THE 72 Benin Bronzes that a British museum is planning to hand over to Nigeria should not be sent back to benefit the descendants of African slave traders, an African American group fighting for ‘slavery justice’ has said.
Earlier this month, the Charity Commission in the UK approved a decision by the Horniman Museum and Gardens in South London to return ownership of the artefacts, which were looted from Benin City by British troops during their incursion in February 1897.
The Horniman said it was responding to a request from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM).
But the Restitution Study Group (RSG), a New York-based non-profit organisation ‘concerned with slavery justice’, has written to the Charity Commission urging it to rescind its decision on the Bronzes, arguing: ‘The Horniman…is misguided in trying to return the Benin Bronzes to the descendants of slave traders.
‘The Kingdom of Benin through Nigeria would be unjustly enriched by repatriation of these relics they made with manilla currency they were paid to raid villages with illegal guns and other weapons, steal women, children and men, sell them into the Transatlantic slave trade, and sometimes kill them in ritual sacrifices.’
The letter, written by Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, Executive Director of the RSG (pictured), said: ‘Slave descendants have a co-ownership interest in these relics and we ask that you reject any request to transfer them to Nigeria.
‘We want to secure access to these relics for our children and families at museums in the UK and USA – in this case the Horniman…in the UK.’
The RSG said that co-ownership of the relics should be granted to ‘the DNA descendants of people enslaved in the region’.
It explained that co-ownership was necessary because some of the artefacts were made before the slave trade began, although ‘most were made after the Transatlantic slave trade started’.
The RSG said its claim was based on DNA tests that had ‘identified numerous descendants of people enslaved in the area called Nigeria [with] some…coming specifically from port areas controlled by the Kingdom of Benin during the Transatlantic slave trade’.
It said that ‘83 per cent of Jamaicans have DNA from enslaved ancestors from the area called Nigeria today’ while ‘93 per cent of African Americans have DNA from their enslaved ancestors from this area too’.
The RSG letter added: ‘Over 3.6 million people were enslaved and traded in the Transatlantic slave trade from the area called Nigeria.
‘The Kingdom of Benin grew wealthy [through its] participation in the slave trade.’
The RSG also called on other museums in Europe and the US to not return the artefacts that they are holding.
‘They do a disservice to…the DNA descendants of the people enslaved.
‘Instead, the museums should serve as permanent guardians over the relics for the DNA descendants of the enslaved who paid for the Benin Bronzes with their lives.
‘The DNA descendants still suffer from the vestiges of slavery with hardships due to their slavery heritage,’ the RSG letter said.
Farmer-Paellmann was asked by Africa Briefing whether the RSG’s petition to the Charity Commission was not too late, given that it had already granted the Horniman permission to return the Benin Bronzes.
‘We will ask them to reconsider,’ she said.
‘We also filed a Freedom of Information request for the Charity Commission deliberations, memo and notes that led to the decision.
‘This will assist us should any legal recourse be required.’
Asked whether the RSG would carry on lobbying for the other artefacts to remain in Europe and the US for the descendants of slaves to enjoy, Farmer-Paellmann said this would be the case.
‘We certainly will pursue the same course of action for all museums trying to return the Benin Bronzes without engaging in due diligence to determine all proper beneficiaries of the relics,’ she noted
She said that the RSG had made approaches to the relevant Nigerian authorities to see how best these cultural products could be shared between Nigerians and descendants of African slaves.
‘Our first contact was with an adviser to the Oba of Benin,’ Farmer-Paellmann said.
‘During our Zoom call, she confirmed that we have a legitimate claim but recommended we speak to [Prof Abba Tijani, the Director General] of the NCMM because the Nigerian government is managing the repatriation effort.’
She said that ‘several approaches’ were made to the NCMM, which ‘has been unresponsive’.