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The Benin Invasion of 1897 was a punitive invasion by a United Kingdom force of 1,200 under Admiral Sir Harry Rawson in response to the ambush of a previous British-led party under Acting Consul General James Philips (which had left all but two men dead).Rawson’s troops captured, burned, and looted Benin City, bringing to an end the west African Kingdom of Benin. As a result, much of the country’s stolen art, including the Benin Bronzes, were relocated to Britain.
In March 1896, following price fixing and refusal by Itsekiri middle men to pay the required tributes, the King of Benin ordered a cessation of the supply of oil palm produce to them. The trade embargo brought trade in the Benin River region to a standstill, and the British traders and agents of the British trading firms quickly appealed to the Protectorate’s Consul-General to ‘open up’ Benin territories, and send the King (whom they claimed was an ‘obstruction’) into exile.
In October 1896 the Acting Consul-General, James Robert Phillips, visited the Benin River District and had meetings with the agents and traders. In the end the agents and traders were able to convince him that ‘there is a future on the Benin River if Benin territories were opened’.
The “Benin Massacre”
In November Phillips made a formal request to his superiors in England for permission to invade Benin City,[ and, in late December 1896, without waiting for a reply or approval from London, Phillips embarked on a military expedition with two Niger Coast Protectorate Force officers, a medical officer, two trading agents, 250 African soldiers masquerading in part as porters, and in part as a drum and pipe band.
To disguise their true intent, the force’s weapons were hidden in the baggage carried by the ‘porters’. His request to London was to depose the king of Benin City, replace him with a Native Council and pay for the invasion with the ‘ivory’ he hoped to find in the Benin king’s palace.[ In the meantime he sent a message forward to the Oba, Benin’s king, that his present mission was to discuss trade and peace and demanding admission to the territory in defiance of Benin law explicitly forbidding his entry.
Unfortunately for Phillips, some Itsekiri trading chiefs sent a message to the Benin king that ‘the white man is bringing war’. On receiving the news the Benin king quickly summoned the city’s high-ranking nobles for an emergency meeting, and during the discussions the Iyase, the commander in chief of the Benin Army argued that the British were planning a surprise attack and must be defeated.
The Benin king however argued that the British should be allowed to enter the city so that it can be ascertained whether or not the visit was a friendly one. The Iyase ignored the king’s views, and ordered the formation of a strike force that was commanded by the Ologbosere, a senior army commander, which was sent to Ughoton to destroy the invaders.
On 4 January 1897, the Benin strike force composed mainly of border guards and servants of some chiefs caught Phillips’ column totally unprepared at Ugbine village near Ughoton. Since Phillips was not expecting any opposition and was unaware that his operation was being perceived with alarm in Benin, the contingent’s only weapons, consisting of the officers’ pistols, were locked up in the head packs of the African porters. Only two British officers survived the annihilation of Phillips’ expedition, which became known as the ‘Benin Massacre’.
On 12 January 1897, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, commanding the squadron at the Cape of Good Hope was appointed by the British Admiralty to lead an expedition to capture the Benin king and destroy Benin City. The operation was named the Benin Punitive Expedition, and on 9 February 1897 the invasion of the Benin kingdom began.
The field commanders were instructed by their commander-in–chief to burn down all Benin kingdom’s towns and villages, and hang the king of Benin wherever and whenever he was captured. The invasion force of about 1,200 Royal Marines, sailors and Niger Coast Protectorate Forces, and composed of three columns; the ‘Sapoba’, ‘Gwato’ and ‘Main’ Columns. The ‘Sapoba’ column, and the ‘Main column’ reached Benin City after 10 days of bitter fighting but the ‘Gwato’ column was routed at Gwato.
Homes, religious buildings and palaces were deliberately torched. On the third day, the blaze grew out of control and engulfed part of the city. The city’s walls were once the largest earthworks created in the pre-mechanized era and were estimated to be four times longer in total than the Great Wall of China.[ Little evidence of these structures still exist after destruction at the hands of the British.[
Immediately after the British invaders secured the city, looting began. It was an exercise that was carried out by all members of the expedition. Monuments and palaces of many high-ranking chiefs were looted. There was evidence of previous human sacrifice found by the British, a tradition they construed as barbaric,[with Reuters and the Illustrated London News reporting that the town ‘reeked of human blood.