The Benin Massacre Route Day 7
The expedition party leaves Sapele about 7 a.m. in the two Protectorate launches, Primrose and Daisy.¹ Each of these launches is towing a surf boat or lighter with the expedition Ten white men’s thirty carriers and the drums and fifes.²
Setting off from Sapele are (1) Phillips, the Acting Consul-General; (2) Major Copland Crawford, Vice-Consul of the Benin and Warri District ; (3) Mr. Locke, District Commissioner of Warri, (4) Captain Maling, of the 16th Lancers, and of the Niger Coast Protectorate Force; (5) Mr. Kenneth Campbell, a District Commissioner at Sapele ; (6) Dr. Elliot, the medical officer of Sapele and Benin District ; (7) Mr. Lyon, also Assistant District Commissioner at Sapele, is going with them as far as Gwatto ; (8) Mr. Powis, (9) Mr. Gordon, and (10) Mr. Boisragon;³
Accompanying them are two coloured Government interpreters (mixed race), Herbert Clarke and Towey. Their expedition guide is Basilli, a Benin City man.
About 10.30 a.m., as they are steaming down the Benin River they meet Chief Dore, the head chief of the Benin River, in a canoe, with the messengers that had been sent to the King of Benin a few days before. They bring back the message that the king is not able to receive any visitors at the present time, ‘owing to the annual " customs" being in the process of celebration, he hoped the Consul-General would defer his visit for one or two months, until he (the King) sends to tell him that he is ready to receive him. The King hopes he would come then, accompanied only by one Jakri (Itsekiri) chief and no white men.’⁴
The messenger adds that as they were leaving Benin City they heard orders given for parties of soldiers to be sent to all the waterside towns. However, this message is not taken seriously by Mr. Phillips as this is usually done whenever any white men arrive in the Benin City Country. All the same, both Mr. Crawford and Mr. Boisragon suggest that it would be advisable to send back the drum and fife band, as because of their uniform, the Benin people might think they are bringing soldiers, and this might well lead to a collision straight away.⁵ Unusually, Mr. Phillips agrees to this, and accordingly the band is sent back to Sapele in Chief Dore's canoe.
The messengers remain in the Primrose with the white men. The head messenger a Jakri (Itsekiri) , informs Phillips that just as he was leaving the King's house, the King had spoken to him very privately, and had told him that if the white men really were coming up, he (the messenger) was to come back as quickly as possible and inform him. Again Mr. Phillips misses the point that the Benin people will defend themselves in the face of an invasion.
Crucially, Chief Dore before leaving them, told them that the Benin soldiers meant to stop them getting to Benin City, and tried to persuade Mr. Phillips not to go on. His advice and warning is dismissed as fear of Jakri (Itsekiri) of the Benin men and he is not listened to. This is yet another missed opportunity, Mr. Phillips remains oblivious of the danger he is leading the expedition team into.
After Chief Dore’s departure, the two launches proceed down the Benin River as far as the entrance to the Gwatto Creek, reaching there about midday.
At Gwatto Creek, as the tide was low and they could not get to him, Mr. Phillips sends a message to another of the big chiefs of the Benin River District, Chief Dudu by name, who lives about four miles up the Gwatto Creek, that he wishes to see him and that he should follow them up and come on to Gwatto.
Starting off again, they arrive at Gilli Gill at 4 p.m.
The first thing Mr. Phillips does is to send the same messengers back to the king of Benin with a reply that he regrets that he cannot wait two months, as the King has suggested, as he has so much work to do in other parts of the Protectorate and that he must come up now, as there are several matters that he wishes to talk over with the King. Therefore, he is coming to visit the king with nine other white men.
At about five o’clock, a canoe has been obtained for the messengers who depart at once for Benin; they will arrive there tomorrow. At the same time that the messengers depart, another message is sent to Dudu Jerri to come down and see the Acting Consul-General. He turns up soon after.
Dudu Jerri is also full of warnings and forebodings, he declares that Gwatto is full of Benin soldiers, who wouldn't let them land there, and would fire on them if they attempted to do so. Mr. Phillips and the others just laugh in his face and send him back to Gwatto to tell the chief of the town and his people that the white men "are coming entirely on a peace palaver⁶ ; that the King of
Benin is our very good friend, having just accepted a present from us ; that we are bringing him a still bigger 'dash,' and that we are only going to Benin City to see the King in an entirely friendly way."⁷ Dudu Jerri is also asked to tell them to have some quarters ready for the white men on the next day.
At Gilli-Gilli, they find all their Jakri carriers have arrived with their canoes and their stores. Soon after they arrive, Messrs. Phillips, Crawford and Boisragon, go on land to look at the place. They find it entirely deserted but for an
Old woman, who receives them in the most friendly way; she informs them that all the men have gone away, as they are frightened of the white men’s fight with Benin soldiers.
The expedition team stay on the launches for the night. They are looking forward to arriving at Benin. They get Basilli their Benin guide to show them the proper form of Benin salutation to the king. This consist of making three circles with the right hand closed, thumb pointing upwards over the palm of the left hand held open, then rubbing the two open palms together, and at the same time nodding slowly and saying, ‘Oba ghato; Okpere. Ise.’⁵
Despite all the warnings and forebodings by everyone they have met on the way, all the white men are surprising calm and cheerful, ‘We had a very cheery dinner that night, all the ten of us dining together on the steam launch Daisy.’ (Boisragon, page 75).
¹ A launch is an open motorboat.
² The Protectorate is one mass of rivers large and small, and creeks by the thousand break the coast-line. The principal big ones are the Benin River, the Forcados, Brass,—one of the many offshoots of the Niger,—New Calabar,
and Bonny, which are virtually offshoots of the Niger also, as they come from the Oguta lake, which is connected with the Niger, Opobo, Qua, I bo, Cross, and Old Calabar Rivers. Between these are many small rivers useless for navigation, the mouths being too shallow to allow ships of any size to cross, and in addition for some thirty to forty miles inland the country is simply one network of creeks which join river to river. These creeks are more or less navigable for small steam-launches, so that it is very nearly possible to get from one end of the Protectorate
to the other by water, land communication near the sea being practically nil.
( Boisragon, pages 23 -24).
³ ‘Possibly if a single man had gone he would have been either admitted or turned back, but not killed. The natives probably found the expedition too big to be taken for a peaceful party.’ (Kirk J. Sir, 14 Jan 1897, Central News Telegram interview).
⁴ ‘Unless killed in actual fighting, the lives of white men are seldom sacrificed by native African rulers. I see criticism are levelled against the policy of sending out the expedition unarmed, but those must come from those persons who have little knowledge of the procedure in such matters. For the expedition to have been fully armed would have been to court hostility. There is necessarily risk, and a great one, in such expeditions through savage countries, but the best safeguard for a friendly reception to go in an obviously friendly manner – that is, without arms other than the customary revolver and rifle carried by the white men alone, and to trust to the honour of the natives, which in nine cases out of ten, will prove a confidence not reposed in vain. I myself was required some few years ago to make a long and arduous exploring journey into the interior, and it was suggested that my carriers should be armed. I at once repudiated the suggestion, for the reasons given, and took simply my own weapons. The result was what I anticipated. It was apparent on the face of it that my expedition could not be hostile, and I was well received. This was no doubt the policy of the unfortunate expedition under Consul General Phillips, and in itself was the right policy. The mistake was in sending out an expedition important enough in the personnel of its white officers to suggest to the king’s mind a master-stroke, and too small to prevent that master-stroke being executed.’ (Reuter Liverpool Correspondent, gentleman interviewee)
⁵ Captain Boisragon, as the senior surveying officer to the Crown, will be tried formally by court-martial, when, of course, all the facts of the case would be placed on official record (PRESS ASSOCIATION TELEGRAM, Friday Evening, 15 January 1897, LONDON). Boisragon’s accounts must be analysed in the context of answers that would exonerate him when he faced the court-martial back in London for their actions and it is imperative to bear in mind also that all the others were dead and could not contradict him.
⁶ Palaver was a term used to describe formal meetings between the white men and the native leaders.
⁷ The claim that presents were sent to the king should be disregarded as exaggeration and embellishment on the part of Mr. Boisragon. There is no corroborative evidence that any gift other than the white man’s stick was ever sent to the king.
1) Boisragon A, The Benin Massacre, 1897, pages 66 - 75.
2) Kirk, J. Sir, Benin Massacre, Latest News at the Foreign Office, Reasons for Hope, Interview with Sir John Kirk (Central News Telegram); Publication: Guardian 1821 – 2000; Date: Jan 14, 1897, Section: None; Page 2.
3) Phillips, J.R. , 17 Nov 1896. Dispatches to Foreign Office from Consul-General, Catalogue of the Correspondence and Papers of the Niger Coast Protectorate, 268 3/3/3, p. 240. National Archives of Nigeria Enugu.
4) THE BENIN MASSACRE ITS PROBABLE CAUSE. Hobart Newspaper (3rd March 1897), page 3. Retrieved from http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/9392982
5) THE BENIN MASSACRE – MESSAGE FROM THE SURVIVORS - DEPARTURE OF OFFICERS FROM LIVERPOOL – WHY THE EXPEDITION WENT TO BENIN, Reuter Liverpool Correspondent interview with unnamed gentleman, Publication: Guardian 1821 - 2000; Date: Jan 18, 1897, Section: None; Pages 2 -3.
6) THE BENIN MASSACRE - WHY THE EXPEDITION WENT TO BENIN;
Publication: Guardian 1821 - 2000; Date: Jan 18, 1897, Section: None; Page 5.
7) THE DISASTER TO THE BENIN EXPEDITION – SAFETY OF TWO OFFICERS- CONSUL GENERAL MOOR ON THE SITUATION – PRESS ASSOCIATION TELEGRAM, FRIDAY EVENING, 15 January 1897, LONDON, Publication: Guardian 1821 - 2000; Date: Jan 16, 1897, Section: None; Page 8.
8) Roth, H. L, Great Benin, 1903, app xiv – xv.