The Benin punitive expedition of 1897 was a disastrous event that left the great kingdom of Benin devastated and deprived of valuable artefacts, artworks, sons, daughters and a great king. An event in history called “the Benin massacre” acted as a catalyst to the ‘punitive expedition’, as it was called by the British.
On January 4, 1897, a fraction of the Benin army killed a British officer, Consul Philips, alongside his men for insisting on entering Benin when he was not welcomed. In retaliation, the British authorities sent about 1,200 troops to destroy Benin and punish its King.
The Benin Massacre
It is worthy of note that the Benin kingdom had existed from time immemorial and thrived extensively as one of the most prosperous and mightiest kingdoms in West Africa. Benin kingdom traded slaves, ivory, pepper and palm oil with the Portuguese as early as 1485 and at the peak of its power, Benin influenced places as far as Akure and Owo in the western part of modern-day Nigeria.
In 1853, the British made contact with the Binis to trade pepper, palm oil, clothes and ivory. Due to its economic and military power, Benin independently ran its trading activities in its region and was not subjected to orders from any other kingdom or empire, even Britain. The British found this displeasing and inimical to their lifetime mission which was to annex Benin into the British empire and depose the king, Oba Ovoramwen Nogbaisi, if necessary.
In 1892, Henry Gallway, a British Vice-Consul, visited Benin with the intention of annexing the kingdom through a treaty. He presented the so-called treaty of ‘trade and friendship’ to Oba Ovoramwen (Overami) who was sceptical. However, Oba Ovoramwen signed the treaty and agreed to stop slavery and human sacrifice in Benin. But later, when Oba Ovoramwen realized that the treaty was nothing but a tactic to annex Benin into the British empire, he forbade his people to trade with the British and barred them (British) from entering Benin.
The British saw this as a violation of the 1892 treaty and thus bent on punishing the Oba. Another action of Oba Ovoramwen that fueled the British urge to punish him was the stoppage of palm oil supply to Itsekiri middlemen in 1896 because they refused to pay their tributes. The stoppage of palm oil supply to Itsekiri middlemen negatively affected trading activities in the Benin river region.
The British merchants in the region found Ovoramwen’s action detrimental to their business and therefore persuaded the British authorities to depose and exile him, then annex the kingdom of Benin.
In November 1896, Acting Consul-General James Robert Philips sent a request to the British authorities in London for permission to invade Benin and depose Oba Ovoramwen. Without waiting for approval, Philips sent a message to Oba Ovoramwen that he wanted to pay him a friendly visit and discuss peace and trade.
Unknowing to Philips, some Itsekiri chiefs had warned Oba Ovoramwen of Philips’ intention in Benin. The Oba quickly summoned his chiefs and tabled the matter before them. Meanwhile, Consul Philips had set out for Benin with his “friendly troops” that consisted of two trading agents, two Niger coast protectorate officers, a medical officer and 250 African soldiers in the guise of porters.
The Iyase (commander-in-chief of Benin army) argued that Philips was coming to raze Benin to ashes, so he should not be allowed to enter the kingdom. Oba Ovoramwen suggested that Philips should be granted entry first, but the Iyase ignored the King’s suggestion and ordered Ologbosere (a senior commander and the king’s son-in-law) to lead a handful of armed men to dislodge Philips and his so-called friendly forces at Ughoton.
On the 4th of January, 1897, the Benin forces caught Philips and his men unprepared in a forest in Ugbine village near Ughoton. They persuaded Philips not to further his journey to Benin because of the ongoing Igue festival which does not allow the king to welcome any visitor. Philips gave deaf ears to the warnings and in the scuffle, he was killed alongside his troops. Only two British survived the attack. In history, this incident is known as the Benin massacre of 1897.
The Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897
On hearing the news of Philips’ death, the British authorities decided to punish Benin and thus, on the 12th of July, 1897, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson (the commander-in-chief at Cape Town) was appointed to lead the invasion of Benin kingdom and capture Oba Ovoramwen.
The operation was christened Benin Punitive Expedition and known in Nigerian history as the Benin expedition of 1897 or Benin Invasion of 1897.
The bombardment of Benin began on the 9th of February, 1897. Benin forces tried to repel the attack but their weapons which mainly consisted of machetes, spears and arrows were no match for the British sophisticated rifles and cannons. All houses in the kingdom were torched, the people were killed irrespective of their gender, age and status.
An order was given to hang Oba Ovoramwen whenever and wherever he was found. The British troops were about 1,200, heavily armed, and mostly Africans. Interestingly, the African fraction of the British troops did most part of the fighting while the British soldiers sat behind machine guns and canons. Shortly after ravaging the kingdom, Oba Ovoramwen was captured by British Consul-general Ralph Moor and cast before British law.
Oba Ovoramwen Nogbaisi (also called Overami) was tried and found guilty. He was then deposed and with two of his wives, exiled to Calabar where he died in January 1914. After Benin was successfully laid in ruins, the British troops looted the kingdom and carted away its precious artefacts and artworks which included the famous ‘Queen Idia head‘ statue which was used as the symbol of the FESTAC’77.
The booties were auctioned off to defray the cost of the expedition. As Philips had stated earlier when requesting permission to invade Benin. He wrote, “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” [Akenzua, Eden 2000]. The Benin punitive expedition of 1897 had negative effects on the kingdom. Benin was plunged into a period of economic, political, military and cultural setback.
There have been recent moves to recollect Benin looted artefacts and artworks from museums to which they were sold. A cockerel statue that was stolen from Benin during the expedition was recently returned after a protest by students demanding the school authority holding the statue to return it to its rightful place. Also, a movie titled ‘Invasion 1897’ based on the Benin invasion and expedition was recently produced by a Nollywood veteran, Lancelot Imasun.
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- Akenzua, Edun (2000). “The Case of Benin”. Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence, Appendix 21, House of Commons, The United Kingdom Parliament, March 2000.
- Sir Ralph Moore to Foreign Office. Reporting on the abortive Expedition into Benin. 1895 Sept.12 Catalogue of the Correspondence and Papers of the Niger Coast Protectorate, 268 3/3/3, pg. 240. National Archives of Nigeria
- Omipidan, Teslim Opemipo (2017). Pre-Colonial Political Administration of the Benin Empire. OldNaija
- E. Ola Abiola; A Textbook of West African History; 3rd edition; Ado Ekiti; Omolayo Standard Press & Bookshops co. (Nig.) Ltd; 1984
- Kingdom of Benin Blogs – Fiction, Myths and Lies