Wednesday 12 January 2022

Great Benin

On the Loss of Antique Works of art from Benin

"When on the return of the members of the Punitive Expedition it became known that fine specimens of bronze castings and ivory and wood carvings had been found in the old city of Great Benin, Mr. Charles H. Read, the Keeper of Antiquities at the British Museum, with characteristic energy at once endeavoured to secure for the national collection good representative specimens of these bronzes, and he succeeded in gathering together the finest collection of plaques that is to be found in any Museum.

But owing to the want of proper pecuniary support, he was not able to obtain possession of any of the more expensive, and in many cases equally interesting, articles. Not only was the national institution thus deprived of its lawful [?] acquisitions, but at the same time another government department sold for a few hundred pounds a large number of castings which had cost thousands to obtain, as well as much blood of our fellow countrymen. Hence it is that so many Bini articles are not represented at all at Bloomsbury.

Had it not been for the well-known interest which the late General Pitt-Rivers took in such subjects, a still larger portion of these articles would have been lost to us for ever. Money with him being no object, he purchased largely and succeeded in making a very varied and, therefore, most interesting collection, which is still to be seen in his Museum at Farnham. From what I can ascertain, the bulk of these bronzes has been secured by the Germans, and it is especially annoying to Englishmen to think that such articles, which for every reason should be retained in this country, have been allowed to go abroad. 

Not that I wish to, nor do I blame the Germans in the least for what they have done, but it is only one more example of their alertness, and of our apathy. These articles have been lost to us, directly through the want of funds, but indirectly owing to grave omissions on our part in times gone by, to circumstances indeed which unfortunately continue. To many, this loss is apparently a small matter when compared with great domestic questions of the day, nevertheless the principle involved is an important one.

For many years the Germans have foreseen that the study of native races and their development, a study known to us under the awkward name of Anthropology, is essential to every civilised community which trades with, or is called upon to govern native communities, and with their characteristic thoroughness they have become leaders in a branch of science in which the Americans alone have been able to equal them, and, as it now appears, are about to outstrip them.

To arrive at this position the German ethnologists have always been sympathetically dealt with by their Government ; and when the Government can no longer supply the funds, I am told the Kaiser, on application being made to him, will put his hand in his pocket, and when that source is closed the wealthy German merchants are not appealed to in vain. For such gifts they will receive their Sovereign's approbation.

Similarly, in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, when a museum is in want of funds, an appeal is made to local merchants, and in a few hours the necessary money is collected. Such measures for collecting money do not appear to have been tried in England, and if tried it is doubtful what success such an attempt would meet with. 

There remains the fact that with us the native races are not adequately studied, and we are consequently handicapped politically, scientifically, and commercially in competition with other nations.

Politically, it is of the first importance that our governing officials should have a thorough knowledge of the native races subject to them — and this is the knowledge that anthropology can give them — for such knowledge can teach what methods of government and what forms of taxation are most suited to the particular tribes, or to the stage of civilization in which we find them.

In connection with this, there can be no doubt that with adequate knowledge much spilled bloodshed could have been saved in the past, both on our frontiers and in our colonies. 

Scientifically, the loss is great from whatever point we look at it, and it is not lessened by the painful feeling that our successors will condemn us for neglecting to make use of our opportunities — opportunities which they will never have, either to use or abuse — and take steps towards attempting to give them adequate records of the native races of our times.

Unlike the Tasmanians or the ancient Peruvians, the West African will never be wiped off the face of the earth, but intercourse with the white man alters his beliefs, ideas, customs, and technology, and proper records of these should be made before we destroy them. 

The destruction is going on apace, one of the chief contributory causes being the unsuitable European teaching given to the native races generally — unsuitable to them on account of the wide physical and mental differences [?] that exist between the white and black man. 

Miss Kingsley put the point with her usual smartness when she said at one of the meetings of the Fellows of the Royal Colonial Institute, that "an African is no more an undeveloped European than a rabbit is an undeveloped hare." 

Brass fan with repoussรฉ designs - Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford 1900.39.22 ;  Field Collector: Benin City Punitive Expedition When Collected: February 1897 Other Owners: Mary Henrietta Kingsley PRM Source: Charles G. Kingsley Acquired: Donated September 1900.

By Roth, Henry Ling (1903)

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