|By Dr. Ekhaguosa Aisien|
From the South Atlantic Naval Station in Simonstown, South Africa, seven warships were mobilised for the Expedition. The warships were:
The St. GEORGE, named after the Patron-Saint of England. The Warship served as the Command Headquarters of the Expedition, being the Flagship of Rear-Admiral Harry Holdsworth Rawson, the Commander-in-Chief of the
The other six warships from South Africa were:
* the MAGPIE the PHILOMEL.
* the PHOEBE the ALECTO
* the WIDGEON
* and the BARROSA.
The Barrosa was at the Island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic - the Island where Napoleon Bonaparte. the defeated French Emperor, bad been exiled to by Britain, and had died, nearly a Century earlier. Maintaining maximum speed continuously on her journey back home to Africa, she was able to re-loin her sister-warships for the attack on Benin.
From the British Mediterranean Fleet at anchor in Valetta, Malta, two warships, the THESEUS and the FORTE, were ordered to the Benin river, with their full complement of the fighting sailors, the Blue-jackets.
From Military Barracks in the cities of Portsmouth, Plymouth, and Chatham in Britain herself, Marines were mobilised for the Benin Expedition.
In West Africa troops of the Niger Coast Protectorate Force, based in Calabar, the Capital of the Protectorate, were mobilised for the Expedition. They consisted mainly of Hausa and Yoruba troops, commanded by white officers, including one black officer, a Lieutenant Daniels. The Force was taken to the Benin river from Calabar by the Steamers ILORIN, EKO, ELOBI and the LAGOON.
From Lagos Colony a contigent of Military Scouts, made up of Elausas and Yorubas of the Lagos Colony Constabulary, were ordered to the Benin river. (In 1897 Lagos
Colony was a separate country from the Niger Coast Protectorate of the Niger Delta Basin.)
A trading ship, the liner, MALACCA belonging to the P & O (Pacific and Orient) Steam-ship Company, the equivalent of the Elder Dempster Lines of fifty years later, was commandeered in London and fitted out as a Hospital ship for the Benin Expedition. It was fitted out with Operating Theatres, one hundred beds for In-patients, and an adequate number of Naval Doctors and Nurses. It was sent to the Benin River in support of the Expeditionary Force.
Troops from the West Indies, who were already in Africa, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, were ordered to Akassa in the Niger Delta to replace the Niger Coast Protectorate troops who had been garrisoning that district, so that the N.C.P.F. troops could join their colleagues in the attack on Benin.
To thoroughly appreciate the odds which the Benin army faced in its confrontation with Britain in 1897, it is pertinent to point out that Britain was already, in 1897, as thoroughly modern a country as she is today. For instance the London Underground Transport Service was already in existence at this time, and had been for a few decades before 1897, with Underground electric trains ferrying commuters from one part of the city to the other, on underground railway tracks.
After the audience with Ovonramwen Aisien departed the Benin Palace, and arrived at Qbagie n’vbosa village where he met the defending Benin army of the Ologbo Front, in camp. He was told that the forward positions of the army had made active contact with the enemy in the attempts of the enemy to cross the Orhionmwon river into Ologbo village.
Aisien decided to go forward and see things for himself. Accompanied by his two servants Oduduru and TuQyQ he plunged into the Ologbo forests, on a reconnaissance mission. The party reached the outskirts of Ologbo village, and under cover of the forest vegetation crept towards the perimeter of the extensive British military Camp.
Aisien surveyed the awesome scene for a while, with its large population of soldiers and carriers, the soldiers in their different colours of uniforms — from the Blues of the Naval men to the Reds of the Marines, and the khaki of the Niger Coast Protectorate troops. And the Sentries posted at intervals around the perimeter of the Camp. And the Officers’ tents dotting the huge expanse of the clearing.
Aisien was wondering what his next line of action should be when an incident made up his mind for him. The Batman, the Orderly, of an Officer brought out from within the tent of his Officer a collapsible table and chair.
(The word “Orderly” gave rise to the Benin name “Idele.” The black soldier of the Niger Coast Protectorate was called:
“Orderly of the White Officer”)
The Orderly set up the table at the entrance of the tent, put some prepared tea and other tea accompaniments on the table, saluted and invited his officer to the refreshment.
The Officer sat alone, on the direct sight of Aisien’s hidden gun, and sipped at his tea. He made a very tempting target.
By hand signal Aisien let his two companions know that they ere to shoot only after he himself had commenced the proceedings. In his battle-dress of the “Osm, Qlikia” adaeghg or tunic, he was indistinguishable from the brownness and the greenery of the earth, where he lay flat on his abdomen. He felt as safe and as inviolable as the ground itself.
He raised himself on one knee, and with his Dane gun took a measured aim at the white officer at tea. But then he began to worry whether his gun would fire, aimed as it was at the imposing figure in his sights. To ensure that the gun performed to expectation Aisien delved into a pocket of his “Osun Qlikia” tunic, and brought out a little ukokogho charm pouch. He poured a little of the contained black powder on the trigger-assemblage of his gun, and muttered the incantation:
Emunçmunc gha rhan ifuçn, t’Qba
“When afire-fly spreads out its wings,
It lights up the night!”
He pulled the trigger.
The sound of the gun-shot, surprisingly loud, shattered the relative quiet of the late afternoon Camp life. Oduduru and Tuqyç stood upright in the shrubbery, emptied the charges of their own Dane guns into the Camp, and then went flat on their bellies.
That was all the anger that the three Benin Dane guns had the time to let loose on the assembled might of the British army. For before the three snipers could re-load their weapons the earth under their bellies began to quiver with the concussion of the noise of war.
The British guns opened up. The sound made by each type of gun was characteristic and easily identifiable. The sounds from the rifles, from the Martini-Henrys, the LeeMetfords, and the Sniders, (which the Edos called “Esada”) were sharp, explosive and of a tearing quality. The Maxim gun, the early type of machine-gun, joined in the chatter of death. Firing thirteen times a second the sound from it was low-pitched, subdued and un-hurried. Yet it was insistent, unrelenting, steadfast - and unforgiving.
The forest itself began to move. Huge branches of mahogany were cut off from their parent - trees by rifle - fire as if sliced off with giant pairs of scissors. The branches, in full foliage, were hurried through the air like giant umbrellas, then suddenly let go, to crash back to earth a hundred or more yards from the trunks from which they were severed.
Aisien, flat on his belly, turned towards Benin, with his two comrades-in-arms. This was his first exposure to rifle fire. The people of Benin City, unlike those in the villages, had a passing acquaintance-ship with the Snider rifle, quantities of which had passed through their hands, at the UghQtQn Port, then through Ondo, to the Ekiti-Parapy armies in conflict with the invading Ibadan armies, during the Yoruba “Kitiji,” inter-tribal Wars of the latter decades of the Nineteenth Century.
But the people of the villages knew only about the smooth-bore Dane gun, brought from Europe about three hundred years earlier, but now locally manufactured by the people.
As the ground heaved under them, and forests of greenery flew over their heads, the three scouts, on their bellies, rounded a bend in the bush-track, regained their upright position, and returned to the Benin army at its Qbagie Evbosa base.
Aisien re-iterated to Commander Urugbusi that the British had indeed occupied Ologbo, and he described, in some detail, the deployment of the enemy troops in their Ologbo Camp.
He and his two companions then left Qbagie and returned to Benin City.
Aisien’s encounter with the British army in Ologbo was probably the episode which was cryptically referred to in Dr. Felix Roth’s account of the “Benin Punitive Expedition,” as reported in the Book: “Great Benin,” written by Ling Roth, the Museum Curator-brother of Dr. Roth, and published in 1903, only six years after the war. Curator Ling Roth was quoting from Dr. Roth’s Diary written in the Ologbo Camp:
“…We have seen no natives since yesterday, but wine have crept up and fired into us.” page 6 of the Appendix of the book). Dr. Felix Roth was one of the Medical Officers of the British Expeditionary Force mounted against Benin.
Back in Benin Aisien went straight to the Palace, and briefed the monarch about his experiences during his fact-finding trip to the war front. He summarised his report by telling the king that it was unlikely that the Edos would gain victory in this fight, in contrast to their previous experiences during all their many centuries of uninterrupted history as a kingdom. The fire-power of the British army, confided Aisien to Ovonramwen, was not what the Edos were likely to have any antidote for.
The Qmo n ‘Oba Ovonramwen thanked Aisien for the mission undertaken, and for his unvarnished assessment of the situation. He then gave him permission to return home to Iyekorhionmwon.
On Thursday 18th February 1897, about five days after Aisien reported on his errand to Ovonramwen, Benin City fell to Rear Admiral Harry Rawson and the British Expeditionary Force which he led. The Benin Kingdom became yet another territorial addition to the expanding British Empire.
A few months after the fall of Benin City Aisien was at home in his Emodu Quarters in Evboesi village when, before dawn, a detachment of Soldiers — Mete Ebo — from the occupation Force in l3enin threw a cordon round his house, effected his arrest, put him in chains, and marched him to Benin City. His mother, Egunmwcndia, accompanied her captive son to Benin.
The British authorities had acted upon information at their disposal that Aisien had fired upon the British army in Ologho.
The alleged act was not a war-crime, as was reiterated later by Sir Ralph Moor, the Consul-General of the Niger Coast Protectorate and Head of Government of the Colony which the Benin territories were now a part of. in the trial of Oba Ovonramwen in September later that year, Consul- General Moor had stated that the taking up of arms in order to defend one’s countty was not a war crime. But during the early months of the occupation of Benin, when security considerations still consumed a lot of the time and energy of the British Occupation authorities, Aisier’s action was apparently still regarded as a hostile act which deserved to be punished by the victors.
The prisoner was locked up in the Guard-room of the Military Barracks created by the British along Forestry Road in the City, stretching from the junction of Ugbaguç Street to that of Iwegic Street, from the premises of the Jyase Nohenmwen to that of the Ogiefa Nomuçnkpo. It was in the same guardroom that Chief AgbgnkQnkQn, the Obayuwan.a of Benin and lover of Princess Ehendia, the widowed eldest daughter of Oha Adolor, was later to commit suicide by slashing his throat with a heavy jack-knife while awaiting the convening of the “Assizes” Court which was to sentence him to death for being involved in the Ugbinç village ambush of the James Phillips party in January.
It was also the same guar&room which later held Oba Ovonramwen, the monarch of the kingdom, during the last four nights he spent in Benin City, before he was taken to Calabar, on a life exile.
By the time of Aisien’s arrest AGHO, the Obaceki of Benin, was already on the way to attaining the ascendant position of influence which he ultimately enjoyed for more than two decades during the early years of tie British administration in Benin. Agho’s towering intelligence, coupled with the consummate diplomatic expertise which he had acquired as a courtier in the Palace of Oba Ovonramwen, stood him in good stead in his relationship with the conquering British. The British officials came to rely heavily on Agho’ s opinions in native matters. In this wise he was the Benin equivalent of his contemporary, Chief Dogho Numa (Chief bore) of the Warn territories.
The Edos noted this relationship of trust between the British Officials and Agho Obaseki, and they employed him as the advocate who pleaded their cause with the white man whenever the occasion arose. Aisien’ s relatives in Evboesi therefore brought to Obaseki in Benin intercessory gifts in the form of a cow, goats, boxes of Aromatic Schnapps bottles — ayon ebo, and money.
They asked for his advocacy services on behalf of their patriarch, the detained Aisien.
The Court convened, and Aisien was led from the guard-room and put on trial. Sitting in judgement on the ease was Captain A.H. Turner, the first Colonial Resident and Head of Administration of the conquered Benin territories. Sitting with him as “Assessors” were three Benin City Chiefs, amongst whom was Chief Agho Obaseki,
In spite of Chief Obaseki’s efforts in the Court room in pleading the innocence of the prisoner, Aisien was found guilty as charged: for firing on the Whiteman in the Whitman’s Camp at Ologbo. The Court then pronounced the sentence, not of Death, but of Sixty Strokes of the Birch, on him.
A sentence of Death had been widely expected, since that was the fate of earlier prisoners-of-war who had been tried by the new administration.
Notable amongst these prisoners was the warrior beikinmwin who had commanded the Benin army at the Ughoton Front. The sentence handed down on Aisien was therefore received with some wry relief.
Soon after the conquest of Benin the subsequent British Patrols had apprehended Commander beikinmwin in the Okokhuo districts, near Ekiadolor village. He was condemned to death in Benin City, and tied to the stakes. As the shots of the firing squad rang out, Ebeikinmwin was heard to laugh with a loud guffaw, as he shouted at his executioners:
Me ero khian vbe gb’uwa
“The pensure will be mine again,
During my next incarnation, to inflict on you
The defeat you deserve!”
Then he gave up the ghost.
He was referring to his initial successful defence of the Ughoton Front against the British Expeditionary Force during the war.
The British Navy, under Captain O’Callaghan, invaded Ughoton twice. In their first attempt they were driven out by the Benin troops under Ibeikinmwin. Six days later, and reinforced with troops from two other warships O’Callaghan re-attacked and reoccupied Ughoton, and then systematically leveled the village to the ground with artillery, leaving Ughçnçrn the little village that it has remained to this day.
Aisien’s sentence was to be summarily carried out, and it was effected by B.P.S. Roupell, the twenty-seven-year old Captain of the Royal Engineers, whom the Edos had earlier nicknamed — Amehien: “Pepper Juice”, because of his pepperiness towards his newly—conquered subjects. He was the Commanding Officer of the 120-strong Niger Coast Protectorate Force garrisoning the conquered City.
The convicted prisoner was laid prone, and four “flausa” soldiers held him down on the bench by his four limbs. When the first stroke of the birch landed on his buttocks the prisoner’s involuntary, convulsive spasm of pain sent the four restraining soldiers, in their red khaki uniforms, tumbling away to the four corners of the compass.
Roupell gave Obaseki a knowing look, as if to tell him: “Eat your words! This is not the man you insisted was not a soldier, and therefore could not possibly have been sent to the warfront, let alone to fire on the whiteinan!
Obaseki got the message in Roupell’s look, and then said, famously, to Aisien:
A khu ovbi okhokho hien
irhu rhe, O wee uwu 1dm eri ren
khian wu yi “A chick is being shooed off a cauldron of boiling palm oil;
But the chick is insistent in its efforts to perish in it!”
Aisien in turn got the message in Obaseki’s admonition. He lay down again, and expressly forbade any restraining hands on his person. He then received, on his hare back and buttocks the remaining fifty-nine strokes of the birch, at the hands of the Army Engineer from Chelteham College, England.
A deep, tortuous, guttural grunt from the prisoner was the only accompaniment of each landing, on his raw flesh, of the flagellation device.
With his sentence served Aisien, the son of Erhunmwunsee, was released. His relatives took him away from the Military Barracks, bruised and bleeding.
He spent the next three months in Benin City, while his mother Egunmwendia, and his three wives — Emeze, mother of Iriaghonse, Imadiyi, mother of Idemudia and Ariowa, and Qbenhen, mother of Obasohan tended to his wounds until they were healed. Then the family returned to Uvboesi in Iyekorhionmwon.
Until his death Aisien carried on his back and buttocks the broad scars of the flagellation he had received as punishment for his encounter with the British Army in Ologbo village in mid-February 1897. He died in Benin City on the 20th October 1913, sixteen years after the Benin — British War, and three months before the death of his monarch, Oba Ovonramwen, in Calabar on the 13th January 1914.
Aisien lies buried today in the first cemetery created by the Colonial Authorities in Benin. ‘Ibis cemetery was situated along the Upper Oba Market Road, just beyond the Ogbc Obaseki, after the Uzebu Moat, and exactly opposite the present-day YANGA Fish Markct. The cemetery has since been built over.
The Colonial Authorities had forbidden the usual Home or Compound burial of the dead in Benin City after the conquest. All dead citizens, without any exception, and irrespective of rank or status, were mandatorily buried in the Town’s designated public Cemetery.
It was only after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1914, when there was once again an Oba in Benin, that the occasional Compound burial was grudgingly permitted. “And the Oba of Benin had to acquiesce in it, in writing, to the authorities. Tins was a permission not lightly given by the Palace because the Oba knew that Compound burials offended the sensibilities of the British Medical Officers of health in charge of Benin City at that time.”