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Art, Loot and Empire: The Benin Bronzes

Located aside the pathway close to the thorn laden berm between the two Ladywell and Brockley cemeteries lies the recently discovered headstone of Charlotte Mabel Alleyne d.1961. Her grave now features as a stopping point for guided history walks. Mabel achieved a modest fame in the art world from her career as an artist and a wood engraver who was active at the beginning of the twentieth century. She studied wood engraving at the London County School of Photo-engraving and Lithography in Bolt Court, London, where teacher was R. John Beedham and exhibited with the Society of Wood Engravers. Born in Southampton in 1896 , the daughter and only child of Bouverie Colebrooke Alleyne, a scion from a wealthy family originally from Barbados, and Ada Clements ( buried in Ladywell cemetery in 1935). Mabel appeared not to have married, studied at Goldsmiths College and the Royal Academy Schools. In 1926 the Saint Loup Press, San Remo , published an edition of 100 copies of Nursery Rhymes, written and illustrated by Alleyne with hand coloured wood engravings. 

The faded headstone of Mabel Alleyne is to be found in Ladywell cemetery (photo taken by Mike Guilfoyle)

Mabel exhibited with the Society of Wood Engravers in 1933, 1936 and 1938. Her wood engravings were reproduced in the London Mercury ; the September 1933 issue reproduced Flower Study. The 4 th edition of Beedham's Wood Engraving ( 1935) reproduces Autumn Rain. Many other book jackets were illustrated by Mabel Alleyne and she was included in Sara Gray's 2009 edition of The Dictionary of British Women Artists. 

In 1928 Mabel produced a wonderful dust jacket for The Way the World is Going by H.G.Wells.

Mabel died in Forest Hill and was interred in Ladywell cemetery on the 21st August 1961.

The Alleyne family were elite politicians and among the largest land owners on Barbados. Sir Reynold Abel Alleyne (Mabel's great-grandfather) was the owner of four plantations and 525 enslaved people. The Alleyne family received about £8,370 compensation for the loss of their slaves from the British Government in 1834. The slavery payments are recorded in a digital database by University College London called the Legacies of British Slave-ownership

Bouverie Colebrooke Alleyne was the son of Bouverie Alleyne and Charlotte Colebrooke. He was born on the Island of Saint Vincent in what was then the British West Indies on the 14th January, 1861.His father Bouverie Alleyne, died later that year on the 25th October, 1861 and was a Colonial Secretary of Grenada and later St. Vincent. In 1871, Bouverie was living with his mother in New Windsor, Berkshire. Bouverie C. Alleyne married Frances Ada Clements 1892 in Southampton . As noted above, they had one child, a daughter, Mabel Charlotte Alleyne. He was in the Royal Naval Reserve and gained the rank of Lieutenant.

Stylised British image of the 'Benin Massacre ' From a disbound volume of The Graphic, March 20, 1897

Significantly for the purposes of this post in 1897 he was part of the Benin punitive Expedition , when a British force under General Sir Harry Rawson, in response to the ambush and massacre of a previous British party under Acting Consul General James Phillips of the Niger Coast Protectorate, launched a three-way simultaneous attack on Benin City, an attack now called the Punitive Expedition.  In what appears to have been a desperate attempt to stall the British advance, the defenders performed human sacrifices. The killings were still being carried out when the British entered the city. They rounded up and executed those Benin chiefs who fought against them, looted about 3,000 valuable bronze and ivory works of art, burned the Queen Mother’s and other palaces, publicly humiliated Oba Ovonramwen, King of f Benin up until the British punitive expedition of 1897 who was exiled him to Calabar, the furthermost town in the territory within the British sphere of influence.  The Oba‘s palace was razed, but this fire seems to have been accidental  

The British Admiralty auctioned off most of the looted objects to pay for the military expedition, reserving some as gifts for officers of the Expedition  As a result, Benin bronzes fanned out primarily into Western museums, with large numbers now residing at the British Museum, London, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, and Ethnological Museum, Berlin  -

Bouverie Colebrook Alleyne died at the young age of 40, on the 13th February, 1901 at Brighton, Sussex,


The Horniman Museum said on Sunday August 7th 2022 that  it would return 72 artefacts, including 12 brass plaques known as Benin Bronzes, looted from Benin City by British soldiers in 1897 to the Nigerian government. Created from brass and bronze in the once mighty Kingdom of Benin in what is now southwestern Nigeria from at least the 16th century onwards, the Benin Bronzes are among Africa's most culturally significant artefacts. London’s Horniman Museum has recently announced the return 72 Benin treasures to Nigeria. The items were taken from Benin City by British troops in February 1897.

For readers keen to know more about the background to the Benin expedition -Paddy Docherty's 2021 book offers a critical and incisive new history which tells the real story behind the British invasion and destruction of the Kingdom of Benin in 1897, explaining how the famous Benin Bronzes came to be stolen from their homeland. One startling historical revelation arising from the above account - Benin's walls were "four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops," and reportedly took the Edo people an "estimated 150 million hours" to complete. The Guinness Book of Records noted Benin's walls were "the world's largest earthworks prior to the mechanical era."