Following the British occupation of Benin City (Edo) in 1897 objects made of brass, ivory and wood were looted by British forces from the royal palace, its storerooms and compounds. Some of these objects were sold or exchanged on the coast. However, many were brought to the UK where they were sold through private auction, donated to museums, or retained by soldiers of the expedition. The British Museum successfully petitioned the government to secure some of the relief plaques and over 300 were sent to the UK by the Consul-General [Sir] Ralph Moor and placed at the Foreign Office. During the summer of 1897 the Crown Agents for the Colonies, on behalf of the Foreign Office, agreed a temporary loan of 304 plaques to the British Museum. In September these were placed on public display in the Assyrian basement where they attracted considerable public attention. The Museum initially received 203 of these plaques as a gift from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In the summer of 1898 a further eleven plaques were sent to the British Museum from the Foreign Office and three of these were selected by the Museum and were subsequently presented as a gift. Of the remaining plaques the Foreign Office retained eight and the rest were offered for sale to major museums, collectors and private dealers in Europe and the UK. Today over nine hundred plaques are known to exist in museums and private collections around the world. See Collection File: Af1898,0115.1-203 (previously Eth.Doc.185).
Relief plaque, lost-wax cast in brass. Wide plaque, rectangular in form with side flanges. Background surface decorated with river leaf patterns and stippling. Three nail holes at top right, left and centre; three holes at bottom right, left and centre. Depicts two standing figures, facing front. Figure on right holds out left hand toward flanking figure. Has side plaits terminating in beads. Wears beaded cap with oro protrusion and feather at left side, deep beaded collar, chain with bells (?) around neck, beaded sash across chest, bracelets and beaded anklets, and patterned wrap-around skirt. ?Emada figure on left holds netted calabash rattle in both hands. Has tiered hairstyle with plaits terminating in beads at sides of face. Wears short beaded collar, beaded necklace, and bracelets. Lower legs decorated with geometric patterns.
The relief brass plaques that used to decorate the Oba's (king's) palace are among the most well-known of all the royal arts of Benin. Although frequently described as 'Benin Bronzes' most plaques are made of leaded brass in various compositions. It is widely accepted that they date to the 16th-17th centuries. In the years prior to the British Expedition royal influence in Benin was increasingly under threat from rival powers, both internal and external, with a focus on economic power and control of the important trading monopolies. However, the court and palace remained the political and spiritual centre of the Benin Kingdom. Earlier accounts written by Europeans visiting the city describe its size and scale. The palace complex was set up around atrium courtyards; some had galleries with wooden pillars supporting the roof. Brass plaques, probably made in matching pairs, were fixed to these pillars. The Benin brass plaques represent a distinct and unique corpus of work, unparalleled elsewhere on the continent. They are cast using the cire perdue (lost wax) technique and show significant variation in the depth of the relief. Some of the plaques portray historical events or commemorate successful wars, while others are a vivid depiction of Benin court life and ritual. Several groups of plaques show clear stylistic similarities. William B. Fagg suggested that these plaques represent the work of master brass casters. Fagg, William, 1973, 'Nigerian Images', London: Lund Humphries Gunsch, Kathryn, 2018, 'Benin plaques: a 16th century imperial monument', London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group ~Blurton, 1997 Brass was intimately associated with kingship in the Benin empire and plaques, cast by the lost-wax process, were used to cover the wooden beams that supported the roof in the royal palace, the centre of religious activities that controlled the well-being of the entire empire. Those seen here show scenes of court life and ritual which involve rulers, warriors and officials. Naked figures are royal pages, their nudity contrasting with the splendid cloth and coral-bead costumes of royalty. Depictions of the European adventurers and traders, who sold the metal from which the plaques were cast, also appear and local interest centred on their long hair, hooked noses, dress and weapons. Since they were seen as messengers of the god Olokun, a white-faced deity who sends wealth and children over the sea, their presence in the palace is probably less a celebration of their own wealth and power than those of the Oba (king), who is said to have defeated Olokun in battle, stripping him of his riches and finery.
Exhibited: 1970-1973, London, Museum of Mankind, Divine Kingship in Africa 1997 13 Oct-1998 5 Jan, India, New Delhi, National Museum, The Enduring Image 1998 9 Feb-3 May, India, Mumbai, Sir Caswasjee Jahangir Hall, The Enduring Image 2003, Apr-Sep, BM, 'Museum of the Mind: Art and Memory in World Cultures' 2003, BM, The Museum of the Mind: Art and Memory in World Cultures