African designs, £9.99
Brass plaque of a European
16th century AD
There are over nine hundred plaques of this type in various museums in England, Europe and America. Many of those now in the British Museum were acquired during the British Punitive Expedition in 1897. At this time the palace of the Oba (king) in Benin City was being re-built and the plaques were half-buried in a storehouse. No record exists of how they were originally arranged but they are thought to have been made in matching pairs and fixed to pillars in the palace.
The plaques show aspects of Benin court life and ritual in the sixteenth century, shortly after Europe's first contact with West Africa. By this time there was a thriving trade between the people of Benin and Europeans; this plaque, like many others, depicts the latter. European traders brought with them brass in the form of bracelets (called manillas) and exchanged them for local goods. The trade may have encouraged the existing brass-casting industry and the production of rectangular plaques such as this one.