The Fall of Benin Kingdom, February 18, 1897

By Dr. Nowa Omoigui


At about 2 pm on February 18, 1897, Benin City, capital of the independent Benin Kingdom, fell to Troops commanded by British officers. On the 19th and 20th, houses of major Chiefs were burnt after being looted. On the 21st, the entire city was consumed in fire started by British soldiers. 

Well over 6000 pieces of priceless artwork were looted by British troops and administrators and partially used to offset the costs of the military campaign.

A series of events in the last 50 years of the 19th century increased the vulnerability of the Kingdom.

After the death of Oba Osemwede circa 1850, internal conflicts between rival Princess and external raids by Nupe into the northern reaches of Edoland weakened the cohesion and economic integrity of the State structure.  As if this was not enough the passing of Oba Adolo in 1888 opened up another vicious internal power struggle in which many key chiefs were killed by the new Oba, Ovonramwen. At about this time, increasing British pressure on trade matters were coming to a head and it was only of time before there would be a clash of wills.

The full details of the political events that led to the fall of Benin are beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that  in 1890 British Consul Annesley had unsuccessfully tried to seek audience with the Oba.  This was followed by another attempt by Vice-Consul Gallwey in 1892 in which the leadership was manipulated into consenting to a treaty (without necessarily signing) which provided a pretext for Britain to interfere in the internal and external matters of Benin State policy - particularly in the area of trade along the Benin River. 

The final showdown with Benin was partly delayed by British shenanigans against Nana of Itsekiri and Brass in 1894 and 1895 respectively.  But internal debates were already occurring on the propriety of military action against Benin.  Most colonial administrators, supported by British traders, were in support of such a move.  In November 1896 Phillips, acting for Consul Ralph Moor who was on leave, sought permission from Britain to visit Benin with the express intent of deposing the King.  He did not wait for a reply before proceeding on the mission which led to his death.

[The response from the foreign office - which he did not get to read - was that he delay his expedition for a year].

Against all advice, Phillips insisted on visiting Benin for a "meeting" although warned not to come in part because the Oba was involved in religious ceremonies.  On January 3rd 1897, Phillips, along with six other officials, two traders, and over 200 "native carriers" showed up at Ughoton, near the river port of the Kingdom.  They were ambushed on their way to Benin City, resulting in the deaths of all but two white men and many carriers. 

It was this event that provided Britain's final pretext, urged on by the British Press, to launch a "punitive" expedition with a heavily armed force of over 1500 soldiers and sailors in nine ships.

Ralph Moor was ordered back to Africa.  Anticipating ripple effects from other parts of the "protectorate" orders were issued for internal security arrangements at Brass, Degema and Old Calabar.   Meanwhile scouts and spies were sent into Benin territory and arrangements made with Itsekiri chiefs for the provision of carriers in support of impending operations.  The Royal Niger Company was asked to make contingency plans for escapees that might head its way after the attack.

The basic strategy was to secure potential routes of escape, isolate likely sources of reinforcements to Benin (by simultaneous attack or diversion) and then seize the City.  All of this was aided in no small measure by the fact that a huge component of the Benin Army was at that time in a war camp at Obadan (north-east of the City) preparing for other operations.  Indeed the relevance of this is obvious when it is realized that after the fall of the City, Generals Ologbose and Ebohon still had up to 60 European cannons (artillery pieces) at their disposal when they began organizing guerrilla activities against the British in the rural areas.  If those 60 cannons had been available for the defence of Benin-City it would have been a  much more difficult undertaking for the British.


Overall Commander: Rear Admiral Rawson Commander, Land Forces: Lt. Col. Hamilton

Forward Base of Operations: Ugharegin (now called Oghareki, near Sapele)

Rear Base of Operations: Brass (under Consul General Ralph Moor in the HMS Theseus and HMS Forte)

Assault was along three axes:

MAIN - The main attacking column - using units from the Niger Coast Protectorate and a naval brigade supported by Maxim Machine Guns and Seven-Pounder Artillery - advanced through Ologbo creek. This was under command of Lt. Colonel Hamilton.

RIGHT FLANK - A second column from HMS Phoebe, HMS Magpie and HMS Alecto - under Captain T. MacGill - came up the Jamieson river to Sakpoba

LEFT FLANK - A third column from HMS Philomel, HMS Barossa and HMS Widgeon under the command of Captain M. P. O. O'Calaghan attacked through Ughoton creek.

The details of all the battles and skirmishes during this campaign are beyond the scope of this article but will be the subject of a forthcoming book.


When fully mobilized, the Benin Army was capable of mustering 30,000 to 50,000 men, usually organized in Nine 'Brigades'.  These were the main weapons:

SHIELD: The universal weapon of protection was a big SHIELD, shaped like that of ancient Egyptians. It had a curved top and was straight at the bottom - apparently designed to be placed on the ground in order to cover an adult sized man when kneeling. [Note that these shields were also used in ceremonial parades to provide shade for the King]

HELMET: Helmets were worn by senior officers (chiefs) as well as highly decorated warriors (non-commissioned officers). They were made of padded basketwork or of hard crocodile skin.

BODY ARMOR: The universal uniform (which consisted of a top and a bottom reaching down to the knees) was made of quilted ponchos covered with leopard skins, firm enough to prevent the penetration of an arrow or spear.


1. Spears with barbed heads

2. Bows and Arrows

3. Short swords (for hand-to-hand fighting). These swords were worn inside ornamented scabbards, hanging from decorated shoulder belts.

4. Wide blade sword with double-curved edges. This was carried by very senior officers (high chiefs) as a symbol of authority.

5. Guns: These were originally introduced by the Portuguese. They were used devastatingly during the Idah wars.

6. Cannon: These were introduced into the Armed Forces of independent Benin sometime in the 19th century.