Ivory salt cellar from Benin

Teaching ideas

Start by exploring the salt cellar. Ask students what they think it might be, what they think it is made of, whether it has been well-made, whether it is old (they may notice the clothing worn by the men and that part of the main figure’s hat is broken), where they think it is from. Once you have a good set of possibilities, you can reveal the answers and discuss, but keep detailed discussion of the actual figures for a separate activity.

Ask the students whether they think the figures are Europeans or from Benin. Compare the ivory armlet under More information in About the object. So who do they think made the salt cellar and as what – a gift or to sell? Why do they think Europeans might want an object that showed themselves rather than an object that depicts Benin? Do they think the Portuguese buyer would be happy with being shown like this?

Look in detail at the figures, noticing clothes, weapons and the crucifix. Show students the painting of Afonso de Albuquerque in For the classroom and compare with the salt cellar. Introduce the idea that the artists may not have been working from the actual Portuguese they met, but from pictures. What reasons might there be for this practice? Compare the other depictions of Europeans that you can find in For the classroom: the ivory mask, the brass figure and the two plaques. Discuss how the Portuguese are shown in each and what impression of them the artists wanted to convey.

Build up a picture of the power of the Oba, perhaps using the Object file: The Oba of Benin and other brass plaques. Ask students why they think the Oba would put Europeans on a plaque. Explain the uses of the plaques, figures and mask and explore the story of Olokun.

Make a set of cards for the following commodities, explaining those that you think students will not be familiar with: pepper, gum, cloth, ivory, slaves, brass, lead, iron, coral, cowrie shells, firearms and spirits. Ask students to sort them into two categories: which they think the Portuguese could supply and which Benin could supply. After discussion, assign each commodity to a pair or group of students and guide them to finding out more about why each of these was important to the people trying to obtain it. The activity could be combined with an enquiry focusing on the ships used by Europeans in this period and the conditions on long voyages so as to produce displays and presentations about which commodities went in each direction, how and using what route.

Look at the salt cellar along with the objects in A bigger picture. For each one, discuss what European and non-European elements there are. Use maps to see where each object is from or was made. Compare these with the map of Portuguese trade routes in For the classroom. Find out more about Afonso de Albuquerque and other navigators of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries including the Chinese admiral Zheng He and Arab navigator Ahmad ibn Mājid.

Why did traders from Portugal sail to Benin and not the other way round?

Start this enquiry off by locating Benin and Portugal in relation to Europe, Africa and present-day Nigeria through a range of maps and explore and plot the trade routes in the 16th and 17th centuries. There is a map of Portuguese trade routes in For the classroom. Go on to look at each state in more detail: the success of Benin in building an empire, its military strength compared with neighbouring peoples, its communication inland using river and overland routes, the economic competition from other European states faced by Portugal, its restricted size and lack of scope for territorial expansion.

Watch the excerpt from the Tribal Eye video in For the classroom and discuss the brass plaque showing the Oba and Queen Elizabeth II. Look at the other examples of Europeans in the art of Benin and then use some examples from the online tour Views of Africa (in For the classroom) to discuss the different ways in which artists from different African countries have portrayed Europeans.

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Ivory salt cellar from Benin