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. However, one of the chiefs chose armed resistance instead.
Ologbosere, an army chief, hid among villages and towns that supported his actions, and for two years after the British expedition, he became a thorn in the flesh of the Royal British Empire that had replaced the Oba system in the kingdom, as he launched attacks against British outposts.
Ologbosere had during this period been condemned to death in absentia by the British administration for having killed a previous British expedition that was on its way to Benin. That killing is said to have sparked the British punitive response in 1897.
Prior to the killings, 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 led by Ologbosere, who was the oba’s son-in-law and the second-in-command to the Commander-In-Chief of the Benin army, 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. The oba was later deported to Calabar while some of the chiefs were tried and others executed.
For about two years, Ologbosere and two other chiefs – Ebohon and Oviawe – launched violent attacks against the new British government at Benin City, with secret support from local people, villages and some chiefs.
The British administration, according to records, “retaliated with bloody ferocity. British troops burned these supportive locations, destroyed villagers’ crops, detained their youths, and incarcerated their rulers.”
One of the chiefs, Oviawe, died from injuries. To save themselves from further attacks from British troops, some of the villages that harbored Ologbosere turned him in. According to an account, British troops, on May 27, 1899, arrested Ologbosere and the other chief, Ebohon, at the village of Okemue.
Ologbosere was taken to Benin for trial and was tried and convicted on June 27, 1899, for “instigating” the murder of Captain Philips and others.
Before his execution, which happened the day after he was tried, Ologbosere was shocked about the testimony given by some of the chiefs. The chiefs maintained that the group of warriors Ologbosere led to attack the British expedition under Captain Philips “was not sent to kill white men — and we therefore decide that according to native law his life is forfeited.”
Ologbosere, who felt betrayed by their account, argued: “The king told me that he had heard that the white men were coming to fight with him, and that I must get ready to go and fight the white men … when all the people called the mass meeting at Benin City and selected me to go and fight the white men, I went. I had no palaver with the white men before.
“The day I was selected to go from Benin City to meet the white men all the chiefs here present were in the meeting, and now they want to put the whole thing on my shoulders.”
Ologbosere’s words fell on deaf ears, and on June 28, 1899, he was hanged.
Britain’s punitive expedition did not only lead to the deaths of gallant chiefs like Ologbosere 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.