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Hey, and welcome to the ShortStuff. I'm Josh. Chuck's here, too. Jerry's here, too. Dave's not, but you know the jam, and this is ShortStuff.


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. Well, actually, it's still 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 oba, obia, or a new queen mother ascended to the throne, when there was some important event or even something that they just wanted to chronicle, they would make these plaques, these incredibly intricate, well-made bronze 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, and so much so that it became essentially considered a cultural legacy of the world, but in particular, of Benin in West Africa.


Yeah, absolutely. Boy, what a set up. Thanks.


I've been practicing it for eight days.


You 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 it's 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 the story here, is their contact with Europeans in Europe, in these countries, the first of which was the Portuguese, when they started trading and having diplomatic contacts and relations with Portugal. So they were the first on board. They would send emissaries back and forth between Portugal and Benin, and they negotiated their deal, their trade deal, their how they were going to work together as people. And that's where Europe enters the picture, basically, as far as Benin is concerned.


Yeah, and it was just the Portuguese at first. I don't know if you said it or not, but starting in the 15th century, they made contact and were 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, who wants to buy our stuff and whose stuff can we buy?


Or take.


Yeah, exactly. They were very quickly followed by the French, the Dutch, the English, and Benin's 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 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 European. And so they became very, very powerful. And that's how things went for a couple of centuries, they became really involved in the West African slave trade. 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 industrialization started to really take hold in Europe, particularly in the UK, the great Britain became 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 interior.


Why should they have a middleman? And so they started to antagonize Benin, and things just went south from there.


It's a little early, but I think we should take a break because it's such a good cliffhanger.


Wow. Thanks, man.


All right.


We'll be right back.


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All right, so when we left off, Great Britain was like, Hey, you know what? We don't need this gatekeeper anymore. We don't need a middleman. We want to be able to do what we want in Africa, in Central Africa, not go through Benin. In 1897, 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 and they were attacked when they were on their way to Benin City. This really changed everything. There were seven British delegates who died in this attack. I think 230 of the African carriers died. But as far as Britain was concerned, it's on now because seven of us are dead. And that triggered a full scale retaliatory military assault and expedition on Benin, which, of course, was no match at all for the British forces at the time.


Yeah, no. It was something that Great Britain could point to and just be like, Oh, look, we don't have any moral quandary anymore. We can go take over Benin now, as 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 pillaged, and this is really critical, this is the point of this short stuff. They pillaged stuff they found, treasures they found in 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 term, it's like an umbrella term to describe a whole group of artworks that were created in the Kingdom of Benin from about at least the 15th century 15th century, up until the 19th century, although they seem to have been creating pretty great artworks even before that 15th century, like in the medieval era. But it could be made of ivory, it could be made of brass, it could be made of bronze, all sorts of different media, and 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 10,000 pieces of art and cultural artifacts were pillaged during this occupation by the British of Benin.


Yeah, and a lot of that went back to the UK. 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 removed Benin as that gatekeeper. And all of a sudden, Central Africa was open for all of Europe to trade with, certainly England. And these artifacts ended up 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?


Yeah. The two largest collections are held by the British Museum and the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin. And even though that umbrella term, Benin Bronze, refers to a lot of different artworks, typically, you're also really talking about those plaques that show different obas ascending to the throne, different moments in Benin history. And they're considered, 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 estimation estimated $130 billion. They are priceless. I guess not priceless, they're worth $130 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 Emmanuel Macron in 2017 that estimated that 90 to 95 % of Africa's cultural heritage is held by major museums outside of Africa because of something called the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th 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 Europe, and it's still in these museums.


Yeah, and this is something we've talked about before in some other art podcasts. Part of that 2017 study, the whole point of that was repatriation, was getting this art back into the hands of the countries of origin, these stolen artifacts. Emmanuel Macron said, You know what? Over the next five years, we're going to return the stuff that we have. Germany got involved, the Smithsonian, like individual museums, the Smithsonian and the Met all have said, All right, we need to start returning these looted art pieces, especially these, or not especially, but for this episode, notably these bronze plaques from Nigeria. And so Nigeria is getting so much stuff back that next year, I don't know if it's still on track, but in 2025, they are opening the Edo Museum of West African Art because they finally have art again.


Yeah, there's a sculptor from Nigeria called Ahon Hazo Glale. He's a sculptor and said that there's an artistic awakening in Nigeria because of the return of these bronzes.


Yeah, but I think this one in particular comes with a little bit of controversy, right? Because the current Oba Is that right? Yes. His Royal Majesty Oba Uwar II?


I'm going with Uwarre.


Uwarre II, okay. Legally speaking, is the rightful owner of these bronzes, but in 2023, Muhammadu Bahari, who was the outgoing President, said, Any of this looted stuff that comes back to the oba belongs to the oba and the palace of the oba, and no one can do anything with it unless the Oba says so.


Yeah, and if you are in Nigeria, and like Benin, it's just a Department. We said, it's not considered an independent nation state or even kingdom, I guess. It's part of Nigeria, but it's like the Oba has a government advisory role to the Nigerian government. They're viewed legitimately in similar lines to the way the... Man, somebody's going to kill us for this. I'll bet But the royal family is in Great Britain. They don't actually rule Great Britain, but they're still consulted on things. They still have some cultural importance as well. That's the impression that I have there. But so the Nigerian President doing that makes total sense in Nigeria. It was the Kingdom of Benin's to begin with. The Kingdom of Benin is still there. The Oba is the leader of the Kingdom of Benin and an ancestor or 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.


Yeah. I mean, there's definitely been some complaints from these Western museums who are like, I don't know about returning all this stuff and having it just be claimed by the palace. And apparently, the museum director there, Philip Ihinako, is how I'm going to pronounce it, although I have a feeling that I might be silent, said, You know what? You don't really get a say in this anymore. You can't loot this stuff over a long period of time, and then, A, expect it to be handled like you want or handled perfectly in a quick manner. Right.


And so, yeah, the West is like, Okay, we agreed 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 cultural legacy of humanity is privately owned by one person, the Oba of Benin.


I mean, is it the complaint that it's not going to be or not necessarily going to be on display?


I don't know, because they built the Museum West African Art. So I don't know that that's it. I imagine a lot of it will go in there. 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 the keeper of that. They protected, they keep it safe, they show you this stuff. They put it on display. This is like, no, these things belong to the oba. He can do whatever he wants with them, essentially.


Okay. So they're afraid it's just going to be like, decorate the bathroom or something? 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's like, Well, West needs to butt out of it and just give us our plaques back. It's tough to discount his thoughts, too. Have you got anything else?


I got nothing else.


If you want to know more about the Benin bronzes, go look them up online. They're really fascinating and beautiful. Since I said that, ShortStuff's out. Stuff You Should Know is a production of iHeartRadio.


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