Crimes of Empire:
British colonial soldiers committed genocide in the Kingdom of Benin in 1897. They then looted some 4,000 pieces of art which have never been returned. A Nigerian film recreates the invasion, exposing the bestial brutality of Empire.
On Saturday 7 February, a packed British Film Institute (BFI) audience attended African Odyssey’s hosting of ‘Grand Theft Africa: History of the Benin Bronzes.’ It opened with a one-hour presentation by historian and Pan-Africanist Dr Ama Biney on the historic and continuing ‘scramble for Africa.’ The focus of her presentation and theme for the film that followed was the 1897 invasion of Benin, which contributed to the greater African holocaust enshrined in our experience of enslavement, colonialism and neo-colonialism. The brutal desecration of Benin lives and culture through the theft of over 4,000 of its artefacts by Western Europeans seems to be a known but yet untold story. It led to the demise of the Great Benin Kingdom, marking a most significant period in the continuing scramble for African resources. During the invasion the Oba (King) was deposed and deported to Calabar on 13 September 1897 where he died 16 years later. The Nollywood director, Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen’s film captures the horrific invasion in which Benin’s well organised governmental system, cultural and spiritual traditions, kept in place for thousands of years, were callously disrespected by the British invaders. The event at the BFI was well timed to correspond with the anniversary on 10 February of the invasion. What follows is a reflection of the event as I attempt to capture the impression it left on me.
The past is present
One of the lasting messages of Dr Biney’s presentation was that the ‘past is not dead – that it lives on in the present.’ This is how she perceives the impact of history. The infamous ‘Scramble for Africa’ in which 14 European powers voraciously supped around the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference table is a haunting and living legacy impeding the struggle for sovereignty and self-determination for many African states. Yet their lack of self-determination is linked to the unnaturalness of their construction, as these states represent the demographically modified appendages of the European imperialist project. Since the Conference preceded the invasion of Benin by over a decade it might appear accidental – or fortuitous. Likewise since the conference was held 130 years ago the social, economic and political instabilities associated with these states might suggest some natural inability to self-govern. Clearly this would be an ill-conceived perspective ignoring the deliberate and lasting impact of the Scramble.
This historical appendage made it possible for the Malian president to request help from France, its former colonial ruler, to intervene in the political crisis a couple years ago. Such interventions, whether sanctioned by African leaders or not, do not necessarily improve the conditions of the people they are supposedly called to assist; nor do they help to advance the sovereignty of African states. Historically, the image of ‘anarchy’ and destabilisation through the creation of proxy wars has been used by Western governments to justify interference in the affairs of other sovereign states. Similarly, parallels can be made of the moral arguments about fighting Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria and the 1897 invasion by the UK government. Some chaos or anarchy has to be created/detected for which the burden to solve becomes that of the all-saving Europeans. Their military power would give them unfair advantage and means to occupy. The ‘humanitarian’ guise of rescuing 300 school girls provided a perfect opportunity for the US-European military expansion to West Africa. Excessive foreign troops stretched across large areas of Africa means a military occupation that has little to do with ‘saving girls.’ The question is whether Western intervention is necessary or is this interference part of their imperialist strategy? In other words: Are matters made worse or better by their intervention?
In her talk, Dr Biney reminded us which European countries were among those 14 powers at the conference: France, Britain, Germany and Portugal. The map she used to more visibly imprint the dissection of the continent showed the dominance of the French and British. She allowed a resonant beat to sink into our hearts the poignant fact that around this inglorious table no African leader was present. Therefore it remains to be said that Africans should be left to resolve their own internal affairs. Their self-determination will always be blighted by the interventionist strategies of Western governments whose interests lie in the control of our resources.
Circumstances of the invasion
What was striking from Dr Biney’s account was that prior to the 1897 invasion, between 1850-1880 there was a small European presence in Africa. They had coastal outposts from which they were exercising legitimate trade, particularly in palm oil and groundnuts. This trade had replaced the Trans-Atlantic Trade in human beings as slaves. The wanderlust of explorers, the crusading of missionaries and the avaricious traders combined to reshape the course of Africa’s history. The European countries involved in the trade sought to advance and protect their own interests, establishing military outposts that would later double as holding forts for enslaved Africans literally bound for the Atlantic. These outposts (forts) remain, as I observed during a trip to Cape Coast and Elmina Castles in Ghana. But those erected on the other side of the Atlantic also remain in the Caribbean islands. During a visit to some of these at the end of 2013 there was a sense that Africans (in the diaspora) had little claim to the land/islands but were forced to import everything and instead focus their economic interest on tourism – another way of saying exploration. At every corner of these islands there are churches – since the missionary project was supported by the respective European states.
Whilst they protected their claim along the coast, the real loot and ventures lay in the interior, which for many were yet unexplored. The increasing competition to discover and exploit Africa’s wealth naturally led explorers deeper into the interior. The Berlin Act, furthermore made it necessary for each European power to ‘inform each other of its claim’ to a portion of territory and establish the claim legitimately by ‘occupation.’ As we see today the interventionist strategy has its base in history whereby European governments used the internal disputes of African micro-states to push moral arguments about why they needed to be governed by external intermediaries. Some of the moral arguments were founded on the alleged principle of civilising Africans from their fetishisms and traditional practices, including human sacrifice. As Dr Biney noted, Europeans exaggerated these customs and practices in order to serve their own interests. Although the Europeans claimed to be concerned about internal slave trade and general conflicts in Africa, with the exception of the Yorubas no mention was made of internal slavery in the Berlin Act. Dr Biney argued that contrary to the supposed anarchy in Africa, most of West Africa was peaceful with well-organised states and strong rulers.
A sinister agreement
By the time of the invasion, Benin was expanding, having subsumed smaller states into its Kingdom through military force. The Edo region, in which the City of Benin was situated, was discovered by British explorers venturing deeper into the hinterland. The impressive cultural artefacts, along with the discovery of vast amounts of rubber leant fervour to the mission to totally colonise the region.
Oba Ovonramwen, who had inherited a kingdom at war not only with other states but with its own internal struggles, had to establish firm leadership but was loved and respected by his people. The British knew this. In 1891 the British Vice Consul H.L. Gallwey took a spurious treaty to Oba Ovonramwen. He didn’t sign the treaty but instead authorised one of his chiefs, who clearly couldn’t read English, to do so. According to Dr Biney the terms afforded protection for the Oba by Queen Victoria in return for loyalty to Britain; he could not entertain any other foreign power. There also had to be free trade with Britain and the kingdom had to receive missionaries. When the Oba flouted these terms a new treaty was devised aimed at forcing the Oba to submit to the British Empire.
Genocide: calling it by its name
Following his own orders, and perhaps owing to some despotic trait and loyalty to the British Crown, the Acting Vice Consul James Phillips ignored warnings not to enter Benin, when at this time a sacred ceremony was in swing. But he persisted to enter the City. This was regarded by the Benin chiefs as a challenge to the sovereignty of the kingdom for which they retaliated by killing Phillips and six other British men. This presented Britain with the opportunity of war against the kingdom and 1,500 soldiers primarily made up of Africans from other colonised territories were dispatched to avenge the killing of the seven Britons; two of them had escaped. The defeat of Benin, as Dr Biney explained, was due to the ‘superior technology’ of British weaponry. The Africans were admirable adversaries but their machetes, bows and arrows couldn’t compare. Though available on the continent, there was limited access to machine guns which would have aided their combat. Even if they could obtain the machine guns, there weren’t enough soldiers trained to use them. The outcome of this unfair advantage was genocide in which thousands Africans lost their lives. Shamefully this wholesale sacking of the Benin Empire also culminated in the grand theft of cultural artefacts bestowing the history and heritage of the Benin people.
‘The totality of the plan’
Another striking observation in Dr Biney’s presentation was the citation by fellow historian, Toyin Falola, who attributed the defeat of Nigeria (Benin) to the series of ‘so-called little wars’ waged by Britain as a decided method that ‘boosted the idea of imperialism.’ In other words, these little wars were by design part of a bigger plan for total domination. Former African leaders, like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea Republic, posited pan-African unity, calling for a level of consciousness that would recognise the ‘totality of the European plan’ – a systematic, well-practiced strategy of divide and rule. Colonialism was replaced by neo-colonialism after extending pretentious arms of independence.
When Ghana gained its independence in 1957 as the first country in sub-saharan Africa to do so, Nkrumah made it clear that unless all African territories were liberated, none were. The vision of total liberation of its people and of all the macro and micro African states would be the appropriate response to this ‘totality of the plan’ by Britain, US and other Western European nations still intervening in African affairs.