January 4th1897, is a day no Bini will ever forget. It was the day tragedy struck our country, the day we lost our independence, the day that saw the end of what had once been one of the greatest African Kingdoms. It was the day that James Phillips and six other Englishmen were murdered by Bini warriors.
When it is remembered that for many centuries Benin had maintained good relations with European countries, it may seem strange that these Englishmen were murdered. Too often, this murder is dismissed as ” just another” typical act of wickedness by the Bini’s, who in the nineteenth century, were gaining a notorious reputation at the hands of the missionaries and representatives of the British Government . But this has not always been so, as anyone who reads the accounts of earlier travellers to our country can see.
Dr Olgert Dapper, whose account of travels along the the West Coast of Africa was published in 1688 said that ” the Bini’s are all decent people, surpassing all the Negros of the Coast in everything, living peacefully together under good laws and justice , and show great respect to the Dutch and other foreigners visiting the Coast for commerce and also to each other.They are not much given to stealing nor are they drunkards….”
Less than a century later , Jean Barbot wrote, in his description of the Coast of North and South Guinea, published in 1732:” ….Europeans are so much honoured and respected at Benin that the natives gave them an emphatic name or title of …..children of gods “
At the end of the eighteenth century, Captain Hugh Crow wrote: ” …. I was much pleased with the gentle manners of the natives of Benin, who are truly a fine tractable race of people”
Why then did this hostility show it’s ugly face in the nineteenth century? Why, too, did such traditionally friendly people murder white men they had once liked? Was it the fault of the Binis, the fault of the Phillips group, or did the Europeans perhaps over tap the friendliness and hospitality of the Binis!
When my grandfather, King Ovonramwen, succeeded to the throne of Benin, it was apparent that the relationship between the British and Binis was being badly strained. In 1862, Sir Richard Burton, who was Consul at Fernando Po, a missionary friend, visited Benin. He attempted to dissuade Ovonramwen’s father, King Adolo, from making human sacrifices to propitiate his gods. Although the two, in Burton’s own words, were ” most hospitably ” received, it was obvious that Adolo would rather have lost the friendship of the Europeans than incur the wrath of gods on whom the welfare, not only of himself, but also of the whole of his people seemed to depended. Naturally, he found it difficult to regard those men who decried his gods as friends.
The practise of human sacrifice was indeed reprehensible, but because it was so much a part of the religion of old Benin, it could not be so easily dismissed as Burton and his friend would have liked. They attacked too, the practice of slavery . But this also would have been very difficult for Binis to understand . After all, for years had not one of their main points of contact with the Europeans been over traffic in slaves? When suddenly, and for no apparent reason, the Europeans turned around to attack them for a practice which not so long ago, they had encouraged and actually taken part in, the Bini man was naturally bewildered.
To understand the Bini Massacre in 1897, one must appreciate the very great lack if understanding between the British and Binis that existed in those days. On the one hand you had a people, steeped in customs and traditions which were, by English standards, admittedly horrible; on the other, you had the British self righteous and utterly confident that all their values were the right ones, to the point of never seeing that the people they were trying to convert, had reason, however misguided, for their traditions and practices.
Phillips,too, was shocked by the appalling state of affairs in Benin and he did not waste time in trying to rectify things. Perhaps if he had, he might have lived.
Early in the year 1897, he decided to visit Ovonramwen to try once more to persuade him to stop the terrible customs. At that time in Benin, the Ague Festival was being held. During this festival the King was neither to see nor be seen by non Binis. This was a custom that existed among other African peoples and it was of utmost importance to Benin for it marked the time for rededication of loyalty by the Binis to their King. Unfortunately, Phillips ignorantly chose this, of all times to insist on seeing the King. He may have been ignorant of the customs of the people, but he was altogether tactless.
It must be stressed here that in those days, Binis were, almost to the point of fanaticism, devoted to their gods although those gods were insatiable in their lust for human blood. The Ague Festival itself was a time for extensive human sacrifice. But however wicked this may have seemed to the outside world, it was a great religious festival for Binis of those days. Thus, when Ovonramwen received a message from Phillips to say that he and a party of white men were on their way to see him, he was placed in the most difficult position. He would not violate his deepest religious belief by seeing them , so he sent a message to them to say that they would have to wait a month before he could receive them.
But Phillips did not wait for a reply to the message he had sent from Ughoton ( Gwatto) and he and his party continued to Benin. He was met on the way by Ovonramwen’s messengers, headed by Ologbosere.
Phillips and Ologbosere met after the former had covered about twenty four miles on his trek to Benin. Ologbosere, who is believed to have been nursing hatred for all Europeans since they started “intruding” on his peoples tradition, made up his mind that Phillips should not see the King.
Ologbosere was a brave warrior who loved tradition but he was also rash. He hated to think of a further breach in custom were the King to give audience to Phillips party.
Although Ologbosere definitely ordered Phillips to turn back, it was a sad oversight that he failed to try to explain toPhillips why the King would not see him. It is generally believed , too, that if Phillips had been made to understand our peoples custom, perhaps, he would have respected it and returned. But as things were, he thought it was madness to trek back the twenty four miles, as it seemed ,for no just reason. He refused to retreat.
Thus, we in Benin believe today that our Empire was destroyed through a simple misunderstanding between European and African.
On the other hand Ologbosere, angered by the Englishmans ” obstinacy” was bent on upholding tradition at all cost and he ordered his men to attack the Englishmen. Thus , of the nine Englishmen who set off to see the King, only two escaped. Phillips fell with the other six.
When Ovonramwen heard of the massacre, he knew at once that trouble would soon come to Benin. Thus, human sacrifices were intensified in the slender hope that the gods would ward off the danger that seemed imminent. This would help to explain the really lurid accounts of the human sacrifices witnessed ( and characteristically exaggerated ) by Ling Roth, surgeon to the punitive expedition, in his book Great Benin.
Within six weeks of the massacre, what Ovonramwen feared, happened. A punitive expedition of 1,500 men was sent to Benin. In fact, this was another and greater massacre. An army, armed with rifles, revolvers and cannons was set against warriors , at best , equipped with dane guns and more generally fighting with spears. The Binis were soon conquered.
But this did not satisfy the British . The city was burnt down.
Many people believe today that the British decided to burn down the town as an ” appropriate finale” to the punishment for the people who murdered their sons in cold blood. I am sure the British had their reason for this. What ever their reason, that should have been punishment enough. But they carried away all our works of art as well, and today we have to buy them back at extortionate prices from the descendants of those who took them. If the British had been so intent on showing us a better way of life, they could, at least , have given us a better example than to remove our treasures and fire our city.
With the safty of the nation in view. Ovonramwen was advised to flee. Reluctantly, he agreed and sought asylum in the court of Ezomo, one of his senior chiefs. Ologbosere escaped to the bush. But it was the King the British wanted. After threats by the British, six months later, Ovonramwen was betrayed by some of his chiefs.
His trial on September 1 1897 in the Consular Court House was most pathetic .
It was a sad demonstration of the ignorance of Ovonramwen and his court. Although he was found not guilty of the murder of Phillips, he was told he could never rule unless he undertook never to deal in slaves and to abolish human sacrifices. Moreover, he would have to accompany the British on a study tour of Calabar, Yorubaland and Lagos, where good government had been established.
Better they had killed or exiled him than suggest this to a King, whose predecessors never left the Palace, a King, who was deluded into the belief that by Gods own decree he should never leave his own domain. His courtiers told him that it was another device of the British to exile him and that he should go into hiding. They thought the British would grow tired of waiting for him and then would go, after which he could return to the throne unmolested.
Ovonramwen adhered to that advice, childish as it was, and his so that when the British wanted him again, he was nowhere to be found. It did not take a long time for him to be discovered and he was deported at once.
That was a terrible fate for a King who was considered devine, who had been one of the mightiest Kings of Africa. As he left for Calabar, he lamented:
Benin, O Benin. Merciless and wicked.
I go forth on the errand on which thou sent me
The Godsof my fathers will judge thee and me.
In the end it seems that Ovonramwen was more bitter with his own people than with the British. Indeed, it is popularly believed today that Ovonramwen felt that it was some ambitious Bini Chiefs who deliberately betrayed him.
It should be recalled that shortly before this ” palaver” , there was a sharp misunderstanding emanating from political differences in Benin. It seemed that some of the Chiefs were jealous of, disliked and sought to crush the monarchical system, which, traditionally, was hereditary. It is natural that in a land such as Benin where the institution of hereditary monarchy is as old as time. Such open rebellion against the crown had to be quenched with all haste. In a raid that followed, many of the supporters of the Chiefs were executed for treason. Those that escaped were left in silence to plan their next move – sabotage.
It is feasible to conjecture therefore that those trying months during which Ovonramwenwas being tried and finally deported, was most probably the time for which the saboteurs were waiting. In fact, just before the execution of the deportation order, it is recorded in history that one Chief Iyase actually ordered his followers to build a pseudo palace for him in an area lying north west of Benin . He became a “tin god” and sought to seize absolute power. However, the British did not intend that the vaccine created after the deportation of the peoples King should be followed by civil war and bloodshed. After all, enough blood had been shed already in Benin City. They intervened , and , for the meantime, made the power seeking Chief the Regent. After consultations either the people of Benin and on discovering they stuck firmly to their traditional system of monarchy, which was the pride of all Edos and the glory of Benin throughout the ages, as my grandfather, Aiguobasimwin, succeeded his father Ovonramwen and became King as Eweka .
But Binis today tend to attribute the cause of the ruin of thier Empire and it’s utter destruction by the British, not only to the rashness and tactless of Ologbosere , who was captured and executed by the British 2 years later, but also to the impetuousness and foolhardiness of the Englishman, James Phillips. Otherwise, Benin might have survived, and probably she might even gave converted from her old ways in peace and understanding like so many other African peoples.
Thus, one can see that there were apparently two sides to that bloody business that robbed Benin of her sovereignty and formed a bitter and remarkable epoch in the Benin History. One was the deportation of a King; the other, the ruin of an Empire. It is not an unpopular belief that Ovonramwen might not have been deported if not for the evil machinations of an ambitious Chief and his radical supporters.