24 August 2007

Latter-day "Barbaric" Kingdoms

I try to collect African art. For Christmas my husband gave me some coffee table books on African art, so that day I was enmeshed in one, in particular the Benin bronze masks I've always longed for. (If I was ever so profoundly lucky as to stumble upon an authentic 1897 mask, I’m sure I’d give it back to some Benin City museum. After my death.) I was taken aback by one short paragraph describing the British "Benin Punitive Expedition" to wipe out the Oba, or king, of this obscure fortress city in the jungle of what is now Nigeria.

It was several months until I revisited this paragraph, which had given me the seed of an idea for a romance novel. (Yeah, sounds logical, huh? What a romantic place!) I imagined "Benin" was the location of the current-day country of Benin, and I’d be able to utilize the drama of the Dahomean warrior women. A professor told me the country of Benin merely stole that name for the romance of it all, but the actual location of Benin City was inland—in the hinterlands, if you will—from the Guinea (or "Slave") Coast, only reachable by canoes through a vast network of the Oil rivers that criss-crossed through malarial swamps, and I soon found a much more fascinating kingdom hidden there, a land of juju and fetish and artwork so advanced everyone thought it Egyptian or Portuguese. Hundreds of rivers comprise the estuary, many being named after murdered Europeans, after the manner of the American prairie.

Bold European traders known as sarcastically as "Coast Gentlemen" (they were anything but) took up residence in some backwaters of this network to bring palm oil used to lubricate the machines of the Industrial Revolution, ivory and pepper back to their coastal factories, or trading hulks, former warships permanently moored in the pestilential swamps where they offloaded their wares to sueprcargoes. However, no white men were allowed within the walls of Benin City, and the traders had to deal with middlemen who were given royal contracts.

One of the first Europeans allowed entry to Benin City in 1892 (Sir Richard Burton was there earlier, but unfortunately and uncharacteristically only wrote about a page on it) was Captain Gallwey of the Oil River Protectorate, one of many rival colonial companies who drew their own maps, carving up the country into "spheres of influence" and setting their own laws, much to the confusion of natives who attempted to adhere to them.

Surrounded by a complex moat system, the city was a marvel of primitive technology, all roads emanating from the Oba's palace, which had a five-story tower emblazoned with a massive snake running down its length. Gallwey found a highly ordered, advanced kingdom where skilled bronze workers cast the gorgeously intricate bronze (actually brass) masks and heads, and the Oba, immortal and second in command to the gods, sat on his regal stool flanked by live leopards.

Queen Victoria's "Little Wars"

But outside the city gates in the "Field of Death" hung sacrificial corpses, crucified on iroko trees. The Edo people of Benin City believed that the dead would carry messages to their ancestors, so it was actually considered an honor to be selected for this method of death, garroted from behind while seated on a wooden cross.

The Oba rejected Gallwey's treaty that would only subject his people to British rule, and shortly after, sealed the gates to the city and prohibited all palm oil trade.

The British used the human sacrifice, and an ambush of an uninvited but unarmed party of "well-wishers" journeying to the city (the "Benin Massacre"), to justify the formation of the "Punitive Expedition" in 1897. They bombarded and torched the city, looting it five ways from Sunday—this is where our museums and private collectors eventually obtained every piece of Benin "bronze" and ivory. In three days the Royal Navy vaporized a civilized kingdom that had existed peacefully for hundreds of years.

A great grandson of the Oba says:
Many people believe today that the British decided to burn the town as an 'appropriate finale' to the punishment for the people who murdered their sons in cold blood ... Whatever their reason, that should have been punishment enough.

But they carried away all our works of art too and today we have to buy them back at extortionate prices from the descendants of those who took them. If the British had been 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.
This was the background that inspired me to write The Hinterlands in 2005. I was blown away that such a civilized yet "barbaric" place existed as recently as 1897. Perhaps I’m showing my age but that doesn't sound like too long ago, nearly the 20th Century—human sacrifice in the 20th Century? Why, we had the auto and "talking" record machines, and they were still forcing victims to take the deadly sasswood ordeal!

I'm wondering about other "modern" civilizations that could be deemed savage in our view. Has anyone written about any others?

3 comments:

Sandra Schwab said...

Karen, what an awesome topic! I've never heard of Benin City before, so this was a great introduction.

Karen Mercury said...

Sandra, I don't think ANYONE had, which was what attracted me. One down side: there were almost NO research books available, and the few articles (such as those by Gallwey and Burton) I had to order snail mail from obscure British publications. But later, when I had approximately 400 research books for another novel, I began to see this as a plus.

I could never see writing about Napoleonic or our Civil wars...Too many books to read and correlate! Next up, I'm going to choose something even MORE obscure... :)

Marty said...

I had actually heard of this, while doing some research for the segment on African history and colonialism for the class I teach--I would love to see more of these 'obscure' settings brought to light. There's a great book by Edward Said that's widely considered a definitive work about western colonialism titled "Orientalism" that covers every continent the British Empire touched (lol--all of them).