By Ademola Iyi-Eweka (Edited)
Jimmy Ayanru by Jimmy Ayanru March 22, 2021
ADMIRAL RAWSON’S SURPRISE ATTACK ON BENIN CITY
The pretest, spack from the news of the massacre of Acting-Consul James Philip and his men reached British Newspapers on 12th Jan 1897. A call for immediate action against Benin City was loudest in the mercantile communities of Liverpool, Glasgow and Belfast, all of them having a trading post in West Africa.
The British Government and politicians were not amused that the Govt was being manoeuvred into a war with Benin by Ralph Moor. And the House of Commons grilled the Foreign Minister on the wisdom of Acting-Consul Phillips journey to Benin without the Govt or Oba Ovoranmwen’s approval. The Foreign Minister also grilled Ralph Moor on his involvement in Phillips unauthorized trip to Benin, reminding him that the Govt has turned down his request twice on the use of force on Oba Ovonramwen. Ralph Moor denied any knowledge of the trip. They, therefore, put the blame on the shoulders of the inexperienced late James Phillips and the barbarous Oba Ovonramwen.
On Jan 12, the British cabinet met to consider what action to take against Benin. At the end of the meeting, they settled on Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson to lead the “Punitive Expedition” against Benin. He was at the time the commander of the squadron at the Cape of Good Hope. From all over the world Britain gathered its fighting forces against Benin. One of the men who served in one of the ship called ST GEORGE was a Petty-Officer Callaghan, who became the father of the future British Prime Minister, James Callaghan.
From the colonies, Britain recruited many people either as fighters or carriers. In Sierra Leone alone Britain recruited 600. From Opopo they got one hundred. From Bonny, one hundred. At Sapele under the guidance of chief Dogho [Dore Numa] and Fregene hundreds more were recruited. Experienced Hausa soldiers were recruited in Lagos Colony as scouts. And of course, hundreds of veterans of the Yoruba civil wars were also recruited.
The brunt of the fighting was intended to fall on the NCPF [Niger coast protectorate Administration] the force raised and trained by Moor since 1891. It was a force made up of about 450 troops under the command of officers of the British Army, at whose head was Boisragon one of the survivors of the Jan 4th massacre. Moor not wanting to share the glory for the capture of Benin with the Navy under Rawson, suggested that Rawson only needed 250 naval men to supplement his own fighting force of NCPF. Rawson then cut the size of his own fighting men however to 700 having been told that the Edo people are cowards and would not stand to fight a decision he was later to regret.
It later turned out that Ralph Moor had developed a plan of attack on Benin for two years. The British invading army suffered its first casualty near Warrigi [ Warri] as one of the Navy men collapsed and died from sunstroke. When the British Army was now ready to land, Rawson decided to attack Benin from three fronts-Gwatto [Ughoton], Sakpoba [Isokpoba] and Ologbo. The Sakpoba attack was to prevent Benin chiefs from escaping into friendly areas when Benin City falls. At least that was the reason they gave. It was however diversionary.
Between 10th and 12th of Feb 1897, the fighting began as Rawson met fierce resistance from Benin Soldiers at Gwatto [Ughoton] and later Ologbo. Rawson immediately realized that he has been misled by Ralph Moor. He called on more men from his ships noting that the Edos are no cowards and were ready to fight to death.
The group attacking Gwatto (Ughoton) was led by captain O’Callghan. His order was to destroy Ughoton, take and hold on to the Edo military camp at Ugbine where Phillips and his men were killed. They took the deserted town on the 10th without firing a shot at Benin soldiers and started burning the town. Then Benin soldiers emerged from nowhere and started firing at the landing party. Lieutenant-Commander Hunt was severely wounded in the chest. So too was O’Callaghan.
The British Army fought a retreating battle as they promptly evacuated the town to the safety of their ships. They never came out of their ships until the end of the war. The Benin army that successfully repelled the invasion at Ughoton was under the command of Generals Ologbosere and Ebeikhimwin. O’Callaghan was reported to have sent a message to Rawson saying that the Edos are no cowards and were prepared to fight to finish.
The Yoruba Black Collaborator a.k.a “Lieutenant Daniels” From the Royal Niger Coast Guard (seated on the right)
On the 12th Rawson was lucky at Ologbo. After heaving fighting the British army captured Ologbo. Wounded on the British side was a Captain Koe and Lieutenant Daniels, the only black officer in NCPF and a private. On the Edo side, the casualty was heavy. Six bodies were counted on the first day. By the second day, 38 more bodies were found. They stood their ground and died in an unequal fight. The British firepower was overwhelming.
At Sakpoba [Isokpoba] Rawson’s men were not so lucky. At about four miles from Sakpoba, the British military tried to build a staging camp. Early in the morning on the 11th, Benin soldiers had under the cover of darkness moved closer to the British position. In the first volley of shots fired, Lieutenant commander Pritchard and Able Seaman Cheverill were killed. A Petty Officer Tiddy was wounded. They were hurriedly buried there as the British evacuated Sakpoba junction. Britain was to suffer more casualties when Able Seaman Cook, who had survived the fighting collapsed and died of sunstroke. Benin suffered ten dead. Rawson was now left with only one option – march on to Benin from Ologbo with the military might he could muster.
But the attack at Ughoton and Sakpoba also left the Benin army divided. O’Callghan ships kept the finest of the Benin fighting men under General Ologbosere pinned down at Ughoton waiting for the British attack which never came. It is a tactic reminiscent of the Iraqi Army bogged down on Kuwaiti’s shore waiting for American led invasion from the sea which never came. At the same time, the British main column under Rear Admiral Rawson was gradually pushing Edo soldiers backwards on the Ologbo sector towards Benin City.
Without the proper communication gear it was impossible for other soldiers in Edo army to know how the war was progressing in other sectors. By the rule of their warfare, they have to stay put on the front line they were assigned to. So by the 17th of February 1897, they had pushed Benin soldiers back enough for Rawson to contemplate entering Benin with a flying column on the 18th of February 1897. Rawson was having the problem of not having enough drinking water for his men. He has miscalculated the willingness of Benin soldiers to die rather than surrender.
Therefore the Ologbo-Benin march was like a deathmatch especially when Rawson would not trust the bush tracks left by Edo soldiers. He saw it as an ambush trap. He, therefore, relied on his “compass” and a few Itsekhiri guides still left in the army. Others have deserted him and the British army on the deathmatch knowing the ferocity of Benin soldiers. It was a race for survival.
After the battle of January 4th at Ugbine during which James Phillips and his men where massacred, the Edo war chiefs met and sent men to fight the British. The war party was led by IYASE OKIZI the then traditional Edo Prime Minister. He had seen a lot of military service in the Yoruba areas, especially in Akure and Ekiti. The peace party was led by Chief Osarogiagbon Ezomo, the then Ezomo and traditional commander of the Edo Royal army.
He refused to participate in the war on the ground that it will not be good for the country. The Ezomo was in charge of Ijero-Ekiti, an area which had already fallen to the Lagos Colony Administration. Was the Ezomo acting on the intelligence report about the strength of the British weaponry?
There were of course the moderates who were neither here nor there. And so right from the word go, the Edos were divided on how to combat the British menace on the coast. There were those who prayed quietly for the defeat of Oba Ovonramwen because of the series of executions of some Edo chiefs in his attempt to stabilize his position as the Oba of Benin.
So it came to pass, that Rawson with poor information about the Edos, their country, unwilling to get involved in protracted warfare because of the risks of disease and climate, set one goal for himself – SEIZE THE EDO CAPITAL OF BENIN and leave Moor and the local troops to enforce submissions. Rawson knew there was water in Benin for his men. With his compass, he could guess the approximate location of Benin City. And with his COMPASS he could clear his way towards Benin while avoiding a series of the ambush the Edo soldiers had set up.
On the 17th day of Feb.1897, Rawson emerged on the old Sakpoba road about 5 miles to Benin. He had the Benin Army to his rear at Sakpoba. The Benin Army in Sakpoba had Rawson at their rear at Ugbeku. The two armies were unaware of where the other was. The Benin Army at Sakpoba waited in vain for British attack unaware that the British were already at the gate of Benin City, ready to attack the civilian population with their 1897 Maxim Gun (The First Automatic Machine Gun) From beyond the moat at Ugbekun, Rawson fired his Rocket missiles and Cannonballs and some fell at the Oba Market and the Palace compound. Many were killed at the Oba’s market as it exploded. There was pandemonium. There was confusion since they could not see the enemy which was firing at them. The Edo women called the cannon fire EKHIRI KHIRI.
The war meeting going on at the palace broke up immediately. The Royal family was now ferried out of town to a safe distance and was never to come to Benin City until six months after, only to perform an act of submission to the British army. (Rocket Apparatus was the first weapon to be used to launch ‘missile’ attacks from a distance).
To give time for the evacuation of the city, a young man called ASORO a palace page [OMUADA] organized what could be described as the last civil defence of the city. The Edo army had been totally cut off at Ughoton, Sakpoba and even Ologbo road with all of them waiting in vain for the British army to show up. Asoro and his group of fighters [probabably Eghobamien and Aguebor] gave a good and gallant account of themselves. From the top of trees and on the ground, they held the British army at bay on Sakpoba road. So many British troops were killed on this encounter notably among them were ten British marines including Captain Byrne and Dr Fyfe the surgeon on Rawson’s flagship St. George. Many more were wounded.
At the palace precinct, a hand to hand combat for the palace was fought. The Edos lost and the British won. Thanks to their superior weaponry, tactics and good luck. The British captured a ghost town, the city having been evacuated by the Edos leaving behind the thousands of massacred civilians of our age, women and children, who perished from the indiscriminate bombardment. Which the British covered up the bloodshed by claiming that their civilian casualties of war were human sacrifices on a massive scale and libelously coined Benin City as THE CITY OF BLOOD!
Meanwhile, the finest of the Benin/ Edo fighting men were still holed up at Ugbine, Ughoton, Agbor and Sakpoba waiting for the British. The British occupation of Ondo, Owo, Akure and Ekiti from Lagos made it impossible for Edo soldiers stationed in those areas to be relevant to the war that was raging on. The British set up a defence fort in Benin. Rawson and his men spent the night at Oba Ovonramwen’s quarters. But fearing a counter-attack, the building was dynamited the following day. The British soldiers began an orgy of looting and burning. Within hours all the buildings in Benin were on fire after being stripped of all valuable ivory, art objects and loot that were plentiful in those days.
Ralph Moor characteristically denied ordering the burning of the City while laying the blame on drunken Itsekhiri carriers in his service. When the news of the fall of Benin reached the different Edo military units, there was the cry of “TREACHERY” on every throat. A few of the warriors found their way to where Oba Ovonramwen and his court had moved. Some linked up with General Ologbose, Ebeikhimwin and the crown prince AIGUOBASIMWIN [who was later crowned as OBA EWEKA THE SECOND].
The British soldiers left no building standing in Benin City. Even the Ezomo’s Palace the “undeserving’ Defense Minister of the kingdom who resolutely REFUSED to fight and defend his king and kingdom for reasons best known to him. Found to his chagrin and “amazement” that his own palace was not spared. He was reported to have said to himself, “of truth the enemy of my people, is truly my enemy”.
He got another shocker when he requested that the people of Ijero-Ekiti should come and help him rebuild his destroyed palace. The Lagos Colony Administration “politely” told him that Ijero-Ekiti was no longer under his command and tributary control which he wanted to keep benefiting from Benin kingdom while refusing to fight for the Benin Kingdom. It now belonged to the British Government based in Lagos.
Among those who supposedly “fought” in the war and evacuated the city in Oba Ovonranmwen entourage was notably CHIEF AGHO OBASEKI. The number of dead during the last phase of the fight could not be ascertained on the Benin side, because all the dead bodies found in Benin City on February, 18th.1897 were all ascribed to the human sacrifice of Oba Ovonramwen by Ralph Moor. It must have been heavy. The city was accordingly renamed the “CITY OF BLOOD” by the same British who caused the bloodshed.
MAY THE SOULS OF GRANDFATHERS AND GRANDMOTHERS WHO FELL ON FEBRUARY 18TH 1897 REST IN PERFECT PEACE. AMEN!
EDITOR’S SUMMARY: With retrospective analysis, we can see that they were two main characters in this confirmed report of what transpired in those bloody days of warfare.
First of all, the fact that Admiral Rawson a total stranger to the Benin country and bush paths claimed to have found his way from the riverine areas at the coast to Benin city with only a navigational compass is too incredible to be true.
Imagine a compass that can ONLY show you the direction to a place is, now acting as a local guide that is showing you the “secret” bush paths in the jungle to Benin City that can only be known to indigenes and locals not Itsekhiri guides from afar.
Then this miraculous compass was able to safely steer you away from all the “ambushing soldiers” waiting patiently along all the major roads, routes and bush paths to Benin City known by both the Europeans and their so-called Itsekhiri guides who were indeed collaborators.
Such must be an inter-active HUMAN COMPASS sent by the chief collaborator and Traitor of Benin called Agho Obaseki who was at all times staying “close” to Oba Ovonranmwen during the war so as to ensure that he got all the updated intelligence reports from the battlefield commandants as per their troop deployment.
Which he would then secretly divulge to the British enemy in “guiding” them away from the snare of the Benin army lying in wait to ambush them as soon as they started their march towards Benin City. If Agho Obaseki the spy in the palace, had not aided Admiral Rawson then there is no way on earth that Rawson and his invading troops would ever have survived all the ambushes that they would have encountered at the hands of the Benin Warriors. I repeat no way! It would have been a terrible massacre of Rawson’s forces just like that of Phillip’s forces in the Benin Massacre! Secondly, it is recorded that Asoro who veritably earned the title as Okakuo (War General) during the invasion butchered the British soldiers during the close contact combat and could not be harmed by the British soldiers’ gunshots and machetes.
Until once again, the Traitor of Benin (guess you know who by now), revealed to the British how to disable Asoro’s deadly mystical charms or “Benin Juju” as the British famously called it in those days.