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Top 10 Things You Should Know About the 1897 British Invasion of Benin

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BeninCity is a city located in the Southern part of Nigeria. Benin as an ancient kingdom thrived successfully for centuries beginning with the arrival of the Portuguese into West Africa in the 1400s. They primarily traded on Palm oil, rubber, and ivory. However, the Benin invasion and expedition of 1897, negatively affected the once thriving town turning it into a shadow of it’s own self.

Men, women and children in their hundreds were brutally massacred by the British. The invasion negatively affected Benin culturally and economically.

The invasion also saw the King of Benin referred to as the Oba; Oba Ovonramwen exiled to far away Calabar a coastal town east of Benin. The Invasion and Expedition also featured the massive looting of precious artifacts by the British and their eventual shipping to England.

Factboyz has compiled a list to thrill you on 10 things you should know about the 1897 invasion of the ancient Benin Empire. Enjoy!

1. The First Invasion was a Failure:

Only two British survived to tell the story. Captain Alan Boisragon and District Commissioner Locke.

In March 1896, following the refusal of “Itsekiri middle men to pay required tributes (to the Oba) with regards to trade commodities, the Oba of Benin ordered seizure of the supply of oil palm produce; hence bringing trade along the Benin river to a standstill.

This order by the Oba did not please the British merchants in the region.

British Traders and agents however appealed to the Protectorate Consul General to open up Benin territories and send the Oba into exile who they saw as a threat. In October 1896, the Acting Consul General James Robert Phillips visited the Benin River District and had series of meetings with traders and agents.

The traders and agents convinced him of a bright trading future on the Benin River if the territories were opened. The next month, Phillips made a formal request to the British Government requesting for permission to invade Benin City and depose Oba Ovoramwen.

Without waiting for a reply and an approval, Phillips sent a message to Oba Ovoramwen telling him he wanted to pay a “friendly visit”. Unknown to Phillips, some Itsekiri chiefs warned the Oba of the visit. The Oba summoned his chiefs tabling the matter before them. Phillips on the other hand, assembled two trading agents, two Niger coast protectorate officers, a medical officer and 250 African soldiers who disguised as porters. Oba Ovoramwen wanted the British to be granted entry first, but his commander-in-chief was not convinced; Hence ordering Ologbosere (a senior commander and the King’s son-in-law) to lead a handful of men to attack Phillips and his “friendly troops” On the 4th of January, 1897, the British were confronted in a move they never expected in a forest in Ugbine village near Ughoton. They persuaded Phillips not to continue his journey to Benin because of the ongoing Igue festival which traditionally does not permit visitors seeing the Oba. Phillips gave deaf ears to the warnings and in the scuffle he was killed alongside his troops. Only two British survived to tell the story. Captain Alan Boisragon and District Commissioner Locke.

2. Children Were Not Spared:

The Bombardment of Benin which began on the 9th of February came in much fury and fire as the British retaliated the attack on her citizens.

Men, women and innocent children were mercilessly killed under the commandership of Rear Admiral Harry Rawson.

3. Benin Weapons Were No Match:

The Benin forces fought back and primarily tried to repel the attack making use of machetes, spears and arrows; but they were no match compared to the use of sophisticated rifles and cannons used by the British.

This sharp contrast in weaponry negatively affected the Benin warriors as many succumbed to the superior fire.

4. The British Soldiers Did Not Take Part In The Manual Fighting:

It is important and interesting to note that the British did not even take part in the fighting as the fighting was mostly done by African troops who came with them; it is not clear who those Africans were but the British soldiers who took part sat interestingly behind the cannons and machine guns; pointing and shooting.

5. Outrageous Commands:

The field commanders responsible to carry out the invasion were instructed to burn down allBenin kingdom’s towns and villages.

This command came in it’s totality as instructions were also given to hang the Oba (The King)


6. Precious Ancient Landmarks Destroyed:

Houses, religious buildings and the Oba’s palace were deliberately set on fire destroying ancient buildings that have lasted and exceeded the test of time. The city’s walls which were reputed to be the largest earthworks created in pre-mechanized era and reportedly four times longer than the Great Wall of China were also destroyed. Evidence still exist today of these structures.

7. Massive Unforgiving Looting:

As factboyz.com looked deeper into this invasion by the British, we discovered that after the massive slaughter of the people of Benin, the British launched into another level of human wickednessas they stole ancient artifacts numbering about 2500 including religious figurines, Benin visual history works, mnemonics and artworks which were mercilessly shipped off to England.

8. Oba Ovonramwen Exiled:

Oba Ovoramwen, his two wives, members of his immediate family with some palace slaves

The Oba of Benin Ovonramwen Nogbaisi who ruled Benin from 1888 to 1897 was exiled with his two wives to far away coastal town of Calabar which is currently the capital of Cross Rivers state.

He attempted to escape exile by offering Consul General Ralph Moor 200 puncheons (barrels) of oil worth £1500 (£183000 today) and to disclose where his 500 ivory tusks were buried (£275,625,500 today) however Moor rejected the offer as the tusks had already been discovered.

Sadly he died in 1914 around the turn of the new year and was eventually buried in the royal grounds of the royal palace of Benin. His first son and legitimate heir to the throne Aguobasimwin, became Oba; he was eventually known as Oba Eweka.

9. The Looting Was Approved To Cover War Costs:

The looting which was officially approved by the British Government indicted one of its own Lord Salisbury, the British Foreign Secretary as Phillips while requesting for approval to invade Benin in the first attempt added this footnote in the letter;

“I would add that I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory would be found in the King’s house to pay the expenses incurred in removing the King from his stool”

10. Royal Scramble and Auction:

The aftermath of the invasion damaged Benin culturally as their identity as a kingdom shattered.

The stolen artifacts were shipped to England and eventually ended up sold, auctioned and kept by individual; members of the British Military.

Most of these Benin artifacts were sold to museums in Germany and the dispersal of Benin art to museums around the world began.

Conclusion

In 2017, students of Jesus College Cambridge protested against the school authorities due to the cockerel statue located in the school hallwhich was looted during the 1897 Benin Expedition. The Student’s Union passed a motion declaring that the sculpture should be returned to its rightful owner. The school succumbed and removed the sculpture admitting it’s willingness to discuss it’s repatriation.

Nollywood director Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen fulfilled a lifetime ambition by producing a film about the invasion of Benin termed “Invasion 1897”

Finally, since the 1970s the Federal Government of Nigeria has been pleading with British Authorities to return the stolen artifacts, but so far, the British Government has refused. Hopefully, the future generation of British leaders can see the need to return these precious works to their rightful place and though it seems impossible to recover all, attempt should not be neglected.

Factboyz joins millions round the world to plead with the British Government to do the rightful thing.

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