Brass figure of a Portuguese soldier holding a musket

From Benin, Nigeria, 17th century AD

Europe meets Africa

During the second half of the fifteenth century Portuguese navigators began to explore the West African coast. They arrived in Benin between 1472 and 1486, finding a sophisticated society ruled by a monarch, who was probably Oba Ozolua or Oba Esigie. The Portuguese had hoped to convert the people of Benin to Christianity but discovered them to be more interested in trade. The arrival of the Portuguese coincided with great political and artistic developments under the guidance of the oba (king); from then on most of the Benin 'bronzes' were cast from European brass acquired through trade.

Coral beads and large quantities of brass manillas, which were melted down by Benin smiths, were traded by the Portuguese for pepper, cloth and ivory, and for slaves.

Figures of Europeans such as this Portuguese soldier were kept on royal altars or on the roof of the royal palace in Benin city. The Portuguese were represented in Benin art in various forms. Their arrival by sea and the bringing of luxury goods enabled the Portuguese travellers to be incorporated into Benin ideas associated with the god Olokun, ruler of the sea and provider of wealth. Legend has it that the Oba fought with Olokun on the beach, subdued him and stripped him of his wealth. The exhibition of European figures probably commemorated and celebrated this victory.

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More information


K. Yoshida and J. Mack (eds.), Images of other cultures (Osaka, National Museum of Ethnology, 1997)

P. Girshick Ben-Amos, The art of Benin (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)


Height: 37.500 cm

Museum number

AOA 1928.1-12.1


Collected by Ralph Locke


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