I would now like to reflect on some very positive points coming out from my previous blogs, specifically regarding the King and the Kingdom of Benin and their relationships with both their subjects and their neighbours.
It is very reassuring to note that all accounts of Benin (Edo) Kings show them as very able and industrious e.g. one of them mentioned learnt to speak Portuguese as a child and Omo n'Oba n'Edo Ovonramwen (see blog of British view of His Majesty).
Captain Alan Boisragon in his book The Benin Massacre (1898) in the history of Benin account states: ‘ Benin seems to have been a kingdom from time immemorial, anyway from before, its discovery by the Portuguese, somewhere at the end of the fourteenth or beginning of the fifteenth century. By their discoveries, the Portuguese for a long time had all the benefits to be obtained by trade from West Africa. They were followed some time after by the Dutch and Swedes.’ In 1553, when the first British Captain Pinteado and others visited the King’s Court,, they were accorded a most friendly welcome by the king, who spoke in Portuguese to them offering them favourable trading terms.
All these visitors described Benin as a magnificent city.
Description of Benin started to change when the British intentions turned from trading to colonisation. The King now becomes ‘Savage Potentate’ and Benin City full of decapitated bodies of human sacrifice.
Although Captain Boisragon makes lots of derogatory comments about the King and his Chiefs, throughout the book, it is prudent for us knowing why he did this to note some facts that cannot be ignored and which are supported by other writers and the Benin people themselves. On Page 180 he states: ‘ I was also told by an officer who was present that it was reported that the King and his Juju men had actually remained in Benin up to this time but that a rocket coming fairly near them made them decide to quit.’ We know from accounts of the Benin themselves that the city was evacuated by the King and his Chiefs and they stayed behind to ensure that all inhabitants had left for the neighbouring countrysides of the Kingdom’s domain e.g. Uromi . This account is confirmed by Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon. A Naval Scrap-Book, First part 1877- 1900 (1925): 197 – 207 ‘On further acquaintance we found the town quite deserted, every inhabitant had decamped.’
Further on, on page 183 Captain Boisragon continues ’ Nearly all the boxes and stores of our unfortunate expedition were found almost intact in the King’s Palace, but unluckily were burned by a fire which broke out on the 21st of February and burned most of the town.’
It s worth noting here that the King kept the Britsh expedition boxes and stores in his Palace for safe keeping, even at the point of provocation, he still maintained integrity of not allowing their property to be stolen or vandalised. The British on the other hand, burned and looted his palace, high ranking officials’ homes and the city itself. It should not be a point of difficulty for anyone with any sense of decency to judge who the savage was in this case.
What do these accounts tell us?
1. Sir Bacon in his scrap-book and on the Benin rainforest ' All is very lovely, very silent, very weird, and apparently a vast waste of vegetable production.' We now know that the Edos (Benin) protected and safeguarded their precious rainforest, a virtue alien to the British knowledge at the time.
2. Benin nobility have maintained integrity throughout history e.g. they never engaged in slave trading for profit, they were rich enough and did not need to make money at the expense of other human beings; only dangerous criminals who would otherwise have been banished from the kingdom were ever exchanged.
3. The Benin nobility ensured conquered countries and areas retained their sovereignty and cultures, and as such did not see the need to colonise people so long as they paid the agreed tribute. Benin miltary was quite formidable.
4. The king would never have knowingly signed any protectorate treaty with the British (he was tricked into this by Captain Gallwey). This was the reason they began to make up fictitious stories about him and the kingdom in order to gain support back home for some military action.
5. The king and his chiefs vigorously defended their people’s way of life e.g. Mr Phillip's fate when he wouldn't listen to reason.
6. The king and his chiefs were selfless in ensuring their people’s safety and well being. As stated above, they were the last to evacuate the city when the British struck.
7. Knowing what we now know about this great Kingdom and its kings over time, it is my view that the time is right to accord them the credit they deserve.
Is it time for all museums, educational institutions and private holders of the Benin Bronze plaques, in addition to the great work they already do regarding maintaining publicity and keeping memories alive on them, now ensure that, these do not continue to be seen only as Benin Art but as a record of history of a great Kingdom with the same status as any other.
Yes, Kingdoms come and go but each of their stories should continue to be told in books, films, the theatre and through oral accounts.
Oba Ghato; Okpere!
Long Live the King!