Upper II Alpha and the Benin Bronzes

Posted: 9th June 2022

Letters to the British Museum.

Mrs Cattigan, Form Teacher, Upper II Alpha, reports on Upper II Alpha’s recent study of the Kingdom of Benin:

‘During our study of the Kingdom of Benin, Upper II Alpha discovered that the ‘Benin Bronzes’, part of the cultural heritage of the people of the Kingdom of Benin, and Nigeria more broadly, were looted by the British in 1897 and now reside in museums around the world, with the largest collection in our very own British Museum. The girls felt compelled to write persuasive letters to the Board of Trustees at the British Museum to argue for the return of the bronzes to Nigeria. Their letters were well written, passionate – even indignant – and, importantly, informed by independent research. They are a gripping and powerful read…’

Six letters were chosen to represent the class and we are pleased to reproduce extracts below.

Noor summarised the situation in her introduction to her letter:  ‘I would like to inform you that the Benin Bronzes you have that have been finely crafted by the people of Benin many years ago, have still not been returned. This has led to the Oba of Benin requesting the stolen bronzes that belong to Nigeria. They have waited for the Benin artefacts to be returned so they can see their history and culture but the Bronzes are in the possession of The British Museum.’

Ariane had this to say, ‘My belief is that these Bronzes are an old symbol of Benin’s culture and history. If this is true, which I think we can all agree that it is, then why on earth are they displayed in the country that destroyed their original kingdom? You may think that it is a part of British history too, which it most definitely is, but it doesn’t show off Britain’s good side. It shows its war-starting, kingdom-ruining, dark side.

There are many articles which talk about the injustice of the Benin bronzes in Britain. For example, The Guardian’s article about Newcastle Museum which recently returned a bronze stave back to Nigeria. I can quote from this article, that “A Benin bronze in the collection of a Newcastle museum is to be proactively returned from Nigeria, the latest in a number of reparations that ratchet up pressure on the British Museum to follow suit.” This shows that people are finally realising that owning these Bronzes is not right. I believe, and so do many people, that you should do the same as Newcastle Museum.

Over 500 years ago, when Britain visited Benin, they did not believe that the Bronzes displayed in the Oba’s palace were made by the West Africans. They believed that they were gifts from European countries like Portugal or Spain. They could not understand that the Benin people had such talent. All the more reason to give them back. If we do end up giving them all back, you might believe that they will never be seen again. Which might happen, but they would want to keep them safe after the invasion. In fact, they might decide to make or give some bronzes or plaques to us to display in the British Museum.

Were you to do what is morally right, and return these stolen artefacts, it would seem that you were trying to renew the relationship you had with Benin, and righting the wrongs of our past. Imagine the impact this would have on the younger generation, and possibly generations to come, that the British Museum know how to acknowledge their mistakes, and return the Bronzes to their rightful owners. The people of Benin. Theft is wrong, and the time for being childish is over. This is a serious injustice of possession.

The British Museum is a key historical attraction that catches the eye of many tourists from near and far. This influential museum should represent the history of Britain, and not from other countries. In doing so, it would put people under the impression that we are proud of our heritage, and that we are ready to display it to the public.

Please do not underestimate the importance of returning these historical artefacts to where they belong. Thank you for taking the time to read this letter, and I hope that you consider all of my points carefully and thoughtfully.’

Arianna’s contribution was equally as powerful, ‘I am writing to demand the return of stolen Benin bronzes to Nigeria. In 1897 the Oba’s palace had been robbed of all value by Britain, many of which were the Benin bronzes held in the British Museum’s possession for many years as you would know. However, now Nigeria is asking for the Bronzes’ return and the British Museum has been reluctant to do so after many more attempts of asking. So, over 900 bronzes remain there. This is clearly not right.…

You may argue that the bronzes are indeed a part of British history, this is true, however we have no reason to be proud of such shameful actions. Britain should return these bronzes as a sign of respect, and as an apology for past actions.’

Luna had this to say, ‘As you know, a few of the Benin bronzes have been taken by Britain and while the world has been moving on, this dispute between Britain and Benin has not. The Benin Bronzes had been made for religious and spiritual purposes and by displaying them in the British Museum we are disrespecting their culture.

Undoubtedly, this is a part of British history but definitely not the part we should be proud of. These artefacts are not ours to display, they are not our property. We did not make them nor were we gifted them; we stole them. They were looted from Benin city in 1897. Britain has no right to profit from these objects that they don’t rightfully own.

Every child on earth knows that stealing is not respectable but suddenly fully grown adults are doing this to another country and displaying it in Britain’s most known museum. My question is; why is an adult stealing another’s property? How has the world come to this? A child being more mature than an adult?

These objects might not be as well told when they leave Britain you may say, but this decision should not be made by us. After all, did we make them? Did we create such wonderful plaques? I will leave you to figure out the answer and may that answer determine your decision. I do agree that it is your job as a museum to interpret finds but this ‘find’ is not a British find it is a British steal. I hope that you will realise the damage that you are causing by not returning Benin property.’

Tara had also researched the topic well, ‘I know that the artefacts are currently stored at your museum. I am guessing that people have spoken to you about this quite a lot but it really is that important. Refusing to give them back has not helped at all and has done nothing. These monuments belong to somebody and if somebody steals something from someone else then it has got to get back to its rightful owner.

I have learned lots about these Bronzes, I have read lots about people’s views on these bronzes and if they believe that it would be the correct decision to return them to their owners. We know very well that these valuable artefacts have a very long history and that they were created in Benin. And now they are here because they had been stolen, in other words looted. And we are supposed to do what is right but this, this is definitely not right at all. Of course, for a very long period of time, many people have visited The British Museum to see the Benin Bronzes and many other things. You might have attracted more people to come see them and you might also think that your museum is a great place to stow them and that is what you might think, but maybe think about Nigeria (now that Benin does not exist we know Benin is a part of Nigeria) and how they feel about this. They feel disappointed for not having them back and very desperately want them returned. Try following Germany’s lead as we know they have recently actually agreed to give back the Bronzes as they probably understood how Nigeria was feeling, and from wanting to give them back, they understood the difference between right and wrong.

Imagine England having war and soldiers stealing our belongings that are very precious to us and us being left with nothing. Think about how you would feel. Probably the same way the Nigerians are feeling right now at this moment. This is like stealing pages of their history. We cannot ignore Nigeria’s feelings and what they say. Just think about them for one moment of your life and try to make their lives happy by doing a good deed which is to take back what England had done to them and be happy for what we have already. Try resisting feeling jealous of their skills and what they have created because yes, they are amazing but we cannot just take them, we need to ask them politely not politely refuse to give them back. …’

Sophia concludes, ‘I’m writing to you today to explain my opinion towards this terrible issue, towards the ongoing debate on whether you should return the Benin Bronzes back to Nigeria, and to finally put this problem to a close. I know you’re extremely tired of hearing this, but this is a serious issue that has to be discussed fairly and will one day or another have to be solved and returned back to the Nigerian citizens.

… I believe that the Benin Bronzes should be returned to Nigeria as they rightfully belong to the people of Nigeria. These Bronzes do have a lot of value here in The British Museum, but they will never hold sentimental value, in the same way they do to the people of Nigeria. Furthermore, the artefacts were stolen by the 1,500 invading soldiers armed with the latest Maxim guns during their punitive raid in 1897 against the innocent Nigerians who were just protecting what’s rightfully theirs…. Many other European countries have started to see what they have done wrong towards Nigerian people, and have come to a conclusion that they will finally return the Benin Bronzes. An example of this is Germany, with the second-largest amount of Benin artefacts, has ended their years of pressure and announced last year on the 2nd August 2021 that they promised to return the 1,200 objects they had looted from Benin. From one little difference, France’s president Emmanuel Macron has been inspired to do the exact same thing as soon as possible. I believe that it’s Britain’s turn to take action…. To conclude, I do hope reading this letter has made you consider in greater depth to think more about everything that has happened in the past and you are now willing to make a huge bright impact on the upcoming future.’


Categories: Junior Priory Post Whole School