Benin City was the capital of Benin Kingdom, one of the most highly developed states in Africa, when it was ransacked and burnt down in 1897 by British forces. Its destruction in what became known as the Benin Expedition of 1897 led to the fall of the once successful and well-recognized Benin kingdom located in what is now southern Nigeria.
The 1897 British military campaign sent the reigning oba (king) into exile and many chiefs of the kingdom surrendered or were captured. One of the warriors, General Asoro, fought till death. The Benin Kingdom, which was then ruling from Benin City, was very successful and even had direct contact with European countries, trading with merchants from Europe.
But in the 1800s, the kingdom came under threat from Britain who wanted Benin to extend free trade to them.
Ovonramwen, the oba (king) of Benin Kingdom, was clearly opposed to the idea of free trade “to the powers that meant to dominate it”, so he tried to stop all contact with Britain but the British insisted on their right to trade.
In January 1897, a British expedition under Acting Consul General James Philips attempted to enter Benin during a religious festival against the orders of Oba Ovonramwen. Sources say that as the British officials approached the borders of Benin, a group of warriors including Asoro drove them back and killed several of the British officials. The killings infuriated the British, who insisted that the British-led party was only attempting to enter Benin “to ask the King to remove the obstacles which he places in the way of trade.”
In a retaliatory attack, the British, within days, sent over a thousand soldiers to invade Benin, and the kingdom became part of the British Empire. But this was of course not without armed resistance against the British.
Asoro, who would become a pain in the butts of the British, was a sword-bearer to Oba Ovonramwen before becoming a soldier. Thanks to his patriotism and bravery, he earned the title of a General in the Benin Army. According to one account, Asoro’s strength was “mystical hence bullets couldn’t penetrate his body.” And when he fought, his poisonous arrows and swords never failed to hit their targets. He would never quit until he saw his enemy dead.
But Asoro had a secret weak point that he needed to protect in order to stay alive during battles and remain victorious. This was that he would never look over his shoulder, or look back when fighting on the battlefield. “As long as he complied with this mystical directive, guns and other weapons of war, had no impact on his huge frame,” one account wrote.
During the British invasion of the Benin Kingdom, Asoro later found himself single-handedly fighting for many days as most of his men died. The unfortunate happened when Asoro felt that the quiver of arrows that hung from his shoulder had been snatched away from behind. Shocked, Asoro, in the heat of battle, looked to his right and left, but could not find the quiver that held his arrows.
With pressure mounting on him as he was being hit from all angles, he was struck with fear and he looked back over his shoulder. Legend says that there and then, he saw Ofoe, the messenger of death. That was the end of Asoro. The gallant warlord was killed at the exact location where his statue is located today in modern-day Benin.
Britain’s punitive expedition did not only lead to the deaths of chiefs and war heroes like Asoro but it also took away various works of art including Ivory and bronze works. Today, most of these works of art are held in prominent museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum.