1899: Ologbosere, of the Benin Empire

On this date in 1899, British forces occupying Benin City hanged a local tribal leader for the massacre whose perpetration had justified London’s, er, “humanitarian” intervention.

The locale of today’s post is “Benin”, but it’s important to note that this is not the modern country of Benin but rather the land just to the east currently situated in southern Nigeria — which was then the Benin Empire, at the tail end of a very long run.

Ruled from Benin City (also presently in Nigeria), this great African state had been in direct contact with European countries since the 15th century.

By the 19th, of course, it had waned with colonial incursions — but Benin itself had sagely declined to extend “free trade” to the powers that meant to dominate it, nor to cede sovereignty by signing a “protectorate” arrangement.

It was only a matter of time before Britain (or someone else) made an offer Benin couldn’t refuse.

In January 1897, a British expedition attempting to enter Benin during a religious festival against the orders of its oba (king) was slaughtered by a Benin force led by the oba‘s son-in-law, Ologbosere (alternatively, Ologbosheri). Britain claimed it was a diplomatic mission; Benin apparently believed the deputation meant to attack.

Regardless, the tactical victory would prove a strategic debacle.

New York Times, Jan. 21, 1897. The last paragraph of this article innocently observes that “the country is said to be very rich, and it would not be surprising to find that one result of the punitive expedition would be the annexation of the whole territory to the British possessions in West Africa.”

The circumstances of this encounter remain murky and hotly disputed to this day. (Here’s a Benin-sympathetic take.) We at Executed Today are confident that a global superpower would never misrepresent its intentions nor engineer a provocation in order to unseat a resource-rich dictator.

As we learn from the London Times (June 12, 1897),

The object of the mission is described as peaceful, and one version even asserts that the party were unarmed … it was intended to send a party to Benin city to ask the King to remove the obstacles which he places in the way of trade …

The King and his capital have a bad reputation. He is a “Ju Ju” follower and addicted to human sacrifices, the gruesome remains of which are to be found in abundance in his capital. He is said recently to have threatened death to the next white man who attempted to visit him, and there is but too good reason to fear that he has kept his word. A military expedition against him probably would have been necessary in any event sooner or later.

Why, less than a teaspoon of Ju-Ju is enough to …

Dispatched within days, the retaliatory Benin punitive expedition sacked Benin City by the end of February, sending its reigning oba into exile. The Benin Empire had fallen; as the journalist had predicted, it was folded into Britain’s colonial administration.

Punitive force personnel reported a veritable bloodbath perpetrated within Benin City by its outgoing administration, including that trump taboo, human sacrifice.

Naval intelligence officer R.H. Bacon wrote,

The one lasting remembrance of Benin in my mind is its smells. Crucifixions, human sacrifices, and every horror the eye could get accustomed to, to a large extent, but the smells no white man’s internal economy could stand. …

Blood was everywhere; smeared over bronzes, ivory, and even the walls, and spoke the history of that awful city in a clearer way than writing ever could. And this had been going on for centuries! Not the lust of one king, not the climax of a bloody reign, but the religion (save the word!) of the race …

the atrocities of Benin, originating in blood lust and desire to terrorise the neighbouring states, the brutal love of mutilation and torture, and the wholesale manner in which the caprices of the King and Juju were satisfied, could only have been the result of stagnant brutality …

[I saw] a crucifixion tree with a double crucifixion on it, the two poor wretches stretched out facing the west, with their arms bound together in the middle. The construction of this tree was peculiar, being absolutely built for the purpose of crucifixion. At the base were skulls and bones, literally strewn about; the debris of former sacrifices … and down every main road were two or more human sacrifices.

The synoptic reports of two other officers are excerpted in this tome; e.g.,

Seven large sacrifice compounds were found inclosed by walls … [containing earthen] altars [that] were covered with streams of dried human blood … [and] open pits filled with human bodies giving forth the most trying odours.

Whilst Britain set about making Benin safe for the olfactory nerves of long-barred merchandisers, Ologbosere persisted in the bush for more than two years. He was finally snared with the connivance of some local tribal chiefs keen to do business with the new boss.

Ologbosere, captured.

Tried on June 27 — just one day before his actual execution; the verdict, of course, foreordained — Ologbosere was damned by those chiefs’ testimony that the strike force he had led back in 1897 to precipitate the intervention “was not sent to kill white men — and we therefore decide that according to native law his life is forfeited.”

Ologbosere said otherwise, to no avail.

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.

Great Britain’s punitive expedition also resulted in the capture of many hundreds of metal objects scattered to European museums and collections — collectively known as the Benin Bronzes. (It’s a misnomer: they’re actually brass.)

Hocked to defray the expense of their plundering, their diffusion around the empires’ continent helped broaden European appreciation for African art, and influenced modernist art movements. (Notably (pdf) German expressionism: tons of the bronzes ended up in Germany, and many can still be seen at Berlin’s Ethnological Museum.)

Nigeria, and the successor obas of Benin, have for decades besought their return in vain.

Cultural encounter: this Benin “bronze” shows the oba with two attendants, and the smaller floating heads of two European (Portuguese) traders.

More on this object, and its place in the story of Benin and Europe, in this episode of the BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects; or, at the “bronze’s” page at the British Museum website.

On this day..

29 thoughts on “1899: Ologbosere, of the Benin Empire

  1. Long Live My Ancestor who died for a purpose!!!! A Chief a man of Honor!!!! I love you!!!We are all over the world now!!! Ralph Ogbeiwi has grown your family you will love forever!!!

    • In actual fact, many Lagos town names are actually Benin names such as igbosere, idumagbo, idumota, etc. Note worthy is the fact that – idu- is a prefix of names in Benin. Thanks!

  2. It is interesting to read this account of the British, trying so hard to justify why they invaded Benin. The British had no reason to force trade with the Benin Kingdom. If the Benin Kingdom refused trade, there was no reason to come forcefully. Is it not interesting to see now that the same British that wanted to conquer the whole world by force, cannot remain in a single union with Europe? Whatever happened to the mighty warlords that wanted to forcefully takeover the entire planet. As long as the world exists, the inhumane and atrocious acts by the British to the Benin Kingdom cannot go forgiven. This calamity called Brexit is only the beginning.

  3. Just watched a NIgerian movie about these events “Invasion 1897” on Netflix. Worth checking out

  4. This is horrifying history! I am just learning of it. I am from England. Whilst this is all absolutely atrocious to learn, we must not judge a nation by it’s warmongering governments. There is an uprising in the world… one against war, period. One against those power hungry elitists who “want to rule the world”. Those who have love in their hearts and minds, In whatever country on earth they reside, are as much against the false power grabbing that each and every government around the world is guilty of.

    We each, as sovereign beings – must stop judging and hating each other based on the actions of a greedy minority. There are citizens of a lower level of conscious awareness in every place on the planet… it is all of our responsibility as individuals, to help those who cannot see the light.. who are disconnected from their spiritual light within, to reconnect with it once more.

    There are no borders, except those we create with our minds and the closing of our hearts to each other. We are all connected as one. Let us act like it.

    • We are not all connected as one, That is foolishness. You’re pushing a utopia that does not exist nor has it ever existed. Borders, by the way, are very good to have.

      Perhaps you need to go to an ISIS militiaman and tell him you two are one together. It will be off with your head.

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  7. It would have been NICE and JUSTIFIED if the actual TRUTH of this incident is well documented from both sides! what really transpired in 1899 of the clash between the British & Benin Empires is yet to be revealed from both sides! But as we all know, if we compare the incidents leading to wars, using our own present days world wars as examples; every war is an act of fight for POWER & GREED. WHY NOT THEN? As long as human beings is only able to use invasion, deprivation, oppression, dictatorship, conspiracy, you name it, (all these forces ) to show how strong and mighty a nation is against the other, we can imagine what happened then in 1899. Each time a nation set out to acquire more wealth, i.e TAKING FROM YOUR NEIGHBOR concept,what normally comes out of this act is nothing but WAR. Sadly we shall never know the actual TRUTH of what happened in 1899 to my ancestor, why? Because as usual the story-tellers are the culprits. I use the word Culprit here for the British because they had no business to be in Benin Empire then. What are their intensions there? Why did USA INVADE IRAK? Culprits I say because the British out stepped their boundaries. The atrocities committed by the colonial powers then in our history are worse than the human sacrifices, they claimed as the cause here.This case is tendered by the British, reported by European and written by European Media, just as simple as that! I am of the descendants of OLOGBOSERE and a very proud one at that. I hope my ancestor, who was captured and killed by the British in 1899, fought a JUST CAUSE. TO DIE FOR YOUR CAUSE IS A BLESSING. Rest In Peace, OLOGBOSERE.

    • To every human being on earth, trade is by choice not by force. If the edo people wants to trade with the United kingdom, it is the edo people that will seek for business with the United kingdom; it was oppression of the modern world, happens in edo in 1897. Look ologbosere was the chief in command of the edo arm forces.
      Now there’s European union, Brexit is being negotiating..why can’t they trade by force now as they did to edo people in 1897. Ologbosere was betrayed to death. I have more to say orally, until then.

  8. I demand today by the blood of my ancestor Ologbosere that you remove every impediment to ‘trade’, every visa requirement for entry into Britain. This is a peaceful request like your peaceful expedition to “Benin city to ask the King to remove the obstacles which he places in the way of trade …”.
    Your reptilian royal children will not become kings and queens. Your own people will destroy your royalty.

  9. Britain the land of wasted youth. Youth brought up on money pillaged from Africa. Provide a home for the youths from Africa who have come to make money to build back their nations. Watch your children wonder about with nothing to look forward to in the midst of great wealth but semi illiteracy and mind numbing television washed down with fish, chips and beer.

  10. Britain the no longer great. The land of Kings and Queens who knight murderers of the land and the high seas. The percentage collectors of robbers and human swine! The only thing they cannot stomach is maybe their true selves. The sordidness of the British character cannot even be disguised by rewriting their history. Everywhere they went, they went to murder, steal and trade. The quintessential British combo.

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  12. The Benin kingdom is still powerful and well and even more, if you know what I mean. Tell that to all the blue and reptillian bloods of europe, they can come to Benin and see for themselves and if they are true n through to their claim, we will give them poundedyam to eat, let’s see what happens.

  13. Who is more evil than the british on this earth? After acquiring so much juju themselves through the disguise of trade, then they spy on local tribes men and their abilities and later comes to fight against them, pretending they don’t use juju and therefore amassing thesame for themselves, how did they even dare to fight mighty Benin, if not the help of Indians n other powers they have acquired by lies, regardless, they couldn’t even withstand the Benins. The Benins are their own undoing that all ” what was covered was opened due to jealousy”. The british shouldn’t be proud of themselves, they are no saints.

  14. What right has on nation to judge another, on what basis, what ground, was there any common law guilding this two great nations, that one has to use as a basis for judging the other. If someone tells you not to come to his house, you get the fuck out, or you are seen as an intruder and you don’t expect to get welcomed. This is a simple logic, I am baffled to see how the so called English men can be so ignorant.

  15. I guess the victors get to right what they want everybody to hear, at most the story speaks for itself(lies n falsehood), as everybody knows that the british has the stomach for every kind or depravity, just to get what they want.

  16. The truth about the ‘Benin Massacre’ and the ‘Benin Punitive Expedition’ will come to light one day.

    • The truth is that GB had been asking the king to stop the slave trading and the human sacrificial crucifixion since 1863, and spent blood and treasure to annex and administer an economically unproductive colony. That’s why it was still independent in 1897, 12 years after the Berlin Africa Conference – because there was nothing worth stealing there other than slaves.

      • Nothing worth stealing? (at least, you agreed to the presupposition that one legitimate intention was to steal). If the noble eventual colonials really had no interest in booty, how come they took away valuables worth 275 million pounds (in today’s money) from the palace. Not to mention palm-oil and rubber.

        In retrospect, we always present as professors with the perfect idea of what should have been done. At the time, the British did what they believed was best for their country. The order of the day was plunder and loot as long as you could get away with it. The only thing I really abhor is the ‘holier than thou’ attitude that followed so closely with the hideous acts.

      • Talk about Amazing Grace. The slave master asking a king in another empire to stop slave trading. How laughable that sounds. Where were the British buying their slaves from? On the contrary, the Benin did not sell its own. It was the British that devised all means possible to slave trade. Failure to gain access to Benin Empire, led to invasion. I always wish the Oba Ovoramwen did not surrender. Perhaps the story when told today would have been different. Nothing worth stealing but carvings from Benin Kingdom still lay in Museums in the United Kingdom till date after more than 100 years. This is besides other natural resources that were carted away. Perhaps it is long overdue to be returned.

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