The Potency of Benin Kingdom’s Messenger of Death
Traditional superstitions amuse me. The more rural you are, the more attuned you are to the do’s and dont’s of the local gods.
In the ancient city of Benin, for instance, there is the arresting portrait of Ofoe, the frightening messenger of the merciless god of death, Ogiuwu. It is still believed that if a subject of Benin displeases the Oba of Benin, the Oba has the power to send Ofoe to end the life of the transgressor.
Commanding tremendous prestige and reverence, verging on awe, the Oba cannot be spoken to directly by a stranger. An audience with him requires the guest to kneel, clasp his hands, and chant in mangled Edo dialect an incantation of deference and respect. I have read that protocol forbids any journalist from putting questions directly to the Oba. Journalists would need to submit their questions in writing in advance. Not even a follow-up question is allowed if the journalist requires clarification as the Oba speaks.
Yet 125 years ago, in 1897, the godlike nature of the Oba was demystified. It started in November 1896 when a British officer decided to visit the Oba. Britain had given up the slave trade and actively encouraged dealing in agricultural goods. In the south of Niger, the British were spearheading the development of the palm oil industry and had signed a free trade agreement with Oba Ovenramwen of the Benin Kingdom in 1892 to allow for the free passage of goods through his territory. But by March 1896, the Itsekiri middlemen were refusing to pay the required tributes to the Oba in an internal arrangement that was known or unknown, depending on the source you believe, to the British. So, the Oba of Benin ordered a cessation of the oil palm production supply to them.
The trade embargo brought trade in the Benin River region to a standstill. The British merchants were unhappy. Some appealed to the Consul-General, James R. Phillips, the highest rank serving British officer in the region, to forcefully dethrone the king. But Philip urged patience. By October, the situation had not improved. In November, Phillips decided he would visit the Oba himself. He formally asked his superiors in London for permission to visit Benin City. In late December 1896, without waiting for a reply or approval, Phillips embarked on an expedition with about 250 others, comprising British and locals.
Phillips had sent a message to the Oba, claiming that his present mission was to discuss trade and peace and demanding admission to the territory. To sweeten the deal, he had sent an envoy bearing numerous gifts for trade. Unfortunately, Phillips and his entourage went at the wrong time. They went during the important Igue festival, which forbade the Oba from seeing visitors. Therefore, the Oba sent word that he did not want to see the British. He promised to let them know when he would be ready — in a month or two. Even then, he would only be interested in seeing Philips and one local leader.
Phillips would not wait for two more months. His people were losing money, and the earlier the issue was resolved, the better. So, he and his entire party pushed ahead along their journey to Benin City. Not too far off from Benin, they met their waterloo. The British officers and their African porters were slaughtered. Only two British survived their wounds. One was shot in the right arm and knee, and the other was shot four times in the arm and once in the hip. Phillips was not one of them.
Within the week, the news of the massacre had made it to London. And military action was authorized. The mission became known as the Benin Expedition of 1897.
The intention read:
“It is imperative that a most severe lesson be given the Kings, Chiefs, and JuJu men of all surrounding countries, that white men cannot be killed with impunity, and that human sacrifices, with the oppression of the weak and poor, must cease.”
1,200 soldiers and auxiliaries were sent by the Britain to seek revenge. A surgeon who took part in the expedition penned in his diary,
“As we neared Benin City we passed several human sacrifices, live women slaves gagged and pegged on their backs to the ground, the abdominal wall being cut in the form of a cross, and the uninjured gut hanging out. These poor women were allowed to die like this in the sun. Men slaves, with their hands tied at the back and feet lashed together, also gagged, were lying about. As we neared the city, sacrificed human beings were lying in the path and bush — even in the king’s compound the sight and stench of them was awful. Dead and mutilated bodies were everywhere — by God! May I never see such sights again!
Another soldier believed that the human sacrifices they saw were an attempt by Benin City residents to appease the Gods as they tried to defend themselves from the expedition.
In a brutal conquest in retaliation for the massacre, the soldiers levelled the walled kingdom. Against Benin warriors armed with swords and muskets, the British-led force deployed machine guns and mobile artillery to take their pound of flesh. Leaving behind his kingdom, Oba Ovonramwen fled. Disappointed at the escape or more likely fueled by it, the ruthless British looted the royal compound and packed some of the most beautiful artworks they had ever seen into crates to ship home. Even then, it did not stop the British from eventually capturing Oba Ovonramwen. With two of his eighty wives, he was deposed and exiled to Calabar.
Among the looted treasures were bells supposed to be used by the Oba and his priests to summon the spirits of the ancestors to deal with Oba’s opponents.
That expedition brought to an end the great Kingdom of Benin, which was eventually absorbed into colonial Nigeria. Oba Ovonramwen died in exile in 1914. The same year, the British colonial authorities permitted his eldest son to return home, resume the throne, and rebuild the royal seat. Ewuare II, the current Oba, is the great-grandson of the Oba who restored the monarchy in 1914.
So, while the Oba of Benin is still held in awe, it is not lost on me that the messenger of death could not withstand the brazen power of machine guns.
Make of this what you will.