- Museum number
Equestrian figure; lost-wax cast in brass. Male figure wearing elaborate feathered headdress with upright finial. Dressed in skin armour, with short-sleeved patterned garment below, enormous beaded ruff-like collar, beaded forehead band, leather armbands and spurs. Holds bridle in left hand and spear in right; plaited cane shield on left side. Horse stands on hollow rectangular pedestal base decorated around sides with interlace patterns.
- Production date
- 16thC(mid)-17thC(mid) (circa)
Height: 48 centimetres
Weight: 13.20 kilograms
Width: 15 centimetres
Depth: 31 centimetres
- Curator's comments
See similar equestrian figures at the National Museum Lagos, NCMM, accession number: 59.23.7 and at the Weltmuseum Wien, accession number: 64.796.
See Collection File: Af1944,04.1-77.
Many interpretations have been offered that explain the meaning of the over half a dozen known equestrian statuettes and the single plaque that depicts a similar figure Von Luschan (1919: 174) was probably the first to speculate about the identity of the equestrian. He thought that it represented a foreigner. The usual features and dress of the statuettes led Dark (1960: 47) to assert that the horse rider portrayed a Yoruba warrior. Fagg (1970a: fig. 30) thought that the figure represents an emissary from a northern emirate.
Both Tunis (1979b: 392-394) and Karpinski (1984: 55-60) challenged these assertions. Both thought the horseman represents a king of Benin. For Tunis, that king is Ehengbuda (c.1578-1608) dressed in the outfit of an Oyo Yoruba cavalryman and commemorates Ehengbuda’s victory over the Oyo. Karpinski follows Ben-Amos’ (1980: fig, 37) idea that the horseman is modelled after Oranmiyan (c.1200) the founder of the present dynasty and reputed to have introduced horses into Benin. Tradition holds that Oranmiyan was from the kingdom of Ife and it is suggested that his status as a foreigner is what brass casters wished to depict.
Because several of the castings have the cats’ whisker facial sacrifications like those found among the Nupe and Igala peoples that live to the north of the Benin kingdom Nevadomsky (1986: 40-47) offers that the horseman is the Attah of Idah, ruler of the Igala. Idah served as the capital of a formidable centralized political system that sometime around 1515-1516 challenged Benin’s hegemony for control over the southern reaches of the River Niger. Oba Esigie and his Benin army repulsed the invasion at the entrance to Benin City, and then routed the Attah’s army finally conquering it and entering Idah after which the Attah became a vassal of the king of Benin. A place ceremony commemorates this event.
In a subsequent essay Nevadomsky (1993a: 207-233) contends that the horse rider represents Oba Esigie (c.1504-1550), one of the three great warrior kings. He argues that the costume is a blend of European and local ceremonial attire, and the weapons are locally manufactured. The horseman at the Liverpool Merseyside Museum (Fleming 1979) has been dated by thermoluminescence to 1569 ± 40 years that places it within King Esigie’s reign supporting Fagg’s (1978) claim that the more finely modelled equestrian figures were produced in the 16th century. A brass plaque of Esigie on horseback at the British Museum celebrates his Idah victory.
Other plaques show mounted Benin warriors (von Luschan 1919; figs. 319-322) and their adversaries (von Luschan 1919: figs. 382-383, 384-386, 387). Ivory bracelets, fly whisks and idiophones also depict mounted horsemen (Karpinski 1984: fig 10), the Attah of Idah (Nevadomsky 1986: figs. 7-8), and Portuguese visitors (von Luschan 1919: fig. 74; Karpinski 1984: fig 9). The ceremonial and symbolic role of the horse is well documented (Hodgkin 1975: Ryder 1977). In a region infected with the tsetse fly that is deadly to both cattle and horses, the king made annual appearances on horseback accompanied by dwarf, musicians, and retainers. And in 1505 King Emmanuel of Portugal sent Oba Esigie a caparisoned horse with silks, linens, caps, hoods and coral beads (Egharevba 1968: 27; Ryder 1969: 40-50). A striking feature of the equestrians is the headgear that adds monumentality to the castings. The filial that tops the headgear is an ancient crown, a hollowed out maize cob or woven palm fronds filled with amulets. A coral covered filial made of palm fronds tops one of the Oba’s crowns even today. The head dress, feathered with the red (the colour of war, vitality and strength) tail feathers of the West African Grey Parrot, signifies omniscience and otherworldly power. It is also a signature of priesthood and of village cult masquerades. The band of beads round the forehead secures the headdress and is a mark of chiefly rank. The wide ruff-like collar is more than likely a modification of Dutch or Iberian apparel of the period or maybe a mimesis of some of the gift sent by the King of Portugal (Tunis 1979: 393). The leather tunic is an indigenous war garment, ritually treated and ornamented with cowries, a traditional form of money and fortune. A shirt of chain mail is hidden beneath the surcoat of one of the figures; the use of metal armour is well documented for this region (Law 1980: 132). On several horsemen the rider’s kilt is drawn up over the left hip, woven from raffia palm leaves or possibly stitched leather (Melzian 1937: 155; Connah 1975: pl. 45).
Both statuettes (but not the plaque) hold a plaited cane tray shield, a powerful talisman that ensures the rider will return from war. The shields resemble the market trays of women. Aphorisms support this and small necklace versions are still worn, oddly by thieves. The spear is a typical weapon. The spurs are probably woven raffia or hemp. Like the spurs of a rooster they signify strength. The equipage of the figures varies from saddles made of soaked bark, shaped then dried. Usually the equipage lacks saddle, saddlecloth, pommel or girth. The harness is a bitless bridle and the horses’ necks are decorated with crotals and bells that jangle to intimate the enemy. The base is decorated with a motif that signifies long life. Only the cat whiskers’ scarification motif on several equestrians is problematic.
However, equestrian figures were cast over several centuries (and up to the very recent past). They have multiple and overlapping meanings. The cat’s whiskers motif may have been embellishment by the caster, a design that resonated at certain times or a whim. Several centuries after this casting was made the explorer Belzoni sketched similar figures on a royal ancestral altar (Fagg 1977: 1330-1331). In 1892 Oba Ovonramwen [reportedly] gave the trader J.H. Swainson a horseman figure as a wedding gift that is now in the Liverpool Merseyside Museum. In local thought a horseman is conceptualized as a ruler, and more generally conquest and imperialism. An equestrian with/without facial scarification has come to signify the Benin-Idah War, and serves as cast mnemonic of that event, of the rulers that fought each other for hegemony over the lower Niger River, and a generalized iconographic statement about political and mystical power.
- On display (G25/dc7)
- Exhibition history
1970-1973, London, Museum of Mankind, Divine Kingship in Africa
1991 Feb-Apr, Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Man and Metal in Ancient Nigeria
1993-1997, London, Museum of Mankind, Great Benin: a West African Kingdom
2007 May-Sept, Vienna, Museum für Völkerkunde, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
2007-2008 Oct-Jan, Paris, Musée du quai Branly, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
2008 Feb-May, Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
2008 Jun-Sept, Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
- Good. Spear bent in centre.
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- During the British Expedition to Benin City (Edo) in 1897 objects made of brass, ivory, coral and wood were looted by British soldiers from the royal palace, its storerooms and compounds.
Some of these objects were sold or exchanged in West Africa. However, many were brought to the UK where they were retained by members of the expedition and subsequently inherited by their families; put up for auction; or donated, lent, or sold to museums.
This equestrian fiigure was previously in the collection of the Cranmore Ethnographical Museum established by Harry Geoffrey Beasley and his wife, Irene Marguerite Beasley, in 1928.
Much of the Beasley collection was distributed following Harry Beasley’s death in 1939. This object formed part of the donation made by Irene Beasley to the British Museum in 1944.
Recorded in Beasley's ledger as purchased on 24 March 1928 from a Mrs H. Mutch, West Chase?/Cleare?, Callington, Cornwall. Price paid noted as £27.10.6 (pers. comm. Tim Teuten, 1 July 2012).
- Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Registration number