Human Rights Advocates Oppose Transfer of 16th-19th Century Slave Trade Bronzes

Washington, D.C.

Benin bronze photo by Kamm Howard

The Restitution Study Group (RSG), a New York-metro area non-profit concerned with slavery justice, and its Executive Director, Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, are Plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed Friday, October 7, 2022, against the Smithsonian Institution in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. They accuse the Smithsonian of breach of trust for failing to protect the interests of United States Citizens descended from enslaved people. Instead, the Smithsonian made the decision to transfer ownership of 29 Benin bronzes to the Republic of Nigeria and the Benin Kingdom. The Smithsonian plans to make this transfer at a private ceremony on Tuesday, October 11, 2022. Plaintiffs seek to stop this transfer.

The problem with the transfer is rooted in history. The Kingdom of Benin made the bronzes since the 12th century. However the bronzes made from the 16th through 19th centuries were made with melted manillas, a metal currency they were paid in exchange for people they sold to European Transatlantic slave traders.

Plaintiffs allege that the Smithsonian ignores this history and pretends it is rumor to justify making the transfer to Nigeria.

“We have indisputable proof from a book by the Benin Kingdom, and the Smithsonian’s own book and website. They all admit to the slave trade origin of the bronzes,” said Farmer-Paellmann.

The Smithsonian’s pro-Nigeria decision stems from a popular narrative that focuses only on the way the bronzes were acquired – confiscation from the Benin Kingdom in a brutal Punitive Expedition by the British Navy in 1897.

Over 10,000 bronzes were taken away from the Benin Kingdom in response to the kingdom killing unarmed British navy officers and African porters. The bronzes were sold around the world to pay for the Punitive Expedition. The removal of the bronzes is seen as an act of colonial oppression.

In an effort to right this historical wrong, the Smithsonian made the decision to return the bronzes they acquired from rich donors. However, Plaintiffs allege that in doing so, the Smithsonian is completely disregarding the 300 years of brutality the Benin Kingdom subjected their ancestors to: “They looted villages, kidnapped people and sold them into slavery for the manillas they used to make the bronzes,” said Farmer-Paellmann.

The class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of DNA descendants of enslaved Africans from the area known today as Nigeria — 93% of African Americans descend from enslaved people from Nigeria as do 82% of Jamaicans and other Caribbeans.

The Plaintiffs feel a connection to the bronzes because they contain the actual currency exchanged for their enslaved ancestors. 

“My ancestors should have been paid this money. Instead, the kingdom took it to make art. Now their children want it back and the Smithsonian is giving it to them. This is the ultimate betrayal… again!” said Farmer-Paellmann.

Farmer-Paellmann’s DNA links her to the Lagos and Warri slave trade ports once controlled by the Benin Kingdom. Her ancestors were enslaved in South Carolina, the main US port where Benin Kingdom captives were sold in the United States.

“The Smithsonian has a duty to protect us. We need the Court to stop this transfer or else our children will never have a chance to experience these bronzes. They represent our history, our wealth and the fruit of our ancestors’ labor,” said Farmer-Paellmann.

The Plaintiffs are represented by Adriaen M. Morse, Cory Kirchert, and Lionel André of SECIL LAW PLLC.



THEY BELONG TO ALL OF US – The Benin Bronzes Slave Trade Story
Director/Editor -Tylon Washington
Writer – Deadria Farmer-Paellmann

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