Nigerian Bronze Plaque (c.1550-1650)

The people of Benin city in Nigeria were very skilled in making items in bronze. Traditionally only men were allowed to work with metal. A lot of the bronze they used came from Europeans as part of trade. In return the Nigerians provided goods like ivory, pepper and slaves. Expert craftsmen lived inside the palace of the Oba or king. Outside the palace people lived in villages. Some villages also specialized in crafts and made items for their own communities. There are hundreds of bronze Benin plaques like this in museums around Europe and America. The British Museum has a large collection that were acquired during the British Punitive Expedition in 1897. Some people say that these were looted. There are no records existing of how these plaques were originally arranged. It is thought they were made in pairs and fixed to pillars in the king’s palace. The figures on this plaque are both wearing typical Benin court dress. The figure on the right is playing a double gong. This instrument was struck to signify the pleasure of the Oba (king). Benin had been in contact with Europeans since the Portuguese contacted them in the 1400s and became trade partners. Later interest and demand for bronze items led to some being made for Western markets. Guilds of specialists lived within the Oba’s palace. This included craftspeople, astrologers and drummers. In the palace and the villages craft specialists were usually men. There were strict religious rules that meant only men could handle metal. However, women could work with textiles and pottery. This particular plaque was retrieved from the bomb wreckage of Hull’s old Albion Street Museum. This museum and its records were destroyed by enemy bombs during the Second World War.