Benin Expedition of 1897

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Benin Sacking of 1897
Part of the Scramble for Africa
Date9–18 February 1897
Result British victory

United Kingdom British Empire

Benin Empire Benin Empire
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Harry Rawson
United Kingdom James Phillips 
Benin Empire Ovonramwen
Benin Empire Asoro N’ lyokuo
1,200 Unknown

The Benin Expedition of 1897 was a punitive expedition by a British force of 1,200 men under Sir Harry Rawson in response to the ambush of a previous British party under Acting Consul General James Phillips.[1] Rawson's troops captured and sacked Benin City, bringing to an end the Kingdom of Benin, which was eventually absorbed into colonial Nigeria.[1]


Ovonramwen, Oba of Benin

At the end of the 19th century, the Kingdom of Benin had managed to retain its independence during the Scramble for Africa, and the Oba of Benin exercised a monopoly over trade which the Royal Niger Company found irksome. The territory was coveted by an influential group of investors for its rich natural resources such as palm-oil, rubber and ivory. After the British consul Richard Burton visited Benin in 1862 he described it a place of "gratuitous barbarity which stinks of death", a narrative which was publicized in Britain and increased pressure for the territory's incorporation into the British Empire.[2]

In spite of this pressure, the kingdom maintained its independence, and after Burton's visit it was not attended by another representative of Britain until 1892 when Henry Gallwey, the British Vice-Consul of Oil Rivers Protectorate (later Niger Coast Protectorate), visited Benin City hoping to open up trade and ultimately annex the Kingdom of Benin and transform it into a British protectorate.[3] Gallwey signed a treaty with the Oba and his chiefs which gave Britain legal justification for exerting greater influence in the region. While the treaty itself contained clauses which suggested that the Oba had sought British protection, this was not corroborated by either him or Gallwey. According to Gallwey's own account, the Oba was hesitant to sign the treaty.[4] Although some historians have suggested that humanitarian motivations were driving British foreign policy in the region,[5] letters written between British administrators suggest that economic motivations were predominant.[6] The treaty itself does not explicitly mention anything about the so-called "bloody customs" that Burton had written about, and instead includes a vague clause about ensuring "the general progress of civilization".[6]

While the treaty granted free trade to British merchants operating in the Kingdom of Benin, the Oba persisted in requiring customs duties.[7] 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 Oba's requirements a violation of the accord and thus a hostile act.[8]

In 1894, after the capture of Ebrohimi, the trading town of the chief Nana Olomu (the leading Itsekiri trader in the Benin River District) by a combined Royal Navy and Niger Coast Protectorate force, the Kingdom of Benin increased the military presence on its own southern borders. These developments combined with the Colonial Office's refusal to grant approval for an invasion of Benin City scuttled an 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 of 1892: firstly by Major P. Copland-Crawford, Vice-Consul of the Benin District; secondly by Ralph Frederick Locke, the Vice-Consul Assistant; and thirdly by Captain Arthur Maling, Commandant of the Niger Coast Protectorate Force detachment based in Sapele.

In March 1896, following price fixing and refusals by Itsekiri middle men to pay the required tributes, the Oba 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 merchants in the region appealed to the Protectorate's Consul-General to "open up" Benin territories and to send the Oba (whom they claimed was an obstruction to their trading activities) into exile. In October 1896 the Acting Consul-General, James Robert Phillips, visited the Benin River District and met with the agents and traders, who convinced him that "there is a future on the Benin River if Benin territories were opened".[citation needed]

The "Benin Massacre" (January 1897)[edit]

Boisragon and Locke, the two Britons who survived the ambush

In November 1896 Phillips formally asked his superiors in London for permission to invade Benin City, depose the Oba and replace him with a Native Council, claiming that the costs of such an expedition would be recouped by ivory Philips claimed would be present in the Oba's palace.[1] In his letter to Lord Salisbury, the Foreign Secretary, Phillips wrote: "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."[9][10] In late December 1896, without waiting for a reply or approval, 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.[1] To disguise their intent, the force hid its weapons in the baggage carried by the 'porters'.

Phillips had sent a message to the Oba, claiming 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). However, some Itsekiri trading chiefs also sent a message to the Oba that "the white man is bringing war". On receiving the news the Oba summoned the city's high-ranking nobles for an emergency meeting, during which the Iyase (commander in chief of the Benin Army) pushed for an ambush of Philip's party. The Oba however argued that the party should be allowed to enter the city so that their true intentions could be ascertained to. The Iyase ignored the king's views, and ordered the formation of a strike force that was commanded by the Ologbosere (a senior army commander), which was sent to Ughoton to ambush Philip's party.

On 4 January 1897 the Benin strike force, composed mainly of border guards and servants of some chiefs, caught Phillips' column unprepared at Ugbine village near Ughoton. Since Phillips was not expecting any opposition and was unaware that his operation was being perceived with alarm in Benin, the contingent's only firearms - the officers' pistols - were locked up in the head packs of the African porters.[11] Only two Britons survived the annihilation of Phillips' expedition,[12] which became known as the 'Benin Massacre': Captain Alan Maxwell Boisragon, Commandant of the Constabulary of the Niger Coast Protectorate and Ralph Locke, District Commissioner of Warri.

The punitive expedition (February 1897)[edit]

Admiral Sir Harry Rawson
A photograph of the interior of Oba's compound being burnt during the punitive expedition, with bronze plaques in the foreground and three soldiers from the punitive force in the background

On 12 January 1897, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, commander of the Royal Navy forces at the Cape of Good Hope and West Coast of Africa Station,[13] was appointed by the Admiralty to lead a force to invade the Kingdom of Benin, capture the Benin Oba and destroy Benin City. The operation was named the Benin Punitive Expedition.[citation needed]

On 9 February 1897, the invasion of the Kingdom of Benin began. The British invasion force of about 1,200 Royal Marines, sailors and Niger Coast Protectorate Forces was organised into three columns: the 'Sapoba', 'Gwato' and 'Main' columns. Flotillas of warships (including HMS Philomel and Phoebe) and gunboats approached Benin City from the east and west.[14] The 'Sapoba' and 'Main' columns reached Benin City after ten days of fighting. The 'Gwato' column (under Captain Gallwey) took the same route as that taken by the previous mission and came on the scene of the massacre, finding headless bodies of the victims.[15]

Elspeth Huxley spent some time researching in Benin in 1954, and wrote:[16]

" ... to hear an account of the Benin massacre of 1897 and its sequel from one who had taken part. It is a story that still has power to amaze and horrify, as well as to remind us that the British had motives for pushing into Africa other than the intention to exploit the natives and glorify themselves. Here, for instance, are some extracts from the diary of a surgeon who took part in the expedition.:- 'As we neared Benin City we passed several human sacrifices, live women slaves gagged and pegged on their backs to the ground, the abdominal wall being cut in the form of a cross, and the uninjured gut hanging out. These poor women were allowed to die like this in the sun. Men slaves, with their hands tied at the back and feet lashed together, also gagged, were lying about. As we neared the city, sacrificed human beings were lying in the path and bush—even in the king's compound the sight and stench of them was awful. Dead and mutilated bodies were everywhere — by God! May I never see such sights again! . . .'"[17]

Herbert Walker, a soldier serving in the punitive expedition, believed that the human sacrifices he saw were an attempt by Benin City residents to appease the Gods as they tried to defend themselves from the expedition.[18] Historian Dan Hicks has described the punitive expedition's actions during their push to Benin City as democidal, claiming that it involved:

"massacres of towns and villages from the air and thus women and children across the whole of the Benin Kingdom, scorching the earth with rockets, fire and mines. Primary among the war crimes was the scale of the killing and bombings of civilian targets."[14]

The earth walls of Benin were once the largest earthworks created in the pre-mechanised era and were once estimated to be four times longer[dubious ] in total than the Great Wall of China.[19] On 18 February Benin City was captured by the expedition. The city was set ablaze, although it has been claimed that this was accidental.

Eight members of the punitive force were recorded as being killed in action during the Benin Expedition; the number of military and civilian casualties amongst the Benin people was not estimated but is thought to have been very high.[14]

The Benin Expedition was regarded as a stroke of disciplined and coordinated planning:

"In twenty-nine days a force of 1,200 men, coming from three places between 3000 and 4500 m. from the Benin river, was landed, organized, equipped and provided with transport. Five days later the city of Benin was taken, and in twelve days more the men were re-embarked, and the ships coaled and ready for any further service."[20]


Members of the expedition surrounded by objects from the royal palace

Immediately after the city was captured, widespread looting began. It was an exercise that was carried out by all members of the expedition. Houses, sacred sites, ceremonial buildings and palaces of many high-ranking chiefs were looted and many buildings were burned down, including the Palace building itself on Sunday 21 February. There was evidence of previous human sacrifice found by members of the expedition,[21] with journalists from Reuters and the Illustrated London News reporting that the town 'reeked of human blood.'[22]

The Oba was eventually captured by the British consul-general, Ralph Moor. He was deposed and exiled to Calabar. A British Resident was appointed, and six chiefs were hung in Benin City's marketplace.[14]

Most of the plunder from the city was retained by the expedition with some 2,500 (official figures) religious artefacts, Benin visual history, mnemonics and artworks being sent to Britain. They include over a thousand metal plaques and sculptures collectively known as the Benin Bronzes. The Admiralty confiscated and auctioned off the war booty to defray the costs of the expedition.[23]

About 40% of the art was accessioned to the British Museum, while other works were given to individual members of the armed forces as spoils of war, and the remainder was sold at auction by the Admiralty to pay for the expedition as early as May 1897 (Stevens Auction Rooms, 38 King Street, London, May 25, 1897; followed by several sales at William Downing Webster, Bicester, between 1898 and 1900). Most of the Benin Bronzes sold at auction were purchased by museums, mainly in Germany. The dispersal of Benin artworks 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.[24]

Movement for repatriation of looted objects[edit]

In 2017 a cockerel statue or okukor looted during the 1897 Benin Expedition was removed from the hall of Jesus College, Cambridge, following protests by students of the university.[25] Jesus College's student union passed a motion declaring that the sculpture should be returned. A spokesperson from the university stated that “Jesus College acknowledges the contribution made by students in raising the important but complex question of the rightful location of its Benin bronze, in response to which it has removed the okukor from its hall” and that the university is willing “to discuss and determine the best future for the okukor, including the question of repatriation.[26]

Cultural representations[edit]

  • Plays relating to the events include Ovonramwen N’ Ogbaisi, written by Ola Rotimi (1971); and The Trials of Oba Ovonramwen, written by Ahmed Yerima (1997);
  • Visual artists' responses include Tony Phillips' series of prints titled History of the Benin Bronzes (1984);[27] and Peju Layiwola's travelling exhibition and edited book called Art and the Restitution Question.[28]
  • Films covering aspects of the expedition include The Mask (1979), starring Eddie Ugbomah; and Invasion 1897 (2014), directed by Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Obinyan, T. U. (September 1988). "The Annexation of Benin". Journal of Black Studies. Sage . 19 (1): 29–40. doi:10.1177/002193478801900103. JSTOR 2784423.
  2. ^ Igbafe 1970, p. 385.
  3. ^ Igbafe 1970, pp. 385-400.
  4. ^ Igbafe 1970.
  5. ^ E.G. Hernon, A. Britain's Forgotten Wars, p.409 (2002)
  6. ^ a b Igbafe 1970, p. 387.
  7. ^ Igbafe 1970, p. 390.
  8. ^ Igbafe 1970, p. 391.
  9. ^ "J.R. Phillips to Foreign Office. Advising the deposition of the Benin King." 17 November 1896. Despatches to Foreign Office from Consul-General Archived 4 September 2006 at the Wayback Machine, Catalogue of the Correspondence and Papers of the Niger Coast Protectorate, 268 3/3/3, p. 240. National Archives of Nigeria Enugu.
  10. ^ Akenzua, Edun (2000). "The Case of Benin". Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence, Appendix 21, House of Commons, The United Kingdom Parliament, March 2000.
  11. ^ Hernon, A. Britain's Forgotten Wars, p.409 (2002) ISBN 0-7509-3162-0
  12. ^ Boisragon 1897.
  13. ^ "William Loney RN". Archived from the original on 11 May 2011. Retrieved 23 October 2010.
  14. ^ a b c d Dan, Hicks (5 November 2020). The Brutish Museums. Pluto Press. pp. 111, 115–6, 123, 132. ISBN 978-1-78680-683-3.
  15. ^ "SCENE OF THE MASSACRES IN BENIN - The Western Mail". Abel Nadin. 17 March 1897. Retrieved 27 February 2021. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  16. ^ "Four Guineas" Elspeth Huxley, 1954
  17. ^ "Great Benin: Its Customs, Art and Horrors" by H. Ling Roth. The surgeon was Roth's brother.
  18. ^ Otzen, Otzen (26 February 2015). "The man who returned his grandfather's looted art". Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  19. ^ Koutonin, Mawuna (18 March 2016). "Story of cities #5: Benin City, the mighty medieval capital now lost without trace". Retrieved 20 August 2017.
  20. ^  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Benin". Encyclopædia Britannica. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 739.
  21. ^ Graham 1965.
  22. ^ Hernon, A. Britain's Forgotten Wars, p.421 (2002) ISBN 0-7509-3162-0
  23. ^ Home, Robert (1982). City of Blood Revisited: A New Look at the Benin Expedition of 1897. London: Lex Collins, 1982. ISBN 0-8476-4824-9.
  24. ^ Ben-Amos, Paula Girshick (1999). Art, Innovation, and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Benin. Indiana University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-253-33503-5.
  25. ^ "Welcome To News Every Hour: See the Cockerel that is causing serious debate between England and Nigeria (Photo)". 3 March 2016. Retrieved 17 November 2016.
  26. ^ Weale, Sally (8 March 2016). "Benin bronze row: Cambridge college removes cockerel". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 14 October 2017.
  27. ^ "Tony Phillips on the History of the Benin Bronzes I-XII". Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  28. ^ Layiwola, Peju (2014). "Making meaning from a fragmented past: 1897 and the creative process". Open Arts Journal (3). doi:10.5456/issn.2050-3679/2014s15pl. ISSN 2050-3679.
  • Igbafe, Philip A. (1970). "The fall of Benin: A Reassessment". Journal of African History. XI (3): 385–400. doi:10.1017/S0021853700010215. JSTOR 180345.
  • European traders in Benin to Major Copland Crawford. Reporting the stoppage of trade by the Benin King 1896 Apr 13, Catalogue of the Correspondence and Papers of the Niger Coast Protectorate, 268 3/3/3, p. 240. National Archives of Nigeria Enugu.
  • 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, p. 240. National Archives of Nigeria Enugu
  • J. R. Phillips to Foreign Office. Advising the deposition of the Benin King. 17 Nov 1896. Despatches to Foreign Office from Consul-General, Catalogue of the Correspondence and Papers of the Niger Coast Protectorate, 268 3/3/3, p. 240. National Archives of Nigeria Enugu.
  • Akenzua, Edun (2000). "The Case of Benin". Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence, Appendix 21, House of Commons, The United Kingdom Parliament, March 2000.
  • Ben-Amos, Paula Girshick (1999). Art, Innovation, and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Benin. Indiana University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-253-33503-5.
  • Boisragon, Alan (1897). The Benin Massacre. London: Methuen.
  • Graham, James D. (1965). "The Slave Trade, Depopulation and Human Sacrifice in Benin History: The General Approach". Cahiers d'Études africaines. V (18): 317–334. JSTOR 4390897.

Further reading[edit]

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