From The Horniman: Uwangue

By paulcox Last edited 183 months ago

Last Updated 13 March 2009

From The Horniman: Uwangue


Throughout March we're exploring the collections of our Museum of the Month, the Horniman in Forest Hill.

Oba Ewuare was the first great ruler of the Empire of Benin, bringing the ancient West African kingdom to supremacy in the 15th century. His rule coincided with the visit of the first Portuguese traders in 1472, heralding the arrival of okun, the prosperity that came from the sea. Seeing an opportunity, the Oba elevated the role of the royal order of Iwebo, equivalent to London's own Great Wardrobe, to place them in charge of foreign trade. Chief among them was the Uwangue, pictured on this brass plaque flanked by a pair of sinister Iberian figures.

Sinister they were indeed, for the focus of European interests soon turned to slaves, which the Iwebo were happy to provide fresh from Benin's wars of expansion. However, as the Empire's dominance grew Oba Ewuare's grandson Esigie decided that Benin could make do producing textiles and arts and snubbed the Europeans, restricting the export of male slaves in 1516. This refusal sidelined Benin from the most lucrative business of the next 300 years, but given the predatory record of the industry, probably ensured the kingdom's survival right through the 19th century.

The end finally came with the killing of six British representatives in the kingdom in 1897, following which a British punitive expedition burned the capital to the ground and destroyed many of the finest artistic treasures Africa has ever produced. Much of what they brought back as trophies were brass plaques pried off the palace walls, the so-called Benin Bronzes, a small collection of which now exist in the Horniman's African Worlds gallery. Despite their dark past, the museum's display has received the blessings of the Nigerian government after consultations with the Benin people, and detailed interpretation is now provided with input from Benin City National Museum curator Joseph Eboreime.