Britain has long faced calls to return the Benin bronzes, looted by its soldiers in 1897 from the kingdom of Benin, in what is now southern Nigeria, a former British colony. Now that pressure is set to intensify following the discovery of damning evidence that the then prime minister covered up a rape and other atrocities committed by one of his own officials in the region.
Previously unpublished Foreign Office documents reveal that Lord Salisbury failed to take any action against Consul George Annesley after reading internal reports of his abuse and violence – from having a local woman, called Ekang, brought to his quarters and assaulted by his soldiers while he held her down to ordering raids in which women and children were shot.
The prime minister initialled a note about Annesley’s atrocities, scribbling the words “very bad indeed”. But Annesley, the son of a Foreign Office official, was just quietly pensioned off, avoiding any public scandal.
The documents have been discovered in the Foreign Office archives by historian Paddy Docherty, who described them as “irrefutable evidence that prime minister Lord Salisbury oversaw the cover-up of the atrocious crimes of Annesley”. He told the Observer: “It’s truly shocking.”
He said that Salisbury was a leading Conservative figure representing “the high-water mark of the British Empire”, whose defence was “obviously much more important to him than any idea of justice”.
Docherty, a historian of empire, with a particular interest in the British Empire, is astonished that these documents have gone unnoticed until now. He argues that their revelations demolish any moral argument for Britain retaining some of Africa’s greatest art. In 1897, after British military officers and others were ambushed and killed by local soldiers, British troops took revenge, exiling the king and plundering treasures now scattered worldwide.
Docherty said that, while the Benin Punitive Expedition is often presented as “justified”, evidence in the Foreign Office archives proves that the invasion was planned for years.
The British Museum alone holds more than 900 bronzes created from the 16th century onwards. Last month, Jesus College, University of Cambridge, became the first UK institution to officially repatriate a Benin bronze, a cockerel.
Restituted works will be displayed at the Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, being designed by Sir David Adjaye.
A consortium of European museums has agreed to loan back hundreds of bronzes, and the British Museum has been working alongside the Legacy Restoration Trust in Nigeria on a major archaeology project linked to it.
Docherty’s discoveries will be included in his forthcoming book, Blood and Bronze: The British Empire and the Sack of Benin, to be published by Hurst Publishers in December.
In the acknowledgements, he pays tribute to Ekang as a victim of the British Empire: “She stands in for all those harmed by the British Empire with no hope of justice, and I dedicate this book to her.”
He said: “After lying hidden in the archives for over a century, the truth about Annesley and his reign of terror in the Niger Delta is revealed for the first time. [He] spent 18 months as British consul in Old Calabar from December 1889, during which he terrorised local people.”
The previously unseen documents include an 1891 letter sent to the prime minister by George Turner, a Sierra Leonean employed as consular clerk, who wrote that Annesley would “imprison all those who were obnoxious to him”.
Turner was chained to an iron pillar for having irritated him on the night of the rape. He was within earshot of Annesley’s quarters and recalled an assault sparked by accusations that Ekang had taken a soldier’s cap. Annesley had her brought to the consulate and Turner heard a sergeant announce: “The consul says, whoever feels inclined to cohabit with a woman must come upstairs.”
Turner also said: he heard: “the poor girl dragging herself down the stairs, crying bitterly”. “The soldiers came down and made it a matter of talk and laughter how [they] actually cohabited with Ekang, the consul himself assisting to hold her down.”
Docherty also found sworn testimonies about other atrocities. Archibong, king of Calabar, stated: “My house was broken into by Consul Annesley’s soldiers. My wives and female servants beaten.”
The documents show that Major Sir Claude MacDonald, who took charge of the British administration of the Niger Delta in 1891, objected to Annesley’s conduct and had a fellow officer take sworn statements, including Ekang’s. In an internal letter, MacDonald concluded: “Consul Annesley seems to have acted in a most unjust, harsh & unwarrantable manner.”
Previously unseen documents include a note initialled by Lord Salisbury from his private secretary: “It will be a good thing if Annesley retires. There are some very nasty stories about his proceedings.” Yet, Docherty said, “nowhere in the papers does anyone suggest that Annesley should be prosecuted. It was covered up. That’s why nobody has written about it until now.”
Dan Hicks, author of The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, is a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, which holds about 150 Benin objects that he believes should be returned. Last week, he published a report introducing guiding principles for transparency about these collections.
Hearing of the latest revelations, he said: “Increasingly, we’re learning about the sheer brutality of the Europeans in Africa in these periods. This detail that’s been highlighted in the archive is obviously shocking.”
The British Museum said: “The devastation and plunder wreaked upon Benin City during the British military expedition in 1897 is fully acknowledged by the Museum and the circumstances around the acquisition of Benin objects explained in gallery panels and on the museum’s website.”
• This article was amended on 22 November 2021 to make it clear that it was Jesus College, University of Cambridge, which became the first UK institution to repatriate a Benin bronze.