This is NOT a fairytale, this is not some sweet story to tell friends at a tea-party. This is the story of a people, who lived and bled and died like you and I. A story of ignorance, of anger and the tragedy that follows these two, like fleas on a dog no one cares for.
It began many years ago… when the land was still green and the old gods looked down from free skies on a distant kingdom in the year of our lord 1897…
Lt. James Roberts Phillip lead his men through a dense vegetation on their way to Benin city. He had with him two hundred African porters, a drum, fife band and ten British officers.
You see, Omo ‘n’ Oba Ovonranwen, King of Benin, had ceased supply of oil to the Itsekiri middle men, who he believed had been cheating his people.
At the time, the great kingdom of Benin was the principal supplier of the much coveted oil palm to the rest of the country- so this act, well, it didn’t go down well with the British Colonists and one of them, the Consul General of the Niger Coast protectorate, a most despicable fellow named Ralph Moor sought a way to bring the Benin Empire to heel. Some believe the hard-headed Lt. Phillip had been misinformed by Ralph Moor who was at the time on holiday abroad with his family.
No one knows for sure why the expedition was launched- was it one of peace? Or of simple vanity? Or was it one of war? We would never know, because this expedition had gone against the Oba’s warnings to Ralph Moor’s stand in and Lt. Phillip had disobeyed. They were met at the border by a troop of warriors. They had been warned not to come.
THEY SHOULD HAVE LISTENED.
None were left standing.
Back in Benin City, the Iyase stood proud and tall before his Oba to answer for his actions. It was the white man’s mistake, he claimed. The white man’s actions were an insult to the sacred laws of the land and the gods. The Oba knew he could not punish him, for man must pay homage, first to the gods, then to the King.
Furthermore, the Iyase had cunningly involved Ologbosheri the Oba’s son-in-law, and a formidable warrior in his schemes. The Oba was at an impasse. Make no mistake, he knew the gravity of what had been done and what would follow. He resigned himself to fate, knowing well that this single act done in the heat of anger could finally do what the colonialists had sought to do before but failed. Topple him from his throne. An invasion was imminent.
Meanwhile, Rear Admiral Rawson began preparations to invade the Benin Kingdom. He brought with him 1,200 British soldiers and several hundreds of locally recruited blacktroops. He claimed he would avenge the BENIN MASSACRE. The tragic deaths of Lt. Phillip and his men paved way for even worse tragedy. An atrocity driven by ignorance and hate, tempered by a tool that would later get it’s name in the great war of nations- propaganda.
Unified in it’s blood lust, the machine began to work, chugging away like a train at the rails, spewing lies and hate. The Benin kingdom was painted as a monarchy of fetishes and rituals, it’s King was painted as a despot who butchered his own people as sacrifices to heathen gods. False witnesses were called and graphic descriptions of senseless slaughter were given.
The invaders marched forward, their boots pounding the earth like the rhythmic beating of skin drums, in three columns they came, to lay siege to an ancient kingdom.
And the Main…
Their arrogance cost them dearly- the Gwato was ambushed at Gwato, the British annihilated in their sleep.
The commanding officer was killed.
A wary King sat on a heavy throne and dared to hope, but knew better.
The Main column won it’s victory, ravaging the countryside. A trembling naval surgeon confided in the pages of his diary…
“We shelled the countryside and cleared it of the natives. As the launch and surf-boats grounded, we jumped into the water… at once we placed our maxims and guns in position, firing so far as to clear the bush were the natives might be hiding. Our black troops with the scouts in front and our maxims do all the fighting. No white men were wounded; we all got off scot-free.”
After ten long days of bitter fighting, the columns of ‘Sapoba’ and ‘Main’ entered the once free city of Benin. It was here that they committed the most brutal of their acts.
The city was looted,
It’s people were stripped, beaten and killed.
The women cried for their men,
Mothers… cried for their daughters.
The British entered the Oba’s palace only to find a vacant throne. Ovonranwen was forced to flee with his chiefs and a handful of his men. After the looting, raping and pillaging, the British set fire to the city, and watched it burn against an African sky.
900 bronze statutes were taken from the Oba’s palace. Over 2000 religious artefacts carted away from Benin city. Countless women and children were taken as slaves, a people, their history and heritage were sold into foreign lands for mere profit.
The evil consul general arrived weeks later to pay the Oba his final humiliation, declaring the land of his ancestors the property of the white man. Chiefs who had no hand in the “Benin massacre” were charged with it and put to death.
Perhaps out of guilt for his role in the fall of Benin, Ologbosheri, the Oba’s son in law mounted a guerilla war against the British to restore the Oba to his throne. He was caught, and two years later, was hung. The Oba himself was sentenced to exile, and a stooge named Obaseki put in his stead.
And so it happened this sad tale of woe, beginning in 1897.
Adapted from Okiojo’s chronicles, Panaramic Comics