Benin Expedition

Benin Expedition
Illustration by J. Goodman in London News of 27 March 1897 shows Lt. Roberton closing up on Benin in February. Source: Look & Learn

Benin Expedition of 1897 was the punitive action of the British against Benin following the massacre of unwelcome advancing party led by Acting Consul J.R. Phillips to the Benin palace one month before. Although the killing of Phillips and his men by Benin chiefs was the direct cause of the Benin Expedition, it is recognized mostly by Caucasian historians as being of a humanitarian nature, calculated to put an end to the Benin monarch’s tyranny and the barbarity of its kingdom’s practices. The expedition ended perhaps up to 900 years of distinctive cultural development, ushering the kingdom into a modern age in which it would be joined administratively with the rest of Nigeria.

In the year 1891, a victim due for sacrifice during the Benin royal beads ceremony predicted the fall of the Benin kingdom to overseas power, corroborating an earlier warning from the Ooni of Ife who cautioned Oba Ovonramwen on the execution of his policies because of an impending calamity. Ovonramwen, a handsome, almost mild-looking but ruthless ascendant to a depleted heritage had become king or Oba of Benin in 1888. At this time, the inhumane traditions of his kingdom which he sought to preserve had seen wide publicity in Europe with the effort of Richard Burton, Consul at Fernado Po who after a visit to Benin in 1862 had condemned it as “a place of gratuitous barbarity; which stinks of death with its crucifixions, human skulls strewn about like pebbles because of a generous resort to human sacrifice.”

Thirty years after Burton’s visit, a more successful sojourner, Captain H.L. Gallwey, Commissioner and Vice Consul of the Benin District of the Oil Rivers Protectorate had drawn a treaty from the new king of Benin. Gallwey believed trade could be promoted through the bypassing of the middle-men, by maintaining direct contact with the interior which produced the goods. He needed to have control over native rulers in the interior. Also, he needed to secure Free Enterprise for all traders on the Benin River. Ovonramwen, failing to understand, or choosing to ignore the import of the requirements entailed in Gallwey’s document had appended to the treaty that was to be the harbinger of the fall of his kingdom. From 1892, Vice Consuls and traders on the Benin River had stepped up pressure on Benin to get Ovonramwen to live up to his treaty obligations. After four years of this, James R. Phillips, successor to Gallwey in the Niger Coast Protectorate had concluded that there was only one remedy to the Oba’s indiscretion; to depose the king from his stool. Phillip’s hope for a reinforcement from Lagos in the use of force against Benin like it was done for the Imagbon War in Ijebu was dashed. In spite of the order of a deferment of action from the Foreign Office, Phillips had, in a move communicated to the Oba of Benin as non-aggressive set out to the city with a fairly large party. The Oba’s request for a postponement of such visits fell on deaf ears and Phillip’s party ran into an ambush near Ugbine in 4 January 1897. The result of this grave incidence was the punitive expedition of the following month.

Nine ships of Her Majesty Royal Navy sailed in haste from different parts of the British Empire to the Niger Coast for the war on Benin. Attacks were launched on three fronts: one by the way of Ologbo, the second up the Jamieson River from Sapoba, and then a joint attack through the Ughoton Creek. Of these three, the advance from Ologbo which commenced on 12 February proved the deadliest. Barriers were laid on narrow paths by Bini guerilla fighters who thereby managed to kill several invading troops. Under the cover of volleys the invaders arrived in Benin, dispatching rocket tubes, and charging non-hesitantly.  By 2pm in 18 February Benin had fallen to foreign power. As Gallwvey had imagined since the time, five years earlier, when he had recommended the sacking of Benin, Ivory taken from the palace were offered for sale, and bronze and other antiquities that were not transferred to the British Museum paid for the cost of the expedition.

The fall of Benin was followed with the opening up of Ughoton-Benin road and Benin-Sapoba road which the Oba once appropriated. The rubber forest in Benin was quickly exploited, and a holocaust of rubber trees by Lagos and Accra tappers followed the liberalization of the once restricted forest in the region of Usen. Benin was merged under the British administration into the Niger Coast Protectorate, which will later become the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria.

Drawings such as this was used in the foreign media to justify the Benin Expedition. P. Igbafe argues the alleged pit of death discovered in Benin was the bad bush in which the poor dead were buried.
Drawings such as this was used in the foreign media to justify the Benin Expedition. P. Igbafe argues the alleged pit of death discovered in Benin was simply the “bad bush” in which the poor dead were buried. Photo:

Immediate post-expedition policy was to establish regular market, promote rubber trade, even with practical lessons at court, for the purpose of increasing people’s confidence in the new administration. The newly appointed Resident in Benin, Lt. Alfred H. Turner induced the people with conciliatory moves and diplomatic maneuvers. With this, he was able to bring in not less than eighteen chiefs and aides of the deposed king who had hitherto remained in hiding outside Benin City. As he convened the Native Council, more nobles returned to take their place in the new political schemes. He failed however, to manipulate Ovonramwen into returning; what would have been a high point of his career. Only two weeks after his invalidation and sailing back to London will Ovonramwen yield to the pressure. The Oba returned with pomp rather huge for a defeated king and made a formal submission to Captain Roupell in 7 August 1897.

Among first generation scholars of African history, the moral of the Benin Expedition was never in question. The British official position, as promoted by publications and writers was that the massacre of colonial agents that preceded the war on Benin was malicious rather than a natural urge to defend homeland against attack, as many Benin chiefs on trial pleaded it to be. P.A. Igbafe argued Ovonramwen never ordered an attack or that he would have been overruled even if messages sent to belligerent chiefs on the way to Ugbine on that January morning had reached them on time. Rather than the highly circulated rhetoric that the expedition served to purge the kingdom of its bad practices including the human sacrifice, Igbafe contends that economic benefits, as later policies tend to show, was paramount in the considerations of the British in its dealings with Benin as it was for Opobo under Jaja, Chief Nana, and Dappa Pepple of Bonny. The trend at the close of the 19th Century was that kingdoms south of the Niger was being suppressed and subsumed under the emerging protectorate of Southern Nigeria.

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer