Another Man’s War

In 1897, Britain responded to the killing of a group of officials by invading and plundering an ancient African kingdom. The men had been travelling to Benin City, in what is now Nigeria, when they were ambushed and killed by local soldiers. Just six weeks later, the British had exacted their revenge, set Benin aflame, exiled the king and annexed the territory. They also made off with some of Africa’s greatest works of art.

This is the story of the ‘Benin Bronzes’, their creation, removal, and what should happen to them now. When first exhibited in London they caused a sensation and helped reshape European attitudes towards Africa, challenging the prevailing view of the continent as ‘backward’ and without culture. But seeing them in the British Museum today is, in the words of one Benin City artist, like ‘visiting relatives behind bars’. In a time of fevered debate about the legacies of empire, museums and history, what does the future hold for the Bronzes? 

“Brilliant.. expertly marshalled historical research and compelling narrative.”

William Boyd– novelist

“This timely, thoughtful and beautifully crafted volume deftly guides us through a truly astounding passage of events. These are the kind of histories that change the way that we look at things we thought we knew – whilst shocking us at the things that we simply hadn’t grasped.”

Gus Casely-Hayford, Director V&A East, former Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

“Vivid, dramatic and colourful, Loot is a story of empire running amok. It still has huge resonance in the debate about colonialism and racism today.”

Kwasi Kwarteng, MP, Author Ghosts of Empire 

“Accessible yet nuanced we hear the voices of a contested history from the looters themselves and the bronze casters of Benin City, to the leaders of the world’s major cultural institutions and so many other players in this drama. Barnaby takes us on a journey raising important questions about empire and the meaning of art, civilisation and culture.”

Clive Myrie, BBC Chief Correspondent and Presenter

“Reading Barnaby Phillips’s Loot is like walking a sniffing dog through the minds, homes, and storerooms of the government agents, military adventurers, museums, art dealers, and collectors… Brilliant evidenced-based and well-argued case for restitution and return of the looted religious and ceremonial objects to the rightful owner- the Benin Kingdom. It is a highly recommended book that will thrill the reader to the last page.”

Uyilawa Usuanele, Associate Professor of African History, State University of New York.