The 1897 British Expedition in Historical Perspective: Its Lessons and Challenges

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Introduction

The year 1897 marked the end of an era in Benin history, and is arguably the year that marked the downfall of the kingdom. In that year, the British terminated the indeginous monarchical rule in Benin in response to the assassination of certain British officials under the command of Acting Consul-General Phillips. The Benin monarch at the time, Oba Ovonramwen (1888-1897) was arrested, tried at the Palava House and exiled to Calabar where he died in 1914. Benin, therefore, entered an era of interregnum between 1897 and 1914. The monarchy was, however, restored in 1914 after the death of Oba Ovonramwen.

As a result of the British invasion and conquest in February, 1897, Benin which was the dominant kingdom in the Bight of Benin and Biafra became subjected to British rule and thus started the gradual and progressive adaptation of the institution of the monarchy with colonialism as the primary agency of change.

The British Expedition and the Fall of the Benin Kingdom

It is significant that the fall of Benin and its monarch should not be associated only with the British expedition of 1897. The Benin kingdom, like many other West African kingdoms in the nineteenth century, was a victim of the nineteenth century European imperialism launched at the Berlin West African conference of 1884-1885. It is significant that Benin had had a long commercial contact with the Europeans. After the Berlin conference, the fall of the Benin kingdom was inevitable. It would be wrong to say, as it is often asserted, that the massacre of the Phillip's party was the cause per excellence of the fall of Benin in 1897 (1).

By 1884, Consul Hewett, representing the British imperial interests had signed spurious treaties with chiefs in the whole of the Niger Delta in which they (chiefs) promised to place their countries under the protection of the British Queen. As a result of these treaties, protectorate government was set up with its headquarters at Calabar. The Benin area fell within the province of the protectorate government even though the Oba of Benin did not sign any of these treaties (2).

By 1886, the activities of the Royal Niger Company had spread all over the areas surrounding the Benin kingdom. The various expeditions of the company must have created some feelings of apprehension in the Benin authorities. The cold reception accorded treaty agents and the attack on Phillip's party (at the time of the great Igue festival when the Oba was to receive no visitors) (3) were by tradition stimulated by the suspicion aroused by the fear of a possible invasion by the protectorate government agents. The fall of Benin from 1885 onwards, became inevitable and the attack on Phillip's party in 1897 merely provided the excuse and the occasion for the invasion and conquest of the Benin kingdom.

Following the capture of Benin and the suspension of the institution of the monarchy, the indigenous administration headed by the Oba was replaced by an alien administration. The year 1897 thus represented a land mark in the history of Benin. Indeed, sad enough, the Benin heritage typified by her arts and crafts were carted away. They now adorn the museums in Britain and other western European countries. Efforts to have them returned yielded no dividends; not even in 1977 during the Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77) that took place in Lagos, Nigeria. From 1897, forces were set in motion, which progressively challenged the traditional powers and influence of the Benin monarchical institution. With the consolidation of British authority, the Benin chiefs were compelled to adjust and adapt themselves to the changing political environment. Rather than defend tradition, some of them decided to find a place in the new dispensation and were used as "warrant chiefs" (4) by the British.

After the infamous British expedition, a consequence of the attack on and killings of some members of the British party earlier in January 1897, and the subsequent deportation of Oba Ovonramwen to Calabar, the British had to find an alternative system of ruling Benin. …