‘Benin is a city of blood, its pits full of dead and dying; human sacrifices were strewn about on every hand, hardly a thing was without a red stain.’
That was how the Illustrated London News recorded the destruction of Benin City – in what is modern-day southern Nigeria – when, in 1897, a British naval expedition was raised to avenge the deaths of nine officers killed during a trade dispute between the king of Benin and Britain.
That dispute was, in turn, part of the wider 19th-century struggle between the European powers as they competed to carve up the riches of the African continent.
Britain sent a force of 500 men to destroy the city, with one eye-witness describing how the British troops turned their newly manufactured Maxim machine guns on the local defenders, who fell from the trees ‘like nuts’.
After ten days of fierce fighting, the British burnt down the palace and looted the royal treasures: delicate ivory carvings and magnificent copper alloy sculptures and plaques – now known as the Benin Bronzes.
Felix Roth was a medical officer with the British Army, and described the astonishing sight of these riches, which he witnessed as he entered the king’s compound, where human sacrifices had been performed by the locals.
‘On a raised platform or altar, running the whole breadth of each side, beautiful idols were found. All of them were caked over with human blood, and by giving them a slight tap, crusts of blood would, as it were, fly off.
‘Lying about were big bronze heads, dozens in a row, with holes at the top, in which immense ivory tusks were fixed. The whole place reeked of blood.’
Outside, ‘all about the houses and streets are dead natives, some crucified and sacrificed on streets’; the smell was ‘awful’. It was a gruesome scene. Roth reflected: ‘I suppose there is not another place on the face of the globe so near civilisation where such butcheries are carried on with impunity.’
The city of Benin had been the head of a medieval African kingdom, founded in the tenth century, while the bronzes were made between the 13th and the 17th centuries, during two artistic golden ages.
Their principal objective was to glorify the Oba – the divine king – and show the history of his imperial power. They provide an insight into a brutal but sophisticated culture, showing battles, scenes of court life, and rituals involving warriors and royalty.
After the sacking of Benin, the bronzes were taken by the British to pay for the expedition. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office sold them off, and around 900 ended up in the world’s greatest museums, including the British Museum, which has one of the largest sets.
One of them, a bronze cockerel, ended up being a permanent fixture in the dining hall at Jesus College, Cambridge.
And it is that particular artefact which is now at the centre of an almighty row. In a craven act, Jesus College has bowed to pressure from its students and removed the cockerel after protests that the sculpture is stolen property and celebrates a colonial past.