Between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Benin Empire ruled the area of present day Nigeria. During this time, many highly refined metal and ivory commemorative objects were produced for the royal court to honor the Obas, or rulers. The quantity of brass necessary to produce these plaques was made possible by trade with Portuguese merchants. The Benin, who dominated trade in West Africa, imported European brass bracelets in exchange for pepper, ivory and slaves.
The king’s palace or court is a square, and is as large as the town of Haarlem and entirely surrounded by a special wall, like that which encircles the town. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam, but one larger than another, resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles…”
— Olfert Dapper, Description of Africa, (1668)
At the end of the 19th century, European missionaries encountered these extraordinary objects during the Benin Expedition of 1897. Unfortunately in 1899, Benin City razed in retaliation for alleged violence directed at the European foreigners and much of the artwork accumulated over the centuries by the nobility were stolen. As a result, today as few as fifty pieces remain in Nigeria, although approximately 2400 pieces are held in European and American collections, such as the British Museum.
Be sure to check out the links below especially the BBC audio to learn more about these fascinating objects and the history of Western Africa!