The modern-day obsession with viewing history through a painfully ‘politically correct’ / woke lens is one of my biggest pet hates. An article in the Daily Telegraph perfectly illustrates just what a total bloody farce it is:
When will the woke crowd address the history of slavery in Africa?
In its rush to appease cancel culture, St Paul’s Cathedral is turning a blind eye to one of history’s most infamous slave states
18 February 2022 • 3:30pm
Britain’s statue wars have reached St Paul’s Cathedral. A new artwork, has been unveiled this week in its crypt to mark the 125th anniversary of the fall of the Kingdom of Benin. Still Standing by Nigerian born artist Victor Ehikhamenor is a mixed media representation of Oba Ovonramwen, the ruler of the Kingdom of Benin at the time of its conquest by Britain in 1897. The object, a nearly 4 meter high tapestry or wall hanging made using rosary beads and Benin bronze ornaments, is meant to contextualise a brass memorial panel in the crypt to Admiral Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson, who led the 1897 expedition.
Why does the Admiral’s memorial brass apparently need contextualisation? In January 1897 James Phillips, Acting Consul General of the British territory of the Niger Coast Protectorate, led a party of nine white colonial officials and 250 or so African porters to the Kingdom of Benin. They were ambushed. Four of the colonialists, including Phillips, were killed on 6 January and a further three either died on that day or subsequent to being taken prisoner. Many African porters were killed.
In retaliation the British launched a punitive expedition against the Kingdom of Benin led by Admiral Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson. British forces captured Benin City and the palace of the Oba – or King – of Benin on 18 February 1897 and with it the territory of the Kingdom was incorporated into the British colony that would become Nigeria. The Oba’s palace and other ceremonial buildings were richly adorned with ornate ivory carvings and bronzes predominantly dating from the sixteenth century onwards. These were taken, along with a huge quantity of uncarved ivory, by the British forces with the justification that the sale of these items would defray the costs of the expedition. In truth, many of the looted items ended in the private possession of the British officers leading the expedition.
The “return” of the looted items, many of which are now in European and American museums not least the Pitt Rivers, has become a cause celebre for progressive opinion. A $100 million project to build a museum in Benin City in Nigeria to house “returned” objects is now underway.
Of course, the Benin raid clearly would not pass muster today. It is undeniable that many of those involved in the raid enriched themselves with it. But if we are to judge historical figures by contemporary standards this should also apply to the Oba of Benin.
The Kingdom of Benin, right up to its downfall in 1897, held slaves and practiced human sacrifice. It grew rich on the back of the Atlantic slave trade. Its forces captured other Africans and sold them to European slave traders. As Professor Dan Hicks, who commissioned and curated the work now being displayed in St Paul’s acknowledges in his book The Brutish Museums: “The Kingdom grew in power and scope during its involvement in European and transatlantic trade from the 16th century, at first with Portuguese traders, and later British and French – central among which was the slave trade”.
There is some debate as to the relative importance of the slave trade versus the trade in ivory – which is not exactly seen today as a noble undertaking either. What is clear is that slaving was at least as important to the rise of Benin than it was to the rise of Britain, and very probably considerably more so. Oba Ovonramwen was at the pinnacle of the Kingdom of Benin’s pyramid of exploitation. If it is inappropriate to commemorate Admiral Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson in St Paul’s crypt without contextualisation, should the same not apply to the Oba?
The Church of England has been wanting to make its amends for the 1897 Benin raid for quite a while. It had been “in discussions” with Nigeria to return two Benin busts in its possession. The trouble is that these were not looted in 1897, indeed they were not created until the early 1980s. The objects in question were a gift from the University of Nigeria to then Archbishop Robert Runcie and were then freshly minted. With the new installation in St Paul’s crypt perhaps the Anglican church has found a way to make good for a wrong it did not perpetrate and clear itself of moral taint.