A king receives a message from representatives of a Queen of another country, saying ‘We are coming to visit you’.
The king duly replies, 'The time you plan to visit me is inconvenient as I will be heavily involved in a festival to honour my ancestors, please can you wait a couple of days after this and I shall receive you with open arms'.
The Queen's representative send back another message; ‘You do not understand, we are bringing you presents from our queen'
‘The answer is still the same, I will be busy honouring my ancestors, a practice we have observed yearly from time immoral, we do not receive foreign visitors at this time, please wait' Another message is received from the Queen’s representatives; ‘We have food and all manners of presents for your people, we are coming, whether you like it or not, we are the Great Queen’s people!’' The king replies ‘I have repeatedly told you to hold on a couple of days so you are not violating my people's customs, disregarding this request will be tantamount to declaration of war on us during a peaceful festival and under such provocation, we will respond accordingly.’ The king is rightly irritated particularly as he has had good intelligence that majority of people in that queen's country are destitute, poor and homeless; so he cannot understand why her love of his people is greater than her love for her own people, after all charity should begin at home; he had recently offered generous trading terms to her representatives to help them with their need to import food for their people and as far as he was concerned her people needed her food more than his did.
The king continued to send countless messages to the Queen's representatives that should they venture on his soil, a state of war will be declared immediately.
The Queen's representatives however ignore this sovereign state’s request and embark on their perilous journey to disrespect the king and his people; armed with crosses, copies of the bible and pistols which they hide away in their head packs. As the king is busy with preparations for his ancestral ceremonies; his chiefs get wind of this deliberate provocation and declaration of war from the British and prepare to defend their realm and people. They send word to the British Queen's officials that they are prepared to meet them head on.
In spite of this, Acting General Consul Philips along with eight other British officials decide that they could not to be kept waiting by an African King, and in any case, the king wouldn’t dare attack the Great queen's representatives, they immediately embark on the precarious journey taking 250 African carriers with them . All along the route, they are told repeatedly that Benin soldiers are preparing for war should they step on their soil, countless people and other chiefs beg Consul Philip and his officials to wait in Gwato for a couple more days until the ceremonies are over but he refuses and charges ahead; thus deliberately stepping into a war zone he was very aware of from the various reports he had received.
We now know that this was the course of events from the various accounts written at the time by those who were present e.g. Captain Alan Boisragon who gave accounts of meeting with Benin messengers on the way right up to the last point at Gwato. Here he states various people including the friendly chief asking them to respect Benin culture (Boisragon, A. The Benin Massacre(1897)). This account contradicts those subsequently peddled that Consul Philip had left before the message from the King arrived.
The question is this: Was Consul Philip and the others unarmed? No not, many people would argue, they had crosses, bibles and pistols in their head packs. Were these harmless? Again, no not, as pistols shoot people dead and crosses and bibles destroy other people’s established ideas and cultures; furthermore, that at the time, just because the African way of life was strange to the Europeans, it did not make them invalid as a way of life in any respect.
Of Benin surprise attack; Consul Philip and his officials knew the Benin Army tactics of invisibility in the forest and from all their accounts, not one Benin soldier showed himself or was seen during both the Massacre and the Punitive Expedition. Where was the surprise when they knew very well that the Benin soldiers were there all the time albeit invisible?
So wherein lies the truth here? Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? I leave that to your moral judgement.
Oba ghato, Okpere!
Long live the king!