The purloining of Benin’s magnificent treasures may have begun with the long ago British so-called punitive expedition which resulted in the looting of the palace of King Ovonramwen. But it didn’t end there. It continues still. So, I am here to confess to my own culpability. Twenty years ago, I stole away your most beautiful modern treasure, my beloved wife, Arese. What a great honour it is to be with her here today in the city of her royal ancestors.
There was a time when Europeans marvelled at what they referred to as Great Benin. Travellers returned home, each outdoing his predecessor, with tales of an African Kingdom the equal of their own royal courts in organisation and administration. Its treasures and artistic masterpieces were widely envied. Then, in 1897, came what the pages of the London Times proclaimed as the “Benin Disaster” leading to the sending out of that punitive expedition to avenge the deaths of members of a British delegation allegedly at the orders of local officials. It resulted in the overthrow and exile of the Oba and the looting of his palace. While intricately carved Benin Ivories had been known to Europeans for three centuries, the hitherto carefully guarded Bronzes, became, at the dawn of the colonial scramble for Africa, stolen booty, spoils of war triumphantly displayed for the first time on foreign shores.
That the “dark continent” could have produced such great art, in the words of a BBC documentary, “changed European understanding of African history.” But many who should have known better were discombobulated. The curator of British Museum, at the time, declared:
“It needs scarcely be said that at the first sight of these remarkable works of art, we were at once astounded at such an unexpected find, and puzzled to account for so highly developed an art among a race so entirely barbarous.”
“Barbarous!” that is what they thought all black people to be.
And so it has ever been. Whether discussing African art or ancient ruins like Great Zimbabwe, they fantasised that they must have been copied or inspired by artisans of lighter hue (meaning their fellow Europeans) or even aliens from another planet. Anybody but black people! It was greatly satisfying to me when a friend of mine, the African art expert, Warren Robbins, opened an exhibition in Washington, a few years ago, demonstrating that several modern art masters such as Picasso were in fact heavily influenced by (or even copied) the traditional art of many African societies.
When I was a young boy growing up in the United States, I knew nothing about the Bronzes of Benin or of any other art and cultural achievements of the people of the continent of my ancestors. Indeed, I had no idea of how little I knew.
How could it have been otherwise in the Nineteen Forties? In the age before television, we got our images of the world mostly from the movies. Africa existed on the screen only as a place where Tarzan and Jungle Jim heroically bore the white man’s burden. Tarzan’s pet ape was portrayed more sympathetically than most of Africans, who were seen as little more than benighted savages. In secondary school, when Africa was mentioned at all in geography studies, it was not done in a way that instilled pride in the heart of the only black student in the class.
As the storm clouds gathered, portending another great war in Europe, the parents of my five cousins, four of whom were born in Lagos, decided to return to the US. That decision was to have a profound impact on my life. My aunt had accompanied her husband to Nigeria a decade earlier when he took up a job with the Government Department of Railways, as the Nigerian Railway Corporation was then called.
My cousins were only a few years older than I. The two boys took great delight, when I would visit them in Brooklyn, New York, in telling me tales of fighting lions and tigers in Lagos. It would not be for many years before I would learn that there were no tigers in Africa nor lions prowling the streets of Lagos. But I would soon learn other lessons in Brooklyn more relevant to the reality of Africa.
I was a high school student when World War II ended and the fight for independence from colonial rule began. Delegations from Nigeria arrived to present their country’s case to the United Nations. A number of the delegates would stop over at the home of their friend and my uncle, Edward Kelly. I was fortunate to meet some of them on the occasions when their visits coincided with my vacations. I met some of this country’s founding fathers and was fascinated by the political discussions I overheard. Thus, did Nigeria become the first foreign country with which I felt any affinity. But a century before I was born, the kinship with Africa, and especially with Nigeria, was being rekindled by blacks in America.
Despairing that the kidnapped and enslaved sons and daughters of Africa could ever be accorded dignity in the land of their captivity, schemes were developed to recolonise them in Liberia. But these plans hatched by whites were largely opposed by a highly educated group of free blacks. Most prominent among them was Dr. Martin R. Delany, the father of Black Nationalism in America.
Delany preached race pride in an age when black was considered anything but beautiful and the black race, worldwide, was held mentally and morally inferior to all others. Frederick Douglass, arguably the most consequential black leader in American history said of him:
“I have always thanked God for making me a man, but Martin Delany always thanked God for making him a black man.”
Delany saw blacks in the US as “a broken nation” – a nation within a nation as the Poles in Russia, the Hungarians in Austria, and the Welsh, Irish and Scots in Britain. “The claims of no people,” he argued, “are respected by any nation, until they are presented in a national capacity…”
Delany disparaged the Liberian experiment of the American Colonisation Society, dismissing it as “not independent – but a poor mockery – a burlesque on government.” He wished instead to see a great state built in Africa, “a nation, to whom all the world must pay commercial tribute.” To this end, hoping to find such a state to which black Americans could emigrate, Delany led an exploring party in 1859-1860 to what is now Nigeria, characteristically sailing aboard a ship owned by three African merchants.
His one-year stay resulted in the signing of agreements with Egba Chiefs in what is now Ogun State giving their American cousins the right to settle in their areas.
The agreements were never followed up because the Civil War broke out just as Delany returned to the US. He put aside his emigration schemes and joined the Union Army to fight for the freedom of his people.
How prescient it was of Martin Delany to have come to Nigeria in search of a black nation that could become so great that “all the world must pay (it) commercial tribute.” Sadly, his dream of a century and a half ago has yet to be realised. Africa continues to be marginalised on the world stage. Despite all our sloganeering of “Africa Rising” this continent, in spite of its vast natural resources, remains the least respected in the world. But more of that later.
When Delany declared that “the claims of no people,” are respected by any nation, until they are presented in a national capacity…”, he was, of course, speaking of the claims of the black race. The colonial scramble for Africa began soon after, leaving only the weak states of Haiti, Liberia and Ethiopia nominally in charge of their national destinies.
When, at last, the colonial yoke began to be loosened and then thrown off, blacks in the African Diaspora joined those in the motherland in joyful celebration. In the US for the first time, we felt that we had, in the new black ruled countries, powerful allies on our side as we fought for our full civil rights. From the Nineteen Fifties onward, that alliance has remained strong. During the Cold War, mistreatment of blacks especially in the American South became a foreign policy embarrassment for the US. African leaders and diplomats raised the issue with top American officials and before the UN. Here, in Nigeria, the press continued to highlight every instance of racial discord.