One of the most remarkable events in Southern Nigeria towards the end of the 18th century was the Famous Benin Massacre also termed “Punitive Expedition” of 1897 and 120 years later down the line, the ripple effect of the event is yet to be resolved.
How it all started, The industrial revolution in Europe brought about dearth of resources and the need to look beyond their continent in search of cash crops that will serve as raw materials. Southern Nigeria being a coastal region served as the perfect harbor to anchor their boat. Benin has always been reputable for being a rich and fertile since inception and the Europeans saw them really viable to tap in rubber and palm in particular as the region was rightly green.
From the first contact the ancient kingdom had with Portuguese centuries before to the scrabble and partition of the African continent that seeded Nigeria to the British between 1885-1886, Benin kingdom and other southern towns have served as great reservoir to the British in terms of cash crop and other resources.
Trade was good and lucrative between the British and the kingdom until Oba Ovonramwen N’ogbaisi became suspicious of the British after he saw what they did to his friend and ally, king Nana of Itshekiri and Jaja of Opobo. This growing suspicion led Oba Ovonramwen to announce that the British cease every form of activities of tapping rubber and cashing palm in the kingdom. You may want to call that bridge of contract, but do you really blame the Oba?
Anyway, the British would not just take no for an answer and so began to seek ways to renegotiate and get Oba Ovonramwen to see reason with them. Negotiation did not seem to work and so they opted for a more forceful meansure; expedition. Ovonramwen being quite heady turned down every attempt by the vice consul general of the region at the time, James Robert Phillips to see him or visit the kingdom. More effort to see the Oba was turned down chiefly because the kingdom at the time was observing their ritual and so could not receive any foreigner according to tradition.
If only James Robert Phillips and his men cooperated and waited a little longer, maybe event would not have turned sour. Robert and his men turned down the warning to delay their visit. Trust Benin warriors, they resisted them fiercely as they guarded their boarders. In the course of the resistance, On 4 January 1897, Philip and his men who were unsuspecting and unprepared by the attacked were killed by Benin warriors at Ugbine village near Ughoton (by the way, I have been to the spot where they massacre took place and where the monument that commemorates the where Philips and his men were buried and I think the site needs some maintenance. It can serve as great tourist site if well maintained). Only two British soldiers survived the attack; Boisragon and Locke.
“What insolence!” I can imagine the people of Britain spitting out fire and brimstone when news reached just 8 days after the massacre.
As expected, the British replied the Benin kingdom in what is known as the Benin Punitive Expedition. Ah! I can imagine the screams of women and children in terror as over 1,200 Royal Marines led by Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson invaded the kingdom with sophisticated weapon where they plundered the kingdom and deposed the Oba.
I guess you know the aftermath of the expedition…
Who paid for the Expedition?
Benin kingdom paid for it of course! How? In a letter written by James Robert Phillips to Lord Salisbury, the British Foreign Secretary, in his request to grant him approval to depose Oba Ovaremawe, he was quoted to say, “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.”
Anyway, official figures of ancient Benin artifacts that were looted in the course of the expedition was 2,500 ivories and bronzes plundered from the Oba palace, homes of famous chiefs in the kingdom, religious centres and from anywhere and everywhere they could find them. I will like to believe that some of those soldiers might have kept some away for themselves. Well, that was how the story went… 2,500 precious artifacts of the Benin kingdom found their way into British museums and other famous museums around the world. What a loss! What a colossal loss! (Did you just say that?)
Efforts to Recover the Stole Artifacts
I am just thinking out loud; “how much would these artifacts cost now if valued? How much revenue would they generate for Benin City or Nigeria if returned back? But then, would Nigeria have been able to maintain them and retain the value they may be worth should they not have been looted?
Over the years, efforts have been made to recover the looted artifacts of the ancient Benin kingdom. Oba Akenzua II during his 36 year reign was able to recover only two of the artifacts in the late 1930s when the earl of Plymouth visited Benin.
During Festival of Art and Culture (FESTAC ’77), efforts were made by the Nigerian government to bring back the original bronze casting of Queen Idia (the symbol of FESTAC in 1977, wife of Oba Ozolua, the Oba who reigned in about 1481 AD and the first Iyoba (Queen Mother) of Benin when Oba Esigie, her son conferred upon her the title and the Eguae-Iyoba (Palace of the Queen Mother) in his recognition of the roles she played in the kingdom).
Guess what? The British turned down the request saying that the bronze was too delicate to leave the museum. The best they could do was to form a replicate of the Face of Queen Idia to be used for the event.
This angered young Nigerians like Chief Eddy Ugbomah, one of the pioneers of Nigeria’s film industry to create a movie titled “The Mask” in 1979 to x-ray the event the ugly event. Film producer like Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen also made a film on the subject titled ‘Invasion 1897’ in 2014 and I am sure there have subtle uprisings and books written on the need to recover the looted artifacts.
Fast forward to 2017, it has been 120 years down the line; should the subject matter be dropped completely? Can the artifacts be recovered? How would the recovered artifact impact on the nation’s economy if brought back? Sincerely can we take care of them like they are being taken care of currently in various museums across the world?
Maybe I should call these rhetorical questions or do you think they should be answered?