Rare Ivory Tusk with King’s Mark
Royal House of the Oba of Benin, Benin Kingdom
This carved ivory tusk is from the Kingdom of Benin and is carved with the Oba or King’s marks (these are the rectangular motifs with a spike at each corner). These rare and important marks show the tusk to have been the property of the royal house, if not part of the Oba’s treasury. There are three Oba’s marks in total.
There are also three bands of interlaced motifs which are the visual marks of the Igbesanmwan, the tightly-controlled hereditary guild of royal carvers attached to the palace. Guild members worked within the inner wall of the palace compound and their proximity to the palace was closer than even the highly-important brassworkers’ guild.
In many traditional African states, the supremacy of the ruler was expressed by his monopolisation of the ivory trade or of ivory ownership. Ivory was much desired as a legitimising material for Africa’s rulers. Almost unbreakable it served as a symbol for immortality, power and strength.
In Benin, one tusk from every elephant killed had to be given to the Oba and the other tusk had to be offered to the Oba for sale. This enabled the Oba to amass a large treasury of ivory and thereby control the ivory market. Such tusks were then carved with King’s marks to denote their royal status.
Ivory objects from Benin were intended primarily for use by the Oba himself, to be worn or used in rituals or placed in royal shrines. Non-figuratively carved tusks such as this example, were placed on the altars of the Iyoba (Queen Mother) in the Oba’s palace and also on altars that were collectively dedicated to previous Obas (Kings). Ivory tusks adorned the ancestral altars of the Oba from the seventeenth century onwards. But from the eighteenth century, the Ezomo, the commander-in-chief of the army also was conferred the right to place carved tusks on ancestral altars.
In Benin, the Iyoba (Queen Mother) was the only woman to occupy a high position in the political hierarchy. She was accorded a rank on a par with the highest ranking town chiefs according to Plankensteiner (2007). The position was not a right and was conferred: not all mothers of Obas were accorded Iyoba status. And the position came with its own palace.
A tusk with almost identical guild patterning and King’s marks is in Vienna’s Museum for Ethnology (Museum fur Volkerkunde – inv. no. 64.750). This one tusk is illustrated in Plankensteiner (2007, p. 297), Fundacion ‘La Caixa’ (1998, p. 114) and Duchateau (1993, p. 95). It was acquired in 1899 as part of a cache of objects from Captain Albert Maschmann, a German intermediary based in Lagos. According to Maschmann at the time, the cache of objects was the ‘last’ of the objects that became available after the British assault on Benin City in 1897. The financial conditions for acquiring the group were extreme: Maschmann was required to pay a hefty amount for them upfront and without being able to inspect them first. Ultimately, they were acquired for the Naturhistorisches Hofmuseum. Later they were transferred to the Museum fur Volkerkunde (Duchateau, 1993).
The tusk here has a superb patina. The colouration varies between cream and reddish-brown, probably on account of age and from many years of exposure to airborne red laterite dust in situ after having been cleaned with acid fruit juices to enhance its original whiteness. The ends show a degree of age-related calcification.
Given historical events can only date to the nineteenth century or earlier.
The Kingdom of Benin Empire was a pre-colonial African state in what is now modern Nigeria. (Essentially, the entity no longer exists, having been subsumed into what is Nigeria. Nor is it to be confused with the modern-day country called Benin.)
The Edo people were the founders of what became the Kingdom of Benin. Their ruler styled himself as the first Oba and his city became what the Portuguese called Benin City in the 1400s.
The Oba became the paramount power within the region. Oba Ewuare, who became known as the first ‘Golden Age’ Oba, is credited with turning Benin City into a fortified military centre protected by moats and walls. It was from this bastion that he launched his military expansion of the kingdom beyond the Edo-speaking heartlands.
Portuguese explorers were the first European travellers to reach Benin in about 1485. A strong trading relationship evolved. The Edo traded tropical products such as ivory, pepper and palm oil with the Portuguese for European goods such as forged metal and guns. The Oba and the Portuguese king exchanged ambassadors in the sixteenth century.
European visitors to Benin City in the 16th and 17th centuries brought back tales of a fabulous city of impressive public buildings, ruled over by a powerful king. English envoys were particularly impressed but the Oba soon suspected the English of having colonial designs on his kingdom.
The Oba’s position was both a religious and political one. He needed the active participation of court officials in order to fulfil his ritualistic and mystical obligations. Their ability to refuse served as a means of modifying an oba’s tyrannical tendencies. The Oba was not seen as a god but his office was deemed holy. He was the living representative of his deceased ancestors and as such was deemed to have supernatural powers. Accordingly, much was done to conceal the ‘ordinariness’ of the Oba from his people: no-one outside the palace was permitted to see him eat or sleep for example. Indeed, the Oba rarely left the palace – just once or twice a year.
The Kingdom’s fortunes wanted after 1700 as tribal wars and changing economic circumstances took their toll but then revived in the nineteenth century as textile and palm oil exports increased.
The British pressured the Oba to sign a protectorate treaty with Britain through most of the 1880s and 1890s. A treaty that placed Benin under the jurisdiction of British consular officials, permitted the presence of Christian missionaries and opened Benin to free trade was signed by the Oba in 1892, but the Oba essentially ignored the tenets of the treaty thereafter.
As the colonial nature of Britain’s overtures became clearer, relations deteriorated culminating in eight representatives from Britain being murdered in Benin in early 1897. The British launched a punitive expedition – the Benin Expedition – later that year. The British force under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, razed and burned Benin City.
Monuments and palaces of many nobles and chiefs were looted and destroyed, and on the third day the looted Benin king’s palace was deliberately set ablaze. The Iyoba’s palace also was raided and destroyed.
Much of the city’s artwork and heritage was destroyed and what remained particularly the royal bronzes and ivories, was taken from Benin and dispersed among private collectors and museums in Europe.
It is quite possible, likely even, that it was at this time that these carved tusks were taken from Benin.
Private English collection
Duchateau, A., Benin: Royal Art of Africa, Presetl, 1993.
African Ivories, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1984.
Fundacion ‘La Caixa’,
Africa: Magia Y Poder. 2500 Anos de Arte en Nigeria, 1998.
Plankensteiner, B. (ed.),
Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck, 2007.
et al, Ivory: A History and Collector’s Guide, Thames & Hudson, 1987.
Inventory no.: 2011
Benin’s last ruling Oba, Oba Ovonramwen, 1897.
The Oba in royal dress.
Looted items from the 1897 Benin Expedition. The ivory tusks in the foreground have the same markings including the Igbesanmwan guild mark as the example here. The markings are not easily seen in this version of this image. One version of this photograph is in the British Museum and reproduced in Plankensteiner (2007, p. 490) and in these versions the markings are more evident.