Benin bronzes

The Benin Bronzes, British Museum

Last weekend I went on a guided walk with Black History Walks. These guys run several tours around London, from Elephant and Castle to St Paul’s, each taking around two hours. I did the Secrets of Soho walk (though most of it is actually in Bloomsbury, finishing at Soho Square). There is so much forgotten and hidden black history around this area which neither I nor anyone in our group knew about. I don’t want to give a minute by minute account of the tour, as if this subject you I would highly recommend you do one of these tours yourself, but I’ve picked out a couple of my highlights. I have done some extra research around the topics we discussed on the tour so some extra information is included below.

In the photo above you can see the Benin Bronzes which are on display at the British Museum. Like many other exhibits, the method in which these bronzes were acquired is characteristic of many controversial trophies housed within the walls of the museum. In 1897 British forces were sent on a punitive mission to Benin City. What began as an argument over customs duties (British traders did not want to pay them) ended in the sacking and destruction of Benin.

As our guide described it to us, imagine showing up at Buckingham Palace unannounced and demanding to see the Queen. Then, if you were asked to come back the following week, attacking the palace. In this situation, the vice consul general James Philips took some British officials and translators from the port of Sapele and set off for Benin. They sent word of their intended visit but were asked to delay their journey as their timing was poor: there were sacred rituals taking place in the city, during which time no foreigner was allowed to set foot within its walls. In typical British imperial style, this warning was ignored and as they reached the south of the city they met an Oba warrior ambush, only two men surviving the massacre. The subsequent ‘naval punitive expedition’ led to the destruction of the city and the exile of its king.

The Benin Bronzes are comprised of over a thousand metal plaques and originally decorated the royal palace of Benin. They date back to the thirteenth century but now are held by various institutions around Europe and the US, most famously over two hundred pieces within the walls of the British Museum. Many of them pre-date contact with European traders and so are regarded as high quality examples of the expertise of an indigenous culture. The Benin Expedition brought back these treasures and changed the European perception of African art as being primitive and pagan.

Today there is a collection of bronzes Nigeria again, though still controversial. Since independence in 1960, Nigeria has asked on several occasions for the return of these priceless artefacts (in a debate similar to that better known over the Parthenon marbles). Between 1950 and 1872 the British Museum sold back to Nigeria a small number of the bronzes.

Imperial htl

Imperial Hotel, Russell Square

While there was never a legal colour bar in the UK, the truth is that many non-whites were discriminated against in the past. Back in 1943 the West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine (1901-1971) was due to play in a charity cricket match at Lord’s. He booked rooms for his family to stay at the Imperial Hotel, London for four nights. After previous bad experiences, he made sure to mention when booking that he was black. Nevertheless, when he arrived he was told that his family could only stay for the one night as there had been a complaint by some white US servicemen who were staying at the hotel. Constantine was furious and, since there was no legal recourse against racial discrimination at the time, he took the hotel to court for breach of contract, since they had no just cause to refuse him accommodation.

The hotel claimed that since they had found an alternative hotel for the Constantines that they had fulfilled their duty. This was rejected by the court and, although the damages awarded were only five guineas, the moral victory had been won. This case did not end the colour bar that existed in many establishments, but it was seen as a milestone on the way to the Race Relations Act which was finally passed in 1965.

Constantine didn’t stop there. In 1947 he became chairman of the League of Coloured Peoples, and he wrote a book, Colour Bar, which was published in 1954. This book was taken all the more seriously as its author was not a militant campaigner, but rather a man who fitted in with British society and its values. It wasn’t as hard-hitting as other books on black oppression but he had aimed it more at a white audience, as an educational tool.

In 1954 he also returned to his home country of Trinidad and became involved in paving the way for independence from Britain. He returned to London in 1961 as High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago. The following year he was knighted and in 1969 was awarded a life peerage and became the first black man to sit in the House of Lords.

I have picked out the Benin Bronzes and Laurie Constantine as particular highlights as I was completely ignorant of their existence before doing this tour. It was shocking to learn so much about a city that I have lived in for a decade. We also talked about famous black women, Mary Prince and Mary Seacole in particular, but these Victorian women are better known than many of those who fought for justice in the twentieth century.

Another point of interest from the tour group came when our guide asked a couple of younger members what their schools did for Black History Month. One girl, American, listed off organised activities, competitions etc, Both British girls said that their schools did nothing, even one with a black head teacher. Black history is barely taught in schools these days as it is not really on the curriculum (apart from Mary Seacole I believe). While it is fantastic that organisations like Black History Walks exist, we should not have to rely on them for our own history. I for one intend to get more involved in BHM this year (October).


Black History Walks – £8 adults, £3 child.

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