This essay deals with the nature of a cross cultural encounter between the Benin people and Portuguese traders in the 15th and 16th centuries, which resulted in the depiction of Portuguese figures in Benin brass plaques. It will propose that this contact between people with different cultures was on the basis of 'mutual regard' (Woods, K. 2008, p. 16), and although the Portuguese had qualms about idolatry in Benin it will show that assumptions by Europeans up to the 20th century of the primitive nature of tribal African societies was inaccurate with regard to the Benin people, who had a society based on the succession of the King or 'Oba', a Royal Family and Nobility. The essay will finally suggest that Benin’s increase in wealth following the arrival of the Portuguese led to a resurgence in bronze sculptures and the introduction of a new form, the rectilinear plaque.
The plaque under consideration, is of a forward facing man, with an aquiline nose, thin lips, neatly trimmed beard, wearing a sun hat with flaps and looking intently at the viewer. He is dressed in a typical 16th century Portuguese style, wearing a decorated tunic with padded shoulders and tight breeches with short boots. He has a business like manner, carrying in his right hand a brass manilla, the main item of exchange with Benin, and a walking cane in the other. It is significant that he is not armed, clearly indicating he is safe in foreign surroundings. The background is pleasingly stylised with clusters of petals set against a stippled ground imbuing a secure feeling.
It seems probable that Fernao Gomes, a Portuguese 'merchant adventurer' discovered the kingdom of Benin in 1474 (Wood, K. 2008, p. 8), seeking trading opportunities and looking for gold. The Portuguese traded brass manillas (copper and zinc needed to make brass was in short supply in Benin) for slaves, who were usually the captured enemies of Benin (Woods, K. 2008, p. 8), then resold them further along the coast, using the proceeds to buy gold.
According to Joseph Eboreime, a Nigerian historian, the bronze heads are a visual history of the Benin Royal Family from before 1440 until 1897 (Woods, K. 2008, p. 12). It appears that the bronzes were seen only by the Oba and Royal Court with access to the royal compounds and rooms, during ceremonies commemorating their ancestors (Ben-Amos in Woods, K. 2008, p. 12) . It is also unlikely they were seen in situ by the Portuguese traders either (Pereira, D. P. also Pina, R. both in Woods, K. and MacKenzie, R. 2008, p. 33).
Finally, the plaques are clear evidence of a mutually beneficial cultural encounter with Portuguese traders in which both parties gained. It could be speculated that the rectilinear form of the plaques arose from Benin craftsmen seeing Portuguese oil paintings, but there is no evidence of this. The plaques, however, do first appear after contact with the Portuguese, following which there was a resurgence in bronze sculptures, probably as a...