Close examination of this brass plaque reveals the details of an important encounter between Africa and Europe.
The eye is immediately drawn to the imposing central figure of the seated oba (king). He adopts an assured frontal pose expressing his power and majesty. He is richly adorned in coral bead regalia and holds a ceremonial axe in his right hand. At his side are two kneeling attendants in similar though less elaborate dress.
Visually less impressive are the two figures ‘suspended’ on either side of the oba’s crown. The lower depth of the figures and their smaller scale firmly establishes their status in relation to the king. These are head and shoulder snapshots of outsiders – in this case Portuguese – represented with long flowing hair, beards and studded helmets. One of the figures clutches a manilla, a brass or copper bracelet used as currency).
Direct trade between Europe and West Africa started after 1470 when Portuguese ships arrived on the Atlantic coast. These European traders brought coral, cowrie (sea snail) shells, cloth and vast quantities of brass (in the form of bracelets, known as manillas) which they exchanged for ivory, slaves, gum and palm kernels.
Benin, southern Nigeria, was at the height of its power and influence in the sixteenth century when this plaque was made. The oba’s control over trade with Europeans is highlighted by their smaller scale. Guilds of craftsmen based in the palace compound used the imported raw materials to make relief plaques and regalia. This reinforced the authority of the oba.
Early European visitors to Benin City described with awe these brass plaques. They commemorated the achievements of the king and celebrated the wealth of his kingdom. They were made from approximately 1550 to 1650 AD and were probably produced in matching pairs. The plaques were used to clad the wooden pillars of the royal palace in Benin City.