Published On: Sat, May 11th, 2013

THE WALLS OF BENIN – NIGERIA’S FORGOTTEN EMPIRE

Some of Benin’s bronze sculptures that used to hang in the King’s palace, now in the British Museum. Photograph by Charles Tilford.

Collectors may be interested in artefacts from the era, but the legacy of the Walls of Benin has largely been forgotten. Man-made wonders of the world such as the Taj Mahal in India, the Cairo Citadel in Egypt and the Colosseum in Rome attract millions of visitors each year and lay claim to represent the architectural brilliance of our past. But the Benin Moat, also known as the Walls of Benin, lays fallow, crumbling away in Nigeria, a pale imitation of its resplendent former self. At stake is not just the structure itself, but the memory of a once-great empire and a site of colonial resistance.

A benign development?

The Benin Empire (1440–1897) was a pre-colonial African state, which at its height stretched from the western Igbo tribes on the shores of the Niger River, through parts of the south-west including present day Ondo State, and the isolated islands of Lagos. The empire was famed for nurturing of artistic creativity and using advanced techniques in its bronze and ivory sculptures (especially its life-sized bronze heads) that predate similar works in the Western world.

Construction started on the Walls of Benin in 800 AD, now situated in modern day Benin City, capital of Edo State, and continued into the mid-1400s. Stretching seemingly endlessly across the land, the Benin Moat is the world’s second longest man-made construction, falling short of only the Great Wall of China. The Walls of Benin, built as a city fortification against neighbouring rivals such as the Oyo Kingdom to the south and the Sokoto Caliphate in the north, is estimated to be 10,000 miles in length and 2,000 square miles in area. Excavations by British archaeologist Graham Connah in 1960 uncovered a rural network of earthen walls that, he estimated, if spread out over five dry seasons, would have required a workforce of 1,000 labourers working ten hours a day, for seven days a week to construct – a rough total of 150 million man hours.

The rise and fall

The Walls once protected a proud state, but this civilisation’s fate began to change in the face of foreign aggression. Towards the end of the 19th century, the British Empire began to try and forge a closer relationship with the Kingdom of Benin. Yet all overtures were rebuffed by a cautious King Ovonramwen.

A series of delegations were sent to Benin in what can only be described as a strong-armed attempt to further Britain’s burgeoning commercial interest in West Africa. The culmination of these ‘diplomatic measures’ was the signing of the 1892 Gallwey Treaty. Terms were heavily skewed in favour of British interests, affording them, amongst other benefits, complete control over Benin’s foreign policy and total authority over civil and criminal matters involving British subjects and property within the territory.

King Ovonramwen initially denied ever signing the treaty. However, after the murder of eight visiting British representatives by palace guards, there was no longer a need for diplomacy. The British launched a punitive expedition in 1897, using superior armoury and ammunition to overpower the Benin army. Benin was razed to the ground, with much of the wall destroyed in the process. Treasured art was looted and sold to collectors abroad. Many of these artefacts still adorn museums around the world today, including the Boston Museum of Fine Art and the British Museum. The invasion and eventual annexation of the Benin Empire by the British Colonial forces in 1897 led to the destruction of long stretches of the wall.

Wall pass

Although a limited renaissance is taking place in the Nigerian art scene – with Yoruba and Benin bronze sculptures fetching high prices on the international market – harsh economic times have led to a widespread disregard for this period of history. Too often the remnants of the Wall of Benin have been ‘developed’, plundered or desecrated.

In 1987, nine Terracotta sculptures belonging to the first inhabitants of Nigeria, the Nok People (1000 BC to 500 AD), were stolen from the National Museum in Jos. The situation deteriorated further during the 1990s, when it is estimated that 429 objects were stolen from 33 museums or other cultural institutions nationwide, with many still yet to be recovered.

The National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) has since been given responsibility for the protection and preservation of the city walls and moat. Legal instruments have been created which forbids any person to wilfully destroy, deface, alter, remove or excavate them. Yet today, the wall and moat are in a state of disrepair: no more than a common dumping site, overgrown by vegetation and targeted by unscrupulous developers. In the absence of law enforcement and proper funding, conserving the walls is a near impossible task. The walls and moat could prove to be a stimulus for a flagging tourism industry; its legacy is one, that in the face of current external land-grabbing and foreign exploitation of Africa’s natural resources, should never be forgotten.

BY:  Mr. Lagun Akinloye

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