“The white man is bringing war”.
This was the urgent message some Itsekiri chiefs reportedly sent to the king of Benin before the annihilation of the British forces that planned on invading his frontiers on the fourth of January, 1897. The British expedition force commanded by acting Consul-General, James Robert Phillips marched on Benin with two Niger Coast Protectorate Force officers, two trading agents and 250 African soldiers disguised in part as porters and in part as a drum and pipe band.
The unsuspecting British forces who paraded themselves as envoys of peace were ambushed at Ugbine village, near Ughoton by a superbly trained regiment commanded by the Ologbosere; a senior army commander of Benin. Shortly before the British forces were massacred, the acting consul-general, James Phillips sent a message to the Oba that the main reason for his “visit” to Benin was to discuss trade and peace, but his real intent according to an old request he made to London was to depose the Oba, replace him with a native council and pay for the invasion of his Kingdom with the Ivory he hoped to find in the king’s palace.
The major premise for this devious plot was because Ovonramwen; the esteemed Oba of Benin maintained a monopoly over trade around the areas surrounding his kingdom, despite the majority of West Africa remaining under British subjugation. The kingdom of Benin still retained its independence around the 19th century and this greatly annoyed Britain, because some of its influential investors reportedly coveted the area around Benin and the kingdom itself because of its rich natural resources such as palm oil, rubber and ivory.
Public outcries for the subjugation of Benin started gathering more steam in Britain after Richard Burton; a British consul who visited the kingdom in 1862 called it a place of “gratuitous barbarity which stinks of death”. The remark made by this consul was probably a ploy used by Britain to assuage its citizens and the rest of the world that its objective towards Benin were more of a Humanitarian effort than an Economic exploitation, but the latter seemed like the only motivating factor because life in ancient Benin was a sharp contrast to what Burton reported.
Earlier reports made by previous explorers like the Dutch traveler, David van Nyendael who visited ancient Benin in 1699, aptly described the kingdom and its inhabitants as “…in general a kind and polite people, of whom one with kindness might get everything he desires. Whatever might be offered to them out of politeness, will always be doubled in return. However, they want their politeness to be returned with likewise courtesy as well, without the appearance of any disappointment or rudeness….”.
In an old report summarized by Lorenzo Pinto; a Portuguese ship captain who visited the ancient kingdom of Benin in 1674, he wrote that “Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon (now the capital of Portugal). All the streets run straight as far as the eyes can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well organized that theft is unknown and people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses”.
In modern times, the inhabitants of ancient Benin have been painted as horrific and crude to the rest of the world by demeaning and mediocre writers like Elspeth Huxley, who wrote in 1954 that Britain had more noble motives for pushing into Africa other than their aim to exploit and glorify themselves. Certain claims about human sacrifices, innocent men and women being sacrificed to appease various gods in Benin were brought to center stage to make Britain’s punitive expedition seem like the right cause.
It is nothing but hypocritical for Britain to castigate Benin over the nature of its religion despite numerous claims made by roman writers like Tacitus or even the emperor; Julius Caesar who wrote in his account of the Gallic wars, that the sacred druids, whose known origins can be traced to ancient Wales, carried out myriads of human sacrifices sometimes involving both innocent and criminal victims. The ancient druids occupied areas around Britain and Gaul in the Third century and the core of their beliefs according to Caesar was that “…souls do not die, but after death pass from one to another…in effect…the fear of death is cast aside…”
The similarities between the belief of the druids and that of the inhabitants of Benin when it comes to the immortality of the soul is self-evident. At the burial rituals of a deceased Oba, his bodyguards along with his wives and slaves are reportedly sacrificed so as to continue serving him in another life. This belief in an afterlife was central to mankind’s religion at one point in time irrespective of the continent. According to historian; J.D. Graham on the human sacrifices carried out in Benin, he mentioned that “Many of the sensationalist accounts of the sacrifices are largely exaggerated or based on rumor and speculation. All evidences points to a limited, ritual custom of human sacrifice…” . Graham also notes that many of the written accounts referring to the human sacrifices describe them as actually being executed criminals.
The great walls of Benin eventually yielded to marauding British forces led by Admiral Harry Rawson in the fall of September 1897. The once magnificent walls were described by the Guinness book of records (1974 edition) as “… the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era…”. They were said to be four times longer than the great walls of China according to an article published by the new scientist. Ethnomathematician; Ron Eglash who commented on the planned layout of the walls, cited that “… when Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture disorganized and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet…”.
Despite the fact that these walls have stood for over 400 years protecting the city’s inhabitants, they were eventually razed to the ground by British forces who forced their way into the city by burning, murdering and looting. The extent at which they sacked Benin breaks the heart. 40% of the Priceless artworks found in the king’s palace and in other parts of the city were carted off to Britain, which were eventually put up for display at the British museum in London, while the remaining half was donated to top British military generals as spoils of war. Oba Ovonramwen; the king was demoted and chased into exile after his capture by Ralph Moor; a British consul. He later lived out the rest of his life in Calabar and died in 1914.
The city of Benin today hardly mirrors what it could have been. The history of its entire civilization has been erased, only to be replaced by a copy of what its destroyers wanted. Recently, as news of the gubernatorial elections in the new state pervades the air, one cannot but wonder if the new custodians of the modern day city are not hell-bent on destroying what’s left of their ancestral heritage.
By Ajidagba Olanrewaju.