The Benin expedition of 1897 was a deadly attack by a British military group led by Rear Admiral Sir Harry Rawson. The military group attacked, burned and looted Benin City bringing to an end the West African Kingdom of Benin.
In November 1987, Consul Philips wanted to enter Benin, and he made a formal request to his British superiors seeking permission to invade Benin City. After waiting a while, his superiors did not reply or approve his request. In December 1896, Phillips decided to invade Benin with the help of a Niger Coast Protectorate Force consisting of 250 African soldiers and 5 British officers, a trader, and an interpreter. The African soldiers posed as porters and members of a musical band.
It is important to note that Consul Phillips’ major objective of invading Benin was to get rid of the Oba of Benin, Oba Ovoramwen Nogbaisi and replace him with a native council. Before leaving for Benin, Phillips sent a message to Oba Ovoramwen that he was coming to pay him a visit and to discuss peace trade with him. In Benin, some Itsekiri chiefs had a meeting and warned the Oba of Benin about Phillips intention. During the meeting, the Iyase (Commander in Chief of Benin Army) argued that Phillips should not be granted entry into the City, but should be confronted and killed as he was coming on a hostile visit. However, Oba Ovoramwen argued that he should be allowed entry into the city to see if the visit was truly hostile or friendly as Philips claimed.
Despite this, the Iyase ignored the King’s views and set up a strike force commanded by the Ologobose, a senior army commander. On the 4th of January 1897, the Benin strike force attacked Phillips’ men totally unaware at Ugbine Village. Since Phillips was not expecting any opposition and was unaware that the Benin army were going to ambush him, the contingent’s only weapons, consisting of the officers’ pistols were locked up in the head packs of the African soldiers disguised as carriers. The strike forced persuaded Philips not to continue with his journey to Benin because there was an ongoing festival, Igue Festival and during the festival, the king is not allowed to receive any visitor. Despite their warnings, Phillips did not listen and as a result, he was killed alongside his troops, only two troops British officers survived the attack which became known as the Benin Massacre of 1897.
The news of this terrific event got to London and on January 12, 1897, the British authorities in an attempt to punish Benin, appointed Rear Admiral, Harry Rawson commanding the squadron at the Cape of Good Hope was appointed to lead an expedition to capture the city of Benin and eliminate the king. This operation was referred to as Benin expedition of 1897.
On the 9th of February 1897, Rear Admiral Harry Rawson invaded the city of Benin with 1,200 Royal Marines who were heavily armed, burnt down all Benin kingdom’s towns and villages. All the houses were set ablaze and people were killed irrespective of their gender, age, and status. The field commanders were instructed by their Commander in Chief to capture and hang the Benin king Oba Ovuramwen wherever and whenever he was captured. It is also important to note that majority of the Royal Marine troops were mostly Africans and they did most part of the fighting, while the British soldiers sat behind machine guns and canons. The 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. Shortly after ravaging the kingdom, Oba Ovuramwen was captured by British Consul-General Ralph Moor and casted before the British law where he was tried and found guilty. He was then deposed with his two wives, exiled to Calabar where he died in January 1914.
The troops secured the city when it was totally ruined, the city walls were once the largest earthwork created in the Pre-mechanized era and were estimated to be four times longer in total than the Great Wall of China was engulfed in an uncontrollable fire. Little evidence of these structures still exists after the destruction at the hands of the British.
The British invaders looted the city after they conquered it and all the members of the expedition had something to go with. Monuments and palaces of many high ranking Chiefs were looted and destroyed, and finally, on the third day, looted Benin’s king palace was deliberately set ablaze. Most of the plunder was retained by the expedition with some 2,500 religious artifacts, Benin visual history, mnemonics and artworks which included the famous “Queen Idia Head” statue which was used as the symbol of FESTAC 77. The British Admiralty confiscated and auctioned off the war booty to defray the costs of the expedition. The expected revenue from the expedition was discussed already before Philips set out his ill-fated journey to the city of Benin in 1896. In a letter to Lord Salisbury, the British Foreign Secretary, Phillips requested approval to invade Benin and depose the king, adding the following footnote; “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”.
In late 1897, the art was auctioned in Paris, France to raise funds to pay for the expedition. Most of the bronzes went first to purchasers in Germany, but a sizable group is now back in London at the British museum. The dispersement of the Benin art to museums around the world catalyzed the beginnings of a long and slow European reassessment of the value of West African art. The Benin art was copied and the style integrated into the art of many European artists and this had a very strong influence on the early formation of modernism in Europe. The 1897 Benin expedition had serious negative effects on the kingdom as it was plunged into a period of economic, political, military and cultural setback.
There has been recent moves to recollect Benin looted artifacts and artworks from museums which they were sold to. A cockerel statue which 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.
4. Bolsragon, Alan Maxwell. The Benin Massacre. London: Methen, 1897