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A group of African Americans have filed a lawsuit to stop the return of select Benin Bronzes from the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC to Nigeria. Leading the charge is Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, J.D., M.A., executive director of Restitution Study Group.
After 125 years, museums across Europe and the United States which housed and displayed stolen artifacts from the Kingdom of Benin (formerly southwest Nigeria) during a violent raid by British colonial forces, are taking steps to return the pieces.
The sculptures, plaques, ceremonial objects, altars and other artifacts that British soldiers stole in 1897 in this act of colonial violence are collectively known as the “Benin Bronzes.”
The Black Wall Street Times recently spoke with Farmer-Paellmann about why the prized possessions should stay here in the United States instead.
The DC lawyer states, “No one actually ever says how many people were enslaved. What we see is either ‘they [Benin] were the largest or greatest Kingdoms of the slave trade, so one of the things my organization is into is getting the specifics. We identified specific companies that were complicit in slavery. We found evidence around the people they enslaved so we could know for sure it was real. It’s the same thing for the Kingdom of Benin. We’re staying consistent.”
Noting the lack of media attention to the matter, she notes, “We are victims of ethnocide, it’s a part of a carelessness that they have for Black people then and today. we just didn’t matter — and to some — we still don’t matter. The only reason nobody cared is because we are the descendants of slaves. That is it.”
Farmer-Paellmann explains the challenge ahead. “Part of the challenge with the Kingdom of Benin is that we know slave trading took place at certain ports they controlled, but we don’t have the numbers yet.” She continued, “It requires more detailed analysis than what has been done.”
Research is what brought the lawsuit to light, though, she admits more needs to be done.“We can only reach out to people who are descendants from Nigeria because of [new] DNA testing. Now we know we need to investigate this situation more closely. Until now, most folks who engage in slavery scholarship talk about ‘those were the slaves’ as if they’re speaking about cattle. It’s a dehumanization of the people who were enslaved.”
“I see the bodies, I see us packed into ships, that’s what I see when I look at the Bronzes. It’s us I see on those walls.”
“They took these manillas in the 16th century, melted them down, and cast them into bronzes. The Portuguese were no longer able to get metal from Northern Africa as the trade route were shut down, then they started requiring the manillas. We know it’s true because it’s been researched.”
Farmer-Paellmann continued, “There’s so many aspects of this story that has not been researched – especially when it comes to slaves. There’s a lot of information that hasn’t been done yet. That’s what my organization does. We dig in there and get the details, but to this date, no one cared about the slaves.”
For the American descendants of those enslaved, Farmer-Paellmann argues the bronzes are as much ours as anyone in the Kingdom of Benin. She is also supported by many experts and leaders in the slavery reparation movement who agree, but also need further research into the matter. Stressing inaccurate facts and figures cited by the BBC’s earlier reporting, she says there is critical missing from the Trans Atlantic Trade Database which would help to puzzle together a solution for everyone.
The metal required for the production of the Benin Bronzes was acquired in a form known as manilla. This was a form of money in the shape of bracelets that were usually made either of bronze or of copper. These were brought to the Benin Empire by European traders, and were usually exchanged for slaves.
Farmer-Paellmann stated she would like to have a conversation with the Kingdom of Benin to “work out an arrangement that we can all be happy with.” She added, “we can work together to get the Bronzes from the more resistant entities.”
“We want our side of the story told because there would not be most of these Bronzes if they did not enslave us and use the metals to trade for us,” says Farmer-Paellmann.
The lawsuit claims that the bronzes are a part of the heritage of descendants of slaves in America, and that returning them would deny many the opportunity to experience their culture and history.
“I think about how many people had to be enslaved. Every single one of those artifacts represents a certain number of us that were enslaved. 50 manillas was one woman. 57 manillas was one man. The question is how many had to be enslaved to make that particular artifact hanging on the museum wall? It’s a crushing thing to consider,” says Farmer-Paellmann.
Slavery by another name
With human trafficking still a major factor in Benin, the State Department cites at least 49 cases of sex and labor trafficking of children in 2020, compared with 117 cases involving 117 suspects in 2019. Authorities reported prosecuting 72 cases under child trafficking and illegal transport of minors laws and 323 other cases that may have contained exploitative aspects under related statutes during the reporting period.
“Human trafficking is happening more regularly than we know; so, the need to constantly remind ourselves of this reality and the roles we all must play to combat it,” says Isaiah Bozimo, Chairman of the Delta State Taskforce on Human Trafficking and Irregular Migrations.
The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), began a campaign and dialogue session in endemic communities in Edo in August. NAPTIP’s Benin zonal office covering Edo, Delta and Bayelsa recorded at least 162 cases of human trafficking in the past 12 months and rescued 96 victims during the same period.
What can I do to keep the Benin Bronzes in America?
Supporters can also send a letter to the Smithsonian Board of Regents to tell them to stop the transfers and reverse the transfer of the 29 bronzes to Benin. On December 13th the Board will hold public hearings where citizens can voice their opinion on the bronzes deaccessioned in June and to not deaccession any more.
Farmer-Paellmann states the deaccessioning violates Smithsonian transfer rules — the law only allows transfer within the Smithsonian museum system unless they get payment. The 29 transferred are worth $200 million but they were illegally gifted to Nigeria and the Benin Kingdom slave trader heirs.