James Robert Phillips
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James Robert Phillips (c.1864 - 1897) became the Acting Queen's Advocate of the Gold Coast. In 1897 he set out to depose the King of Benin planning to cover the cost by stealing the King's goods. His reason for doing this are unclear. He and his party were massacred as they approached Benin City. Only two officiers survived. Even though Phillips had acted without authority, a punitive force was assembled as the Benin Expedition of 1897. This ended the Benin monarchy and riches including the Benin Bronzes were taken back to Britain.
Phillips was born in circa 1864. He was the eldest son of the Archdeacon of Furness, in The Diocese of Carlisle, the Rev. T. Phillips, M.A.
James was educated at Uppingham School, an independent boarding school. He later went to Trinity College Cambridge where he studied law. He took his degree in law about 1887. He served his solicitor’s articles (trained as a solicitor) at Carlisle with the Clerk of Peace for Cumberland (i.e. a law firm), and was in due course admitted a solicitor.
James was very athletic. He played football for the Eden Wanderers’ Football Club for several seasons proving himself a man of strong physique, vigour and resource. He was very well liked by his teammates.
Niger Coast Protectorate
After qualifying as a solicitor, he believed that there might be better opening for him at the colonies. In 1891, he accepted an appointment as a colonial officer on the Gold Coast (present day Ghana) as a Sheriff and Overseer of Prisons. A year later in 1892, he was promoted to the position of Acting Queen's Advocate of the Gold Coast.
Acting Consul General
In 1896, James went back to England on leave and while visiting friends in Cumberland he expressed himself pleased with his prospects. Whilst still on leave in June 1896, he was appointed Deputy Commissioner and Consul-General for the Niger Coast Protectorate. He was so delighted with this appointment that he wanted to return to Africa immediately but was ordered by the Foreign Office in London to wait in England until he could meet with the current Niger Coast Protectorate Commissioner and Consul-General, Ralph Denham Rayment Moor, who was then en route to England to begin a period of leave. No record exists on where they met or what they discussed. They most probably met in London in September 1896. As he was a lawyer, James had a brief from the Foreign Office to concentrate on the prisons and legal system of the Protectorate. He left for Africa and arrived in the Protectorate on October 24, 1896.
On October 31, 1896, he held a meeting with members of the Benin Rivers trading companies to introduce himself to the traders. This included European Traders of the Royal Niger Company, Itsekiri Chiefs and native traders. Additionally, he wanted to hear directly from them about trading issues they were having.
During this meeting, he met Chief Dogho and other Itsekiri chiefs, as well as a number of European traders including representatives of the Royal Niger Company at Sapele on the Benin River.
Because of this meeting and previous discussions with Mr Moor, James Phillips felt that he had ‘gained a very clear picture of the state of affairs’ in the Benin Rivers trading situation. On November 16, 1896, he wrote a letter to the Foreign Office in London stating: “The King of Benin has continued to do everything in his power to stop the people from trading and prevent the Government from opening up the country. By means of his Fetish he has succeeded to a marked degree. He has permanently placed a Juju on (Palm) Kernels, the most profitable product of the country, and the penalty for trading in this produce is death. He has closed the markets and has only occasionally consented to open them in certain places on receipt of presents from the Jakri chiefs. Only however to close them again when he desires more blackmail…I feel so convinced that every means has been successfully tried that I have advised the Jakri chiefs to discontinue their presents.” “I therefore ask for his Lordship’s permission to visit Benin City in February next, to depose and remove the King of Benin and to establish a native council in his place and to take such further steps for the opening up of the country as the occasion may require. I do not anticipate any serious resistance from the people of the country – there is every reason to believe that they would be glad to get rid of their King – but in order to obviate any danger I wish to take up a sufficient armed Force, consisting of 250 troops, two seven-pounder guns, 1 Maxim gun, and 1 Rocket apparatus of the Niger Coast Protectorate Force (NCPF) and a detachment of Lagos Hausas 150 strong, if his Lordship and the Secretary of State for the Colonies will sanction the use of the Colonial Forces to this extent…PS I would add that I have reason to hope that sufficient Ivory may be found in the King’s house to pay the expenses in removing the King from his Stool.”
James sent this letter in a dispatch to London on November 17, 1896. Without waiting for a response from the Foreign Office on his request and for reasons known to himself alone, he set off on the expedition to Benin taking 8 other white men with him and some African troops and other personnel. The total number of men that embarked on this expedition has been put at over 500 hundred men by some sources based on the sum of the various people mentioned by Boisragon in his book The Benin Massacre written in 1897. The official number of participants in the ill-fated expedition was put at 250 African Carriers and nine white men.
The Benin Massacre
On December 27, 1896, James set off from Old Calabar in his Yacht Ivy with nine other white men on his ill-fated expedition to Benin. At the same time, he sent a message through Chief Dogho (Itsekiri Chief) to the King of Benin, Oba Ovonramwen the 36th King of the kingdom that he was on his way coming to visit. However, his true intentions became unclear as a result of mixed up message and Oba Ovonramwen sent back a reply to ask him to wait for some days whilst he and his Council of Chiefs conducted an investigation into the claims that, ‘The whitemen are bringing war to Benin,’. He also informed Phillips that he was currently engaged in 'worshipping his father's head' in the Ague Festival. Phillips failed to heed this advice and request from the king and on January 4, 1897, despite pleas from his Itsekiri advisors, pressed ahead with his plan.
James and his men were killed by the Benin Strike Force led by Benin Army General Ologbosere en route to Benin. They had been sent to defend their borders against the invading force.
The British Foreign Office Lord Salisbury did send a response to James on January 9, 1897 advising him to postpone the planned expedition for another year as there were not currently enough troops to undertake the mission. They stated that 400 men would be required for this and as there were currently other expeditions in progress elsewhere in the protectorate, this number could not be raised. However James was already dead.
James Robert Phillips was about thirty-three years of age when he died on January 4, 1897 on his way to Benin City.
The white men killed on the mission were: Mr. Philips Acting Consul General of the Niger Coast Protectorate, Major Copland- Crawford, a major in the 7th Battalion King’s Royal Rifles, and Vice-Consul of the Benin and Warri District, Captain Maling lieutenant of the 16th Lancers, Mr. Kenneth Campbell, a District Commissioner at Sapele ; Dr. Elliot, the medical officer of Sapele and Benin District ; Messrs. Powis and Gordon.
Captain Boisragon Commandant of the Constabulary of the Niger Coast Protectorate and Mr. Ralph Locke, District Commissioner of Warri, escaped.
The British Admiralty responded swiftly to the Benin Massacre by authorizing the Benin Punitive Expedition of February 1897.
The British Government as a result of these events and ongoing complaints against the Royal Niger Company from the Brass people of the Benin Rivers, the killings of the Hausa princes during the Bida Battle and ongoing territorial rivalry with the French, revoked the Royal Niger Company charter granted in 1886. Following the revoking of its charter, on December 31, 1899, the Royal Niger Company sold its holdings to the British government for £865,000 [£77,712,386 today]. On January 1, 1900, all its territories and assets passed to the British crown. The surrendered territories together with the Niger Coast Protectorate were formed into Northern and Southern Protectorates of the Niger River. As such, under the British Government control they became British Protectorates and part of the British Empire. In 1914, the two protectorates were formally united and amalgamated as the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria by Governor Lord Frederick Lugard.
- Commons, The Committee Office, House of. "House of Commons - Culture, Media and Sport - Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence". publications.parliament.uk. Retrieved 2018-04-04.
- Okpame Oronsaye (18 September 2017). Summon My Ehi to Ugbine. BoD – Books on Demand. pp. 41–. ISBN 978-3-7386-5225-3.
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4. Clerk of the Peace : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clerk_of_the_Peace
8. Kirk, J. Sir, Benin Massacre, Latest News at the Foreign Office, Reasons for Hope, Interview with Sir John Kirk (Central News Telegram); Publication: Guardian 1821 – 2000; Date: Jan 14, 1897, Section: None; Page 2
9. Phillips, J.R. , 17 Nov 1896. Dispatches 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.
10. Publication: Guardian 1821 - 2000; date; Feb 10, 1897; Section: None; page 6
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15 THE BENIN MASSACRE – MESSAGE FROM THE SURVIVORS - DEPARTURE OF OFFICERS FROM LIVERPOOL – WHY THE EXPEDITION WENT TO BENIN, Reuter Liverpool Correspondent interview with unnamed gentleman, Publication: Guardian 1821 - 2000; Date: Jan 18, 1897, Section: None; Pages 2 –3.
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17.Publication: Guardian 1821 - 2000; Date: Feb 10, 1897, Section: None; Page 6.
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19. THE DISASTER TO THE BENIN EXPEDITION – SAFETY OF TWO OFFICERS- CONSUL GENERAL MOOR ON THE SITUATION – PRESS ASSOCIATION TELEGRAM, FRIDAY EVENING, 15 January 1897, LONDON, Publication: Guardian 1821 - 2000; Date: Jan 16, 1897, Section: None; Page 8
20. History of Nigeria, accessed: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Nigeria
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23.Roth H. L Transcript of the Trial of Ologbosheri; 27 June 1899, (appendix xviii); 1903
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Dissertations and Theses
Ratté, Mary Lou, "Imperial looting and the case of Benin." ().Masters Theses 1911 - February 2014. Paper 1898. Pages 8, 33, 37, 43 -47. Accessed: http://scholarworks.umass.edu/theses/1898