The more I research the exact events that took place on both sides (the Benin and the British) leading up to and including 1897, the more intrigued I become, take the below for instance.From the Guardian publications of Jan. 14 1897 on The Benin Massacre on the Latest News at the Foreign Office/ Reason for hope / Interview with Sir John Kirk
London Wednesday Evening
The only news the government received suggested that there were no survivors of the massacre beyond a few native carriers, as such, they continued to treat the reported disaster as unconfirmed and was not planning on taking any steps towards organising a punitive expedition before the end of the week. The article went on to say ‘ there is reason to believe that it has been settled in principle that it will be neither advisable nor necessary to send troops from England to take part in the punitive expedition; but it is generally understood in military quarters that the services of a battalion of the West India Regiment would be utilised. It went on to say the expedition would start, if at all, in the first week in March.
Sir John Kirk a government official who had been sent to inquire into a disturbance in a part of the Niger coast, speaking to a Central News representative when asked if he could account in any way for the attack said that he could only suppose that the natives misunderstood the object of the expedition and assumed it to be a war party. He added that nothing was known yet as to why the party went or what authority they had to go, he went on further to say ‘I do not know why, with their experience, they ventured on such an expedition. We must wait for further information but I am quite sure that the men who have fallen could have given a very good reason for going.’Liverpool Wednesday article stated, ‘the belief is strong in many quarters in Liverpool that, if not all of them, at least some of the white men of the Benin expedition are alive.’
So what do we know about the expedition, who authorised it and why?
Mr Philips, Acting Consul General had just taken over the administration of the protectorate from Captain Gallwey. It was no secret around the coast that he was planning a peaceful mission to Benin, in fact ‘the men were full of it, and anxious to learn something of the place.’ Mrs Boiaragon giving news of her husband’s survival in an interview, stated on the reason why the party had gone to Benin as ‘Mr. Philip the Deputy Commissioner and Consul General for the Niger Coast Protectorate, was very anxious to see the city, which had been described as abounding in curiosities;’, she added that she had also gathered from the letter from her husband that Mr Philips might have had the additional object of meeting the king with a view to opening up commercial relations. He had obviously instigated other men to come along with him.
What do we know about Mr Philips?
He was a 33 year old solicitor who had graduated ten years previously(1887); he was educated at Uppinham and Cambridge. After qualifying as a solicitor and working for sometime, he saw better openings for his career in the colonies, he therefore got a job as sheriff on the Gold Coast in 1891, a year later (1892), he was appointed Deputy Commissioner and Consul General in the Niger Coast Protectorate, when he went back to Britain on holiday, he informed his friends about how pleased he was about his prospects in the colonies. He was described as a man of physique, vigour and resource. Mr Philip was no doubt a very ambitious man who saw lots of prospects for himself on the West African coast and where better to prove himself than at sorting out a difficult local king.
So what did happen? Different accounts were reported back to Britain:A correspondent of the London ‘Evening News,’ telegraphing from Lagos at 3.15 on 21st Jan 1987 morning gave details of the Expedition to the king of Benin, as nine British officers, and 200 carriers (other accounts report 250); landing from canoes, the carriers with presents and clothing and food, were sent ahead, whilst the officers proceeded slowly. When ten miles had been covered the officers suddenly came to a narrow point where dead bodies were heaped up on the road. Whilst viewing these frightful spectacles, the officers were suddenly surrounded and attacked. , Messers Philips, Crawford, Elliot, Maling, Campbell, Gordon and Powis were killed. Captain Boiaragon and Mr locke though badly wounded, escaped into the bush.
In an interview on February 10, Mr Locke one of the survivors reported ‘a place had been cleared in the bush, and the men, with guns, were lying down with the muzzles of their long flintlocks...’He reported attack in a clearing as opposed to a narrow road in the first account above it.
How did people react to the news back in Britain?
Liverpool Reuter’s correspondence interview of Jan 18 1897 included in an article with a gentleman who had considerable experience both as an explorer and a trader in west Africa, he stated quite confidently that unless killed in actual fighting, white people’s lives were seldom scarified by African leaders and expressed the hope that the British official would have been taken captive rather than killed, he added that when expeditions are not perceived as hostile, white delegates are well received.
What else do we know?Jan 16 – Reuter’s Agency stated that The Royal Niger Company had not received any details on safety or otherwise of Mr Locke and Captian Boiaragon. Both men had however, sent telegraphs of their safety to relatives rather than their employers or the government.
On Friday Night in London, news of their escape was well received in official quarters who were anxious to establish full explanations of the causes which led to the disaster. They stated that Captain Boiaragon as the senior surveying officer in the service of the crown would be tried formally by court-martial, when of course; all the facts of the case would be placed on official record. Someone was to face a disciplinary for this.Liverpool Friday Night news article stated that despite the official telegrams, the news of the escape of Mr Locke and Captian Boiaragon gave rise to further hopes that there may well be other survivors. People remained hopeful at home.
We also know from Reuter’s Special Service article from London, Tuesday Evening Jan 13 1897 that ‘The cabinet sat from 3.30 till about six o’clock this afternoon, and there is still reason to believe that Ministers had under consideration the massacre of the Benin expedition.’ The article continues; ‘As the result of the inquiry in official quarters it was intimated that though to discuss the line to be pursued would be premature, but it was perfectly obvious that in the event of the fact of murder or detention of British officials being established, steps would be taken to effect their release or to punish the murderers. There was still no news by 7.00pm.We further know that despite pressures from the likes of Mr Philip to invade Benin, e.g. He had written a letter in 1896 to Lord Salisbury, the British foreign secretary for approval to invade Benin and dispose of its king writing ‘I would add that I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory would be found in the king’s house to pay the expenses incurred in removing the king from his stool.’ The British government had been reluctant up to this point to do so, but now its hand's been forced due to Mr Philip’s reckless actions.
Most important of all, we know that people back in Britain, had no idea of Mr Philip’s intentions and did not at any point entertain thoughts that any white person would have been killed by any Africans unless under war conditions. Mr Philip had openly created a war condition with the Benin when he defied all advice to respect Benin culture at an important celebration time.
This insight sheds light on the other side of the coin of the colonisation and empire building story; yes bad things happened but these were not due to government plans or errors, individual officers were mostly responsible and accordingly, should be held individually accountable for their actions in the history records.