The imminent return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria from Germany has focused attention on the ancient Kingdom of Benin and Oba Ovonramwen, who was reigning monarch at the time of the invasion and looting of the Bronzes. So, what really happened?
PRIOR EVENTS BEFORE THE INVASION OF BENIN
Ancient Benin was an independent and prosperous kingdom in West Africa dating from the medieval period. Benin City was the historic capital of the Kingdom, and it was well laid-out with a massive protective outer wall and a moat. See the layout of ancient Benin City below.
Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, born c.1857, was a son of Oba Adolo, and was enthroned as the 36th Oba of Benin in 1888. He took the name Ovọnramwẹn “The Rising Sun” Nọgbaisi “which spreads over all” at his crowning (every Ọba took a new name at his coronation).
After ascending to the throne, King Ovonramwen came under increasing pressure from the British and their Niger Coast Protectorate which was established in 1884.
POLITICAL SITUATION IN THE LATE 19TH CENTURY
In the second half of the 19th century, balance of power between West African kingdoms like Benin and European countries with which they traded shifted towards European control. By the late 19th century, industrialized European nations with new military technologies began to exert greater power across the African continent. This political and commercial movement developed into the territorial land-grab known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’.
In the early 1890s, the Kingdom of Benin resisted increasing British pressure to be colonialized. The colonial administration had started reaching trade agreements with influential chiefs and kings of neighboring peoples. After several unsuccessful attempts, they finally succeeded in 1892 in concluding such an agreement with the Oba of Benin, who could no longer escape doing so.
However, in 1896 the Kingdom of Benin halted the trade and supply of palm oil. This embargo brought trade in the Benin River region to a standstill, and British trading companies quickly appealed to the Niger Coast Protectorate’s Consul-General.
THE INVASION AND LOOTING OF BENIN KINGDOM
In January 1897, a British invasion force headed by Vice-Consul James Robert Phillips set out to overthrow Ọba Ovonramwen. The force’s weapons were hidden in baggage, with soldiers disguised as luggage-bearers. Phillips plan was to gain access to Ovonramwen’s palace by announcing he intended to negotiate.
Oba Ovonramwen’s messengers issued several warnings not to violate Benin territorial sovereignty, saying the King was unable to see Phillips due to ceremonial duties of the Ugi’erh’Oba Festival. Having been warned on several further occasions on the way, Phillips sent his stick to the Ọba, a deliberate insult designed to provoke the conflict that would provide an excuse for British annexation.
The total number of men who embarked on this expedition with Phillips has been put at over 500 by some sources, based on references made by survivor Alan Maxwell Boisragon in his book The Benin Massacre.
The expedition was ambushed by Benin warriors led by War Commander Ologbosere on 04 January 1897 and all but two Europeans were killed. These survivors were Captain Alan Boisragon, Commandant of the Constabulary of the Niger Coast Protectorate, and Ralph Locke, District Commissioner of Warri.
Within a month, the British dispatched up to 10,000 soldiers both army and navy together with their native African troops to Benin, under the high command of Admiral Sir. Harry Rawson. On 18 February 1897, just under two weeks after landing on the coast, the so-called Punitive Expedition reached Benin City and overthrew it, despite unexpectedly strong resistance. This marked the fall of ancient Benin Kingdom and its absorption into the Niger Coast Protectorate.
The king and his high dignitaries had fled, and the city turned out to be almost deserted. The British installed their headquarters in the royal palace, and scoured the environs without success in search of the Oba and his retinue.
In a courtyard of the royal palace, under a thick layer of dust, the occupiers found hundreds of unusual bronze reliefs; in other rooms and shrines of the palace, they came across further bronze artworks and ivory carvings. These objects were gathered to take back to England for subsequent defrayal of the cost of the war. On the third day, a fire broke out which destroyed the palace and most of the city. The palace had to be evacuated in haste, and a portion of the art treasures fell victim to the fire.
The occupation of Benin City saw widespread destruction and pillage by British forces. Along with other monuments and palaces, the Benin Royal Palace was burned and partly destroyed. Its shrines and associated compounds were looted by British forces, and thousands of objects of ceremonial and ritual value were taken to the UK as official ‘spoils of war’ or distributed among members of the expedition according to their rank.
This included objects removed from royal ancestral shrines, among which were ceremonial brass heads of former Obas and their associated ivory tusks. The looted objects also included more than 900 brass plaques, dating largely to the 16–17th century, found in a storage room within the palace.
After accomplishing his mission, Admiral Rawson left Benin and the city was handed over to the local colonial administration. Battles in the environs persisted even longer, since the army commander Chief Ologbosere had not yet capitulated with his troops.
OBA OVONRAMWEN’S SURRENDER AND SENTENCING
On 05 August 1897, Oba Ovonramwen finally surrendered, after six months spent evading capture in the forest. When Ovọnramwẹn returned to the city, he was richly dressed and laden with coral beads and accompanied by an entourage of seven hundred to eight hundred people.
In September 1897, he and 6 high dignitaries viewed as responsible were put to trial under the leadership of Consul-General Sir. Ralph Moor. Oba Ovonramwen was able to substantiate his innocence of the massacure. He attempted to escape exile by offering Consul General Moor 200 puncheons (barrels) of oil worth £1500 at that time, and to disclose where his 500 ivory tusks were buried (of a value more than £2M at that time). However, this offer was dismissed, as Moor had already discovered them.
Oba Ovonramwen was sentenced to exile in Calabar with two of his wives, Queen Egbe and Queen Aighobahi. He was received and hosted in Calabar in a small town called “Essien Town” by Etinyin Essien Etim Offiong, the progenitor of Essien Town. Two of the chiefs committed suicide before the trial; the others who had also acted without the approval of the king, were sentenced to death and executed.
Oba Ovonramwen died in Calabar around the turn of the new year in 1914, and was eventually buried in the grounds of the royal palace in Benin City. He was succeeded by his first son and legitimate heir, Prince Aguobasimwin, who ruled as Eweka II.
SUBSEQUENT EVENTS & HISTORY
On 31 December 1899, the British government revoked the Royal Niger Company’s charter (granted 1886) as a result of the above events and numerous complaints against the company from the Brass people of the Benin Rivers, deaths of Hausa princes during skirmishes in the Bida Emirate in 1897 and British territorial rivalry with the French.
Following revocation of its charter, the Royal Niger Company sold its holdings to the British government for £865,000 (equivalent to £98.09m or 43.09 billion Naira, as at 2019). On 01 January 1900 all Royal Niger Company territories and assets passed to the British Crown. The surrendered territories together with the Niger Coast Protectorate were then formed into Northern and Southern Protectorates of the Niger River.
In on 01 January 1914, the two protectorates were formally united and amalgamated as the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria by Governor Lord Frederick John Dealtry Lugard.
The Benin monarchy was ceremonially restored on 24 July 1914 when the exiled King’s son, Prince Aiguobasimwin Ovoranmwen was crowned Oba of Benin with the title Eweka II. However, true power was in the hands of the then colonial administration of Nigeria.