The British Conquest of Benin and the Oba’s Return

Captured, Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi (Oba Of Benin)

In the 19th century, disputes over trade led to strain between Benin and its chief trading partner, Great Britain. This escalated as the European powers moved to divide Africa into colonial territories. The situation culminated in 1897, when a large delegation led by Britain’s Acting Consul-General in the region, James Phillips, set off for Benin City despite requests from Oba Ovonramwen (enthroned c. 1888) to postpone their visit.

On January 12, the British delegation was ambushed by an Edo force that by all accounts acted without the oba’s knowledge. Almost the entire party was killed, including Phillips. In quick order, a large British military force—deemed the Punitive Expedition—was assembled, and on February 18, they arrived in Benin City under orders to invade and conquer it. In time they captured Oba Ovonramwen and sent him into exile to Calabar, a town east of Benin.

With these events, the daily routines of the royal court were disrupted and the Edo people were severed from their leaders. Objects within the royal palaces were now the spoils of war, many of which were sold to defray the costs of the invasion. Others were shared among members of the expeditionary force. Still others left Benin in the confusion that followed the devastation of the kingdom.

Upon their arrival in London, Benin’s royal arts were a topic of conversation and speculation. They sparked immediate interest from museums, particularly in Britain and the German-speaking world, which made efforts to purchase the objects for their collections. Eventually works from Benin could be found in museums across Europe and the United States.

Oba Ovonramwen died in exile in 1914, the same year that his son returned to Benin City and was crowned Oba Eweka II. Benin’s monarchy was thus restored, though its power was greatly curtailed. While the Edo people maintained a strong connection to the oba, the monarchy was reconfigured to be secondary to the colonial system, and later to the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Oba Eweka II and Oba Akenzua II (enthroned 1933) used the arts strategically in their efforts to reinvent the kingdom. They commissioned works to replace those that were taken in 1897 and reinstated some royal rituals, while reconsidering their roles within a modern context. Among Eweka II’s first acts was the establishment of an altar dedicated to his father, Oba Ovonramwen. He also erected a single collective altar dedicated to all the obas that had reigned before him.

Under the current monarch, Oba Erediauwa, the kingdom has a vital cultural and political life that is steeped in history and tradition. Erediauwa observes important royal practices, including the establishment and upkeep of ancestral altars and the performance of royal rituals. He is also a respected local and regional leader.

In 1938, in a gesture of great significance to the Edo people, the British returned pieces of Oba Ovonramwen’s coral regalia to his grandson Oba Akenzua II, thus restoring some of the sacred force of his ancestors. Upon receiving the regalia, Akenzua II is said to have sung out with joy, “The poisonous arrow has killed the elephant,” a reference to the long wait that is sometimes necessary before a victory can be attained.

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