125 Years After British Invasion of Benin, Oba Ewuare II Receives Stolen Artefacts

Repatriated Benin Artifacts, Okpa, Uhunwun Elao, land in Benin, received by Oba Ewuare II

By Jethro Ibileke

On 9 February 1897, British imperialists invaded the Benin Kingdom, overthrew Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi and stole artefacts from the palace and carted them away. On Saturday, however, two repatriated Benin objects, Okpa (Cockerel) and Uhunwun Elao (Oba’s head) were formally handed over to the Oba of Benin, Ewuare II.

The two items with the current value of £2.5 million, were among the over 10,000 artefacts looted from the palace 125 years ago, during the British expedition of 1897. Here is how it happened, as chronicled by Esan people blog.

Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi on board H.M. Yacht Ivy, on his way to Calabar where he was sent on Exile and he lived until he died in 1914.

‘The Benin Expedition of 1897 was a punitive expedition by a British force of 1,200 men under Sir Harry Rawson in response to the ambush of a previous British party under Acting Consul General James Phillips. Rawson’s troops captured and sacked Benin City, bringing to an end the Kingdom of Benin, which was eventually absorbed into colonial Nigeria.
On 12 January 1897, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, commander of the Royal Navy forces at the Cape of Good Hope and West Coast of Africa Station, was appointed by the Admiralty to lead a force to invade the Kingdom of Benin, capture the Benin Oba and destroy Benin City. The operation was known as the Benin Punitive Expedition.
On 9 February 1897, the invasion of the Kingdom of Benin began. The British invasion force of about 1,200 Royal Marines, sailors and Niger Coast Protectorate Forces attacked the Benin Kingdom from three major directions.
Aftermath Effect: The city was destroyed, the Palace was looted and its inner chambers were sacked. Men and Women were killed in their hundreds.
Ralph Moor the colonial government that ousted Oba Ovonramwen later committed suicide shortly after returning to England. It was said that the Oba had cursed him after he saw the burning of his Kingdom.’

Some of the palace memorabilia stolen by Ralph Moor were, on Saturday, returned by Jesus College of Cambridge University and University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
Present at the elaborate ceremony were members of the Benin royal family, various societies and groups in the Kingdom, the Director-General of National Commission of Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Prof. Abba Tijani, the Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Ambassador Tunji Ishola, traditional rulers from Edo North and Edo Central senatorial districts, representative of the Ooni of Ife, the Hausa and Yoruba communities, the Muslim community, men of the various security agencies and others.


While officially handing over the items to Oba Ewuare II, Ambassador Ishola said the two items have been preserved in their original forms when they were taken away 125 years ago and the value of the Cockerel today is £2 million while the Oba’s head is valued at £500,000.

“When I came in December 2021, I promised to bring the objects here physically and today I have come to do that because we have a talk and do president in President Muhammadu Buhari who instructed that the objects must be handed over physically. I have come to do that,” he said.

Ishola added that he was delighted that the works would now be domiciled in their homes of origin and researchers would write about them talking to their real owners.

He said the works were returned with their history of who had housed them right from 1897 till date and how much it was sold or bought at each point.

The Director-General of NCMM, Professor Abba Tijani, in his remark, said it was historical that the artefacts were returned in his tenure when several attempts in the past were frustrated by the holding countries.

He said: “I have on many occasions met the holders and told them that these Benin artefacts are not artworks, they are life arts, they are part of the history of these people, they are not works for commercial values or aesthetics, you can imagine that part of your life is taken from you.

“We are making history because none of us was here when they were taken away in 1897 but we are here to receive them. The Commission had made several efforts in the past to see to their return but we encountered many blockades.

“I have already scheduled to visit other countries in Europe to convince these holders to return them.”

In his speech read by his younger brother, Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, the Benin Monarch commended President Buhari for his interest in ensuring the return of the artefacts.

He described the day as a day of joy to him personally and to all Benin people at home and in Diaspora, and the beginning of the restitution of the artefacts looted in 1897.

The Monarch noted that the military expedition of 1897 was never a retaliation for the killing of some British soldiers.

According to him, “The truth is that there was a calculated and a deliberately conceived plan to attack Benin for its territorial dominance and also for her treasures. The result was a destruction of a civilization that equalled or even surpassed that of the aggressors. It was thought that the kingdom, totally decimated and in ruins in the aftermath of the war, would not rise again. By the grace of God and our ancestors, we are still standing.

“The current conversation is about restitution. International scholars and most museums now agree that keeping stolen items is immoral and illegal.

“There is consensus now that heritage items must be returned to their place of origin. For this, we commend both Jesus College of Cambridge University and the University of Aberdeen for their pace-setting initiative in returning these two bronzes.

“Of course, there remain a very large number of our artefacts out there. We are aware of the ongoing discussions which the Federal Government, through the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, is holding with various governments on our behalf.

“We are also aware that the major museums will miss having Benin Bronzes in their collections. I believe that a working arrangement can be agreed whereby our ownership of the artefacts having been established, those museums will continue to enjoy the presence of our artefacts,” he added.