Ovonramwen was the oba of Benin between 1889 and 1897 whose reign was brought to an end by a British Expedition. Two years after the sack of his kingdom, Ovonramwen came out of hiding to demonstrate his submission to the new foreign power. After an attempt of the conquered king to escape the surveillance of Consul, Sir Ralph Moore, he was exiled to Calabar where he lived till his death in 1914. In the incidence of the killing of colonial agents Phillips and his visiting lieutenants that led to the punitive measure on Benin, Ovonramwen was absolved by all witnesses of blame, hence had been spared the noose to be put under a house arrest. Ologbosere and some of his other chiefs were not as lucky. History has no record of Ovonramwen’s year of birth but it is almost certain that he was an infant when his father, Adolo acceded to the throne in the year William B. Baike puts at 1850.
Although the massacre of colonial agents on 4 June 1897 was the impetus for the military action against Ovonramwen’s kingdom, the need to put an end to barbaric practices like human sacrifice and to open up trade had informed the decision to invade. The Oba, a good looking man who seemed agreeable to progressive ideas had chosen a conservative stance in his policies concerning custom and trade. This was all because he preferred to keep his position safe and to claim all that was due to him by tradition. Ovonramwen is said in Jacob U. Eghanevba’s The City of Benin account to have confided in his friend, Cyril Punch, during a ceremony in 1891 of his desire to abolish human sacrifice. Eghanevba claims he couldn’t achieve desired abolishment because of strong opposition from his chiefs. This appears to be plausible as the king had inherited his father’s stool with the help of the senior chiefs with whom he made acquaintance during his stay at Use. Ovonramwen, as a prince by the name Idugbowa, showed ambition and resolve. When he was tired of waiting to be named heir to the throne by his father, he had planted himself in the village in which crown princes traditionally lived. From there, he had made friends with senior chiefs of Benin and built a following of young men around himself. After more than a year of his father, Adola’s death, Ovonramen had surmounted the obstacles of his younger brother who argued to be qualified for having been born after their father’s ascension to the stool.
As king, Ovonramwen did not permit foreign traders to operate in his kingdom. Trading activities of European and Itsekiri merchants were stringently checked. Visiting ships were highly levied even as the he maintained monopoly in choice exports. With his interest heavily in conflict with the spirit of the times, Ovonramwen’s days as king were already numbered. In 1892, Ovonramwen agreed to a treaty by Vice Consul Gallwey who was in charge of the Benin District under the Oil Rivers Protectorate. Similar treaties had been made with Dosunmu of Lagos in 1861 and Jaja of Opobo in 1887. Historian Igbafe contends Ovonramwen did not add his signature personally to this document which obliges him to allow free trade and to forestall the many obnoxious customs of his kingdom. Igbafe agrees, however, that though the Oba had not touched the pen on account of tradition, he was indeed in agreement with its contents, while his latter actions proved he did not consider it as very consequential.
Tension between Ovonramwen’s royal court and foreign traders rose by the day, and when Captain Phillips, who was then acting in place of Gallwey demanded to visit him, the fear of an invasion was already rife. Ovonramwen asked the visit to be rescheduled for he was not permitted by tradition to meet foreigners during the festival of January but Phillips had had enough. Against his orders, some went ahead to attack the visitors on their way. When the British vengeful rockets came roaring, Ovonramwen left the town and did not return until August 1899. He was demoted to a “big chief,” and promised big villages within his fallen kingdom if he cooperated. Ralph Moore took him with a few of his former chiefs, wives and servants to Calabar, Lagos, and the Yoruba interior to see how other lands are governed. Throughout the journey Moore ensured to make it clear he was a prisoner. Ovonramwen lost the will to cooperate as promised and he was exiled to Calabar where he lived the rest of his life with princely dignity.