Life,  Tech

Ancient Secrets Revealed: How German Copper Fueled the Kingdom of Benin and Transatlantic Slave Trade

  In February 1897, about 1,200 British soldiers raided the Kingdom of Benin (located in today’s southwestern Nigeria), razed the capital of the Idu people to the ground, and killed a large number of civilians. The King of Benin was forced to go into exile. On the site of the original royal palace, the invaders built a golf course.

  During the raid, the British looted thousands of Benin cultural treasures, including a large collection of sculptures and plaques known as “Benin bronzes”. After these treasures were brought back to Europe, they ended up scattered in various museums. Benin bronzes quickly amazed Europeans. For example, the director of the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin, Germany, wrote in 1919: “Benin bronzes are the best even by the highest European standards. Even Benvenuto Cellini (Italian sculptor) You can’t make better copper than this, and not only that, no one else has ever made it better.”

  The craftsmanship of Benin’s copper is so good that Europeans have to start to doubt themselves: Are we really Is anything better than Africans? From the raw materials used to the bronze casting and carving techniques, etc., the Benin bronze ware left many puzzles to European scholars.

Great irony

  Some 130 years after the British raid, German scientist Skroneck set out to use cutting-edge technology to decipher the secrets of the Benin copperware. Among the transatlantic slave trade ships from the 16th to the early 19th centuries, some of them were shipwrecked and sank to the bottom of the sea. In these submarine sites, archaeologists found a large number of bracelet coins. As the name suggests, bangle coins are shaped like bangles or arm bracelets. Europeans exchanged copper horseshoe coins for Benin gold, ivory, and slaves. Bracelet coins of little value in Europe were designed primarily for transactions with West Africans.

A bracelet coin that sank to the bottom of the ocean in 1524

  Skoronek’s research objects are mainly these bracelet coins. He said: “Shipwrecks and slave trade are undoubtedly tragedies, and it is really a great irony that the products of these tragedies – bangle coins – provide us with excellent information for studying ancient metals and commerce. Underwater, From lead to gold to silver, many things can be preserved very well.”

  Scolonek’s team focused on a total of 67 bangle coins found at five shipwreck sites off the coasts of Spain, Ghana, the United States and England. new detection. This is the largest study of bracelet coins to date, and it aims to determine where the bracelet coins were produced through lead isotope analysis.
lead isotope

  Lead isotope analysis is a powerful method because all non-ferrous metals (metals other than iron, manganese, chromium and their alloys) contain lead. Equally important, the isotopic ratio of lead contained in non-ferrous metals does not change even if they are resmelted or severely corroded by lying on the ocean floor for hundreds of years. Regardless of whether the isotope ratio of lead is high or low, the source of non-ferrous metal products can be traced by analyzing lead isotopes.

  Skronek’s team drilled tiny amounts of powder from the bangles, dissolved them in acid, and sent the samples into a Poseidon instrument the size of a car. In the following 15 hours, the “Poseidon” used inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry to detect the lead isotope of the tested metal. The technology can measure even trace amounts of elements such as lead and zinc.

Bracelet coin salvage scene

  The German Mining Museum has a global database of 12,000 lead isotope ratios, the largest such database in the world. By comparing the test results of the “Poseidon” with the database, Skronek was surprised to find that the bracelet coins found in the three oldest shipwreck sites contained similar lead isotope ratios, and the ratios were all close to calamine ( The isotopic ratio of lead in a zinc ore critical to the production of copper). The bracelet coins found at the two later shipwreck sites used metals from England and Wales that were not used in the Benin bronzes.

  The earliest shipwreck detected was probably a slave trade ship chartered by Portuguese merchants in Lisbon. In 1524, the ship sank in the waters of northern Spain with 313 bracelet coins on board. In the 17th century, a ship sank in the waters off northwest Spain with 156 bracelet coins on board. Then, in 1647, a Dutch ship sank after exploding off the coast of Ghana with a large number of copper basins, 3800 glass beads, agate shells and 636 bracelet coins.

  The ratios of lead isotopes in the bracelet coins from the three ships suggest the same origin for the bracelet coins: the metal-rich Rhineland region of western Germany. Skronek said he was surprised by the test result, as he almost believed the bangles came from Venice, then the world’s metals hub, and never expected them to come from a city just an hour away from his office. In Germany, it was not expected that the Rhineland would have anything to do with the slave trade.

  In fact, the Rhineland region has been a major metal bonanza since the Roman Empire. In the 16th century, Germany was the world leader in mining. In the 17th century, the Rhineland produced the largest amount of copper in the world. During World War II, copper from the Rhineland region was used to make copper cannonballs.

Who is the buyer

  Next, Skronek’s team compared the lead isotope content of the bangle coins to that of ancient artefacts, including Benin bronzes. They found that the looted Benin bronzes were made of the same copper as the bracelet coins found at the shipwreck site. A question ensued: Who transported the bracelet coins from Germany to Benin?

  While there are numerous historical documents documenting Rhineland mining, none of these documents mention bracelet coins. It was only during a second inspection of these documents that Skronek noticed commission records for “copper rings used in the making of bronze”, and the number of copper rings was very large. According to these documents, the buyer of these copper rings was Portugal. In 1548, the King of Portugal entrusted a German merchant to provide 432 tons of copper rings (equivalent to 1.4 million bracelet coins) within 3 years. In fact, these copper rings are bracelet coins. The bangles were shipped from the Rhineland to markets in Belgium, then exported to Portugal, and finally to West Africa.

  The connection between Portugal and the Kingdom of Benin is well documented in history. Portuguese merchants first came to Benin in the 15th century. Using bracelet coins as currency, they soon established trade relations with the Idu. A Portuguese captain and explorer wrote in the early 16th century: “Idu merchants from hundreds of tribes came up the river and brought yams, slaves, cattle and sheep as promised… We bought these things with bracelet coins They like bracelet coins very much, and they can buy a slave with only 8 to 10 bracelet coins.”

  Benin craftsmen use bracelet coins to upgrade the production of artworks. They melted bangles and other imported metals to cast richly detailed sculptures and plaques. On some Benin bronzes, there are even images of Portuguese soldiers and merchants surrounded by bracelet coins.

Evil deeds

  Skronek was not the first person to link bangle coins to Benin copperware, but he was the first to prove the origin of Portuguese copper at that time through scientific testing. Before that, no one seriously considered the possibility that it really was the Rhineland, although the Rhineland was also one of the candidates. After all, there are no documents, textbooks, or studies that link Rhineland metals to the transatlantic slave trade. The Germans believed that the colonial slave trade had nothing to do with Germany, and new research by Skronek proves that to be wrong.

  Some historians pointed out that bracelet coins are not only cheap metal or a kind of currency, but also the most typical symbol of slave trade. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, Europeans used a large amount of copper in West Africa to serve their evil deeds.

  Recently, some 850 reliefs that once covered the wooden pillars of the Royal Palace of Benin have been restored. These reliefs were probably created between 1517 and 1550. At that time, Benin had both internal strife and foreign enemies. These reliefs were probably organized by the king’s sons during the 1550s and 1670s. This time period coincided with the peak period of trade between the Idu and the Portuguese, when bracelet coins flowed steadily into Benin.

  From these reliefs, we can see religious ceremonies, processions, battles, tax payment scenes, animal images, etc. These reliefs are not only beautifully carved, but also invaluable. Because bracelet coins were currency in Benin at that time, they were not only very valuable, but the exquisite copper reliefs were also a declaration of power.

  There are still many unsolved mysteries about Benin bronzes. The European colonists used “the Idu people are ignorant and mentally retarded” as an excuse to launch their aggression, which is of course untenable. In January 1897, the British attacked Benin for “revenge” in the name of the Idu ambushing British businessmen, but in fact the British had premeditated this attack. business interests.

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