The Benin Bronzes
Just after the Full Moon, on 18 February 1897, a British expeditionary force breached the great walls of the city of Benin, capital of one of the wealthiest kingdoms in West Africa.
An orgy of looting, murder and arson ensued. The city was razed, its priests were executed, and the Oba, the king, was sent into exile.
The looting of that city was one of the most famous acts of cultural vandalism of the colonial era. The story of what happened to the stolen treasures of Benin brings bloody colonial history right into our own age.
Over the 300 years before its sacking, the strategically-placed Kingdom of Benin had grown wealthy through trade in ivory, pepper, gold, cloth — and people. Among other things, this wealth had been poured into the creation of extremely fine sculptures of iron, brass, bronze and ivory. Some of these pieces were freestanding; many were plaques decorating the walls of palaces and temples, integral parts of the fabric of the city.
The looting was a deliberate part of the British plan. In a typically thrifty piece of colonial accounting, the cost of the expedition would be defrayed by the value of the stores of ivory known to be in Benin City — the art was an add-on. By May that same year, some of the artefacts from Benin were already being auctioned at Bicester, England, a small town just down the road from where I sit now, that is today famous for its outdoor shopping mall.
No one is quite sure how many artefacts were looted, but they number in the thousands. The haul was sold off piecemeal around the world. You can see works from Benin at the Met in New York, in Berlin, in Amsterdam and London, in Paris and Abu Dhabi, in Sydney and Los Angeles — indeed in Oxford itself. In fact, the Bronzes have encircled the globe, bringing some of the finest art made in Africa to every corner of the world.
For decades, Nigeria has been asking for the return of the artefacts, but progress was glacial — until the past few months. Back in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron said France would be repatriating African cultural heritage within the next five years. But it took until December 2020 for the French Assembly to approve. In March, the German government formally pledged to repatriate all of their substantial Benin collection. That move seems to have melted the berg of refusal and a flood of pledges has come through. In the past week, regional museums in this country have ignored the government and started making independent promises to return items. The Church of England has made the pledge. A couple of days ago, the Irish National Museum announced that it too would return its Benin collection.
The head of collections at Aberdeen University explained the position succinctly: “[We] concluded that this was acquired as loot and therefore, we didn’t feel we had moral title.”
So, what has changed? First of all, Nigeria is building a state-of-the-art museum and art gallery to house the collection, which is due to be completed in 2025. And secondly, attitudes.
Here is a chart for the first day Benin City was sacked. It’s quite fascinating. I have cast it for sunrise, assuming that is when an attack would have started. This puts stern Saturn at 0° Sagittarius on the MC. Indeed, these heavy, ancestral objects, symbols of status, were about to go on a long journey around the world — Sagittarius is the sign of travel, internationalism and big ideas. Or you could read that as the beginning (0°) of iron rule (Saturn) by a foreign power (Sagittarius).
On that day, the Sun splashed from fixed Aquarius into Pisces, the sign of dissolution.
It was a nasty week, the warrior Mars had been moving from a conjunction to Pluto (crimes) — a sometimes gory combination — to Neptune, a planet also associated with dissolution, dissolving, dispersal. And it had already been a nasty decade and a half for Africa, since the partition of the continent by European powers had commenced at the Berlin Conference on 15 November 1884 — the year Pluto entered Gemini. Indeed, that year was when Pluto was exactly opposite to where Saturn was on the day of the sacking of Benin City.
So warrior Mars made a conjunction to Neptune on that day — and indeed the blood (Mars) flowed freely (Neptune) — tens of thousands according to some counts were killed — and fine art (Neptune) was broken (Mars) — all in the name of commerce (Gemini). It was the Royal Niger Company — a British trading organisation — that mounted the attack.
On the day, the Moon made a conjunction with Jupiter in Virgo. Ironically, the thing about the Bronzes is their outstandingly beautiful craftsmanship, something we associate with Virgo, and “a lot” is a property of Jupiter. The Moon went on to square Pluto, then Mars and Neptune.
Most of the Bronzes are not made of bronze but other alloys of copper, such as brass, which is copper and zinc. At any rate, Venus is the traditional ruler of copper. Here she is in fiery Aries making a conjunction to the goddess of abundance Ceres. I wonder if Venus in Aries is a symbol for the spoils of war in this case. She makes a neat sextile to Mars-Neptune in Gemini.
Vesta also seems to be involved with heritage, and you can see she’s in a tight conjunction to Juno, the Queen. Possibly the most famous pieces to be stolen were a pair (Gemini) of 16th century ivory portraits of the Queen Mother Idia. Vesta has been transiting back and forth over that conjunction of the Moon and Jupiter in Virgo since last year.
Currently, that chart is getting a Jupiter transit to the Sun, which happens every 12 years. So the sacking of Benin is enlarged in the collective consciousness. Transiting North Node has also gone over the Gemini stellium and is on that Pluto. Pluto is, of course, the planet we associate with crime. But that transit happens every 19 years. The Gemini stellium, including Mars, has just been transited by Mars too — so it’s in the news (Gemini). There have been behind-the-scenes discussions for a while between the British Museum, which holds the biggest collection from Benin, and the new museum. The British Museum is helping to excavate the site of the Oba’s palace.
The Nodes in the loot chart tell a story too. The objects were dispersed from a royal palace (South Node in Leo), where they were part of daily routine (6th house) to museums around the world, where they were looked at by everyone (North Node in Aquarius). Saturn is approaching that North Node, for (I think) the fifth time since 1897.
The current Oba of Benin, Ewuare II, born 20 October 1957, is the great-grandson of the Oba exiled by the British at the end of the 19th century. He has only been on the throne since 2016, but he has a powerful connection to the looting chart. His Jupiter in clever Gemini and Neptune-Sun-Saturn trine the Aquarian Sun of the loot chart, creating a flowing Grand Trine. It looks like he has the words to negotiate the return. It’s no surprise that his career was formerly in the diplomatic corps.
Like so many peoples from around the world, including West Africans, the Benin Bronzes became a diaspora. Ambassadors (unwilling perhaps) of African culture, they scattered across the globe like jewels thrown across a carpet. Now they are gradually coming home to be put in a different setting than a royal palace, the new museum, designed by David Adjaye, is intended to be a palace for the people. By 2025, when the Edo Museum of West African Art is due to open, Pluto will have moved into Aquarius and start making a conjunction to the loot chart’s Mercury.
Will the Elgin Marbles be next?