people conquer neighbouring kingdoms in the 16th century[15].


The first argument presented by the British Museum is that they cannot return the Benin Bronze because legislation prohibits it from permanently disposing of any object other than duplicates.

This argument is based on Section 3(4) of the British Museum Act 1963 which states that Objects vested in the Trustees as part of the collections of the Museum shall not be disposed of by them otherwise than under section 5 or 9 of this Act[16].

The British Museum is arguing that this section limits their powers when it comes to returning cultural property[17]. They argue that the cultural objects such as the Benin Bronze do not fall under the exceptions in section 5 and 9 therefore, only parliament can authorise them to make returns. This can only be done by creating a new act of parliament.

I strongly disagree with this view, as under S5(1)(C), Trustees are allowed to dispose objects which are unfit to be retained in the collections of the Museum as long as it does cause detriment to the interests of students[18].

I will start by focusing on the first element ‘unfit to be retained’. This legislation does not describe ‘unfit to be retained’ therefore it is a subjective element[19] which means that the trustees of the British Museum have the powers to decide whether or not an object is unfit to be retained. Therefore, the argument that only new act of parliament can authorise the return of cultural object will not be accepted in this judgment.

The Oba has proved that the Benin Bronze is unfit to be retained because they are sacred objects which hold the history and records of a community. The objects were created to honour the Obas and their use in rituals means that some of the objects are unfit to be placed in a public environment such as the museum. The rituals usually take place privately in the palace and therefore showcasing them in a museum without permission is a disregard of the Benin culture.

The second element of the section is ‘as long as it does not cause detriment to the interests of students.’ This argument is easily rebutted by the fact that the interests of students can be met by replicas. Evidence from the recent reaction of Cambridge students on the Benin Bronze Cockerel in Jesus College shows that there is huge support from students that cultural objects should be returned[20]. The interests of students will not be affected by returning the cultural objects instead, students interested in learning about the Benin Bronze would benefit more from seeing it in its indigenous community. Keeping the Bronze in a box in a museum does not help students interests as they are unable to critically analyse it in the context of where they belong.  Therefore, I am concluding that returning the Benin Bronze will not be detrimental to student interests.

Another argument that has been raised by the British Museum is that their legality of possession is based on the legitimate authority of the British government at the time[21]. This is the argument that the British government already had legitimate authority over West Africa at the time, so the objects were removed legitimately. It has been argued that the Benin Chiefs signed a treaty in 1894 under the threat of war and this treaty places them under the rule of the British government.

I strongly disagree with this argument as that there is clear evidence that before the invasion in 1897, the Oba ruled Benin Kingdom without the influence of the British government[22]. It was not until the palace was burnt and Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi banished that Benin lost its independence. It was after this raid that a native council was appointed therefore enforcing the notion that the British government had no legitimate authority over Benin. The treaty signed did not strip the powers of the Benin Kingdom and neither did it give the British government rights over the cultural objects.

Also, even though Benin Chiefs signed a treaty, I am concluding that it is unenforceable as the chiefs were not educated in a manner which enabled them to give genuine consent. They were coerced by the British government who knew literacy in English was an issue in West Africa and used it to gain an unfair advantage. This issue can be compared to the case of Nazi art looting. Although they are not synonymous situations, one common factor is that the people in these situations were coerced into making decisions that they would otherwise not have made. Therefore, even if there was a signed treaty, it is unenforceable as there was no genuine consent. This means that the British government did not have legitimate authority to take the Benin Bronze.

Lastly, I will be putting forward the argument that unlike the Elgin marbles, there are no grey areas on ownership as there is no question of whether good title was passed[23]. There is no evidence suggesting that the Benin people sold the Bronze instead, the evidence seems to suggest that they were stolen and subsequently sold to defray the cost of the punitive expedition.

This leads to my conclusion that the Bronze was stolen by the British forces led by Admiral Rawson and the subsequent conversion took place when it was transferred to the British Museum. The British Museum cannot argue that they are a good faith purchaser because there is no legal documentation proving that the cultural objects were acquired legitimately.

My judgment is that the Benin Bronze should be returned to the Oba of Benin. This judgment is based on the sole reason that the British Museum does not have any legal or moral right to the Bronze. Therefore, refusing to return the Benin Bronze is a breach of the rights of the Oba of Benin Kingdom. I am also recommending that before the return, the Oba of Benin Kingdom ensures that a proper location is created in Benin City for the preservation of the Benin Bronze. This will help further academic research of the Benin Bronze in the context of their community.



  • Gillman D, The Idea of Cultural Heritage (Revised Edition, Cambridge Press 2011).
  • Greenfield J, The Return of Cultural Treasures (Second Edition, Cambridge Press 1995).
  • Jenkins T, From objects of enlightenment to objects of apology: why you can’t make amends for the past by plundering the present (eds), Dethroning historical reputations: universities, museums and the commemoration of benefactors (2018).
  • Wysocki Gunsch K, The Benin Plaque: A 16th Century Imperial Monument (London: Routledge 2018).

Journal Articles

  • Adewumi A, ‘Return and Restitution of Cultural Property in African States under the 1970 UNESCO and 1995 UNIDROIT Convention’ (2015).
  • Wood P, ‘Display, Restitution and World Art History: The Case of the ‘Benin Bronzes’’ (2012) 13.


  • British Museum Act 1963.


  • Mingren W, ‘The Benin Bronzes: A Tragic Story of Slavery and Imperialism Cast in Brass’ <https://www.ancient-origins.net/artifacts-other-artifacts/benin-bronzes-tragic-story-slavery-and-imperialism-cast-brass-008565> accessed 4th January 2019.

[1] J Greenfield, The Return of Cultural Treasures (2nd edn, Cambridge Press 1995) 120.

[2] J Greenfield (n1) 120.

[3] J Greenfield (n1) 120.

[4] J Greenfield (n1) 121.

[5] J Greenfield (n1) 122.

[6] Wu Mingren, ‘The Benin Bronzes: A Tragic Story of Slavery and Imperialism Cast in Brass’ (2017) < https://www.ancient-origins.net/artifacts-other-artifacts/benin-bronzes-tragic-story-slavery-and-imperialism-cast-brass-008565> accessed 4th January 2019.

[7] K Wysocki Gunsch, The Benin Plaque: A 16th Century Imperial Monument (London: Routledge 2018) 15.

[8] K Wysocki Gunsch (n7) 5.

[9] K Wysocki Gunsch (n7) 18.

[10] J Greenfield (n1) 121.

[11] K Wysocki Gunsch (n7) 1.

[12] J Greenfield (n1) 121.

[13] K Wysocki Gunsch (n7) 28.

[14] K Wysocki Gunsch (n7) 29.

[15] K Wysocki Gunsch (n7) 19.

[16] British Museum Act 1963, s3(4).

[17] J Greenfield (n1) 99.

[18] British Museum Act 1963, S5(1)(c).

[19] J Greenfield (n1) 98.

[21] J Greenfield (n1) 122.

[22] K Wysocki Gunsch (n7).

[23] P Wood, ´ Display, Restitution and World Art History: The Case of the Benin Bronzes’ (2012) < https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14714787.2012.641854> accessed 4th January 2019.


Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have your work published on UKEssays.com then please: