1897: Benin War Trophies in the British Illustrated Press

Commented by: Felicity Bodenstein

Material description

This clipping from The Illustrated London News  features a photograph of a pair of brass leopards, identified as Inv. No. 52.13.1 & 52.13.2, National Museum, Lagos (50 x 79 x 15 cm ; 49 x 77 x 14 cm) and a “Trophy Head”, Inv. No. III C 7658, Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin  (22 cm high). The bell has not been identified. (Plankensteiner, 2007, pp. 278-279; 463)

Short Summary

Throughout 1897, The Illustrated London News produced a series of articles dedicated to British interests in West Africa and in particular to the situation of Benin City (Coombes, 1994, 7-29). It was through this journal that some of the first images of the objects taken during the “punitive expedition” of 1897 reached a wider British public. This image presents itself as an isolated follow-up to a page long feature dedicated to the « Spoils of Benin in the Horniman Free Museum at Forest Hill » published on April 10th, 1897, and it is devoid of any more in-depth information as to the nature of the objects. Featuring a large pair of brass leopards placed on either side of a male bronze head, the caption merely states: “These are thought to be symbolic objects connected with the hideous sacrificial rites of Benin, and are of especial interest owing to the strong traces of Egyptian influence in their workmanship, testifying to a civilisation far older than the Portuguese colonisation of the country three centuries ago.”


The invasion of Benin City, referred to in British sources as the “punitive expedition” of 1897 was largely motivated by the ambitions of British colonial administrators to expand their control over the trade routes going through the Edo territory that was ruled over by the Oba Ovonramwen (ca. 1857-1914). It deeply transformed the longstanding trade relationships that had existed between that area and Europe since 1486 and the arrival of the first portuguese explorers (Igbafe 1979, Home 1982). It also led to the commodification of a very specific group of objects related to the royal house of Benin city and to its guilds of brass casters, ivory and wood carvers, iron smiths and clay sculptors (Agbontaen-Eghafona and Ikechukwu Okpoko 2004). The objects they produced (and continue to produce today) were an intrinsic part of the cult of ancestors and the decoration of the royal house, and in absence of written documents served to chronicle the history of the kingdom (Ebeigbe 2015). The “Benin bronzes” were virtually unknown in Europe at the time of the events of 1897; yet British administrators who had regularly visited the court, notably to negotiate the 1892 trade agreement that lead to the conflicts of 1897, knew of the ample existence of these pieces in brass and ivory.

At least 4000 objects were seized. Many of the finest pieces were kept by high ranking officers whilst others were immediately sold in Lagos or Calabar and then by the British Foreign Office in London to pay for the expedition costs. After these inital auctions, several dealers of ethnografica specialised in the resale of pieces that they acquired from individual officers, civil members of the expedition and travellers who came back to Europe with these objects.

Throughout 1897, The Illustrated London News produced a series of articles dedicated to British interests in West Africa and in particular to the situation of Benin City (for a critical reappraisal see Coombes, 1994, 7-29). The previously published images of the attack had sought to underline the barbaric spectacle of sacrificed bodies and objects covered in human blood supposedly met by the troops that arrived in Benin City. This photo with its caption provides some insight into the manner in which the objects taken in 1897 were initially styled as the trophies of a just war. It also allows us to retrace the provenance of the leopards of the National museum in Lagos, acquired in 1952. The clipping identifies them as the property of Matthew Hale of Hale & Son, London, and the later publication of the pieces by Felix von Luschan (1854-1924) curator of the ethnographic museum in Berlin allow us to formally connect them to those bought by the French art dealer Charles Ratton during the sale of the George Neville collection at Foster’s auctioneer house in London in 1930.

It was through the Illustrated London News that some of the first images of the objects taken during the expedition reached a wider British public. The previously published images of the attack had underlined the supposedly barbaric situation met by the British naval officers that arrived in Benin in February 1897, and who readily describe in there accounts the view of sacrificed bodies and cult objects covered in human blood. This photo with its caption are exemplary of how the narrative of the events was initially dominated by such accounts and how it translated into the early interpretations of these objects and their sale as trophies. Similar brass leopards were sold in relation to this sacrificial narrative and in one account of sales at the auction house of Henry Steven’s it is described that : “Three pounds bought the two leopards between which the victim had to lay his head – at the time of the capture of the city they were wet with human blood” (Allingham 1924, p. 185). The Egyptian theory of the origin of Benin art was maintained for some years as a means of explaining how such a « savage » and seemingly degenerate society could have produced such fine examples of lost wax bronze casting.

The issue of human sacrifices in particular was part of a standard narrative of moral justification for the military actions taken against important centres of power in Western Africa and requires careful attention as it is related to some of the most aggressive images of the “savage” constructed by European colonial propaganda in the second half of the nineteenth century. Through a rapidly developing market for ethnographica, these objects, requalified in the course of the Twentieth century as primitive art or again later as tribal art, found their way into major museums across the world and this narrative was quickly disassociated from the pieces themselves. General historiography of the colonial wars of the end of the Nineteenth century and the invasion of Benin City (Igbafe, 1979; Home, 1982) in particular have revisited the initial version of events provided by British sources, deconstructing this narrative of barbaric alteriety.

The curt description of the objects in this early news clipping is a disturbing reminder of how the violent appropriation and displacement of these objects was related to a massively one-sided representation of the culture and the society of the kingdom of Benin. Though the story associated with these objects is today a completely different one, the issue of who’s voice is most instrumental in constructing their meaning and value remains relevant.


Allingham, E.G., 1924. A Romance of the Rostrum, London: Witherby & Co.

Coombes, A.E., 1994. Reinventing Africa: museums, material culture, and popular imagination in late Victorian and Edwardian England, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Foster, 1930. A Catalogue of the Highly Important Bronzes, Ivory, and Wood Carvings From the Walled City of Benin, West Africa, Forming the Collection of the Late G. W. Neville, Esq., of Weybridge, To be auctioned at the Galleries, 54, Pall Mall, Thursday May 1st, 1930, London.

Home, R., 1982. City of Blood Revisited: A New Look at the Benin Expedition of 1897, London: R. Collings.

Igbafe, P.A., 1979. Benin under British Administration. The Impact of Colonial Rule on an African Kingdom, 1897-1938, New Jersey: Humanities Press.

M’Bow, B., Ẹbọhọn, Ọsẹmwegie, 2005. Benin, a kingdom in bronze, African American Research Library and Cultural Center  ; Fort Lauderdale.

Nigeria and Federal Ministry of Research and Information, 1959. Preserving the past. A short description of the Museum of Nigerian Antiquities, Lagos: Information Division, Federal Ministry of Research and Information.

Paudrat, J.-L., 2007. Notes historiographiques sur la diffusion de l’art palatial de Bénin en France et aux États-Unis entre 1930 et 1945. In: B. Plankensteiner, ed. Bénin. Cinq siècles d’art royal. Vienna: Snoeck, pp.235–246.

Plankensteiner, B., ed., 2007. Benin Kings and Rituals : Court Arts from Nigeria, Ghent: Snoeck.

Webster, W.-D., 1899. Illustrated Catalogue of Ethnological Specimens, Webster: Bicester.

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Cite this article as:
1897: Benin War Trophies in the British Illustrated Press, commented by 
Felicity Bodenstein, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: A collection of commented image sources on cultural heritage relocations since antiquity, http://transliconog.hypotheses.org/kommentierte-bilder-2/1897-benin-war-trophies-in-the-british-illustrated-press, published 16/05/2018.


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