Exactly this week 118 years ago, a significant event that deserves its own memorial day occurred in the great Benin Empire in West Africa.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest any such solemn memorial full of big speeches, unveiling of monuments, or even any slight recognition is planned anywhere in the continent or in the world.
The British punitive expedition of the Benin Empire is one of those aspects of Africa’s history that has been waiting to be told appropriately. I am there pleased that finally the story is not just being narrated to the wider world but is being done in motion.
What really makes the recently released Nollywood style film Invasion 1897 unique is that it is being told and acted not just from the African perspective but by the indigenous Edo people of Benin who understand the significance more than anyone else.
The film director, Lancelot Oduwa Imaseun, who happens to have directed another favourite Nollywood film “The Private Sin”, needs to be applauded for the great effort.
Given the huge collection of Benin artefact at the British Museum, you would expect a greater awareness of this significant event. These great works of art at the museum are usually appreciated for their aesthetics and finesse but rarely for the history of how they got to be there in the first place.
Someone once said that art is political; otherwise it would be just decoration. The film therefore did a great job at exploring the politics of these artefacts in addition to their history.
What usually strikes me whenever I see these exhibits at the British Museum is that these are hardly the works of starving or ignorant savages. People do not embrace art to such details when they are hungry or lack appreciation of the abstract.
The second aspect I find intriguing is the technology involved. The third aspect is that the British valued them so much that they preferred to rescue and keep all of that to themselves instead of burning them as they did to the city.
However, the most baffling thing while perusing these artefacts is that there is no commemoration of the politics of these art works.
Those who get passionate about the politics of it often harbour the desire to see these items returned to where they belong, and that is precisely what the main character of the film wanted to do.
To paraphrase Achebe in Arrow of God, History is a like a goa- skin bag; every man carries his own. People choose what to emphasis and what not to. I have known about the invasion of Benin for a very long time possibly from my secondary school days most probably through my own curiosity rather than it being a national discourse.
The reason given by Britain for the punitive war which was mainly a revenge for the killing of some of their representatives was widely known. However, it always stopped there.
What happened before then remained a mystery for a long time and this film has successfully demystified that. The problem with history is not just about from whose perspective it is being told but at what point you start.
The analysis of who did what first is what should make history exciting if ever it can be told from a neutral perspective. Another aspect of the history that the film illuminates is the role played by Africans themselves throughout the colonisation and dispossession period.
The film graphically depicts a war that was really brutal and had casualties on both sides. However, with superior European firearms, the outcome was predictable.
The film director may have underestimated the seriousness with which his London audience viewed those events when he stated that he was not particularly bothered by whether the artefacts were returned or not as long as the earnings from them were paid back and current Benin art promoted to enable the current artists to earn as much.
Despite the great story behind the film, he seemed to have further infuriated his audience by sounding a bit apologetic about telling the raw and graphic truth of these events. It only goes to show that it is one thing to tell the history but completely a different thing what we choose to do with it.
For me personally, even though I would be very happy to see the artefacts returned to Benin, what is more important is that we celebrate the greatness and ingenuity of the people whose lives they represent as well as commemorate the circumstances and journeys the artefacts have made.
The film is definitely worth seeing. The poetic language and musical rituals at the Oba’s palace are indeed majestic. It is full of colour and characters. It also interestingly captures the British aspects of the story. It is the work of bravery and determination.
The fact that the audience grilled the director with critiques only showed the hunger for such historical films from the African perspective. People expected to see a lot more out of it and it’s funny that some saw one comical character in the film as a distraction from a serious story.
I thought it was fun and really entertaining. My main criticism of the film is that it could have done with some “proof viewing” if you like.