All the accounts I have read by those involved in both the Benin Massacre and the Punitive Expedition refer to the fighting as 'bush fight'; as such, the term got me thinking about names, terms and descriptions.
According to the online definition by www.dictionary.reference.com; a bush is 'A low plant with many branches that arise from or near the ground' We know from description accounts by various British officials about where the fighting took place that this could not be the case.
In Benin Expedition by Captain Reginald Bacon (1863- 1947) he says 'Our column marched through the bush about two miles in length..' he further describes 'Imagine this forest stocked with trees of great height, with a dense foliage overhead, with smaller trees interspersed between these monster products of vegetable growth to fill up the gaps. Imagine between all these trees an undergrowth of rubber trees, shrubs, palms, and creepers, so thick that the eye could never penetrate more than ten yards, and often not even five. Imagine the fact that you might easily walk for an hour without seeing the sun overhead, and only at times get a glimmer of a sunbeam across the path, and you have an elementary conception of the bush country of Benin.’
I assert here that due to the British lack of knowledge of rainforests, what the Captain was trying to describe was a Rainforest. His description matches closely with the online dictionary definition of a rainforest: 'a tropical forest, usually of tall, densely growing, broad-leaved evergreen trees in an area of high annual rainfall' We know that the expedition was planned to avoid the raining season, so there was plenty of rain in the region.
It is important here to be clear on definitions of terms to better understand the misconceptions and perceived British superiority over the 'Natives'. From the Captain’s definitions above, it is quite obvious that they did not know what a rainforest was. He continues 'Where a tree has fallen across the path there it lies, and a new path is trodden to make a detour round the obstruction'; 'All is very lovely, very silent, very weird, and apparently a vast waste of vegetable production.'
Separating myths from the facts:
Fact: Captain Reginald's description above is of a pristine rainforest which by the looks of things the British did not have much knowledge on.
Fact: Whereas the British were unfamiliar with the rain forest, the natives were not due to the well trodden paths .
Fact: From the account above that the Benin left a fallen tree where it had fallen, this was due to their reverence for the forest of taking only what they needed and respecting even the dead trees which they know provided homes for other creatures of the forest, every tree is an ocean of island teeming with insects and other creatures; here they created their commuinties and homes. In their tree homes, minibeasts and other creatures e.g. snakes have a safe place to have their babies, a shelter from danger and a place that provides them with food and water. The Benins cared about the safety and well being of other living things in the forest, leaving a dead tree well alone is a good strategy to ensure this.
Fact: The Benin people revered the rain forest which provided them with food, water, medicine, materials for their homes, clean air, plenty of space for their people to be housed in, protection against foreign attackers and much more.
Fact: the Benin Army had learned to use their knowledge of layers of the rainforest to their advantage in warfare; they could lie in wait in perfect camouflage for any ill advised intruder to their kingdom.
Fact: The Benin Soldiers had learnt how to refract light in the forest at different angles onto different layers of the forest to create a mirage effect so that they appeared invisible to their enemies in battle. This ‘mirage’ effect deceives the eye into seeing the surrounding forest trees and not the soldier.
Fact: This ability to create a mirage effect in the forest is advanced science which should have been studied by the British and others instead of claiming superiority over the natives describing them as fetish savages and juju priest.
Fact: This art and science of ability to create an invisibility shield about them has been lost; this can be seen as a loss to the whole world, as the Benin could have shown other scientists how to create this. Shame!
Did anyone ever praise the Benin soldiers’ invisibility tactics as described by this account: 'Bush fighting is a weird business. From the time we entered the bush until we came out into the open near Benin that is for four days, although we were engaged with the Beni for a certain amount of time each day, I do not think a single one of us saw a live native. Yells were heard, volleys were fired, men were wounded and some were killed, but never a sight of a native that could be sworn to.'
According to claims by the British officials around Sapele at the time: ‘The King of Benin had said several times that he was as big as the 'White Queen' and asked if she had sent her respect to him;’ Perhaps she should have done so, for if she had, the world have been the better for it:
1. Scientists would by now, know how to create invisibility cloaks, an act that has eluded them for centuries.
2. All the damages done to the rainforests across the world could have been avoided, if the natives had been shown some respect in their knowledge of how things work in nature.
What is civilization? What yardstick do we use to measure it? Who is the most civilised? Is there a monopoly on civilisation? Whose monopoly? Are these questions relevant today?
Oba ghato, Okpere!
Long live the King!