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Benin: The ancient kingdom of warriors

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By Osa Mbonu

My task here is to rewrite, in just one newspaper page, this 569-page historical, cultural, artistic and monarchial encyclopedia printed in 8 or 9 point size letters, so that my readers, as usual, will feel they have read the entire compendium. It is such a daunting task that can only be achieved by a master.

Yet, no such successful compression of this 1,500-year of history of one of the greatest ancient civilizations can compensate for the knowledge derivable from reading the entire volume. But do not be deceived, reading of the entire volume of “The Benin Monarchy: An Anthology of  Benin History” is not a day’s job, perhaps not weeks’ or  months’ depending on the reader’s passion and time available to him. In any case, it is a book no one can afford not to read.

Muted, yet so glaring, instructive and worthy of reflection in the history of Benin kingdom, is how a little piece of technology – the firearm – in the hands of the British conquered all the physical strength of Benin warriors, their voodoos, mysticisms, magic, incantations, shrines, human sacrifices and many other forms of superstitions generally associated with Africa, even up to this day in some p-laces.

It is a credit to the throne of Benin kingdom that educated Obas have, to a very large extent done away with many of those negative aspects of the Benin culture. If those shrines and human sacrifices could not save Benin people in 1897 from the hands of the British and their muskets and mortars, of what point is it to keep them?

An English historian had argued that history is not just the record of past events but the record of change. There is no history in the movement of the hands of the clock since it was invented many centuries ago, for instance, because the movement has ever been clockwise. There could have been history there if at some point the hands of the clock started moving anticlockwise.

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The history of Benin people, like the history of man, is the history of change. When we sift out fables about men like the first son of Osanobua and Oduduwa dropping from heaven and of the Benin or Ile-Ife being the center and cradles of the world, what we have left are factual stories of ancient men who migrated from other places, settled down in the rain forests around the land known today as Benin, and established small pockets of settlements called villages. Man had led a wandering life in search of food until he was compelled by agriculture to settle down at one place.

Those splinter settlements, after existing for a long time without any central ruler like a king, either voluntarily agreed to surrender their independence to one powerful warrior or group of warriors in exchange for protection, or were forced to do so. The result was the emergence of the Ogiso dynasty established around AD 500 beginning with King Ogiso Igodo which saw the reign of 31 Kings before the collapse of that dynasty after King Ogiso Owodo was banished and a period of interregnum followed.

At this point, some sequence of events occurred which became, up to this day, subjects of controversy between Benin and the Yoruba people. The Benin people believe that Oduduwa, called Prince Ekaladerhan, was the only son of that exiled King Ogiso Owodo. They believe that Ekaladerhan (or Oduduwa) exiled himself from Benin even before his father, King Ogiso Owodo was banished from Benin. Ekaladerhan or Oduduwa went to and founded Ile-Ife where he became King.

After King Ogiso Owodo was deposed and banished, Benin people went in search of the only son of the King, Prince Ekaladerhan (Oduduwa) with the aim of persuading him to return to Benin to succeed his banished father. Instead, Ekaladerhan (Oduduwa) sent his son Prince Oranmiyan to Benin. But there was an administrator named Ogiamen, appointed by the people of Benin to administer Benin during that period of interregnum. Like what the late Gen. Sani Abacha did during Ernest Shonekan’s interim government, Ogiamien was nursing his own ambition – to create his own dynasty.

He appointed his son to succeed him. Even though he was resisted by Benin people, Ogiamien and other warlords who contested the throne troubled Oranmiyan and made his stay uncomfortable so much that Oranmiyan decided to return to Ile-Ife, describing Benin as Ile-Ibinu (the land of vexation). The Benin account has it that Oranmiyan reigned as Benin King from AD 1,170  though his palace was at Usama, an outskirt of the city, due to the crisis.

When he eventually left, he left behind his Benin queen, Erinmwinde who gave birth to a son, who later became Oba Eweka the First in the year AD 1,200. Historians regard the beginning of the reign of Oranmiyan as the beginning of the second dynasty of kings in Benin kingdom.

One implication of the Benin line of history is that Oduduwa, whom the Yoruba claim as their father, did not fall down from heaven after all as they claim. Nobody has ever fallen down from heaven. Even Jesus who is believed to have come from heaven had to be born into the world by a woman.

Yoruba people believe that Oduduwa who fell down from heaven had a son who went on a military campaign and founded the Benin Kingdom. But from the Benin perspective, we know that before the return of Oranmiyan to Benin, the Ogiso dynasty in Benin, which saw the reign of 31 kings, had already come to pass. Of these two conflicting historical accounts of the Benin and Yoruba Kingdoms, the Benin version appears to be more tenable.

Between AD 1440 and 1606, was the era of warrior kings. This corresponded to the period of Oba Ewuare the Great and Oba Ehengbuda. Apart from the brief reigns of Oba Ezoti and Oba Olua, the rest of the kings that fall within this period were all warrior kings who led their own military forces to battle. These fierce warrior kings went on military campaigns, conquering other peoples and expanding Benin territories and influences which resulted in empire building.

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The Benin capacity to successfully overrun other people’s lands has been attributed to their trade with Europeans at Ughoton, the Benin port, which bequeathed them with guns and ammunition. The Benin Empire at its zenith was said to have extended to River Niger in the east and south, into Yoruba lands (Oyo) and what came to be known as Dahomey.

The 1897 British Invasion

The British invasion of Benin in 1897, or what is popularly called The Benin Punitive Expedition, is certainly the most narrated aspect of the Benin history. Needless to recount it here in detail, there are, however, tremendous lessons to be learned from that sad historical event for those who are wont to learn. For men never learn from history.

First, the Benin, as that time of British invasion, was an Empire. An Empire is just a fanciful word that describes a bully geographical entity that takes pleasure in overrunning and pillaging other geographical entities for economic and political gains. Britain was also an Empire, in fact, the biggest Empire in the world as at then. While Benin, the lesser empire was happily overrunning and pillaging her neighboring enclaves, it did never occur to her that a higher human power (not even God) was at hand to emasculate her for similar motives.

Prince Idugbowa who became the Oba Ovonramwen N’Ogbaisi (1888-1914) was the unfortunate King on the Benin throne when series of events brewed and culminated in war between Benin and Britain. The war, in summary, was caused by economic factors – the British traders and most of their African collaborators wanted unimpeded access to the forests and lands of Benin which they saw as land flowing with milk and honey, but the powerful and independent Oba refused to allow that to happen. The Oba, as usual, was bent on controlling trade and charging custom duties.

Before the punitive expedition, however, Oba Ovonramwen N’Ogbaisi had acquired a notorious reputation as a tyrant king whose domain was littered with the skeletons and bloods of those he had either used for sacrifice or political opponents he had executed.

Truly, Oba Ovonramwen N’Ogbaisi had carried out a somewhat large scale purge of his enemies – those whom he had considered threats to his throne, those with who he had contested the throne and those who had opposed him as crown prince before his coronation. This was usual in those days of monumental intrigues occasioned by struggles for the throne. Partly in an effort to give a dog a bad name in order to hang it, Benin was described by Europeans as ‘City of Blood’, ‘City of Skulls’ , and as land strewn with ‘huge pits filled with the dead and dying’.

In 1862, the first consular visit was undertaken by Sir Richard Burton who returned with description of Benin as a place of ‘gratuitous barbarity which stinks of blood and as having a ‘bloody custom’.

After numerous efforts (including tricking the Oba into signing the Gallwey Treaty of 1892) to peacefully get the Oba to allow the British traders and their local guides unimpeded access to the natural wealth of Benin forests, the British resolved to forcefully remove the Oba. Several other British officials like Vice-Consul Copland Crawford tried to reach Benin but failed because the King was unwilling to receive them.

All these people were infuriated with the Oba and therefore mounted pressure on the Colonial Administration for military action to be taken against the Oba, “so as to open up,” in the words of merchant James Pinnock of Liverpool, “the road and country (of Benin) teeming as it does with every natural wealth of the great hinterland of the world”.

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Sir Raph Moor, who succeeded Macdonald as the Consul General stated that “in the event of the foregoing peaceful means proving of no avail, it then becomes necessary to resort to force.

“In the Benin and Warri districts,” Moor continued, “all developments except existing trade is completely prevented by the attitude of the King of Benin, who still declines to receive government officers or to allow them to enter his country in any direction peaceably. He punishes severely those of his people who even in outlying districts venture to receive them and arbitrarily stops trade from time to time without assigning any reason.

“At the present time trade has absolutely been stopped in Benin by his orders…without giving up his evil practices the king knows that he cannot admit the government into his country.”

After these report, Moor recommended that an expeditionary force should be sent in January or February “to remove the king and his jujumen from the country.”

•Oba Ovonramwen N’Ogbaisi…during his exile days in Calabar.

When Moor went on leave, Acting Consul General, Lt. James Philips, “after asking for the Foreign Office permission to use force against Benin in November 1896, set out, before getting a reply, on a risky trip,” writes Philip Aigbona Igbafe.

“I am certain that there is only one remedy,” James Philips had written, “that is to depose the King of Benin from his stool. I am convinced from information which leaves no room for doubt as well as from experience of the native character, that pacific means are now quite useless, and that the time has come to remove the obstruction.

I therefore ask his Lordship’s permission to visit Benin City in February next to depose and remove the King of Benin and to establish a native council in his place and take such further steps for the opening up of the country as the occasion may require.”

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According to Igbafe, Philips had erroneously believed that Benin people would be glad to be rid of a king who was a ‘tyrant’ and a ‘despot’”. Although the Foreign Office did not approve of a military action against Benin due to the financial cost and insufficient troops, Philips calculated that the cost of the expedition could be offset by sale of large collection of ivory and other artifacts that would be looted from the king’s palace.

The disapproval, writes Igbafe, “was communicated to Consul General Philips in a cablegram of 8 January 1897 followed by a dispatch of 9 January 1897. Before messages got to the Niger Coast Protectorate, Philips was already dead, for he hurriedly set out to Benin on a mission, defying the warnings of the Itsekiri traders, the advice of Chief Dogho, the Oba’s communicated preference to receive him a month later and insistence of messengers from the Oba not to proceed with the journey.

According to Igbafe, “on 2 January 1897, Philips set out from Sapele for Benin, accompanied by several Protectorate officials, representatives of the European trading firms and numerous carriers. At Gele Gele, on the night of 2 January, messengers sent earlier to the Oba arrived with the Oba’s thanks and requests to defer the visits by one month as he was engaged in the traditional Igue festival.”

The Itsekiri traders at Ughoton also warned Philips against proceeding with the journey, reporting that Benin soldiers were lurking in the forests along the route. But Philip was bent on proceeding. He sent messages back to the Oba informing him of his intention to continue the journey.

“On 4 January, the expedition left Ughoton, and marching in a single file, the party ran into the ambush laid by Benin soldiers near the village of Ugbine. All the European members of the party were killed except two with military experience, Commander R.H. Bacon and Captain Alan Boisragn who went down on their bellies when the firing began.”

The backlash of the killing of Philips and his party was the Punitive Expedition. Nine ships and soldiers drawn from Her Majesty’s army from all over the British Empire were congregated against the Oba and the Benin people.

Moor’s leave was cut short and he was assigned to lead the troops to Benin. “He arrived at the Warigi base operation on 9 February 1897 and on the 10th the advance on Benin began. Capturing Sapoba on the 11th and Ologbo on the 12th, the troop advanced from Ologbo on the 14th with Benin soldiers heroically contesting the route in a running fight all the way.

Benin was captured on 18 February, after the British troops had fired some rockets tubes into the city. The rockets broke the resistance of the Benin soldiers. The Oba and most of the chiefs ran from the city after being bombarded by what they believed to be invisible enemies.

The British then entered the palace and looted all its wealth – ivories, artifacts and many other valuables which were transported to Europe, many of which could be seen today in the British Museum and other parts of Europe and America.

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The Oba and his chiefs were put to trial. Some of the Benin warriors chose to suicide in preference to public hangings. At a reconvened trial on 9 September 1897, Oba Ovonramwen N’Ogbaisi was sentenced to exile from his fallen kingdom.

His wives were disbanded and he was chained, handcuffed, gagged, strapped in a hammock and taken away from Benin on 13 September 1897 on the Protectorate yacht Ivy to Old Calabar where he became seriously ill on 9 January 1914 and died on 13 January 1914.

The banishment of Oba Ovonramwen N’Ogbaisi, though it ushered in another round of period of interregnum in the history of Benin Kingdom, did not bring an end to it. After that interregnum, Oba Eweka II (1914-1933) and the 37th Oba arose. Then from 1933-1978, Oba Akenzua II, described as the grandeur of royalty and the first educated monarch in the history of Benin, was installed on 5 April 1933. He ran a transparent monarchy in terms of removal of human sacrifices, especially in the burial of his father, Oba Eweka II.

From 1979-2016, Oba Erediauwa, the 39th Oba, called the Philosopher King, sat on the throne. He was an author and writer of repute. He was instrumental to the creation of Edo State.

From Oba Erediauwa, the Benin Kingdom fell into the hands the present King, Oba Ewuare II, the Philosopher and Diplomat King.  He has a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the United States and has served as Nigerian Ambassador to several countries. Although His Royal Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II, has made a lot of significant achievements, his reign and life are still on the trajectory of time and as such, no complete assessment of his achievements or failures, as the case may be, can be made. Any such assessment, besides being incomplete, may also border on praise-singing by the assessor aimed at courting and currying the favor of the King.

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