Until the late 19th century, one of the major powers in West Africa was a kingdom in what is now southwest/southeast Nigeria known as Benin. It was home to the Edo people who spoke the main Bini language.
When European merchant ships began to visit West Africa from around the 15th century onwards, Benin came to control trade between the inland peoples and the Europeans on the coast.
The kingdom was also well known to European traders and merchants―particularly the Portuguese―during the 16th and 17th centuries when it came to its peak of wealth partly due to its trade in commodities.
Despite its commercial contact with several European nations, the kingdom did not come into the British official reckoning until well into the second half of the nineteenth century.
During the last decade of the nineteenth century, however, the kingdom’s capital Benin City fell to British troops after a dramatic build-up of rapidly succeeding events culminating in what is today known as the punitive expedition of February 1897.
These events, as revealed in Phillip A. Igbafe’s ‘The fall of Benin: A Reassessment’ were prompted by economic rather than humanitarian considerations.
Prelude To The Expedition And The Raid on Benin
In the late 19th century, Britain sought to expand their trade in the area of what is now southern Nigeria. In January 1897, Acting Consul-General, James Robert Phillips, of the Niger Coast Protectorate, led an unarmed trading expedition to Benin City.
In order to prevent the British party from interfering with annual royal rituals, some Beni chiefs―acting against Oba Ovonramwen’s wishes―ordered the expedition attacked. This led to the death of six British officials and almost 200 African porters.
In response, Britain mounted an expedition to capture Benin. In February 1897, having successfully defeated the Beni forces, Benin city was sacked and the palace burned and looted. The walls of Benin―hailed as the largest man-made structure ever built―was also razed to the ground.
The Oba (or king) was captured and sent into exile to Calabar where he died in 1914. To make their victory complete and to break the power of the monarchy, the British forces confiscated all of the royal treasures and artifacts, giving some to individual officers while most were taken to be auctioned in London―the proceeds to pay for the cost of the expedition (then £30,000, equivalent to £36.6 million today).
The looted objects eventually made their way into museums and various private collections scattered around the world. Their arrival and the reception caused a sensation in Europe with scholars left in wonder as to how African craftsmen could have made such works of art, and bringing forward various theories to explain them.
These objects remain contested today, with many Nigerian scholars and museum professionals, and the royal court of Benin advocating for their return.
The expedition is reported to have lasted for five weeks, with no true figures existing on the number of casualties. It is noted that Black troops did most of the fighting and were at the front of the advances. Benin Expedition 120 years on states that “as they fell they were simply stepped over and left where they fell”.
No reliable record was kept by the British on how many of them were killed in action. The casualties on the Benin side were hurriedly dumped in mass graves across Benin City as the people fled. Oba Ovonramwen is said to have evacuated Benin City and neighboring countryside villages and towns to minimize civilian casualties in the pending British invasion.
On why the kingdom fell, Igbafe notes that “the Benin kingdom fell mainly because, in an age when the traders and the British consular officials had reasons impelling them to penetrate into the hinterland, Oba Ovonramwen was clinging to traditional policies of economic exclusiveness and monopolistic practices which inflicted economic losses on the revenues of the individual traders, the Itsekiri middlemen, and the Niger Coast Protectorate government”.
He opines that “the increasing fear of concerted European designs on his kingdom further strengthened the Oba’s adherence to his closed-door policy, which in turn increased the consul Phillips’ determination to bring him and his kingdom under British economic and political control.”
In 1914, Eweka II, son of the deposed king revived the Benin monarchy, now under British rule, restoring the palace and reviving the ancient traditions of the Benin monarchy.
No matter what you read above about the motive for the British invasion of the Benin kingdom, it is important that you know that the British were in Africa as terrorists who hid under the world “colonialism” to destabilize African kingdoms and empires.
(By Ejiofor Ekene Olaedo)
SOURCES OF AUTHOR’S INFORMATION
Benin Expedition 120 years on. (n.d.). Benin Expedition 120 years on. Retrieved June 14, 2020, from Benin Expedition 120 years on: https://beninexpedition120yearson.weebly.com/about.html
Igbafe, A. P. (1970). The fall of Benin: A Reassessment. The Journal of African History, 11(3); 385-400. doi:10.1017/S0021853700010215
Khan Academy. (n.d.). The Kindom of Benin. Retrieved June 14, 2020, from khan Academy: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-africa/west-africa/nigeria/a/the-kingdom-of-benin
SNMAA. (n.d.). Museum Insights / The Raid on Benin, 1897. Retrieved June 15, 2020, from Smithsonian: https://africa.si.edu/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/visionary-viewpoints-on-africas-arts/the-raid-on-benin-1897/