The Benin Expedition of 1897 was a punitive expedition by a United Kingdom force of 1,200 under Admiral Sir Harry Rawson in response to the defeat of a previous British-led invasion force under Acting Consul General James Philips (which had left all but two men dead). Rawson's troops captured, burned, and looted Benin City, bringing to an end the west African Kingdom of Benin. As a result much of the country's art, including the Benin Bronzes, was either destroyed, looted or dispersed.
BackgroundAt the end of the 19th century, the Kingdom of Benin had managed to retain its independence and the Oba exercised a monopoly over trade which the British found irksome. The territory was coveted by an influential group of investors for its rich natural resources such as palm-oil, rubber and ivory. The kingdom was largely independent of British control, and pressure continued from figures such as Vice-Consul James Robert Phillips and Captain Gallwey (the British vice-Consul of Oil Rivers Protectorate) who were pushing for British annexation of the Benin Empire and the removal of the Oba.
In March 1892, Henry Gallwey, the British Vice-Consul of Oil Rivers Protectorate (later Niger Coast Protectorate), visited Benin City hoping to annexe Benin Kingdom and make it a British protectorate. Although the King of Benin, Omo n’Oba (Ovonramwen), was sceptical of the British motives he was willing to endorse what he believed was a friendship and trade agreement. The treaty signed by the king agreed to the abolition of the Benin slave trade and human sacrifice. The King refrained from endorsing Gallwey's treaty when it became apparent that the document was a deceptive ploy intended to make Benin Kingdom a British colony. Consequently the King issued an edict barring all British officials and traders from entering Benin territories. Since Major (later Sir) Claude Maxwell Macdonald, the Consul General of the Oil River Protectorate authorities considered the 'Treaty' legal and binding, he deemed the King's reaction a violation of the accord and thus a hostile act.
In 1894 after the invasion and destruction of Brohomi, the trading town of the chief Nana Olomu, the leading Itsekiri trader in the Benin River District by a combined British Royal Navy and Niger Coast Protectorate forces, Benin Kingdom increased her military presence on her southern borders. This vigilance and the Colonial Office's refusal to grant approval for an invasion of Benin City scuttled the expedition the Protectorate had planned for early 1895. Even so between September 1895 and mid-1896 three attempts were made by the Protectorate to enforce the Gallwey 'Treaty'. Major P. Copland-Crawford, Vice-Consul of the Benin District, made the first attempt, Mr. Locke, the Vice-Consul Assistant, made a second one and the third one was made by Captain Arthur Maling, the Commandant of the Niger Coast Protectorate Force detachment based in Sapele.
In March 1896, following price fixing and refusal by Itsekiri middle men to pay the required tributes, the King of Benin ordered a cessation of the supply of oil palm produce to them. The trade embargo brought trade in the Benin River region to a standstill, and the British traders and agents of the British trading firms quickly appealed to the Protectorate's Consul-General to 'open up' Benin territories, and send the King (whom they claimed was an ‘obstruction’) into exile. In October 1896 Lieutenant James Robert Phillips (RN) [Edit: Phillips was not a Lieutenant, he was a lawyer; after completing articles he was Sheriff and Overseer of Prisons in the Gold Coast and later Acting Queen's Advocate there, before his appointment as Acting Consul-Generalin the Protectorate – see Home, cited below already, at page 30] the Acting Consul-General visited the Benin River District and had meetings with the agents and traders. In the end the agents and traders were able to convince him that 'there is a future on the Benin River if Benin territories were opened'.
Benin had developed a reputation for sending strong messages of resistance. But the way Benin treated its slaves and the public display of large quantities of human remains hardened British attitudes towards Benin's rulers. The trader James Pinnock wrote that he saw 'a large number of men all handcuffed and chained' there, with 'their ears cut off with a razor'. T.B Auchterlonie described the approach to the capital through an avenue of trees hung with decomposing human remains. After the 'lane of horrors' came a grass common 'thickly stewn with the skulls and bones of sacrificed human beings.'
The "Benin Massacre"In November Phillips made a formal request to his superiors in England for permission to invade Benin City, and, in late December 1896, without waiting for a reply or approval from London, Phillips embarked on a military expedition with two Niger Coast Protectorate Force officers, a medical officer, two trading agents, 250 African soldiers masquerading in part as porters, and in part as a drum and pipe band. To disguise their true intent, the force's weapons were hidden in the baggage carried by the 'porters'. His request to London was to depose the king of Benin City, replace him with a Native Council and pay for the invasion with the 'ivory' he hoped to find in the Benin king's palace. In the meantime he sent a message forward to the Oba, Benin's king, that his present mission was to discuss trade and peace and demanding admission to the territory in defiance of Benin law explicitly forbidding his entry. Unfortunately for Phillips, some Itsekiri trading chiefs sent a message to the Benin king that 'the white man is bringing war'. On receiving the news the Benin king quickly summoned the city's high-ranking nobles for an emergency meeting, and during the discussions the Iyase, the commander in chief of the Benin Army argued that the British were planning a surprise attack and must be defeated. The Benin king however argued that the British should be allowed to enter the city so that it can be ascertained whether or not the visit was a friendly one. The Iyase ignored the king's views, and ordered the formation of a strike force that was commanded by the Ologbose, a senior army commander, which was sent to Gwato to destroy the invaders.
On 4 January 1897, the Benin strike force composed mainly of border guards and servants of some chiefs caught Phillips' column totally unprepared at Ugbine village near Gwato. Since Phillips was not expecting any opposition and was unaware that his operation was being perceived with alarm in Benin, the contingent's only weapons, consisting of the officers' pistols, were locked up in the head packs of the African porters. Only two British officers survived the annihilation of Phillips' expedition, which became known as the 'The Benin Massacre'.
The field commanders were instructed by their commander-in–chief to burn down all Benin kingdom's towns and villages, and hang the king of Benin wherever and whenever he was captured. The invasion force of about 1,200 Royal Marines, sailors and Niger Coast Protectorate Forces, and composed of three columns; the 'Sapoba', 'Gwato' and 'Main' Columns. The 'Sapoba' column, and the 'Main column' reached Benin City after 10 days of bitter fighting but the 'Gwato' column was routed at Gwato.
AftermathImmediately after the British invaders secured the city, looting began. It was an exercise that was carried out by all members of the expedition. Monuments and palaces of many high-ranking chiefs were looted. There was evidence of previous human sacrifice found by the British, a tradition they construed as "barbaric," with Reuters and the Illustrated London News reporting that the town 'reeked of human blood.' Homes, religious buildings and palaces were deliberately torched. On the third day, the blaze grew out of control and engulfed part of the city. Most of the plunder was retained by the expedition with some 2,500 (official figures) religious artefacts, Benin visual history, mnemonics and artworks being sent to England.
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 Phillips set out on 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 Oba, 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 Benin bronzes went first to purchasers in Germany, but a sizeable group is now back in London at the British Museum. The dispersement of the Benin art to museums around the world catalysed 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 thus had a strong influence on the early formation of modernism in Europe.
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