By Chief Richard Akinjide (SAN)
Former Attorney-General of Nigeria and a FederalMinister of Justice
The Year 1997 is the centenary of the conquest for theGreat kingdom of Benin by the British. It issignificant historical event for the black raceeverywhere. It was a great event which must revisitedand interpreted correctly. The British have been,understandably, economical with the truth about thatmomentous event.
The kingdom of Benin was already in continuous Contactwith nations of the Mediterranean for at least 1,500years before the Europeans came to Benin.The kingdom's commercial and foreign relations werewell established.
It had its own money economy Independent of theeuropeans. The kingdom of Benin's own currency knownas ighoswas accepted for trade and general means ofexchange in East, west, and North Africa. The kingdomwas part of the African empires and kingdomsIndependent and Sovereign at a time when Europe waspart of the Roman colonies. Benin was a powerfulKingdom when the Portuguese first visited there in1472. King John 11 (1481-1495) of Portugal exchangedfriendly correspondence with the King of Benin. TheKing of Benin on the throne in 1553 spoke fluentPortuguese which he learnt as a child.
The first British ship reached the Benin River in1553-the trade was mainly in cloths, palm oil,Cowries, beads, and Ivory. By 1400, the kingdom of
Benin replaced elective succession with rimogeniture.As early as 1500, the King of Portugal received anambassador from the King of Benin and found hima man of good speech and natural wisdom. LourencoPinto, who was the captain of a Portuguese ship thatcarried missionary to Warri in August 1619, sentthis disposition to the Sacra Congregazione theinstance of Father Montelcone. According to thetestimony of this captain, Great Benin, wherethe King resides, is larger than Lisbon, all thestreets run straight and as far as the eyes can see.The houses are large, especially that of the kingwhich is richly decorated and has Fine columns. Thecity is wealthy and industrious. It is so wellgoverned that theft is unknown and the people live insuch Security that they have no door to their houses
The picture of black Africa as savages in a darkcontinent painted by the Europeans was totally falsemeant only to justify the inhuman slave trade and thetheft of African natural resources by Europeans forEuropeans.
Black African Soldiers formed part of thecarthaginians army. African troops took part inHimilco's engagement against the Greeks at Syracuse.Numidian Calvary was part of Hannibal's army.Carthage(in Africa) was so powerful that Carthago estdelendabecame Roman credo and the battle cry -Carthage must be destroyed the Carthaginians acquiredan empire from which Sicily, Sardinia and SouthernSpain was excluded by the treaty. It was thisexclusion of the Greeks and the Romans that accountedfor the lack of adequate Information in the writing ofclassical authors about the extent of Carthaginianinvolvement in black Africa. Even today in Europe,despite all the hypocrisy, the black man is stilltreated as a second class citizen no Matter hisachievements. The white race refuses to share thesecrets of modern technology with black Africa exceptas consumer.
The coin of ancient Timbuktu was of gold. Mohammedel-Maghili, a great scholar, wrote a book called TheObligation of Princes for the Emir ofKano(Nigeria)around 1525 on practical difficulties ofgovernment a work of scholarship better thanMachiavelli's the prince. The background to theEuropean lack of respect to the black race was basedon the Greco-Romantraditions of thought, which falsely represented theNegro as an inferior creature who was the descendantof the accursed Ham and a Specimen of lesser humanitydescribed by Plato and Aristotle. Even when theEuropeans save a few liberals, knew that these wereuntrue, they upheld them in order to justifycolonialism and slave trade which were prosecuted withhumbug and grotesque brutality for economicself-interest.
The above historical background is indispensable towhat happened to the kingdom of Benin in 1897.I willnow examine the real, as distinguished from theostensible, reasons for the British invasion of Benin.Just look at the map of Southern Nigerian. First, inJune 1849, Britain appointed a Consul forthe Bights of Benin and Biafra.In 1853, Britaintreated separate Consular Districts for (a)Lagos andBight of Benin(b)Bight of Biafra. These were realdiplomatic representations between independent andsovereign nations accepted as such by all the partiesto the arrangements. In fact, during that century whenBrazil gained independence, the envoy of the King ofBenin attended the celebrations at the invitation ofthe government of Brazil on the basis of reciprocity.
But suddenly, Britain one the leading nations intrans-continental slave trade for about three hundredyears, became an anti-slave trade nation. It waswrongly thought by many that the British conversionwas on humanitarian principles for the benefit of theblack race. Never. It was in the British nationalinterest. The industrial revolution was in full swing,machines had largely replaced human beings as means ofproduction both in the farms and factories. In theWest Indies, North and South America, the need forslave labour had dwindled.Furthermore; Europe neededsettled markets in Africa to obtain raw materials andto sell the products of the industrial revolution.Black Africa in war and turmoil in order to get slavesfor the European was no longer in European economicinterest.
By 1860-1 Britain had, by subterfuge, lured KingDosunmu of Lagos to œcede Lagos to Britain as acolony. I doubt whether King Dosunmu knew thejuridical implications of what he was doing when hesigned a œtreaty with Britain. The legal effect willbe addressed later. The difference between a Colonyand a protectorate deserves comment. On July 23, 1884,Britain signed a treaty of œfavour and protectionwith the king of Creek Town in Calabar and on July 24,1884, a similar with the King of Duke Town in Calabar.Earlier, a similar treaty was sent by Britain to KingJaja Opobo who refused to sign. Instead, he askedBritain to define that Protectorate meant. ConsulHewett for Britain in a letter in July 1, 1884,replied King of Jaja of Opobo as follows: œI write as you request withreference to the word œprotectorate as used in theproposed treaty that the Queen does not want to takeyour country or your market, but at the same time, isanxious that no other Nation should take them. Sheundertakes to extend her gracious favour andprotection, which will leave your country still underyour government œKing Jaja then signed.
Again in a memorandum dated January 3,1885 submittedto the British Cabinent,the Lord Chancellor, LordSelborne stated as follows: "The law officers do notexpressly advert to the distinction which I thing isimportant between ANNEXATIONS and PROTECTORATES.Annexation is the advert assumption of territorialsovereignity. Protectorate is the recognition ofthe right of the aboriginal or other actualinhabitants to their own country, with no furtherassumption of territorial rights than is necessaryto maintain the paramount authority and discharge ofthe duties of protecting power.
The king of Benin was not as gullible or trusting asthe Kings of Lagos, Calabar or Opobo and refused tosign any Treaty of "Protection" with Britainsince he could not see no need for a protection from aforeign power who had been dealing with them forcenturies as equals, and in any event, Benin wasa great power when Britain was a Roman Colony. TheBenin King was sombre in stance and in dignity. Hestood his ground. Of course, Britain had a hiddenagenda. At that time, the British African policy wasbeing masterminded by the British Naval and Militaryintelligence and the foreign Office with theColonial Office playing little role.
By June 5, 1885, Britain named her Sphere of Influence(note the Phrase) From Lagos to River Rio Del Ray nearCameroon as Oil Rivers Protectorate. OnMay 13, 1893, Britain Proclaimed Niger CoastProtectorate as the new name for Oil Riversprotectorate with its own postage stamps which I haveseen.
The Kingdom of Benin remained resolute, proud andindependent. But Britain desperately wanted aProtectorate of Southern Nigeria. That was the hiddenagenda.
King Ovonramwen of Benin in 1896 declined to receive aBritish delegation for discussions on the ground thatthe Kingdom was in the midst of a great NationalFestival. Nevertheless the British delegation came onuninvited. In the light of the then prevailingcircumstances at the time. The unexpected arrival ofthe British was treated as a hostile act equivalent toa war situation. The British team was attacked anddefeated. Britain was indignant and felt that she nowhas an excuse to bring on board by force therecalcitrant Kingdom of Benin. The British militaryexpedition included the father of James Callaghan, theformer labour Prime Minister. The kingdomresisted the attack bravely but was subdued by a farsuperior force.
The British called it punitive expedition. Many peoplewere killed, houses burnt, the palace looted, greatworks of art taken away. The king was captured andbanished to Calabar.The British took enough works ofarts to pay for the cost of the expedition. Thefiercest and proudest kingdom was, at last, conqueredby a more powerful alien power in 1897. On December27, 1899, Britain at last was able to proclaim andpromulgate the Protectorate of southern Nigeria, totake effect from January 1, 1900.
The response of the Kingdom of Benin against Britishinterference in the affairs of a sovereign andindependent nation was a legitimate self-defencein accordance with the peremptory norms of customaryinternational law otherwise known as Jus cogens. IfBritish could go to war just because for Jenkins™sear, why should not the Kingdom of Benin protect hernational interest against uninvited guests whosereputation at that time for greed and grab in otherparts of sub-Saharan Africa was already well known?We must pass Judgment in light of prevailingcircumstances at that time. We must unhesitatinglyreject British interpretation, as massacre, the eventsof 1896 which led to the British aggression of 1897.
The reputation of Major Edward Lugard preceded him inAfrica. Because of what Major Lugard did in India andUganda, and what he and George Goldie did in ilorin,Bida, Borgu and what other British soldiersperpetrated in Yoruba land which were then of publicknowledge, the King of Benin was right in hissuspicion of British intentions which were definitelyto lure the noble Kingdom of Benin into the so-calledBritish Protectorate and therefore loss of thesovereign rights which Benin had enjoyed for about2,000 years.
At the time, as it is now, the kernel of Europeanpolicy in Africa was devious and self-seeking.Independent African nations should be nothing butvassal states of Europe. The various European Navieswere then the instruments of colonial policy. Hencethe Navigation Acts of 1649 and 1660, the Staple Acts1663 and the Plantation Act 1673. They now advocatefor us, using the world Bank, the IMF, the devaluationof our currencies, the exact opposite of the economicpolicies that ensured and helped their own greatnessand good quality of life for their own people. Thecolonial policy in French Speaking Africa is even moreworrying. It is better encapsulatedin French: plus ca Change, plus est la meme chose-the more things change the more the remain the same.In short, what makes French decolonization! CAVEAT!
I end this monograph with a quotation from Sir AlanBurns, a former Governor General of Nigeria, in hisbook-History of Nigeria (4th Ed) at P. 277.
No European nation has the right to assume thesovereignty over the inhabitants of any part ofAfrica, and claims put forward by the variousgovernments at the Berlin Conference in 1885 tooklittle account of the rights of the people who livedin the territory claimed.