Benin (Country) 1911 Profile, #02: History


Benin was discovered by the Portuguese about the year 1485, and they carried on a brisk trade in slaves, who were taken to Elmina and sold to the natives of the Gold Coast. At that time and for more than two centuries afterwards, Benin seems to have been one of the most powerful states of West Africa. It was known to Europeans in the 17th century as the Great Benin. The towns of Lagos and Badagry were both founded by Benin colonists. Benin city was the seat of a theocracy of priests, in whose hands the oba or king, nominally supreme, appears to have often been a puppet. He was revered by his subjects as a species of divinity, and seldom left the enclosure surrounding the royal palace. The religion and mythology of the Beni, like those of the Yorubas, are based on spiritand ancestor-worship (see Negro and Africa: Ethnology); the chief spirit or juju was worshipped with human sacrifices to an appalling extent, the Benin fetish being considered the most powerful in all West Africa. The usual form of sacrifice was crucifixion. Many chiefs, in no way politically dependent on Benin, used to send annual presents to the juju. The Benin people do not appear to have indulged in wanton cruelty, and it is stated that they usually stupefied the victims before putting them to death. The people were skilled in brass work; their carving and design were alike excellent. Carved ivory objects abound, and there are many evidences of the skill attained by native artists, who perhaps owed something to their contact with the Portuguese. The weaving of cloth was also carried on. The Beni remained politically and socially almost unaffected by European influence until the occupation of their country by the British in 1897, their connexion with the white men having previously been almost confined to matters of trade. The Portuguese withdrew from the coast in the 18th century, but one of the most striking proofs of their commercial influence is the fact that a corrupt Lusitanian dialect was spoken by the older natives up to the last quarter of the 19th century. The first English expedition to Benin was in 1553; after that time a considerable trade grew up between England and that country, ivory, palm-oil and pepper being the chief commodities exported from Benin. The Dutch afterwards established factories and maintained them for a considerable time, chiefly with a view to the slave trade. In 1788 Captain Landolphe founded a factory called Barodo, near the native village of Obobi for the French Compagnie d'Oywhere; and it lasted till 1792, when it was destroyed by the English. In 1863 Sir Richard Burton, then British consul at Fernando Po, went to Benin to try and put a stop to human sacrifices, an attempt in which he did not succeed. At that time the decline in power of the kingdom of Benin was obvious, and the city was in a decaying condition. In 1885 the coast-line of Benin was placed under British protection, and steps were taken to enter into friendly relations with the king. Consul G. F. N. B. Annesley l saw the king in 1890, with the hope of making a treaty, but failed in his object. In March 1892 Captain H. L. Gallwey,. British vice-consul, succeeded in concluding a treaty with the king Overami. The treaty, however, proved of no avail, and the king kept as aloof as of old from any outside interference. In January 1897 J. R. Phillips, acting consul-general, and eight Europeans were brutally massacred on the road from Gwato to Benin city, whilst on a mission to the king. Phillips had persisted in starting for Benin despite the repeated request of the king. that he should delay his visit until he (the king) had finished the celebration of the annual "customs." Two Europeans, Captain Alan Boisragon and R. F. Locke, alone escaped. A punitive expedition was organized under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, the success of which was a remarkable example of good organization hastily improvised. The news of the massacre of Phillips's party reached Rear-Admiral Rawson, the commander-in-chief on the Cape station, on the 4th of January 1897. The flagship was at Simons Town. The small craft were dispersed. Two ships at Malta had been ordered to join the Cape command. A transport was chartered in the Thames for the purposes of the expedition. In twenty-nine days a force of 1200 men, coming from three places between 3000 and 4500 m. from the Benin river, was landed, organized, equipped and provided with transport. Five days later the city of Benin was taken, and in twelve days more the men were re-embarked, and the ships coaled and ready for any further service. On the 17th of February Benin was occupied after considerable fighting. The town, which was found to be reeking of human sacrifices, was partly burned, and on the 22nd the expedition started on its return. The king and chiefs responsible for the massacre were placed on their trial by Sir Ralph Moor, high commissioner for Southern Nigeria; the king was deposed and deported to Calabar, and the chiefs, six in all, were executed. The chief offender was not brought to justice until a second punitive expedition in 1899 completed the pacification of the country. After the removal of the king in September 1897 a council of chiefs was appointed. This council carries on the government of the whole Beni country, and is presided over by a British resident.

1 Mr Annesley (b. 1851), after having served in the Prussian army,. and in the Turkish army during the war of 1877, was in the British consular service from 1879 to 1892. In 1888 he became consul to the Congo Free State.

Authorities. - H. L. Roth, Great Benin, its Customs, Art and Horrors (Halifax, 1903), a comprehensive and profusely illustrated work, with an annotated bibliography; C. H. Read and O. M. Dalton, Antiquities from Benin. .. in the British Museum (1899); Pitt Rivers, Works of Art from Benin (1900) R. E. Dennett, At the Back of the Black Man's Mind (London, 19061; Sir R. Burton, Wanderings in West Africa (London, 1863); H. L. Gallwey, "Journeys in the Benin Country," Geog. Jnl., vol. i., London, 1893; A. Boisragon, The Benin Massacre (London, 1897); R. H. Bacon, Benin, the City of Blood (London, 1898), by a member of the punitive expedition of 1897; the annual Reports on Southern Nigeria, issued by the ' Colonial Office, London.

NOTE: This article is an historical reference based on the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, now in the Public Domain. The text is provided through scanning and OCR conversion. There may be transcription errors in the article. Encyclopedia style: 1) For reasons of cost and academic writing style, the paragraphs are long in length. 2) Contributors to articles are sometimes identified by their initials in parentheses at the end of the article. 3) Some articles include a section called "Authorities," a record of all the sources used when writing the article. 4) Information is based on knowledge available in 1911 and may be inaccurate, especially in the areas of science, law, and ethnography. 5) Images and diagrams from the original are not included with article. 6) Do not use this information for medical or legal guidance or any research requiring current information.

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      "Benin," The Encyclopedia Britannica. Volume 3, Austria, Lower to Bisectrix (11th ed.), (New York: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911); digital edition, ( : posted 15 Jan 2013)

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