The Brutish Museums presents a powerful case for restitution of looted objects, and hostile responses to it highlight enduring attachments to imperialism, argues Dominic Alexander
Colonialism is in no way safely in the past, merely because national liberation movements won formal independence from the 1950s onwards. The hierarchy of economic and political power in the world means that history is entirely a part of present reality. Some of the responses to Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, wish to insist otherwise. At best, these imagine that museums can be detached from their ‘colonial preconditions’, as Tristram Hunt has put it, and presented as ‘a way of celebrating a world culture’. There has been a good deal of positive reaction to the book, but those who have objected reveal, despite themselves, the validity and importance of the arguments that Hicks has made.
Museums across the Western world are filled with objects obtained through colonial violence and destruction, and, therefore need to begin ‘meaningful action towards cultural restitution, informed by the understanding that the violence is not some past act … but an ongoing event’ (p.xiv). Dan Hicks is a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which houses very many of the looted objects, so the argument is directed towards fundamental change in his own field.
The central focus is on the Benin bronzes and other treasures taken by British troops after the 1897 sack of the centuries-old city of Benin, in present day Nigeria. In the region of ten thousand bronzes, ivory, and other material were taken, and dispersed to a variety of collections, both private and public (p.137). Contrary to imperial myth, there was nothing controlled about this, it was a matter of uncontrolled plunder. The destruction of a civilisation led to its sacred objects being exhibited in the country of the invader in conscious demonstration of cultural and racial superiority. For Hicks, this is not a history that can be shrugged off, and papered over with some ‘multicultural’ re-branding by the contemporary advocates of the ‘universal museum’.
As well as providing a critical look at the events of 1897 in the context of Britain’s racism and imperialism, the book also critically examines anthropological theory and the museum world’s self-understanding, coming to the conclusion that restitution is the only way forward. At the same time, Hicks warns that ‘a new enthusiasm for “decolonisation”, in word if not in deed’ does not mean ‘some sudden enlightenment to the intertwined history of anthropology and empire, or to the processes of institutional racism’, and entails a range of dangers, including ‘tokenism’ and the ‘co-option of activists’ (p.9).
A nineteenth-century war on terror
There is a sense in which Hicks doesn’t quite spell out precisely what it will take to re-make museums, even though the programme of restitution is clearly the starting point. The implications of the book’s argument do, however, point to the need for a wider anti-imperialist movement as the context for any resolution. One of the declared purposes of the book is indeed ‘to reveal the intimate links of the narrative of the so-called “universal museum” with enduring processes of militarist-corporate colonialism in 21st-century global capitalism’ (p.16). Hicks is concerned, in the chapters on the 1897 destruction of Benin city, to detail the context and unfolding of events, but points towards how imperialist ideological justifications that were used then reveal many parallels with our own time.
The British attack on Benin city was not an isolated event, but the culmination of what was a larger, deliberate campaign to destroy independent powers in the region. One figure, known as King Jaga, ruled the trading city Opobo, developing ‘a powerful network of palm oil trading houses along the Niger River, even shipping palm oil directly to Liverpool independently of British companies’ (p.65). However, following a trade dispute, the British Protectorate authorities captured him by deceit, then convicted and exiled him in 1887. By the 1890s there was a growing tide of ‘punitive expeditions of the Niger Coast Protectorate and Royal Niger Company in facilitating commercial operations on the Niger Delta’ (p.69). This was at a time where murderous colonial violence by the British in many parts of Africa was increasing.
The stated justifications for all this are striking. Another figure, Chief Nana Olomu was actually made a governor of Benin River by the British in 1884, but found himself on the wrong side of the colonial authorities by 1894. One official reported that Nana ‘has been accustomed for many years past to rule the river by terrorism’ (p.71). The problem was that Nana had objected to the price he was being offered for palm oil, and so closed the river to trade with the British.
This ‘rule of terror’, as another colonial official also called it, was overcome by several British naval expeditions which razed villages and deliberately targeted civilians. On one occasion, a gun boat fired, rockers, machine guns and volleys ‘into the bush during a journey of two hours’ towards a town which was ‘understood’ to be supportive of Nana. The town was ‘destroyed by fire’, according to the expedition’s own report, which noted that a series of other villages had also been destroyed. Hicks leaves his readers to make own comparisons, but does title a central chapter on the war against Benin city the ‘War on Terror’ (p.99).
Once the British had destroyed other figures who had some independent economic and political standing in the region, they were in a position to attack the power that remained aloof from British influence, and stood in the way of imposing colonial rule more widely. This was the city of Benin, a kingdom which had its origins possibly as early as the eleventh century, which boasted an ‘immense ancient monumental network of sacred earthworks (iya), comprising ditches, banks, and causeways’ (p.129). The earthworks were in fact colossal in scale, built over some centuries, and have invited comparisons with the Great Wall of China. The sophistication of this polity was clear to the Portuguese, one commenting in 1691 that the city ‘is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown’.i
Defending the indefensible
The reactionary responses to Hicks’ argument, when discussing Benin, focus narrowly on the incident which provided a pretext for the British attack, except where they echo the original propaganda points, for example linking the city to the European slave trade. This rhetorical stance is a staple of pro-imperialist arguments then as now; the enemy country is demonised according to whatever oppressive or exploitative practices can be identified. However, the point was not then, and has not ever been, about the unblemished virtue of the victims of imperialism, whose own crimes against humanity never seem to be factored into the interventionists’ case.
The attempted rebuttals of The Brutish Museums over the attack on Benin are therefore in obvious bad faith. Even so, they fail on their own account because they ignore the pattern of British aggression against all indigenous authorities, even those they had previously encouraged, in their stage-by-stage reduction of the region to colonial control. Hicks provides detailed documentary evidence that there had already been discussions between British ministries and colonial authorities about finding a way to destroy Benin. This was well before the provocative mission of a handful of British officers, which violated a religious period, to try to force an audience with the Oba of Benin.
The British received several warnings against attempting this move, including from Africans friendly to them, but they were ignored. The expedition was inevitably attacked, and the British therefore proclaimed it a ‘massacre’, justifying the assault which was to destroy the city entirely, killing unknown, but clearly very large numbers of people. The reason it is only possible to make guestimates of the numbers slaughtered by the British is that, to borrow the words of later imperialists, they didn’t do body counts.
The assault on Benin city was wrapped in a propaganda campaign calling it a ‘city of blood’, along with a litany of ‘gothic schlock-horror’ of the practices in which the Oba supposedly engaged.ii Yet these atrocity tales accompanied an established pattern of escalating violence by Protectorate and Company forces against their targets, more usually than not civilians. The British narrative was that refugees from the destruction inflicted on villages were in fact beneficiaries of British actions ‘freeing of enslaved people, and the end of a regime of terror’ (p.74). The expedition against Benin itself was framed in terms of ‘punishment’ of the ruler, but the measures taken were indiscriminate and designed to inflict the maximum of death and destruction on the whole population. The orders for one part of the force,
‘were “to destroy all towns” on their routes along the river, bombarding them from the ships and burning them to the ground, including the “wholesale destruction” of the Jakri town of Ologbo and trading settlements as well as scores of other towns and villages’ (p.111).
British soldiers were also, by their own account, experimenting with expanding bullets, ‘which cause a more extensive wound when hitting a human target’ (p.123), further revealing the ‘democidal’ intent of the whole action. The scale of the killing, despite the dearth of any estimation in colonial documentation, can be measured in the absences, which reveal:
‘the sustained silence in both official and informal documentation of any prisoners of war, or any injured African casualties, or of the spread and effect of disease, or of any hospital operations for Africans of any kind, or of hunger or starvation after environmental destruction’ (p.125).
This is what Hicks means by ‘democide’; the object was to kill as many people as possible.
War crimes then as now
There are often appeals to the ‘standards of the time’ in defence of colonial actions, but Hicks shows that these arguments fail the first test, since the atrocities that were committed were clearly seen as reprehensible by contemporaries. The 1874 Brussels Declaration, unratified by Britain, nonetheless set a standard explicitly forbidding:
‘“the employment of arms, projectiles or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering”, the bombardment of towns and villages, attacks on defended settlements without warning, any failure in “sparing of buildings dedicated to art”, “any destruction or seizure of the enemy’s property that is not imperatively demanded by the necessity of war”, and “the giving over of a town taken by assault to pillage by the victorious troops”’ (p.113).
Hicks demonstrates that all of these actions were carried out by the Benin expedition. Furthermore, they violated the key principles of the Hague Convention of 1899, to which Britain became a signatory, only two years after the atrocities in Benin.
The culminating act in the sack of Benin was the looting of vast quantities of treasures, which contrary to imperial mythology, was not done in any official way, even to defray the costs of the expedition, but was plunder later sold off largely by individual officers for their own enrichment. The ‘Benin Bronzes’, ivory, and other objects came into the hands of various institutions and private collections across the Western world, so that the complicity of museums in this racist imperial project was built in right at the start.
Hicks lists a large number of recent examples from museum and academic accounts that all retain a ‘framing’ of the destruction of Benin as punishment for the Oba’s ‘rule of terror’, while ignoring the scale and context of British violence. There remains, therefore, a strong continuity between museums’ present and the violence of the past. Hicks argues that to counteract this, the Benin treasures need to be the subject of a new archaeological practice, ‘digging where you stand’ (see p.xii), to reveal the facts of their provenance and current whereabouts. Much of this is, in fact, unknown:
‘Why are the facts so vague? It was the sheer force with which Benin City was destroyed, the ultraviolence with which the town and its wider landscape were decimated, a culture attacked with the intention of the erasure of one form of sovereignty and its replacement with colonial governance, that led to this scattering, this fragmentation. But the role of the market was and is also a central driver. The annihilation … was a new but coherent next step in the growing momentum of corporate-militarist colonialism’ (p.149).
Hicks continues, arguing ‘how every day that our museums open their doors to re-tell the story of the punitive expedition with the loot that was taken, this loss is re-enacted, and thus re-doubled and extended across time and space.’ Moreover, the racist version of cultural evolutionism, in which anthropological museums originally engaged, is not easily erased by latter day application of multicultural rhetorical gloss. A more fundamental transformation is needed.
There is another aspect of the role of museums that Hicks does not discuss, but which seems to be an essential corollary to their role in perpetuating colonial subjugation, which is the ideological role they play for the population in the imperial centres. The attack on Benin was justified through propaganda, as was imperialism in general, precisely because the reality of predatory colonial violence would have shocked many people at home. The racist narratives presented in the museums strengthened this work, and continued very effectively as symbols of Britain’s superiority and justifiable imperial might. Hicks insists that museum collections remain a continuous re-enactment of the original colonial violence, partly by reference to the continuing global structure of inequality and imperialism. The reality of this structural position could be brought further into focus if museums’ ideological role in maintaining the legitimacy of imperialism in the metropole was given more explicit weight.
The reality of this role explains the vitriolic reaction to The Brutish Museums in some quarters. A sanitised history of empire, and the need for the West to be seen as always acting in good faith, according to much-vaunted ‘Western values’, remains crucial for imperialism. Attachment to this agenda certainly seems to lie behind some liberal attempts to reject restitution as a way forward, in preference for the abstract notion of the ‘universal museum’. Tristram Hunt, for example, seeks to place himself in the position of the reasonable moderate in the face of ‘imperial nostalgia’ on the one hand and ‘histrionic’ left-wing activists on the other.
He further castigates the left, selectively quoting Hicks from the preface to Brutish Museums (pp.xiii-xiv), as wishing to ‘dismantle public collections as part of a political reckoning with patriarchy, racial inequity and social injustice.’ This notion of ‘dismantling’ museums is a rhetorical red-herring (p.232), as Hunt should know full well; a major theme in Hicks’ argument is that museums actually know relatively little about their own collections, some of which remains even uncatalogued. Considerable restitution could be made without it being an existential threat to museums, and if the priority is the abstract notion of the ‘universal museum’, then why not co-operate with the creation of such institutions in places like Nigeria? Hicks notes that the ‘idea that Africans are incapable of caring for their own cultural heritage … is still, incredibly, heard from senior British museum professionals and politicians’ (p.233).
Rejecting restitution, Hunt prefers to argue that there should be a ‘more nuanced understanding of empire,’ rather than ‘the politically driven pathways of Good or Bad. For alongside colonial violence, empire was also a story of cosmopolitanism and hybridity.’ Well, that’s all right, then, there’s no need to take into account structures of power and exploitation in the present; that would be to go ‘along a path of total restitution, dictated by a political timetable.’ It seems that museums (apparently only in the West) can ‘position objects beyond particular cultural or ethnic identities’. Hunt’s argument here depends upon imagining that imperialism remains safely bounded in the past, and that the ’universal museum’, situated in imperialist nations, is the best place for an ‘objective’ reckoning, ‘while allowing free and open access’, but apparently not for those who live in the looted objects’ countries of origin.
Yet, Hunt tips his hand very clearly when referencing a New York group making links between decolonising museums and the Palestine issue, implying (‘Curiously, yet tellingly’), that there is something deeply untoward about raising such a connection. For Hunt, it is only just about possible to consider imperialism, with due impartiality, when it safely in the past. A present-day issue of settler-colonialism, supported by Western imperialist powers, is clearly beyond the pale.
In itself, restitution of stolen objects can only have a limited role in addressing the past and present of imperialism. It is even possible for someone like President Macron to have announced a programme of restitution in 2017 (p.232), and German museums have already returned some of the Benin bronzes. Yet in Britain, a chorus of opinion from liberals to reactionaries find ways to reject this feasible project. In their objections, they reveal in fact their own attachment to the existence of general structures of racism and imperialism, and the ideological role museums have in teaching people in this country to remain loyal to the present order.
i Max Siollun, What Britain Did to Nigeria: A Short History of Conquest and Rule (London 2021), p.38. This book, incidentally, more than confirms Hicks’ account of British conduct in Nigeria in the relevant period.
ii Siollun, on the same issue, points out that the corpses found in the ruins of Benin city, claimed by British accounts to be victims of human sacrifice, were rather more plausibly killed by the extensive British bombardment, ibid. pp.137-8.
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Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).
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