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Benin Expedition of 1897

Encyclopedia » History

Benin expedition of 1897 is also known as punitive expedition. United Kingdom force which was lead by Admiral Sir Harry Rawson to destroy Benin kingdom in response to the defeat of previous British forces under the Acting Consul General James Philips. Rawson’s troop captured, burn, and looted Benin artifacts bring to an end the existence of the Benin Kingdom.

Historically, in 19th century Benin Kingdom managed to retain its independence which made the Oba to exercise a monopoly over trade which the British found boring. The kingdom was desired by an influential group of investors for its rich natural resources like palm oil, rubber and ivory. Due to that, the kingdom was largely independent of British control, and also the pressure continued from their prominent arm men who were pushing for British formal act of acquiring the kingdom and removal of the Oba.

In 1892 March, Henry Gallwey visited Benin City hoping to take the Kingdom and make it British Protectorate. But the king was skeptical of their motives and was willing to sign what he believed will be a friendship and trade agreement. Later on the king signed the treaty for the abolition of slave trade and human sacrifice in the kingdom but refused to endorse Gallwey’s treaty.  When it became clear that the document was a delusory ploy intended to make the kingdom a British colony and that lead the king to issue an authoritative proclamation barring all the British officials and traders from entering Benin territories.

In 1894, after the destruction of Brohomi the trading town of chief Nana Olomu by combined British Royal Navy and Niger Coast Protectorate forces, Benin Kingdom then increased their military presence on their southern borders which led to the refusal colonial officers to invade the city prior to the expedition which they planned to take place in early 1895.

In mid 1896, three attempts were made by the British to enforce the Gallwey Treaty but all failed. In March that same year a price fixing in some of the products made the ltsekiri middle men refuse to pay their tributes as required to the king and that forced the king to order for supply of palm oil produce to them. The order giving by the king brought trading at the Benin river region to a standstill causing the British traders and agents of trading firm to quickly appeal to the Protectorate Consul General to Open up the territories and send the king into exile because they believe that the king is the cause of their problem. In October that same year, James Robert Philips a Lawyer visited Benin River district where he had a meeting with the trader’s and agents, after the meeting he was convinced that there is a future on the Benin River if the territories were to be opened. But before then Benin had developed a reputation for glaringly horror which affected British attitudes. James Pinnock a trader wrote on what he saw by saying that “ a large number of men all handcuffed, chained and ears cut off with razor” while T.B Auchterlonie on his own side said to approach the capital will be through avenue of trees hung with decomposing human remains. After the lane of horror came a grass of common thickly stew with skulls and bones of sacrificed human beings. The entire statement where put together by some of the traders to pin down the king and also invade the kingdom.

Benin Massacre

In November 1896 James Robert Philips made a conventional request to his superiors to depose the king, and to replace him with a Native Council and then occupy the City. But he did not wait for approval, he embarked on a military expedition with two Niger Coast Protectorate Force officers, a medical officer, two trading agents, 250 African soldiers masquerading as porters were used to disguise their true intent to the kingdom. But before he embarked on the mission he had already sent a message to Oba that his present mission was to discuss trade and peace for the betterment of the kingdom, unfortunately for him, he didn’t know that some ltsekiri trading chiefs has already sent a message to King telling him that the white man is bringing war. On getting the information he quickly called the city high chiefs on an emergency meeting, during the discussion commander in chief of Benin Army  indicated that British are planning a surprise attract on them, but the King said they should be allowed to enter first so that their true intent can be ascertained but the Army chief refused rather  he went ahead to order for the formation of a striking  force that was commanded by Ologbose a senior army commander who was sent to Gwato to destroy the invaders.

In January 4th 1897 Benin forces manly of border guards and some servants of chiefs caught Phillips’ and his men unprepared at Ugbine village near Gwato. Phillips and his men were not expecting any opposition and their unaware that their operation has been sensed in Benin.  The Benin Army took hold of them; only two British officers survived the Obliteration. This is now referred to as Benin Massacre.

Benin Punitive Expedition 1897

12th January 1897 Rear- Admiral Harry Rawson was appointed by the British Admiralty to lead an expedition that will involve the capture of the king and destroying of the kingdom. The operation was named Benin Punitive Expedition. In February 9th that same year invading of the kingdom began, the field commanders were instructed to burn down all the Benin Kingdom towns and villages, and also hang the king whenever and wherever they see him. The forces sent where 1200 British Marines, sailors and Niger Coast Protectorate Forces that is composed of three columns, Sapoba, Gwato and Main Columns. It took them 10days to reach the kingdom with bitter fighting.


After they have secured the city, looting began and it was carried out by all members that took part in the expedition. Monuments, palaces of many high ranking chiefs, homes, religious buildings and palaces were deliberately malicious. The blaze grew out of control on the third day and it engulfed many part of the city. Most of the looted artifacts were retained by the expedition with some 2500 religious artifacts, Benin visual history, mnemonics and artworks where sent to England. Later on British Admiralty auctioned off the war booty to pay for the expedition cost. The auction took place in Paris, France most of the Bronze where purchased by Germans but a sizable group is now in British Museum London. The movement of Benin art to Museums around the world showed the beginning of long and slow European reassessment of the value of West African art. The art work of Benin was copied and styled into art work of many European artists which had a strong influence on the early formation of modernization in Europe.

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Updated 7 Years ago

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