The Robbery of African Treasures

After the abolition of the Slave Trade at the beginning of the nineteenth century British

attention on the West African coast was turned towards 'legitimate trade' supplying trade

goods in return for raw materials or semi processed commodities, in particular palm oil, a

major lubricant for the industrial revolution. Towards the end of the nineteenth century,

following the carve up of Africa into 'spheres of influence' by the European powers, the

British had an established presence along the coast of present day Nigeria, with some

areas administered directly from Whitehall and others under trading company control.

Spheres of influence were defined by European powers in relation to each other, and

often had little meaning on the ground, being based on ambiguous treaties entered into

with traditional rulers.

The Niger Coast Protectorate included the Niger Delta and the trading ports to the east.

By 1895 the Protectorate government had established its authority, frequently by use of

force, over all the major trading centres except the ancient kingdom of Benin which

insisted on retaining sovereignty and trading independence. A 'trade and protection' treaty

had been concluded with Benin in 1892 by Capt. Gallwey on the first official visit to the

city in thirty years. But trade, conducted via the intermediary of the coastal Itsekiri

people, was less profitable than expected and the Protectorate administration was feeling

the pressure from the rival British administrations of Lagos Colony and the Royal Niger

Company, both desiring to 'open up' the hinterland to trade. Ralph Moor, the Consul

General of the Niger Coast Protectorate, felt hampered by the Foreign Office's reluctance

to allow him to mount an armed expedition against the kingdom of Benin. This is the

background against which the events of 1987 occurred, when Moor was on leave in

England and a newly arrived Acting Consul General, James Phillips took up his post. The

''official version' of these events was that a brave and humanitarian mission was

massacred because of African treachery and barbarity. A small but successful war of

colonial conquest then punished the perpetrators and freed the populace from the

depredations of a 'Fetish-Priest-King' and his rule of terror. Much was made of the

practice of human sacrifice in Benin as a justification for interference: The King of Benin

in the treaty he signed with captain Gallwey, had agreed to place himself and his county

under H.M.. Protectorate and it was becoming a perfect disgrace that in the Protectorate

... so terrible a state of affairs continued as that in what was not very improperly called

the City of Blood. Captain Boisragon, Phillips' colleague on the journey, and one of the

two whites to survive, stressed the humanitarian motive for the mission: The object to the

expedition was to try and persuade the king to let the white men come up to his city

whenever they wanted to. All their horrible customs could not be put down at once,

except by a strong-armed expedition, but could be stamped out gradually by officials

continually going up. A rarer British official historian suggested: Phillips opinion was

that every pacific means towards approaching the King would not be complete until he as

Acting Consul-General paid a visit to the King. This was surely a humane desire, a

benign wish, to avoid force if possible.

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