Benin bronze made from German brass

Many of the famous Benin bronzes looted by British colonial authorities in 1897 are made from brass manilas from the German Rhineland, new research shows.

Benin bronzes have become emblematic of debates about restoration and colonial appropriation of native art (Robert Michael/dpa/Picture Alliance)
Benin bronzes have become emblematic of debates about restoration and colonial appropriation of native art (Robert Michael/dpa/Picture Alliance)

For years, researchers have been puzzled over the origin of the metals used for the famous bronze statues and plaques looted during Britain’s 1897 colonial occupation of Benin State (present-day Nigeria).

Before the UK took over the bronze trade in West Africa, those initial raids looted the vast majority of Benin bronzes.

There are more than 3,000 Benin bronzes in total, but most are displayed in European and North American institutions – such as the Ethnological Museum in Berlin and the British Museum in London. Only a few are currently housed in museums in Nigeria.

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Benin bronze metal source a mystery

Researchers have long suspected that the brass used to create the impressive statues was transported to Benin via Portuguese trade routes in the 15th century, but they have not been able to trace where the metals originated in Europe.

A study published Wednesday by researchers from Georg Agricola at the Technische Hochschule in the German city of Bochum provides evidence that Benin’s 16th- and 17th-century bronzes came from Germany’s Rhineland region.

“The Benin bronzes are among the most famous ancient works of art in all of West Africa,” study author Tobias Skowronek said in a statement. “Finally, we can prove the completely unexpected: the brass used for the Benin masterpieces, long thought to come from Britain or Flanders, was excavated in western Germany. This is the first time a scientific link has been made.”

Manillas a possible source

Historians have long suspected that Benin bronzes were made from manilas, the distinctive horseshoe-shaped objects sent to Africa by the Portuguese in the late 15th century.

Manilas were made of bronze, copper or brass and were used as currency. They were originally made in many European countries at different times in history then shipped to Africa via European traders.

The researchers thought that by tracing the history of the manilas, they could find the source of the brass used in the Benin bronzes.

Work by Rolf Denk, author of West African manila currency, identifies three main types of manila used in West Africa between 1439 and 2019.

The earliest manilas known as “Tacois” were traded by the Portuguese in the 1450s. They were traded in the kingdoms of Benin and Elmina (present-day Ghana), and were made from metal originating in Germany.

The second type were the “Birmingham” manilas, which were used in present-day southeastern Nigeria from 1625 to 1949. They were made of metal in Britain.

A third type used from 1600 to 1914—”popo” manillas—varied from both Birmingham and Tacois and was traded in the Ivory Coast. They were made in the UK, the Netherlands, Portugal and France.

Manila Classification System Crack Code

A new study from Germany pieces the puzzle together using Denk’s classification system and chemical analysis of Manila and Benin bronzes.

The researchers analyzed about 70 manilas physically identifiable as “takois” from shipwrecks in African, American and European waters between the 16th and 19th centuries.

The composition of Tacoais manillas, they found, was very similar to the composition of Benin bronzes. Both of them contained ore from the Rhineland in Germany.

The authors concluded that Benin artisans may have melted manilas originating in Germany to make Benin bronzes.

“This study definitively identifies the Rhineland as a major source of manila at the beginning of Portuguese trade,” the authors wrote in the study. “Millions of these artifacts were sent to West Africa where they probably provided a major, almost the only, source of brass for West African casters between the 15th and 18th centuries, including serving as the major metal source for Benin bronze.”

The authors add that their research provides new insights into early Atlantic trade and African use of European goods.

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