Saturday, 3 March 2012

Curiosity Killed The Cat!

Obokhain (Welcome)

I would like now at this point to respond to some comments particularly by Captain Bacon in his book. His comments on Benin were both positive and negative; however overtime, only the negative ones have been seized upon by various people including him. This was in a way to justify the brutality shown to the Benin King and his people during the expedition of 1897.

I will use the form of comment and response for those comments directly relating to Benin City itself during the expedition time there.  References from:

BENIN – THE CITY OF BLOOD BY COMMANDER R. H. BACON, R. N. Intelligence Officer to the expedition, 1897,
Accessed 3rd March 2012

Oral source: Hon. Patrick Aigbogun Barrister

The estimate formed beforehand of their fighting qualities, proved entirely erroneous, and there was present among them, a large portion of the pluck and military spirit to which the wide sway of their kingdom at the commencement was due, and which then made Benin the Queen of Cities of that portion of the continent. Pg. 57
There was plenty of evidence that those white men  who knew Benin well, gave accurate details of their military abilities but those in charge chose to ignore these as they did not believe that any Africans could be so skilled.

At all events, we were not further troubled that night, but fell asleep thinking of what marvels that marvellous city we had come so many thousand miles to see would disclose to us on the morrow. Pg. 77
Good to see people were curious about the nature of the city; it was however very unwise to destroy it with maxims and seven-pounders before seeing it with your own eyes.

The first sign that they were nearing Benin came in the shape of the first human sacrifice they had seen. It was of a woman and a little way on was that of a man, they were however unsure. ‘I asked the guide what it meant, and he said it was to prevent the Whiteman coming further, A queer idea’ .Pg. 79
One’s reputation can precede one; the guide would have told them what he thought they wanted to hear. It is worth noting here that in their six days of travelling through the bush (forest) they only encountered two dead bodies, who were probably executed criminals; hanging was still being used as a form of punishment in other parts of the world including Britain; the last hanging in Britain took place in 1953, long after the colonies had stopped the practice.

A Benin woman afterwards described what happened ‘The compound was thronged with people, when suddenly from the blue appeared two hissing thunderbolts into the very heart of their sacred precincts. Not a Whiteman was was in sight! Yet here were two messengers from the sky’ pg. 82 ‘Truly the White men are gods!’ they said and ran panic- stricken from the place. P.82   
It is very difficult to believe that the volleys, shells and rockets were just appearing in Benin compounds without hurting anyone; quite unbelievable that this would have been the case. The more likely scenario was thousands of dead innocent Benin people mowed down in their own compounds. Strange it may sound, the white men were not gods and there was no evidence to show that they could raise the dead from their maxims attacks or indeed cared to, Captain Bacon knew this very well.  It is therefore most peculiar that he chose to write this account down.

Every person who was able, I should say, indulged in human sacrifice, and those who could not , sacrificed some animal and left the remains in front of his house. Pg.88
We know for sure that every house had an alter and that different deities were worshipped by different households. Only the deity Ogiuwu demanded human sacrifice but he had long fallen out of favour and has not been worshipped  in a very long time;’ a shrine once existed in the central part of town where many human sacrifices were offered’(Ben-Amos 1995 page 69). This was not there by the time the British visited, even if it was, it would have been at a single location not all about town and would have been very much disused. Offerings at family alters consisted mainly of chicken blood, sometimes goat and food offerings. Afterwards, these were taken and cooked for food. As the artist drawing of an alter shows, no animal remains is left at the altar. It is worth pointing out that the Benin were very aware of hygiene and diseases and knew the implications of leaving dead carcasses laying about the place. One can imagine how the smell of rotting flesh about the place as described by Bacon would have made the place quite uninhabitable even for savage Africans.
From Ancient Kingdom of Benin Smartnote file by Fidelia Nimmons

Blood was everywhere; smeared over bronzes, ivory, and even the walls, and spoke the history of that awful city in a clearer way than writing ever could. Pg. 89
This was only around the alters of the shrines which Captain Bacon referred to as the Juju houses.  It is inconceivable that blood would have been smeared over people’s houses; exaggeration is most likely the case here.

The killing of wives and slaves to accompany the dead man to the next world was not without its redeeming side p.90
This practice was not unlike the Egyptian practice of burying their dead and related only to the king; he is buried with everything thing he would need in the next world. A wife and servants were not killed but simply buried alive with him along with food and other amenities, he would need to set a new kingdom in the next world (after life). This practice is one of the claims evidence by some people that the Benin people must have come from Egypt since there were lots of similarities in their customs. As Captain Bacon did not witness this himself, it is correct to say, he had been reading lots of history books on Kingdom of Benin beforehand and it seems not very accurate ones for that.

The remainder of the compound consisted of storeroom, medicine house, and houses for the king’s followers, as well as some other juju compounds. After which it straggled away into ruined and uninhabited houses, used probably as burial places for the men of note. P.g. 91
All men are buried in their own room,  in their own houses; this practice still exist as an Edo custom today. So Captain Bacon was way off mark here.

The storeroom contained chiefly cheap rubbish. But buried in the dirt of ages, in one house, were several hundred unique bronze plaques suggestive of almost Egyptian designs, but of really superb casting. Casting of wonderful delicacy of detail .pg. 91
Once again reference to Egyptian influence; though the Binis are quite happy to be recognised in their own rights. These plaques were used to keep accurate records of Bini history and nothing but the best casting would have sufficed for this purpose.

On the right was a crucifixion tree with a double crucifixion on it. Page 92
This account is baffling; crucifixion is alien to the Binis. The account sounds like description of some bits of the Roman crucifixion in the bible and in some films. A nagging question is this: did the artist Mr Seppings Wright of the Illustrated London news, draw an imagined image? This was not uncommon in those days and it is the most probable case.  It all adds to the intrigue of the Kingdom of Benin even though completely false. This proves the point that the victor in any war is the one who lives to spread his own tales of events without fear of any contradiction.

A huge piece of land ran to the left, which seems to have been the common burial-place of the town, that is, if merely laying down a dead body, or at the most wrapping it a piece of matting, can be called burial. Hundreds of human remains must have been here, in every stage of decomposition, from the newly dead to the mouldering skull.Page93
This sounds like a recently dug mass grave for the hundreds of thousands of victims killed by the British Maxims and seven pounders and including Benin dead soldiers and innocent citizens. It must be borne in mind that the Benin people had deserted the city and we know that they bury their dead as soon as life becomes extinct. The King and his Juju men being the last to leave the city (Capt. A. Boisragon, 1898) would have performed burial rites on the fallen; picking them up and dropping them in hurriedly dug mass graves and since all the inhabitants were gone, there would have been no one for them to slaughter but clean up the city of dead bodies from British action, they couldn’t leave their dead people laying about the place. We know from Forensic Science that in the tropics, a corpse can become a moving mass of maggots within 24 hours and clean bones in under two weeks. The only culprits on the scene at this time were the British with their Maxims and seven pounders which mowed hundreds of thousands of Benin people down over a period of two weeks. The king and his Juju men could be forgiven for not carrying out elaborate burial rites; they should instead be praised for this care and effort. How many kings and nobility in history show this commitment and care towards their subjects?

Yet the town was not without its beauty. It seemed a place suggestive of peace and plenty; let us now hope that it may one day become so. Pg. 94
Amen to that! We must not however forget that this had been the case for centuries until the British started having designs on the kingdom.

The water was excellent, sold as a luxury. To us it certainly was one- and that bath in the cool running water, the first for many days, was a thing not likely forgotten. Pg. 96 The goats were an excellent class of beast which yielded excellent meat, they were unlike the scraggy beasts usually met abroad. Page 97.
Kingdom of Benin farmers were some of the best in the world. The king ensured this.

The smoke from the smouldering roofs gradually cleared, and the whole place seemed fresher and more healthy for its purging. Pg 108.
One can image the horrors of decaying dead bodies from the maxims and seven pounders actions and with the King and his Juju men unable to complete burial of the dead before departing the city, thousands of decaying dead bodies would have made an unpleasant sight which would surely have been made worse by terrible smells of gases such as hydrogen sulphide (rotten egg smell), methane and traces of mercaptans which are released as a result of invertebrates and microorganism action on the bodies. This can become the case in three to four days in temperate conditions like Benin. The city would simply have become uninhabitable had the fire not being started. So well done the British, fast thinking!

Good-bye Benin, your character must indeed be bad if the longing of seven hundred men to see you is in three days changed to a fervent desire never to look upon your red walls again. Page. 113.
The Benin would have drunk to that. They spent years trying to keep the British out of their kingdom but they would not take no for an answer.

So who won and who lost on the long run? View the image below and then decide for yourself.  Good stuff this!

Photograph by Fidelia Nimmons
This sculpture in the centre of Benin City conveys Benin people's view on the matter.

 Oba Ghato, Okpere!
Long Live the King!

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