In December 1896, the incumbent British Consul General in the region, James Phillips, went on an expedition to depose Oba Ovonramwen, King of Benin.
In his letter to Lord Salisbury, Secretary of State, Phillips wrote: “I have reason to hope that enough ivory will be found in the king’s house to pay the cost of removing the king from his chair.”
Phillips sailed with a medical officer, two trade agents, and around 250 African soldiers disguised as porters and disguised weapons in their luggage.
He had sent a message to the Oba of his planned visit, which he said should talk about peace and trade.
Despite the Oba’s request to postpone the trip, Phillips set off.
The interior of the Oba Palace after being burned while being released from Benin. In the foreground you can see bronze plaques on which members of the expeditionary force sit
On January 4th, the British delegation was attacked by Edo warriors outside a village, apparently without the Oba’s knowledge.
Philips was slaughtered along with the entire British force except for two men, Captain Alan Maxwell Boisragon, Police Commander of the Protectorate of the Nigerian Coast, and Ralph Locke, District Commissioner of Warri.
The incident became known as the “Benin Massacre”.
Days later, Rear Admiral Harry Rawson was appointed by the Admiralty to lead a force that invaded the Kingdom of Benin and sacked Benin City.
In February, a force of around 1,200 Royal Marines, sailors and Protectorate Forces troops arrived in Benin from the Nigerian coast.
Warships approached the port city on all sides, overwhelming Benin’s basic defenses and ancient earth walls.
Sir Harry Rawson
In ten days of bloody fighting, the British Empire had defeated the Kingdom of Benin, ended 800 years of rule and annexed the territory to colonial Nigeria.
The mission was heralded as a great success by the British Empire.
Dan Hicks of Oxford University has claimed the British participated in “war crimes” during the attack.
The Oba’s palace was looted and hundreds of priceless artifacts returned to England. Hundreds were later sold to other colonial powers across Europe and America.
They later came to be known as Benin Bronzes, although many of the works were not necessarily made of metal, while others were made of ivory and wood.
One of them, a bronze rooster, was an integral part of the dining room at Jesus College, Cambridge.
Many people have campaigned for the rooster to be returned over the years, and in November last year Cambridge University agreed to return it to Nigeria.
A number of other museums and universities have since agreed to return items in the past few weeks.
One activist was BBC historian David Olusoga, who said the British Museum, which houses hundreds of sculptures, should conduct a “supermarket sweep” that would give countries two minutes to withdraw their artifacts.