Britain's deceit leads to Benin's defeat

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100 Years after the Invasion of Benin Reflection
By Chief Richard Akinjide (SAN)
Former Attorney-General of Nigeria and a Federal Minister of Justice


The Year 1997 is the centenary of the conquest for the Great kingdom of Benin by the British. It is significant historical event for the black race everywhere. It was a great event which must be revisited and interpreted correctly. The British have been, understandably, economical with the truth about that momentous event.

The kingdom of Benin was already in continuous contact with nations of the Mediterranean for at least 1,500 years before the Europeans came to Benin. The kingdom's commercial and foreign relations were well established. It had its own money economy Independent of the europeans. The kingdom of Benin's own currency known as ighos was accepted for trade and general means of  exchange in East, west, and North Africa. The kingdom was part of the African empires and kingdoms.

Independent and Sovereign at a time when Europe was part of the Roman colonies. Benin was a powerful Kingdom when the Portuguese first visited there in 1472. King John 11 (1481-1495) of Portugal exchanged friendly correspondence with the King of Benin. The King of Benin on the throne in 1553 spoke fluent Portuguese which he learnt as a child.

The first British ship reached the Benin River in 1553-the trade was mainly in cloths, palm oil, Cowries, beads, and Ivory. By 1400, the kingdom of Benin replaced elective succession with primogeniture. As early as 1500, the King of Portugal received an ambassador from the King of Benin and found him  a man of good speech and natural wisdom. Lourenco Pinto, who was the captain of a Portuguese ship that carried missionary to Warri in August 1619, sent this disposition to the Sacra Congregazione the instance of Father Montelcone. 

According to the testimony of this captain, Great Benin, where the King resides, is larger than Lisbon, all the streets run straight and as far as the eyes can see.The houses are large, especially that of the king  which is richly decorated and has Fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no door to their houses  The picture of black Africa as savages in a dark continent painted by the Europeans was totally false meant only to justify the inhuman slave trade and the theft of African natural resources by Europeans for Europeans.

Black African Soldiers formed part of the carthaginians army. African troops took part in Himilco's engagement against the Greeks at Syracuse. Numidian Calvary was part of Hannibal's army.Carthage (in Africa) was so powerful that Carthago est delenda became the Roman credo and the battle cry -Carthage must be destroyed the Carthaginians acquired an empire from which Sicily, Sardinia and SouthernSpain was excluded by the treaty. It was thisexclusion of the Greeks and the Romans that accounted for the lack of adequate information in the writing of classical authors about the extent of Carthaginian involvement in black Africa. Even today in Europe, despite all the hypocrisy, the black man is still treated as a second class citizen no matter his achievements. The white race refuses to share the secrets of modern technology with black Africa except as consumer.

The coin of ancient Timbuktu was of gold. Mohammed el-Maghili, a great scholar, wrote a book called The Obligation of Princes for the Emir of Kano(Nigeria)around 1525 on practical difficulties of government a work of scholarship better than Machiavelli's the prince. The background to the European lack of respect to the black race was based on the Greco-Roman traditions of thought, which falsely represented the Negro as an inferior creature who was the descendant of the accursed Ham and a Specimen of lesser humanity described by Plato and Aristotle. Even when the Europeans save a few liberals, knew that these were untrue, they upheld them in order to justify colonialism and slave trade which were prosecuted with humbug and grotesque brutality for economic self-interest.

The above historical background is indispensable to what happened to the kingdom of Benin in 1897.I will now examine the real, as distinguished from the ostensible, reasons for the British invasion of Benin. Just look at the map of Southern Nigerian. First, in June 1849, Britain appointed a Consul for  the Bights of Benin and Biafra.In 1853, Britain treated separate Consular Districts for (a)Lagos and Bight of Benin(b)Bight of Biafra. These were real  diplomatic representations between independent and sovereign nations accepted as such by all the parties to the arrangements. In fact, during that century when Brazil gained independence, the envoy of the King of Benin attended the celebrations at the invitation of the government of Brazil on the basis of reciprocity.

But suddenly, Britain one the leading nations in trans-continental slave trade for about three hundred years, became an anti-slave trade nation. It was wrongly thought by many that the British conversion was on humanitarian principles for the benefit of the black race. Never. It was in the British national interest. The industrial revolution was in full swing, machines had largely replaced human beings as means of production both in the farms and factories. In the West Indies, North and South America, the need for slave labour had dwindled. Furthermore; Europe needed settled markets in Africa to obtain raw materials and to sell the products of the industrial revolution.  Black Africa in war and turmoil in order to get slaves for the European was no longer in European economic interest.

By 1860-1 Britain had, by subterfuge, lured King osunmu of Lagos to “cede” Lagos to Britain as a olony. I doubt whether King Dosunmu knew the juridical implications of what he was doing when he signed a “treaty” with Britain. The legal effect will be addressed later. The difference between a Colony and a protectorate deserves comment. On July 23, 1884, Britain signed a treaty of “favour and protection” with the king of Creek Town in Calabar and on July 24, 1884, a similar with the King of Duke Town in Calabar. Earlier, a similar treaty was sent by Britain to King Jaja Opobo who refused to sign. Instead, he asked Britain to define that “Protectorate” meant. Consul Hewett for Britain in a letter in July 1, 1884, replied King of Jaja of Opobo as follows:
 “I write as you request with reference to the word “protectorate” as used in the proposed treaty that the Queen does not want to take your country or your market, but at the same time, is  anxious that no other Nation should take them. She undertakes to extend her gracious favour and protection, which will leave your country still under  your government “King Jaja then signed.

Again in a memorandum dated January 3,1885 submitted to the British Cabinent,the Lord Chancellor, Lord Selborne stated as follows: "The law officers do not expressly advert to the distinction which I thing is  important between ANNEXATIONS and PROTECTORATES. Annexation is the advert assumption of territorial sovereignity. Protectorate is the recognition of  the right of the aboriginal or other actual inhabitants to their own country, with no further assumption of territorial rights than is necessary  to maintain the paramount authority and discharge of the duties of protecting power.

The king of Benin was not as gullible or trusting as the Kings of Lagos, Calabar or Opobo and refused to sign any Treaty of "Protection" with Britain since he could not see no need for a protection from a foreign power who had been dealing with them for centuries as equals, and in any event, Benin was  a great power when Britain was a Roman Colony. The Benin King was sombre in stance and in dignity. He stood his ground. Of course, Britain had a hidden  agenda. At that time, the British African policy was being masterminded by the British Naval and Military intelligence and the foreign Office with the  Colonial Office playing little role.

By June 5, 1885, Britain named her Sphere of Influence (note the Phrase) From Lagos to River Rio Del Ray near Cameroon as Oil Rivers Protectorate. On  May 13, 1893, Britain Proclaimed Niger Coast Protectorate as the new name for Oil Rivers protectorate with its own postage stamps which I have seen. The Kingdom of Benin remained resolute, proud and independent. But Britain desperately wanted a Protectorate of Southern Nigeria. That was the hidden agenda.

King Ovonramwen of Benin in 1896 declined to receive a British delegation for discussions on the ground that the Kingdom was in the midst of a great National Festival. Nevertheless the British delegation came on uninvited. In the light of the then prevailing circumstances at the time. The unexpected arrival of the British was treated as a hostile act equivalent to a war situation. The British team was attacked and defeated. Britain was indignant and felt that she now has an excuse to bring on board by force the recalcitrant Kingdom of Benin. The British military expedition included the father of James Callaghan, the former labour Prime Minister. The kingdom resisted the attack bravely but was subdued by a far superior force.

The British called it punitive expedition. Many people were killed, houses burnt, the palace looted, great works of art taken away. The king was captured and banished to Calabar. The British took enough works of arts to pay for the cost of the expedition. The fiercest and proudest kingdom was, at last, conquered by a more powerful alien power in 1897. On December 27, 1899, Britain at last was able to proclaim and promulgate the Protectorate of southern Nigeria, to take effect from January 1, 1900.

The response of the Kingdom of Benin against British interference in the affairs of a sovereign and independent nation was a legitimate self-defence  in accordance with the peremptory norms of customary international law otherwise known as Jus cogens. If the British could go to war just because for Jenkins’s ear, why should not the Kingdom of Benin protect her national interest against uninvited guests whose reputation at that time for greed and grab in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa was already well known? We must pass Judgment in light of prevailing circumstances at that time. We must unhesitatingly reject British interpretation, as massacre, the events of 1896 which led to the British aggression of 1897.

The reputation of Major Edward Lugard preceded him in Africa. Because of what Major Lugard did in India and Uganda, and what he and George Goldie did in ilorin, Bida, Borgu and what other British soldiers perpetrated in Yoruba land which were then of public knowledge, the King of Benin was right in his  suspicion of British intentions which were definitely to lure the noble Kingdom of Benin into the so-called British Protectorate and therefore loss of the sovereign rights which Benin had enjoyed for about 2,000 years.

At the time, as it is now, the kernel of European policy in Africa was devious and self-seeking. Independent African nations should be nothing but vassal states of Europe. The various European Navies were then the instruments of colonial policy. Hence the Navigation Acts of 1649 and 1660, the Staple Acts 1663 and the Plantation Act 1673. They now advocate for us, using the world Bank, the IMF, the devaluation of our currencies, the exact opposite of the economic policies that ensured and helped their own greatness and good quality of life for their own people. The colonial policy in French Speaking Africa is even more worrying. It is better encapsulated  in French: plus ca Change, plus c’est la meme chose-(the more things change, they more the remain the same).In short, what makes French decolonization! CAVEAT!

I end this monograph with a quotation from Sir Alan Burns, a former Governor General of Nigeria, in his book-History of Nigeria (4th Ed) at P. 277. No European nation has the right to assume the sovereignty over the inhabitants of any part of Africa, and claims put forward by the various governments at the Berlin Conference in 1885 took little account of the rights of the people who lived in the territory claimed.

Please find time to visit The Institute for Benin studies website at www.GreatBenin.org.

Publié dans classical africa

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