A former BBC correspondent from Africa offers a history of the Benin Bronzes. Looted from the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Nigeria by British soldiers at the end of the 19th century, the Bronzes are now on display at the British Museum. But whether they should be returned to their homeland is a matter of debate among Brits and Nigerians alike.
... [a] gripping work of live history ... The storytelling is crisp, balanced and authoritative ... It is the handling of this seeping undertone of racism that makes this book so valuable, a primer for the debate on colonial guilt and echoing white supremacy ... It is this incremental change of attitudes that stands out in this telling book ... this book’s laser-sharp focus on the casenotes from one instance of colonial cruelty allows for a much more informed understanding of the wider issue.
Mr. Phillips has written a humane and thoughtful book, devoid of the sort of posturing that mars the debate over the repatriation of objects brought to the West during the colonial era ... Mr. Phillips is much more nuanced than the authors of a report commissioned by President Macron of France, who said that their country should give back 'any objects taken by force or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions' ... By contrast, Mr. Phillips regards the return of stolen artifacts—today preserved in world-class museums in conditions their native lands couldn’t match—as a process of gradual and civilized negotiation.
The story Phillips tells is one we’ve heard before ... But rarely have books like Loot focused so in-depth on the perspectives of Africans. As Loot makes clear, whether in the form of Nollywood films or oral histories handed down across generations, Nigerians have had a lot to say about the Benin Bronzes ... [a] stylish tome ... One of Phillips’s few missteps comes early on, when he makes the mistake of...centering Europe, opening [a] section in 1486 with the first contact between Benin and Portuguese explorers. But Phillips quickly recovers by doing something most writers have not: he paints a touching portrait of the kingdom and the people who inhabited it ... It is easy to lapse into ire while writing of these events. Phillips does not. He attempts as much as possible to remain a neutral interlocutor ... In one thrilling stretch, Phillips attempts to plumb the psychologies of Europeans who still own Benin Bronzes ... Gradually, however, Europeans are releasing their grasp on the Benin Bronzes—and it’s possible that a book like Loot could offer some readers the context needed to get behind Phillips’s cause.