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Ancient African Empires

22 April 2014 by Mitty

bronze sculpture of a woman's head

Benin sculpture of the Queen Mother’s head

Fred, an Education Demonstrator at the International Slavery Museum, has written about one of the fascinating aspects of African history that you can find out about in the museum:

“As a slavery museum, we also learn about West Africa. European slave traders justified their mistreatment and exploitation of African people by painting a picture of Africa as a simple or “primitive” place compared to European civilisations. In reality, a series of powerful empires, with skilled craftsmen and complex societies existed in West Africa before and during the period of transatlantic slavery, including the once mighty Kingdom of Benin. We’ve added new objects to our Life in West Africa session to reflect this.

I really got interested in The Kingdom of Benin when I worked at the World Museum. On the World Cultures gallery we had a bronze sculpture of a queen mothers head, made as a memorial to her. I was amazed at the intricacy, detail and craftsmanship of the bronze cast.

The Kingdom was at its most powerful in the 15th century. A huge empire spread across much of modern South West Nigeria surrounding the capital city, Benin City, where a guild of craftsmen who made the queen mothers head would have been based. The city was protected by a network of walls and moats, some up to 18 metres high. To help children visual this, we tell them that means the walls would have been twice as high as the columns outside the museum in the Albert Dock!

columns in the Albert Dock

Columns in the Albert Dock

The inner wall stretched for seven miles around the city, with a further 4,000 to 8,000 miles of earthworks and walls extending out into the surrounding countryside, protecting smaller villages and towns. It is thought that this is the biggest ever single human construction, even bigger than the Great Wall of China. It is evidence of what a well organised, structured society the kingdom had to have been, to be able to call on the engineers, architects and manpower to undertake this building work.

We use a replica of the bronze head that first raised my interest in the Benin Empire in our handling session to show the skill and attention to detail of the Benin craftsmen. Pupils try to guess who the statue is of, and why it might have been made. We also have a (plastic) replica of a carved elephant tusk. This is an example of how African societies told the history of their kingdoms, as they did not use a written language in this part of West Africa at this time.

replica sculpture and carved tusk

Replicas of the broze sculpture and an ivory tusk, which are used in handling sessions for schools at the International Slavery Museum

The Benin Empire came to an end at the close of the 19th century. After several attempts by the British to force the Oba (king) to sign trade treaties, a party of British soldiers and traders were massacred as they tried to enter Benin City in order to remove the Oba from power. The British formed a “punitive expedition” in 1897 to destroy the city. The carved ivory tusks and bronze plaques and statues were looted and sold to collectors in Europe at auction, in order to pay off the loans taken out to fund the expedition.

Although the punitive expedition destroyed the Benin Kingdom of the 19th century, today an Oba does retain certain powers over this area of Nigeria. The guild of bronze-casters also still exists, using the same skills and techniques passed down for generations. This long tradition proves that the myths and prejudices of the European slave traders are as wrong now as they ever were.”

  1. Wiliam Steele says:

    In order to fully appreciate the true magnificence of African Histories that which predates any written ‘evidence’ and true archeological narative one must read the true scholarship of ‘Basil Davidsons’ ‘The African Genius’, a seminal piece of literary archeology.
    Go find the book

    • Fred Billingham says:

      Thanks for the recommendation, I was not familiar with the Kingdom of Benin until I started working for National Museums Liverpool, and I’m always keen to find out more about it. It sounds like a really interesting read.

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