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BENIN: The sack that was.
Prof. Ekpo Eyo, O.F.R.
Since the title of the paper may not be readily understood, I would like first to explain it. In 1931, an exibition of art titled " Images of Power: Art of the Royal Court of Benin " was staged at the New York University and a catalogue bearing same title was pubblished. Edited by Dr. Flora Kaplan, the catalogue consists of various articles written by eminent archeologists, historians, anthropologists and art historians the best known of whom was William Fagg C. M. G., lately keeper of the Museum of Mankind, London. The title of Fagg�s paper was " Benin: The Sack That Never Was ".
Those of you who may be familiar with the infamous story of the British Naval Expedition, sometimes referred to as the Puntive Expedition, to BENIN CITY in 1897, may recall having come across at one time or the other the use of the word " Sack " to describe the manner in which the intruder destroyed that City and during which event important places including the OBA�s Palace were burnt down, the Oba himself banished to Calabar and thousand of works of art which were kept in the Palace were looted and carried away to England. Of particular relevance to our topic is the burning down of the Palace on Sunday February 21, 1897, three days after the fall of Benin. It was also the last day before the departure of the Royal Marines from Benin. Before burning incident the Palace was turned into the resident of the occupation force and it was there that they stored their ammunitions and other equipments.
For sometime now, arguments have centred on how the fire that burnt down the Palace started. Was it an accident or did it happen by design ? The Commander - in - Chief of the Expedition, Admiral Rawson states in his diary that the fire was started accidentally and R. H. Bacon, P.M. the Intelligence Officer to the Expedition who wrote the account of the Expedition and the title " BENIN: the CITY of BLOOD " also confirms that the fire was started by accident. The most recent to express this same fact is William Fagg who, in this article aforementioned spares no effort to impress us that the fire started accidentally. However, this latest attempt to underline that the fire started accidentally appears designed to give the impression of an attempt not only to redeem the conduct of the Expedition but also to justify the looting of thousands of works of art that were kept at the Palace.
The main contention in Fagg�s article is that since the fire started accidentally, it is incorrect to use the word " sack " to describe the manner in which the city was occupied. According to him, " A sack maybe said to take place when an invading army sets out to destroy a town - usually by fire, with or without it�s inhabitants - and gets out quickly being in no mood for self immolation ". Fagg states that he had recently seen a letter which emanates from a desendant of an ordinary member of the Expedition which states that the fire that burnt down the Oba�s Palace was started by the Expeditions local porters who were playing with gun powder about three - quarters of a mile away from the gates of the Palace . He continue " As for other mark of a sack there was an indiscriminate slaughter, only deaths in battle outside Benin city and alter, a fez executions after judicial process (notably those of Chief Ologbosere and his co-conspirators in the Benin Massacre). There were certainly no babies torn from their mothers breast and put to the sword. Afterall, a large part of the purpose of the Expedition was to suppress the practice of human sacrifice, and no evidence has been produced to my knowledge that they were less than sincere upholders of this aspect of human rights ", with regard to the well known looting which took place Fagg writes " Nor is there any evidence of significant looting in the city at large or indeed that there was anything much there to loot that would attract an english sailor . . . . the records of known Benin works show remarkably little that does not appear to have come from the Palace ". Then, cheerfully, he admits " The Palace, of course, was another matter . The Bronze plaques, were between 900 and 1000 were reported by cable to the lords of the Admirality by Admiral Rawson and became the official booty of the expedition to be sold to defray the cost of the pensions of the killed and the wounded. The remainder
- bronzes, ivories, wood carvings and iron work - were not reported but shared out carefully among the officers. This was an unofficial loot which was still the custom of war in the nineteenth century however reprehensible we may now think it."
It has been necessary to quote Fagg in extenso in order to be fair to him for, paraphrasing might just fail to bring out the points as he presents them. I would now like to look again at the points that he has raised in those statements and offer comments accordingly. As I understand it, Fagg argues that before a case can be established that Benin was " sacked ",one must show that - (I) there was an intent by the invading army to burn and that actual burning by design took place, - (II) that indiscriminate slaughter of people took place, - (III) that there was general looting. I wish to take up these three points and then go on to dwell, albeit briefly, on the excuse usually given that the purpose of the Phillips Expedition was to stop human sacrifice. Finally, I will try to show that the word " sack" used by some writers describing the manner of the destruction of Benin City is very appropriate, if not more appopriate than the use of the word " massacre " to describe the act of killing consul phillips and some members of his Expedition when they tried to force thier way into Benin against all advice.
It is necessary at this juncture to briefly look into the remote and immediate causes which brought about the 1897 punitive Expedition. I do not wish to delve into the origins of the Edo people or of their history. It is sufficient for us to note that the present Benin Dynasty which began with Oba Eweka I (c. 1200 AD) (Bradbury, 1973) and of which Omo N�Oba N�Edo Uku Akpolokpolo Oba Erediauwa is the 39th descendant brought prominence to Benin. It achieved governmental skill, economic power, complex religious practices, success at war and the execution of elaborate art. The successes of the warrior kings beginning with Oba Ewuare (c. 1440 Ad) made Benin both respected and feared in west Africa and beyond. The establishment of the Craft guilds and the number of works produced over centuries all attest to the Political and economic stability of this erstwhile vast Empire. In this situation, therefore, the possession of mystical powers, a lot of which the Oba had, was essential for sustaining his authority and hold over a vast Empire whose boundaries were rather tenuous.
By 1894 Benin Empire remained one of the lassa strongholds of Local Authority in West Africa after the collapse of the Ashantis, the Nupes and the near by Itshekiris. In 1894, after Chief Nana has succumbed to the devastating effect of the combined force of intrique and European military hardware, it was not surprising that the British attention was turned to this price Empire whose seeming invincibility was a challenge to their superiority. It was not also surprising that the Edo themselves became conscious and apprehensive that they might be the next victim. And, they were:
In the 15th century, the first Europeans, the Portuguese, succeeded in reaching Benin. They were followed by the Dutch and the British.
The first British Expedition to Benin was led by Captain Wyndam assisted by a Portuguese named Piteado and was warmly received by the reigning Oba. This Expedition remained in Benin for 30 days. In 1558, Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to the Royal African Company to compete in trade with the dutch and the portuguese in the area and in 1588, a notable English Expedition under the command of Captain Welsh visited Benin. In january, 1591, Captain Welsh again reached Benin and collected Pepper, Ivory and slaves. It is important to stress that all the various European powers that traded with Benin including the British were always welcome and treated with utmost cordiality. Even when the British, Captain Gallwey, visited Benin as late as 1894 for the purpose of negotiating a Treaty, all went well. Obaro Ikime has rightly pointed out that by some of the terms of the Treaty that was signed with Gallwey (the Oba refused to do the signing himself). Benin�s Soverignty was virtually given away and, inspite of the terms of the Berlin conference of 1855 which put the Benin area under British influence,the Bini never recognised any other authority than their Oba. The overthrow of Chief Nana in that year therefore must have struck fear into the minds of the Edo People for, when Major Crawford, the Vice - Consul and others tried between 1895 - 6 to reach the Oba, they experienced great difficulties.
An overt manifestation of Oba�s reaction against the overthrow of Nana was to close all the hinterland markets under his control and thus blocaded the flow of Palm produce to the coast. The blocade was partially lifted when consul - General Ralph Moor intervened. However, the intervention did not prevent the Oba from demanding extra tribute from the Itshekiri middlemen - a demand which turned the later against him. He also demanded and obtained 20,000 corrugated iron sheets from the British merchants before he could open up the markets. There is no doubt that in these actions Oba Overanwen, the reigning King had made enemies both with the British and his neighbours, a situation that facilitated his overthrow two years alter.
CONSUL PHILLIP ILL - FATED EXPEDITION.
The event that was to lead to the overthrow of the Oba began when an acting consul - General was appointed for the area in 1896. He was a young naval Officer, called Captain phillips. With this appointment events moved rather quickly. Soon after his arrival, consul Phillips began to advise the "Benin River Chiefs" not to comply with Oba Overanwen�s demand for additional tribute to the Oba of Benin for partially opening up the hinterland markets. Phillips followed up his advice to the Benin River chiefs with a letter dated November 1846 to Oba Overanwen proposing a visit to Benin city. The stated purpose of the visit was "to try and persuade the king to let white men come up to the City When ever they wanted to" (Boisrangon p. 58) Such a letter could have done nothing less than increase the fear of the Bini. The king was "to allow whitemen to come up to the City whenever they wanted to". The visit was planned for early January 1897. In reply, the Oba requested that the visit be delayed for two months, to enable him to get through the IGUE ritual during which time his body is scared and not allowed to come in contact with foreign elements. Igue ritual is the highest ritual among the Edo and is performed not only for the well- being of the king but of his entire subjects and the land. But Phillips showed no sympathy. He replied the king that he was in a hurry and could not wait because he has so much work to do elsewhere in the Protectorate. Defiantly, the expedition set out as it proposed in January, 1897 and when it arrived at UGHOTON, three royal Emmissaries met it with a request that it should tarry for two days so that they could "send up and let the King know in time for him to make his preparation for receiving us" (Boisrangon, p.84). Again Phillips regretted that he could not wait because he has so much work to do and that he would start early the next morning. And, on the next morning, he set out for Benin City. By the afternoon of that day, January 4, 1897 the inevitable happened: Seven out of nine white members of the Expedition includingPhillips himself were ambused and killed. The only white survivors were Boisragon and Locke. The story of this ill-fated Expedition is set out in Boisragon�s book: The Benin Massacre.THE PUNITIVE WAR.
News of the fate of the expedition reached the Admirality on January 11th,1897 and, with characteristic British despatch, a Punitive Expedition under Rear Admiral Rawson, C.B. Commander of the Naval Squadron at the Cape was organised. They were to be assisted by the Niger Coast Protectorate Force. By February 4, 1897 , the Punitive Expedition had taken up strategic points at Ologbo, Ughoton and Sakponba for three prong attack on Benin City.
On February 7, the Expedition had gathered together the "Benin River Chiefs" many of whom were opposed to Oba Overanwen not only for the purpose of gathering intelligence from them, but also for the purpose of reading to them the British proclamation on the "massacre" of the white and the measures which were to be taken against the Oba and his City. Bacon (p.29) observered:
"It was impossible to tell from their faces what
they thought, but it must have been with a shade
of scepticism that they heard that the king was to
be no more, his town taken and his priests, if possible
killed, the Juju houses burned and the Benin Juju for
ever broken ...."
It is necessary to take note of this intent to kill and burn, a subject to which I shall return.
By February 11th, everything was set for the attack. The troops had taken up positions at Ologbo, Ughoton (Gwato) and Sakponba in readiness for a three prong march on the City. The main column under Colonel Hamilton was stationed at Ologbo on the main route to Benin while the supporting columns at Ughoton and Sakponba were mainly to stop the escape through these routes of refugees from the City. Ologbo Village itself was burnt down promptly after the 1897 incident by Captain Burrows (Bacon p.37) and Gilli-Gilli (Gelle-Gelle), Ughoton and Sakponba suffered the same fate of burning when the troops took up their positions there (Bacon, pp. 42&117).
By February 15th, the main column from Ologbo had reached Agagi and by February 18th the village of Igba about a mile from Benin City. From Igba the troops fired their shells and rockets into the City and the panic stricken Bini took to their heels. When the City was entered on the same day with the noises of Machine Guns everywhere, it was a ghost town and the search for the King, the Noblemen, the Chiefs and others began. The lassa stronghold of Native authority had fallen and had joined the list of other strongholds similarly humiliated.
BURNING, BURNING & BURNING.With this background we are now in a position to comment on the points raised by Fagg that to prove the appropriateness of the use of "SACK" to describe the event of February 1897, one must show an intent by the invading to burn the City. Before I treat the case of Benin, I would like first to remind you of the fate of Nana�s town, Brohomi that was burnt down in 1894 by a combined force of the British Naval Brigade and the Niger Coast Protectorate Force under Sir Frederick Bedford, K. C . B. and the Consul- General Ralph Moor, K. M. G. Secondly, you will recall that the proclamation read to the Benin River Chiefs on February 7th, enjoined the Expedition to burn down the Juju houses and where else do you find the Juju houses in Benin than in the Palace? Therfore, it is not suprising that soon after the City fell, the business of burning the Juju houses began. I will again quote in extenso the accounts of these burnings as written by Commander R. H. Bacon, the Expedition�s intelligence Officer who wrote : Benin: the City of Blood. On page 102 Bacon records that on February 20th:
Bacon further states (pp. 103-4):
"Early next morning I was sent with a strong party
of Houssas and the Theseus sailors and marines
to burn Ochudi�s compound the village belonging
to the General, who guarded the Ologbo and
As if enough burning had not been done, Bacon reports (p.105):
"The same afternoon a large party under captain
Campbell proceeded to the Iye Oba�s (Queen Mother)
House and destroyed it, so burning one more of the
head centers of vice in the City".
It was now Sunday, February 21st, the day before the marines were scheduled to leave Benin. Bacon reports (p.106):
"The usual demolitions were proceeded with, and a
It was on the same day, at 4 o�clock in the afternoon that the fire to which Rawson and Fagg refered to as having started accidentally burned down the Palace and a good part of the City.
Let us concede that the fire was started without the order of the Commander for the simple reason that the Palace was now the residence of the occupation force. This being so, one is tempted bearing in mind that it was customary to burn down captured towns like Broheimi, Ologbo, Gilli-Gilli, Gwato e.t.c and, in Benin itself, Chiefs Ojomo�s and Ochudi�s compounds and the Queen Mother�s House, the sparing of the Palace cannot be seen as an act of grace. It was simply that it was being used as the Headquarters of the Campaign therefore no order was yet given for it to suffer the fate of others. Afterall the Palace was and still is the center of the religious activities of the Benin people. It is therefore possible that no special precaution was taken against its destruction and, if indeed the fire was started by the Expedition�s local porters, their action was not inconsistent with the usual practice of burning.
Afterall, it was their last day in Benin and porters too, had some grudge against the Monarch.
If the Palace was burnt down accidentally, the Expedition displayed no sorrow execpt for some Food items and Equipment that were lost in the fire. Indeed Bacon (pp.107-8) says:
"There was a dim grandeur about it all , and also
these seemed to a fate. Here was this head center
of iniqiuty, spared by us from its suitable end of
burning for the sake of holding the new seat of
justice where barbarism had held away, given into
our hands with the brand of Blood soaked into
every corner and ........ fire only could purge it, and
here on our lassa day we were to see its legitimate fate
The question which you and I must now address our minds to ease whether the facts presented are sufficent to establish the intent by the invading Army to burn. I am satisfied that not only was there intent but actually burning took place as recorded by Bacon. So why do we quarrel with the use of such an appropriate word in this context?INDISCRIMINATE SLAUGHTER.
Fagg�s second contention is that they were no indiscriminate slaughter following the fall of Benin:
"Only deaths in battle outsider Benin city and alter,
a few Execution after judicial process (notably those
of Chief Ologbosere and his co-conspirators in the
This statement raises a few issues the most important of which is judicial process adopted and who was qualified to decide that Chief Ologbosere and his men were conpirators. The anbsurdity of this situation can be seen when it is realised that Benin kingdom regarded itself as Sovereign State which it was, the Berlin conference 1850 and the Gallwey Treaty 1892 notwithstanding and, as such, had its own laws and customs. Imagine where you and I would end up if we tried to force our way into a foreign territory without passports or visas and against the advice or persuation of the men was responsability was the security of that state. Phillips and his men displayed downright disdain for the local authorities and institutions and their actions were, to say the least rather rascally and highly provocative. It is against this background that you must judge the action of Cheif Ologbosere and his men. The judicial process which the British adopted was prejudicial to the Edo and egocentrically British. Seen this way the denial that there was no indiscriminate slaughter in the Execution of those men is left with little substance. This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that although it was known to the British that the Oba had no foreknowledge of the attack on the Expedition, he was captured, chained and carried away from his domain on exile to Calabar. I venture to say that the decision to condem these men to death was as a result of the injunction of the Admiralty to kill the King�s Juju men.HUMAN SACRIFICE.
It has been said over and over again that the British were anxious to get to Benin to stop Human Sacrifice. This has been restated by Fagg who wrote:
"A large part of the purpose of the Expedition
was to suppress the practice of human sacrifice ..."
Benin City has been made out as the most notorious in this matter to the extent that the Commander R. H. Bacon, the Expedition�s Intelligence Officer titled his account of this event " Benin: The City of Blood", he wrote (p.1):
"Truly has Benin been called the City of Blood.
Its history is one long record of savagery of the
most debased kind. In the earlier part of this
Century (i.e. 19th C) when it was the center of slave
trade human suffering must have reached its most
acute form, but it is doubtful if even then wanton
sacrifice of life could have exceeded that of more
By recent times, Bacon wrote of course referring first to the killing of Phillips and his men and, secondly, this series of sacrifices that followed to avert an impending reprisal by the British. William Fagg himself supports this view when he wrote:
"He (meaning the Oba) was panic striken when he
heard (i. e. the killing of Phillips and some of his
men) and, consulting the soothsayers, engaged in
a course of terrible pity which was much worse
than the Massacre itself. He b�seeched the Gods
of Benin, his defied ancestors and the powerful
spirits, with many hundreds of the most acceptable
of sacrifices, to save the Kingdom from inevitable
retribution. This went on all through the six weeks,
redoubling as the Expedition came up from the Coast.
Then they entered the near deserted City, they were
met by corpses, new and old at every shrine."
This was truly the situation for the Bini, not unlike most societies of the world, have this belief that if the Gods have to intervene to avert an imminent disaster, then blood must be spilt. The degree of the spilling of blood that is said to have horrified the occupation force can be said to be only proportional to the degree of imminent danger.
Sacrifice, particularly human sacrifice, is generally nowadays looked upon as a barbarous act. It was not so in the past and, even now the sacrifice of human life still takes place and on a grander scale than in the past. The only thing is that sacrifice now takes a different form, a not unexpected evolution, but in the end they all boil down to the same thing: namely, the taking or giving of life. In the new form of sacrifice the Western world�s practice of human sacrifice is unmatched outside that world.
The word "sacrifice" is derived from the latin Sacer meaning "Sacred" and Facere meaning "To make". In the religious context, it means the offering of a sacred victim for the purpose of obtaining from the gods benefits - health, longevity, crop increase, avertion of disasters etc. It also means the request for forgiveness of sin or atonement for transgression. The Bible is full of instances of the Hebrews performing one form of sacrifice or the other and the spilling of blood was common and sanctioned by the Bible. Thus in Leviticus chapter XV11 verse 11 it is said:
"For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have
given it to you upon the altar to make atonement
for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh
Furthermore, among the Isrealities, the Covenant was ratified in blood. Hence the spilling of blood was so common that Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son Isaac to the Lord. Jesus Christ, the son of God himself, sacrificed his body for the redemption of our souls. Is it not therefore obvious that it was not the Bini who invented the institution of sacrifice?
Nowadays, what appears to be a less offensive form of sacrifice is the sacrifice of surrogates e. g. rams, goats, chicken and effigies. This practice must have originated from the time that God, according to the Bible, provided Abraham with a ram for the sacrifice instead of his son. Perhaps, too, the substitution of slaves and commoners in societies where the king was expected at certain fixed times to give up his life for the benefit of his society may have been responsible for the use of surrogates in sacrifice. Whatever might have been the case, it is also obvious the sacrifice of human being existed long before Benin society came into existence.
Let me now say that what I am trying to present here is not in any way an attempt to endorse the practice may seem to us today, it was common and legitimated by society itself and sanctioned by most world religions including those of the Hebrews, Anglo - Saxons and the Edo. In all these societies, it cannot be said that sacrifice was carried out primarily for the love of merely taking life, but because it was thoroughly believed in all these societies that the gods demanded it. In other words it happened in the religious context and any religion is a system of belief which its followers should never question.
But look at the world today. The loss of life for religious sake in Northern Ireland and Maitatsine�s affair in Kano are only too recent examples. In times past the history of the world is rife with previous cases of sacrifice like during the Crusades and the Holy Jihad. The loss of life for the protection of territorial integrity of a nation as we witnessed in the Nigerian civil war and now witnessing in the Falkland crisis are too well - known to all of us. The loss of life for the protection of ideologies is so rampant that the two world wars, the Korean war, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still fresh in our minds. Today, there are a thousand and one reasons why nations and groups still continue to lay down or sacrifice lives in order to obtain or maintain certain benefits in life. This is exactly what happened in the past execpt in the question of degree. The world has never before now seen such massive destruction of life and, in this matter, the Western "civilised" world is second to none. I therefore maintain that while not approving what ever human practices the Bini carried out in the past, that if this practice is to be condemned, there must be an all round condemnation of every society past and present that had committed this offence against mankind. The excuse that the British gave for interfering in the scared ceremonies of the Bini under the pretext of stopping human sacrifice is therefore a case of a very black pot calling a less black kettle, black.
I have tried in this paper to give a background to the events that took place in and around the very place where we are sitting this evening, an event that appears to be pricking the conscience of the British. I say this because there seems to me no other reason why it has recently become necessary to remove the word "sack" from the description of the tragic event of 1897. I think that the least that could have been done in the circumstance, would have been to let the sleeping dog lie.
In my opinion, the use of that word is not less exact than the use of the word "massacre" to describe the killing of Consul Phillips and some of his men. Now the word "massacre" means killing in a bizzare manner. But given the circumstance of this event which I have already described, one can see that neither the idea of killing was bizzare nor the mode of the killing. Chief Ologbosere and his men used their dane guns and their cutlasses just as the punitive Expeditioners used their maxims and pistols to despatch their enemies. The use of matchets can be parrelled to the use of swords which was mainly the weapon of offence and defence in Europe until it was replaced by the gun.
It is therefore not fair to say, all circumstances considered, that it is less appropriate to use the word "massacre" to describe Consul Phillips fate than to use the word "sack" to describe the wanton destruction of the City of Benin? The sack of Benin was bad enough but an attempt to dress it up now for justification may be more unforgiveable.
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