At the end of the 19th Century British troops looted thousands of works of art from the Benin Empire – in modern-day Nigeria – and brought them home. One soldier’s grandson inherited two bronzes but recently returned them to their original home.
“It’s an image that’s deeply ingrained in my memory. The dead body seemed unreal. It’s not a picture you can easily forget,” says Mark Walker.
He was 12 years old when he first saw his grandfather’s diary – the photographs inside made a deep impression.
“They were very faded, but perhaps the most shocking one for me was a partly dried-up body being held up by two men on a pole.
“Clearly the people lifting the body didn’t actually want to touch it and that seemed to me to capture the feeling my grandfather also had about them. It was something so horrible you wanted to keep it at arm’s length,” says Mark.
The pictures were taken by his grandfather, Capt Herbert Walker, in West Africa in 1897.
The two Walkers never met – Herbert died in 1932, 15 years before his grandson was born and Mark’s grandmother showed him the journal, titled To Benin and back, while he was staying with her in 1959.
The Benin Kingdom, which is now part of Nigeria, had a wealth of natural resources including ivory, palm oil and rubber which the UK was keen to control.
But in January 1897, seven British officials who were on their way to see the Oba of Benin – the king – were killed in an ambush.
The Times of London reported that the men “on quite a peaceful mission” had been “massacred by the King’s people”.
It is unclear who, if anyone, ordered the killings and there are indications that the mission was not as peaceful as the British press described it. Although its leader, acting Consul-General James Phillips had sent a message to the Oba asking to discuss trade and peace, he had told London he wanted to depose him.