There are over nine hundred plaques of this type in various museums in Europe and America. Many of the plaques now in The British Museum were collected during the British Punitive Expedition in 1897. They are thought to have been made in matching pairs and fixed to pillars in the Oba’s palace in Benin City.
Decoration for the king’s palace
Earlier accounts written by Europeans visiting the city describe its size and scale. The palace complex was set up around atrium courtyards; some had galleries with wooden pillars supporting the roof. Brass plaques, possibly made in series, were fixed to these pillars. The plaques show aspects of Benin court life in the sixteenth century, shortly after Europe’s first contact with West Africa. The plaques show how the people of Benin perceived the Portuguese traders and their soldiers, with their pointed noses, thin faces and beards and strange clothes. Their presence on the decorations of the king’s palace shows how the Portuguese were regarded as symbols of the king’s wealth and power, to which their trade contributed so much.
Benin society was highly structured with a King (Oba) who was believed to be a direct descendant of Oranmiyan, the legendary founder of the dynasty. The Oba was the spiritual, secular and ritual head of the kingdom, considered a deity and held in the highest veneration. He retained control over the major export resources (ivory, slaves, gum and palm kernels) and over trade between the kingdom and Europeans. Art was an important instrument of ideology and the Oba controlled the artistic production of the palace craftsmen. The Oba was also the head of government, collecting taxes, and was the owner of all land in the country. He had two classes of chiefs, Palace and Town Chiefs who were responsible for the administration of the kingdom. The Palace Chiefs were from rich families and belonged to three associations: Iwebo, who looked after the Oba’s regalia, organized the guilds of craftsmen, and conducted negotiations with Europeans; Ibiwe, who were responsible for the Oba’s family, and Iweguae, who provided the domestic staff of officials and servants for the palace.
Overseas trade was one reason why the king’s power was associated with water, the ocean and the river trade routes by which the European goods came to Benin. It is said that an ancient king of Benin once defeated the sea-god Olokun in a wrestling match on the beach and took from him the coral which the kings have used for their regalia ever since. Mudfish are often shown on plaques because they hop in and out of the water in the coastal mangrove swamps, and are at home on land as well as in the sea, in the same way that the king has authority over both domains.
Another important symbol on plaques are leopards. These show that the king is also master of the tropical forest which covered most of Benin until recent times. The leopard is king of the forest, just as the Oba of Benin is king of the city and villages where his people live. The king used to keep leopards, which were paraded on important occasions like mascots, and he sometimes killed them as sacrifices to his gods.
So when we see various animals on plaques, they are there for more than just decoration. Throughout West Africa people tell stories and proverbs about all kinds of creatures, wild and domestic, and many of them have characters which reveal important human qualities, in these cases usually those of the king. So crocodiles, the “policeman of the waters,” when shown on a plaque probably stand for the king’s authority to punish wrongdoers, whilst the python was the king of snakes, and the messenger of the god Olokun.
Oba of Benin with attendants
A great number of people played their own parts in the ritual pageantry, as chiefs and officials, craft guilds or representatives of local communities. Even more were involved as craftworkers producing splendid costumes and ritual paraphernalia for the king and chiefs, like those shown in many of the plaques, or as farmers supplying food for the feasts. Many of the plaques probably represent events or characters from these annual ceremonies, some of which the king of Benin still carries out today.
The one above seems to show a procession, with a king or chief flanked by attendants who shade him from the sun with their shields. They are dressed in fine cloth worked in elaborate patterns, whose colorful appearance we can only now imagine. Smaller figures, whose size as well as their scanty clothing shows their lesser importance, carry a ceremonial sword and the kind of circular box used to present gifts. But, as with so many of the Benin plaques, exactly what this scene was meant to show is now difficult to interpret.
The Oba with Europeans
This plaque has the figure of the Oba in the centre, dressed in a loin-cloth with a plaited border and a close-fitting, sleeved upper garment, covered with cylindrical beads. He is accompanied by two attendants, as well as representations of long-haired Europeans which are shown either side of his head.
Showing the ruler flanked by two attendants is a typical pictorial composition of brass and ivory works from Benin. One interpretation of it is as a reminder of the heavy burden of kingship. This is based on the myth of Oba Ewuare (about 1440-1470) one of Benin’s famous warrior kings, who having stolen the coral-bead regalia of Olokun, god of the sea, felt the heavy weight of the spiritually-charged regalia symbolizing the kingship and related obligations, and asked the people to help him carry it.
The composition can therefore be seen as referring to the weight of office and to the responsibility of the people to assist their ruler.
B. Plankensteiner, Benin kings and rituals: court arts from Nigeria (Paris/Berlin, 2007).
P. Girshick Ben-Amos, The Art of Benin (London, 1995).
M. Alfert, “Relationships between African tribal art and modern western art,” Art Journal 31 (1972), 387-396.
E. Barkan, “Aesthetics and evolution: Benin art in Europe,” African Arts 30, no. 3 (1997,) The Benin Centenary, pp. 36-93.
S.B. Alpern, “What Africans got for their slaves: a master list of European trade goods,” History in Africa 22 (1995), 5-43.
B.W. Blackmun, “From trader to priest in two hundred years: the transformation of a foreign figure on Benin ivories,” Art Journal 47 (1988), 128-138.
S.P. Blier, “Imaging otherness in ivory: African portrayals of the Portuguese, ca 1492,” Art Bulletin 75 (1993), 375-396.
E. Eyo, “The dialectics of definitions: “massacre” and “sack” in the history of the Punitive Expedition,” African Arts 30, no. 3 The Benin Centenary, pp. 34-5.
J.D. Fage, “Slavery and the slave trade in the context of West African history,” Journal of African History 10 (1969), 393-404.
© Trustees of the British Museum