Whites and wrongs

Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Cultural Violence and Cultural Restitution (Pluto Press)

Artillery Row Books

This book is important, politically, because it is bound to boost the momentum of the ‘decolonising’ Zeitgeist. Indeed, its endorsement by the American rapper, MC Hammer — “Dan, your words brought tears to my eyes” — suggests it already has.

But its greatest importance lies elsewhere, for Brutish Museums is an object lesson in how political zeal can abuse data in the cause of manufacturing an expedient narrative. In that respect, it is also typical of the ‘decolonising’ movement. And since the author occupies a professorial position at the University of Oxford, it may also be a symptom of something rotten in the heart of academe.   

The thesis of Dan Hicks’ book is that museums — in Britain and, more broadly, the West — are expressions of a militaristic vision of white supremacy through their unembarrassed display of colonial loot, seized by atrocious violence. The repudiation of racism, therefore, demands the return of stolen property. To substantiate his thesis, Hicks devotes most of his time to constructing a story about the events that led to the British seizure of the famous ‘Benin Bronzes’.

The undisputed bare bones of what happened are these. In February 1897, a British naval expedition, led by Admiral Harry Rawson, launched an attack on Benin City, the capital of the Edo people in west Africa. The British prevailed, most of the city was burned to the ground, and at least two thousand major objets d’art were taken away. Among these were the Bronzes, plaques depicting the history of the Royal Court of Benin and cast from brass acquired through the sale of slaves. In the aftermath, a form of indirect colonial rule was imposed, in which the Oba (king) of Benin was offered a leading role. After he attempted to escape, however, he was exiled for life. Thus was the kingdom of Benin incorporated into the British Niger Coast Protectorate (NCP).

The prevalent Victorian explanation was that the military operation was a ‘punitive’ expedition, launched in retaliation for the massacre the previous month of a diplomatic mission, whose nine white members, led by Acting Consul James Phillips, had been deliberately unarmed, apart from revolvers. Once Benin City had been taken, regime-change was justified, partly because the old regime had been bound up with religious practices that included human sacrifice, as well as with slavery.

The thesis of Dan Hicks’ book is that museums — in Britain and, more broadly, the West — are expressions of a militaristic vision of white supremacy

Against this, Dan Hicks launches his anti-Western counter-narrative. The British, he claims, had been planning to invade Benin for years. While their pretext was humanitarian, the real motive was economic: the Oba of Benin had been obstructing trade and his kingdom sat on rich resources of timber. The diplomatic mission suffered no ‘massacre’: it may have been armed and some of its members may have perished during the British assault. The invasion itself used ’ultraviolence’, shelling villages indiscriminately and slaughtering tens of thousands. As for the Bronzes, they were looted.

Hicks’s thinking is driven by a number of abstractions: ‘corporate extractive capitalism’, ‘militarism’, ‘racism’, and ‘proto-fascism’. All of these are used to characterise ‘colonialism’ and are heavy with implicit moral condemnation. None are explained or justified.

His thinking also displays symptoms of an ethical schizophrenia—on the one hand morally neutral and indulgent toward non-Western, African culture, on the other hand morally absolutist and unforgiving toward Western, British culture. The indulgence is evident in his treatment of human sacrifice in Benin, to which he pays almost no attention. On one occasion he nonchalantly admits that it might have happened, but only to brush it aside so that he can focus our attention on British atrocities. Otherwise, he consistently insinuates that the reports were made-up fantasies: “Each new story of the Oba’s barbarity sought to outdo the last, to take the hyperbolic yarn spun by Richard Burton … to new levels of gothic schlock-horror”. Yet there is no reasonable doubt that human sacrifice did take place at Benin. Indeed, according to the Africanist, Robin Law, there was a substantial increase in its scale from the 1830s to the 1880s.

Whereas the balm of indulgence is given the Edo, the acid of cynicism is poured relentlessly over the British. The abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the British Empire receives no credit. Indeed, it is discredited through its use as “a ‘human rightist’ justification for unprovoked regime change”. The possibility that the eradication of African slavery might ever have required and justified British domination is never considered.

In the light of these axioms, when Hicks turns to British action regarding Benin, he argues three things. First, the ‘punitive’ expedition in February was not in fact retaliatory: “[S]ince the 1960s, historians have increasingly understood the expedition to depose [the] Oba …, not as a retaliation, but to have been dictated by policy for a long time”. Here he cites four sources. Of these, I have read two, A. F. C. Ryder’s Benin and the Europeans, 1485-1897 and Robert Home’s City of Blood Revisited, which remains the most reliable recent account of the events of 1897. Neither of them argues that pre-existing colonial policy ‘dictated’ — that is, pre-determined — the military assault on Benin.

Hicks argues that by the autumn of 1896 preparations for an attack on Benin were already well under way. As evidence, he invokes the arrival of military officers participating in a Royal Niger Company (RNC) expedition against a then-unidentified target on the Niger River in November 1896. The two operations, he claims, were a joint action of the Company and the Protectorate. How do we know this? Because both the NCP’s Consul-General, Ralph Moor, and the RNC’s Governor, Sir George Goldie, met in London at the end of 1896. Yet Robert Home, whom he cites in support, makes it clear that Moor regarded Goldie as a rival. Hicks also writes of counter-insurgency operations undertaken by Protectorate forces after the taking of Benin City “in partnership” with the RNC. One of the two sources he cites in substantiation is, again, Home. If we turn to the cited page (109), however, what we find is the very opposite of what Hicks tells us: not partnership at all, but bitter competition. Hicks then scores an own-goal, when he reports that “[t]he Company’s own desire to be involved in an action against the Oba of Benin … continued into February, although in the end they were kept out of this part of the operations of this concerted military campaign”. Since the assumption of a concerted campaign has yet to be proven, what remains—the rejection of the RNC’s desire to be involved—implies that the action was not concerted at all. The RNC’s planned invasion of territory north of Benin provides no evidence of a concurrent planned invasion of Benin by the NCP.

Hicks’ second argument is that the members of Phillips’ January expedition were possibly armed and their deaths were only a “supposed massacre”. The white men “reportedly” took only revolvers. A Daily Mail report suggested that the expedition had “‘offered a stout resistance’”. And Gallwey’s published recollection of “a mile of road strewn with bodies” at the site could be evidence of “a … sustained two-way exchange”, rather than the widespread slaughter of unarmed carriers. Yet first-hand testimony is unanimously against Hicks. Captain Boisragon, one of two survivors of the massacre, wrote that “we were not carrying revolvers”, which were all “locked up in our boxes”. This was confirmed by a second-hand account of the trial of those suspected of responsibility for the attack on Phillips, which reported that the three Edo witnesses for the prosecution “all acknowledged that they knew beforehand that all the white men were unarmed”. Hicks then tells us that Home concluded that three of Phillips’ white companions may have been taken to Benin City as hostages, where they “perhaps lost their lives before or during the British attack of the subsequent month”. This is coy to the point of misleading. What Home actually says is that an African carrier testified that “the day after the massacre, he saw four white men sitting bound in the Oba’s sacrificial compound, and the following day their heads were brought round with stick-gags in their mouths”.

Hicks’ third main line of argument is that, in the course of ‘sacking’ Benin, the British perpetrated atrocious violence and looting. He is disturbed by the vast asymmetry of military power, with the British using naval guns and Maxim machine-guns to wreak colonial “ultraviolence” upon enemy armed with, at best, muskets. He also asserts that Edo deaths ran into the “tens of thousands”. He does not seem to understand that the purpose of military endeavour is precisely to subdue the enemy by overwhelming him. As for the number of Edo casualties, he asks rhetorically, “how to quantify the jungle deaths of an army of tens of thousands, the urban population, the ravaging of the countryside over weeks …?”. How, indeed. At the end of the chapter that begins, “Some attempt at counting up the deaths must come first”, he gives up, writing on the penultimate page, “Let us hold back on fixing any number on the African casualties of the Benin atrocity at this point”. He holds back, only on page 114 to reach into the unargued blue and pluck the figure, “tens of thousands”.

On what happened in Benin City itself, Hicks is unequivocal: it was wantonly destroyed. The fire of 21 February, which the British claimed as accidental, was “in fact probably just one that got out of control … in a mounting frenzy of demolition”. Here he flies in the face of the only first-hand testimony we have, which tells of targeted demolition by the British for the purpose of military defence, of care taken not to start an accidental conflagration, of the intention to use the city as the seat of a new government, and of the surprise with which the fire of 21 February struck. Benin did burn, but it was not sacked.

As for the Bronzes, these were removed as ‘spoils of war’. But this was not ‘looting’, understood as the unauthorised seizure of items for private purposes by troops running amok, which was outlawed. At Benin Admiral Rawson took care to reserve all the major items as Government property. Removed to London, some items were distributed as ‘prizes’ among the naval officers, but most were auctioned by the Admiralty. How the proceeds were spent we do not know, but there is reason to suppose that they were used to defray the expedition’s costs, including pensions for the wounded and bereaved.

In sum, a scrupulous reading of the data supports the following narrative. Both European and African traders were frustrated by the Oba of Benin’s unpredictable closing of markets, and they pressed the British authorities to intervene. Yet commercial interests were not simply commercial, since the promotion of ‘legitimate’ commerce was widely viewed as a means of displacing the slave-trade. Initially, the British tried diplomacy and signed a treaty with the Oba in 1892, committing him to permit free trade. When this proved ineffective, some officials on the ground began to contemplate the need for military action, and one in particular, Consul-General Ralph Moor, lobbied for it. Yet the London Government remained sceptical and cautious, and in December 1896 it prevaricated. The slaughter of Phillips’ unarmed mission in January 1897, however, forced their hand to authorise a punitive expedition. So, when they went to war in February 1897, the British intended primarily to retaliate for the massacre, in order to maintain their regional authority and deter any repetition. The enabling of free trade and the ending of the practices of slavery and human sacrifice were secondary intentions.

But they were not insincere. By 1 April, the new British Resident had proclaimed that any slave who arrived in the deserted city before his master would become free, persuading many slaves to rush back. And by 18 May, he had prohibited slave-trading in the markets of Benin City. As a result, according to the Nigerian historian Philip Igbafe, “a general emancipation of slaves followed in the wake of British occupation of Benin”. Then he comments: “After 1900 the British drive for … the abolition of slavery can be looked upon as a practical demonstration of their commitment to the principle of emancipation and manumission”.

We all have to make sense of data and construct a coherent story. And in constructing that story, our moral and political convictions are bound to play an organising role. But intellectual honesty obliges us not to avert our eyes from, or misrepresent, data that does not suit our prejudices. In his overweening zeal to promote the political cause of ‘decolonisation’, Dan Hicks has manifestly failed in that duty. Whatever museum directors decide to do with objects acquired during the colonial period, they should not base it on the history told in this book. It cannot be trusted. The British were not so brutish in Benin.

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