In Focus

Plaque with single figure

This plaque of a high-ranking warrior chief is from the powerful Benin kingdom. Located inland from the Niger River Delta in present-day Nigeria, the African kingdom was founded in the 10th century and reached its height during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Benin art, made to glorify the reigning and ancestral kings (oba), served as both a sign of status and record of court life. Many 17th century visitors described seeing plaques engraved with pictures on their travels. One Dutch account, published in 1668 by Olfert Dapper, referred to the plaques in a description of the palace complex:

"The king’s court is square . . . and is certainly 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 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, and are kept very clean."

A casting in Berlin provides further evidence of the plaques. Accounts of the plaques’ existence all but disappeared in the 18th and 19th centuries, only to resurface in 1897 following the British Punitive Expedition.

The warrior chief on this plaque is dressed in formal military attire—consisting of a shirt and a layered, leopard skin wrapper or kilt—an elaborate hat decorated with horsehair, a coral beaded choker, a leopard tooth necklace, and a bell for signaling his position on the battlefield. He carries a knife under his left arm and a sword in his right hand. The foliate background is thought to represent healing river leaves, and the rosettes cast in relief are thought to symbolize an Edo belief that the sun made a daily voyage from the sky into the sea and back again—the source of Benin wealth transported in the ships.

Edo metalsmiths were casting brass before the late 15th century when the Portuguese, the first European visitors to the area, arrived bringing copper, a material valued by the Bini. The Portuguese explorer Duarte Pacheco Pereira noted in the 1490s that the Kingdom of Beny [sic] “is about eighty leagues long and forty wide; it is usually at war with its neighbors and takes captives, whom we buy at twelve or fifteen brass bracelets each, or for copper bracelets, which they prize more.” The brasscasters’ guild melted down the copper bracelets and over time cast plaques, equestrian figures and other statuary, portrait heads of rulers, pitchers in the form of leopards, boxes, and game boards. The demise of the powerful and glorious Benin kingdom came in 1897 following the British Punitive Expedition, a war waged in retaliation for the massacre of British soldiers in 1896, and the exile of the reigning king Ovoranmwen. The Edo throne was restored in 1914, but without its former power. (Today, Oba Erediauwa reigns as a member of one of the oldest extant dynasties in the world.)

The British government took Benin’s royal treasures as war booty, reserving some of the castings and carvings for the British Museum’s collection and selling some to defray the cost of the war and provide compensation for survivors of the fallen soldiers. This plaque is marked with the British Museum’s inventory number 98.1‑15.100. It originally bore the number 298 in white, which was the Foreign Office number and dates from the plaque’s arrival in England in 1898. The plaque was one of several works the British Museum sold periodically, from 1950 to 1970, to raise funds to establish a national museum in Lagos.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 44-46.

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