The British invasion of Benin kingdom, destruction of its capital city, looting of its artefacts, as well as the capture, deposition and exile of the reigning Oba by the British during the invasion of 1897 is by all standards the most devastating of all the events of violence that have happened in the history of the kingdom.
Please Read:The Igue Festival Of Benin Kingdom
Prior to the invasion of Benin it was an independent kingdom that had been ruled by a long line of kings first known as Ogiso’s and later Oba’s. It was referred to by Robert Stryer as one of the most developed kingdoms of the West African coastal hinterland. Benin was well known for her strength as a warrior nation. According to Dutch historian Olfert Dapper as much as 20,000 men could be made ready for war in one day and if need be, 180,000. Benin also thrived in trade and amazing works of art.
As early as 1485, the Bini’s traded slaves, palm oil, pepper and ivory with the Portuguese, proceeding to exchange ambassadors with Portugal in the early 16th century.
They also traded their amazing bronze castings as far as Timbuktu in present day Mali.
At the height of the empire, it stretched from Agbor to Akure, Owo and the present day Lagos Island which was named Eko, meaning war camp.
The British first came to Benin in 1553 to trade ivory, oil palm, pepper and rubber. The Oba had great influence and exercised total control of trade in the region and the British found this unpleasant.
Historical reports have it that the British sent a group of spies into Benin to ascertain and infiltrate the nation’s security system. These spies entered Benin during the Igue festival which is a period of high spiritual awareness and sensitivity, held sacred by both the Oba and the people. The spies were caught and promptly eliminated.
In 1892, Henry Gallwey, a British Vice Consul visited Benin with the intention of annexing the Kingdom to the British Empire. This did not go down well with then reigning Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, who resisted this move. The Oba was very much willing to sign treaties of trade and friendship, but was totally against the any form of annexation. To show his commitment, he agreed to sign a treaty to end slave trade and human sacrifices in his kingdom.
However, the treaty tendered by Henry Gallwey was similar to that which was used to deceive Oba Dosunmu to cede Lagos to the British, and the one forced on King Jaja of Opobo. This angered the Oba who went ahead to summarily place a ban on any form of trade with the British as well as barring them from entering Benin Kingdom.
In March 1896, the Oba moved to stop the supply of palm oil to some middlemen in the Itsekiri region because they refused to pay their tributes to Benin. This move by the Oba grounded the trade activities in the Benin river region to a halt. As a result of this, the British traders and middlemen began to prevail on the British authorities to depose and exile the Oba in order for their trade to continue successfully.
They endeavoured to convince the British authorities that there was a lot of trade opportunities in the region if the Oba were to be deposed and the region annexed to the British Empire.
Having in mind that the British had already violently attacked and exiled the Nana of Itsekiri in 1894, the Koko of Nembe in 1895 and the Ashanti Prempeh of Ashanti in 1896, the Oba of Benin was seen as their last obstacle to grabbing the trade regions of the West African coast. With all these in the background, the atmosphere was already charged for any event that could lead to a full blown conflict.
In every violent conflict there is always a spark that ignites the already charged atmosphere. The atmosphere in Benin at that time was similar to that of a room filled with petrol vapour. All that was required was the smallest of sparks to start a full blown inferno, and that spark came on the 4th of January, 1897.
In 1896, James Robert Philips, a British officer, made a request to the authorities in London for permission to depose the Oba, replace him with a native council and occupy the city of Benin. Philips sent a message to the Oba that he intended to discuss trade and peace. However, the Oba was informed by some Itsekiri chiefs that the true intent of the visit was to begin an offensive.
Without waiting for approval from London, Philips embarked on a journey to Benin with 250 African soldiers, two trading agents, one medical staff and two Niger Coast Protectorate Officers, with the soldiers disguised as porters.
Armed with the information provided by the Itsekiri chiefs, the Oba summoned a meeting of his chiefs to discuss the matter on ground. The Iyase (commander in chief) suggested that the British were planning a surprise attack but the Oba reasoned that they should be allowed into the city first. Iyase refused and went ahead to organise a small striking force to eliminate the British threat.
On the 4th of January, the crisis came to a boiling point when the Iyase’s strike force led by Ologbosere met the British at Ugbine village near Gwato. Philips and his men were caught completely off guard and the Benin Army took hold of them. Only two of the British officers survived the onslaught at Ugbine.
This event is referred to by the British as the Benin massacre.
On the 12th of January 1897, the British Admiralty high command appointed Rear Admiral Henry Rawson to lead the forces that would invade Benin in an operation they named the “Benin Punitive Expedition”.
The invasion went into full swing on the 9th of February 1897with the British sending a force of about 1200 men made up of African soldiers from other annexed territories. It took the British forces 10 days of bitter fighting to get to Benin kingdom. The Benin warriors fought gallantly to protect their people and the Oba but their swords, spears, bows and arrows were simply no match for the more sophisticated and advanced firepower of the British.
The British succeeded in over running the city, which they burnt down and looted of its various precious bronze artefacts which included the famous Queen Idia head which was used as the symbol for the FESTAC ’77 celebrations. They then captured Oba Ovonramwen and sent him on exile to Calabar where died in 1914.
The invasion of 1897 completely devastated the established and thriving civilization of the Benin people. The looted artefacts were shipped off to Europe were they were sold to offset the cost of the invasion while some others were deposited in the British museum in London.
Apart from the looting, the Bini people suffered a period of cultural quagmire because their monarchy was interrupted up until it was restored in 1914 when Oba Eweka II was crowned Oba of Benin.
Please Read: Benin Bronze Castings
In recent times, the British have been pressurized to return the artefacts which were stolen from Benin during the invasion of 1897. Although they have returned some of them quite a number still lie in the British museum in London and other museums in Western Europe.