Signing over the Kingdom, NOT !
Oba Ovonramwem the 36th Oba of Benin was on the throne when the British were getting kingdoms across the West African coast and along the Benin River to sign over their sovereignty to the Queen of England.
The Oba being prudent refused to sign any documents he could not read on the grounds of how was he and his chiefs to know what the paper said and in any case, Benin Kingdom already had a sovereign and good trading relationships across West Africa and with the Europeans.
Judging by the wordings in the treaty example below, it would have been very difficult for any interpreter to accurately translate some of the words from English to Edo or any other local language.
Not only was there a treaty between the absent queen and the local kings and chiefs on behalf of their people, they also had to sign one with the Royal Niger Company. King Ovonramwen the Great smelt a rat and did not cooperate. As we now know they were being duped into surrendering all powers to rule themselves and to control trade in their kingdom. In many cases George Goldie of the Royal Niger Company made up signed treaties for unsuspecting kings and falsely claimed they signed it. Any one of them who was becoming too rich was soon stripped of all opportunity to continue to do so. Savage brutality was meted out to any chief who erred on any of the treaty points.
This brutality and cruelty only diminished with the commencement of the First World War on July 28 1914 when Great Britain needed to divert personnel towards the war efforts.
Those kings gullible enough to have signed the treaties soon realised that they had in fact signed their own banishment warrants. An example was Chief Nana. In the Letter below by Consul General Ralph Moor to the Foreign Office in London in 1894, Nana Olomu the Itsekiri chief promoted later to Governor of Benin River is accused of crimes serious enough for the Foreign Office to sanction his exile from his people and country to the Gold Coast (now Ghana).
Oba Ovonramwen had been correct all along to be cautious and to wait and see the outcomes of the treaty signings with both the Royal Niger Company and the Royal Niger Protectorate by his fellow unsuspecting kings. His good judgement meant that his chiefs did not have to suffer these cruelties which others had to live with. Full credit should be accorded him on this point.
Oba Ovonramwen is also down in the history books as the last king of the Niger River areas to be taken on by the brutal Royal Niger Company headed by George Goldie. They incited events that led to the Benin Massacre of January 4 1897. By May 1897 the writing was already on the wall for the RNC.