06 October 2008

Expansion & Invasion: The Benin Punitive Expedition

By Karen Mercury

I was amazed to discover that, as recently as 1897 in Benin City Nigeria, there existed a remote and cut-off civilization that still practiced human sacrifice. "1897?" I scoffed. "They were inventing the automobile then!" This Edo civilization was a secluded kingdom where only a few white men had been allowed to venture. Skilled artisans crafted bronze artwork so advanced it was later compared to Egyptian art in its beauty.

European traders were making inroads into the complex network of Niger delta waterways, anchoring trading hulks in the rivers to satisfy the lust for ivory and "red gold," the palm oil that flowed from the interior. This was a hellish occupation in an area where the chant was "The Bight of Benin! The Bight of Benin! One comes out where three goes in." The White Man's Graveyard was a malarial miasma where only the toughest agents flourished, and a lucky few had the verbal contracts to do business directly with the Oba, who ruled the Kingdom of Edo controlling the river trade.

I wrote in THE HINTERLANDS:
Brendan had established new trading posts in Urhobo country, beaches with warehouses for palm oil and trade goods. The Oba had eghen at the waterside markets, and they often stopped all trade leaving Edoland if they weren't happy with the terms. Brendan's men were so accustomed to the embargoes they kept their palm oil in gourds with narrow necks that could be sealed until the markets reopened.
To force the trade routes open, Whitehall sent a James Phillips of the Royal Navy. Phillips, a former Overseer of Prisons, was determined to take Benin City.

The Edo's human sacrifice was a sort of form of fatalism. The sun, moon, and tides didn't give a damn about the Edo. They looked to the gods that were always smiting people with unexpected catastrophes, drowning, heart attacks, malaria. The spirits were ripe for the devil, so the African flattered them with sacrifices--the more pain and loss it caused the African, the happier the spirits were.

Elle wasn't at the Iroko tree either, where a prisoner Brendan knew as Thompson Oyibodudu momentarily distracted his attention.

"Isn't that the fellow who dresses in white man's clothes?" Evin asked him.

"Sure enough." Brendan nodded grimly. Oyibodudu traded directly with Oyinbo and had adopted their customs.

"He will not go quietly," Onaiwu said.

Oyibodudu's eyes bugged out as though about to explode before the executioner even wrapped the garrote around his neck. Though hobbled, and with hands cinched behind his back, Oyibodudu lurched to his feet and shouted in booming, foreboding tones, "The white men that are greater than you and I are coming soon to fight and conquer you!"

Henchmen leaped to subdue him, to wrestle him back to the properly submissive execution stance. "Kill me quickly!" was the last thing Oyibodudu yelled before he was muffled.

The jovial crowd shrieked in both horror and humor, many of them reflexively turning to laugh at Brendan and Evin. It was of the utmost effort to remain placid through all of it.
The human sacrifice they didn't understand disgusted the British, and they used this excuse as well as the trade embargoes to justify their bellicose intents.

Brendan looked levelly at the jackass. "Yet you're considering deposing the Oba."

Phillips swung his empty gin glass between his fingertips, leaned forward, and said confidentially, "My dear boy. There is every reason to believe the Edo people would be glad to get rid of their king. He's a liability, a throwback to an earlier, primitive, tribal way of dealing. You've seen for yourself the hundreds of human sacrifices. Now surely, even Americans don't stand behind that sort of behavior."

"The sacrifice is a very holy belief in appeasing their gods. When they see us impinging upon foreign countries in the name of our God, quite possibly they think the same thing of us." Brendan paused meaningfully. "And the only sacrifices are criminals and unauthorized traders found in his domains."
When the Oba heard word of the impending invasion, he ordered even more human sacrifices to stave off the Oyinbo arrival. Getting antsy, without waiting for approval from Whitehall, Phillips embarked on his own little expedition to Benin City.

Victoria turned around on her stool. "Vince! Does this mean war? Will we have to leave Sapele?"

Gainey came forward to hand Brendan his cocktail. Brendan took it, for it suddenly didn't seem so odd at that time of day. "My dear, have no fear. This is no war party; poor misguided Jim is just making a friendly stab at opening up the kernel trade."

Rip interjected, his shocked eyes full of concern. "But don't you reckon Brendan here is just going to run and warn the Oba? There could be all sorts of savage ambushes awaiting the poor fellow."

Brendan snorted with disgust. "Rip, a group of eight unarmed white men with a drum and fife band is hardly the making of a necktie party. What would I warn the Oba about...an impending cricket match?"
Phillips took more than eight whitemen: he brought along 250 African soldiers of the Niger Coast Protectorate Force, five British officers, and a military band to display his "friendly" goals. His real mission was to depose the Oba, replace him with a native council friendly to British concerns, and pay for the expedition with spoils of war.

Some chiefs had warned the Oba that "the white man is bringing war." The Oba wanted to allow them into his city, but a hot-headed young general, Ologboshere, thought otherwise. Ologboshere and his men attacked the unarmed "peace" party, wiping out Phillips and all but two white men, and nearly all the native "carriers."

Brendan knew why Phillips had gone unarmed, and left all of his revolvers in a locked trunk hoisted by carriers. During Brendan's last visit to Consular Hill in Old Calabar, he had glimpsed a letter on Phillips's desk in Ralph Moor's characteristically spiked handwriting, telling Phillips: "And do go unarmed, old boy. The first sign of so much as a revolver and those bloodthirsty savages will have your head."

As Brendan surveyed the field of gore and destruction, he instantly knew why Moor had told Phillips that. Moor had a keen idea there would be some sort of altercation that he could use as the excuse for immediate punitive reprisal, his lusty goal for the region since taking control.

In January 1897, Rear Admiral Harry Rawson was appointed by the British Admiralty to lead an expedition to capture the Oba and destroy Benin City. As arranged, Brad Forshaw and John Swainson were allowed into Edo. It was an extremely brave trek for the traders, as Ologboshere had already sent out guerrilla parties to make surprise raids against the British, and the British were sending scouts with Snider rifles and spies into Benin territory.

They brought the news that twelve hundred bluejackets and Marines from London, Cape Town, and Malta had steamed up to Brass under the command of Rear Admiral Rawson. The brunt of the fighting was to fall on the well-seasoned men of the Niger Coast Protectorate Force, the unit of armed constabulary raised by Moor years before.

In addition, there were hundreds of African carriers brought from Sierra Leone, Opobo, and Bonny. Ralph Moor, having been mobilized with alacrity back from London, was already en route to Sapele to inspect the Cape Squadron with Rear Admiral Rawson. Ominously, they were equipped with seven-pounder artillery for bombardment, rocket tubes, and Maxim guns that spewed out six hundred rounds a minute. John and Brad returned to Sapele the next day, never to visit again.
The invading force reached Benin City in February 1897.

Brendan shared looks with Elle and Evin to see a brass Portuguese horseman pendant sticking out from the back pocket of the corporal's trousers. Around his rifle stock, one private had a brass altar ring that he probably didn't know depicted bound and severed heads, and decapitated bodies with vultures feasting upon them. Indeed, the closer they got to the palace, more soldiers dashed hither and yon carrying all manner of spoils of war. Some of the carved tusks were so big and heavy it took two or more men to hoist one of them, and there was barely a beefeater who did not cradle an altar tableau or a head of the Oba under his arm.

"I say." Brendan fell easily into the beefeater lingo. "Would it be possible to get some colors to accompany us back to Sapele?"

"Oh," said the corporal merrily, "I daresay you could take a whole regiment back with you. Everyone's blooming eager to get out of here. It's been a larky expedition, but we've seen enough human sacrifices to last us all month."
Every member of the "Benin Punitive Expedition" took part in the looting, on the third day burning the Oba's palace. They returned home with 2500 religious artifacts and bronze artworks. The Oba escaped and "went for bush" with a detachment, but surrendered some months later. In Benin City, the British laid out a 9-hole golf course, the first hole on the same spot as the former Iroko human sacrifice tree. The artwork was auctioned off to pay for the expedition, eventually winding up in museums all over Europe, setting off a new appraisal of West African art that was copied for decades. Sir Ralph Moor committed suicide in 1909 by drinking potassium cyanide.

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