Oba Erediauwa: Adress at the Commencement of the Great Benin Centenary Activities (1997)

These extracts are from a long speech made by Oba Erediauwa of Benin (r. 1979–2016) at the ceremony commemorating the centenary of the 1897 expedition. It was during the invasion of the city that the British naval forces exiled Erediauwa’s predecessor, Oba Ovonramwen and carried away as war booty or loot a large part of the crafted royal objects that could be found in the abandoned town. The Great Benin Centenary Committee was created in 1992, when the palace commemorated the 1892 trade treaty signed with consul Henry Gallwey as a measure to allow for British commercial expansion through the Oba’s territory. It was accompanied by a major international conference including many Nigerian and foreign scholars and it led to the idea of organizing an even more ambitious event to coincide with the centenary.

commented by Felicity Bodenstein

Original text   Brief biography   Commentary   Sources and literature

An Address delivered by the Omo n’Oba d’Edo, Uku Akpolokpolo, Erediauwa, Oba of Benin, at the commencement of the Great Benin Centenary activities on Monday, 17th February, 1997.

source: Bishopsgate Institut, London, Bernie Grant Papers. BG/ARM/4/6/ Great Benin Centenary Committee Correspondance. 5.11.1996–14.03.1997.

3. […] Since the Great Benin Centenary Committee commenced preparations from the 29th July, 1995, when I inaugurated it, I, as well as the Chairman of the Centenary Committee and others, have made speeches; historians have published write-ups, all of which narrate what gave rise to the British invasion and how Benin City was decimated. So much has been said and written that I do not consider it necessary to go over all that again as I feel certain that all of you here must have read either a speech or a write up in one newspaper or another. However, it may be necessary to do a quick re-cap and briefly. We have narrated how the British, based in the Southern Coast of what is today Nigeria, tried to secure trading concessions from the King of the place they described as »Benin Country«; how the King of Benin Country, Oba Ovonramwen, resisted the attempt, especially after hearing that the British had removed Nana of Ebrohimi (now Koko in Delta State), who was himself a trading partner of Oba Ovonramwen; how the British had caused Oba Ovonramwen to append his thumbprint to an Agreement that the British prepared in English and interpreted to Oba Ovonramwen by a semi-literate interpreter who also thumb-impressed the Agreement after certifying that he interpreted it to the Oba’s understanding; we narrated how the British Consul insisted on visiting the Oba in Benin City at a time the Oba was performing a traditional festival, during which custom forbade him to receive visitors; we have narrated how some Benin war-lords went ahead to stop the British in the course of which a skirmish ensued in which some British were killed and we narrated how the British came back in full force, in what came to be known in history as »punitive expedition«, rounded up and executed the Benin people that fought against them, burnt every house in the City, exiled Oba Ovonramwen to Calabar, which was the farthermost town in the territory within the British sphere of influence, and finally set fire to the Oba’s Palace after carting away about three thousand pieces of our valuable bronze and ivory works of art which now adorn museums and private collections in England and elsewhere in Europe.
22. We have also heard that some people have threatened to take the British Government to the International Court of Justice over the event of 1897 in order to get judgement for the British Government to repatriate our looted works of art. While I appreciate the good intention of such Benin people, I want to advise that this is not a matter to be taken to the International Court, or any court of law, even if those contemplating it would be able to finance such action. We have mentioned in the course of our previous speeches on this subject the effort that our Nigerian Government has made in the past to buy some of those artefacts back into our country, and I have also given indication that, having regard to the fact that the British Government voluntarily returned some beaded paraphernalia to my father, Oba Akenzua II, in 1937, I have no doubt that the British Government will cooperate in getting some of these things repatriated to us if approached properly by our own Government, bearing in mind that many of those looted objects were sold onto private collectors. It may be of interest to mention here that only recently the stone traditionally known as the Stone of Scone, which the British seized from the natives of Scotland during the English/Scottish war several hundred years ago, and placed under the British Coronation throne at Westminster and which the British had used for the coronation of their Kings and Queens, was recently returned, on the authority of Her Majesty, The Queen, to the Scottish owners. Also, there is authentic information that, on the authority of Her Majesty, The Queen, the British Government is looking into how the Israeli Jews can be helped to regain their gold which the Germans seized during the Hitler war and lodged in a Swiss Bank. While the law court may be the last resort for the aggrieved, I feel that it is not every matter of international nature that can be subjected to court action, not even at the level of the Hague. Success has been achieved in many knotty international issues through what is known as »quiet diplomacy«. At this very moment, I am in contact with some eminent people in London who are sympathetic to our cause and are serously [sic] helping. I therefore use this occasion to advise those well-meaning Benin people who threaten to go to the International Court to exercise restraint. Even if such action were feasible it could boomerang if sold to the public gallery. We should do nothing to discourage or embarrass those well-meaning persons in England who are helping us.

24. We have said that the Centenary is not a matter of celebrating or rejoicing. The events still bring sad memories. We want to use the Centenary to remember, with gratitude, memory of those gallant Benin people, Oba Ovonramwen and his subjects, for fighting in defence (sic) of the Kingdom. Through their personal sacrifice, Benin has been placed on the world map and has become the pet subject of International academics. This is what the later generation gained from the events of 1897. It is my prayer that the Centenary we now want to mark, while remembering the memory of those our forebears, will bring blessing to all those who are participating in the »In Memoriam« mounted to the glory of the departed.

Brief biography

Oba Erediauwa (r. 1979–2016) holds the place of 39th Oba of Benin in the royal chronology of the court (Ediagbonya 2018, 361). He was the third Oba to hold this position since the exile of Oba Ovonramwen in 1897; the function of Oba was in fact reinstated in 1914 by the colonial administration as a measure of indirect rule, but the power that the Oba could exert was nevertheless greatly restrained and principally restricted to representative and consultative functions. However, the Oba and the court have continued to play a very central role in the life of the city and the surrounding region with considerable influence, and often acting as a key interface between national and local concerns. The Oba of Benin is considered a sacred leader and his presence in the city, conducting many seen and unseen rituals in the palace and in public is considered an integral part of the social wellbeing of the city and he is often called to provide guidance in public affairs. Oba Erediauwa in particular was considered a very scholarly king, the first to have been crowned after receiving a strong university education including legal and administrative issues. Like his father Akenzua II, he was particularly active in promoting the preservation and revival of Benin customs and traditions.

Commentary – Oba Erediauwa’s soft power approach to repatriation

The transcription of the Oba’s speech used here was part of a set of documents pertaining to the Great Benin Centenary Committee preserved in the Bernie Grant archives. As a member of parliament, Grant (1944–2000) was a firm supporter and activist in Britain for the return of the Benin pieces to Nigeria. These archives also include a correspondence with several members of the royal court in particular prince Edun Akenzua. He was probably one the most influential of the »those well-meaning persons in England who are helping us«, that the Oba refers to here in his speech. In the effort to gain funding and support for this event, the Benin court established a network of communication and influence through the Benin diaspora community in Europe and North America.

The centenary celebrations that were opened by the Oba Erediauwa’s speech lasted for a week from the 17th to the 23rd of February and included dance performances, theatre, conferences on Edo culture and history, exhibitions and other events. One of the major objectives was to celebrate and promote the art and artists of Benin City but also to regain a measure of control over the historical narrative of the events of 1897. As Nevadomsky remarked, it was a way of »having a last say«:»Although the idea of commemorating one’s defeat struck outsiders as ironic, the local take emphasized a revision of anglocentric history, a reinvention of tradition, and an acknowledgment of Benin’s past greatness and future potential« (Nevadomsky 1997, 3).

From the wording of the Oba’s speech, this intention is indeed clear. Outside of these extracts, he considers at great length the case of his predecessor’s, Oba Ovonramwen’s innocence in relation to the attack on a group of British officials that had provoked the final decision to organize the punitive expedition. Indeed, one of the exhibitions was dedicated to the documentation surrounding his trial with manuscripts on loan from the National archives in Ibadan. Clearly for the Benin royal court accounts of the history of 1897 were not distanced or finalized but remained tied to the issue of justice and the trial of Oba Ovonramwen which had remained ambiguous in its outcome. History was still on trial, indeed, the British High Commissioner, Thorold Masefield also received a platform that allowed him to defend, so to speak, the British case for the expedition, his position as resumed by Nevadomsky repeating the standard narrative for the justification of the expedition and the accompanying taking of cultural objects as spoils (p. 4): »the kingdom was insular and needed exposure, and human sacrifice was abominable. He intimated that the brass objects removed from the palace had not been so much looted as dug up – a kind of archaeological dig.« The Oba’s speech underlines the resistance and courage of the Benin people and his predecessor, though in a sense he also embraces Masefield’s position by indicating that »Through their personal sacrifice, Benin has been placed on the world map and has become the pet subject of International academics«; in a sense adopting a cosmopolitan argument that is often used in relation to the dispersal of the Benin royal objects and their agency.

The Oba’s approach to history is also clearly framed in relation to his political and diplomatic intentions. Interestingly the question of the objects looted in 1897 does not appear as immediate or central to the historical argument but rather in a reaction to calls that were made in the run up to the centenary for legal action to be taken to recover the objects in European and in particular in British Museums. He expresses a keen sense of injustice and makes use of other references to what he sees as similar contexts of injustice that have given rise to requests for repatriation, in a kind of »multidirectional memory« (Rothberg 2009). Yet, he is particular about the means that should be put into motion to achieve any returns of objects. In particular he refers and identifies with the case of the Stone of Scone, also known as the Coronation Stone (or the Stone of Destiny) as it directly implicates an element of royal identity and genealogical heritage. It is a very old case of translocation as this 200 kg sandstone was transported from the Scottish royal court to Westminster Abbey in 1297. It had been claimed by Scottish nationalists since the 1980s and was returned to Scotland in November 1996 by John Major’s Tory government where it was »welcomed back by pipers, after seven hundred years’ absence, as a symbol of Scottish identity.« (Greenfield 1989, 135–137). In referring to other British efforts, notably to provide reparations for »Israeli Jews« he also positions the Queen of England as the active agent behind governmental efforts. In the same way he claims his role here as the main agent in efforts to claim Benin objects and calls for »quiet diplomacy«, indicating his distaste for recourse to national or international courts – the case for which continues to be made by others (Kiwara-Wilson 2013).

In 2014, a large ceremony was held to honour the second return of objects taken in 1897 to Benin since the return of some of the Oba’s coral regalia in 1937 and received by Akenzua II (Plankensteiner 2016, 140). Both returns were brought about by descendants of members of the 1897 expedition and not by a government institution. The »joyful moment« of the return of two small brass objects by Mark Walker, grandson of Captain Herbert Walker was received with great emotion and has since become an important reference for this issue in Benin City (Ediagbonya 2018, 389).

Felicity Bodenstein is a PostDoc fellow at Technische Universität Berlin. Her research focus is on the history of archaeological and ethnographic collections, and her current project for translocations is entitled »A Twentieth Century History of Absence and Presence in Benin City: Presentations and Representations of Objects Looted in 1897«.

Sources and literature

Michael Ediagbonya, »Oba Erediauwa: The Philosopher King (1979-2016)«, in: Oriiz U. Onuwaje (ed.), The Benin Monarchy. An Anthology of Benin History, Nigeria 2018, pp. 361–95.

Jeanette Greenfield, The Return of Cultural Treasures. Cambridge, New York 1989.

Kiwara-Wilson, Salome. 2013. « Restituting Colonial Plunder: The Case For The Benin Bronzes and Ivories ». Journal of Art Technology and Intellectual Property Law 23 (2): 375–426.

Joseph Nevadomsky,  »The Great Benin Centenary«, in: African Arts 30 (3), 1997, pp 1–10, available online.

Barbara Plankensteiner, »The Benin Treasures: Difficult Legacy and Contested Heritage«, in: Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin et Lyndel V. Prott (eds.), Cultural Property and Contested Ownership: The Trafficking of Artefacts and the Quest for Restitution, New York, London 2016, pp. 132–66.

Cite this article as:
Oba Erediauwa: Adress at the Commencement of the Great Benin Centenary Activities (1997), kommentiert von Felicity Bodenstein, in: Translocations. Anthologie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Quellentexte zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike, https://translanth.hypotheses.org/ueber/oba-erediauwa, published 19.10.2018.

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