Rawson and Moor: The Capture of Benin City (1897)

These extracts from the first offical reports sent back to London about the actions undertaken by the British admiralty forces in the »punitive expedition« of 1897 to Benin City, provide a sense of the discourse that justified the destructions that occured in the city and the looting of cultural and cultual objects from the abandoned city that ensued. Transcribing such texts for easy online retrieval always presents the potential of contributing to a reproduction by other readers of the discursive violence that they represent, but the chosen extracts provide very important elements for understanding the destiny of Benin’s architecture and cultural objects, and the dispersal of Benin royal objects in museums and private collections across Europe.

commented by Felicity Bodenstein

Original text   Brief biography   Commentary   Sources and literature

Despatches [sic], of which the following are Admiral Harry H Rawson, C.B. Commander-in-Chief on the Cape of Good Hope and West Coast of Africa Station, reporting operations against the King of Benin, and the capture of Benin City.

source: Extracts from The London Gazette, May 7, 1897, bound in a volume of archives of the British Admiralty at Kew National Archives, London: ADM 123/128, file: Cape Station – Vice Admiral Sir H. Rawson. Punitive Expeditions in British East Africa, Zanzibar and Benin City (1885–1895).

Extracts from a day by day account with paragraphs numbered from 1 to 43 of events as he witnessed them, signed Harry H. Rawson, Rear-Admiral, Commander-in-Chief, H.M.S. »St.George« at Forcados, 27th of February, 1897 [pp. 2517–2521].


23. On the 18th instant, […]

About a mile beyond this we suddenly emerged from the bush path into a causeway about fifty yards wide, running at right angles to our path, with dense bush on each side. Here a very heavy fire was opened upon our men; and the enemy were, for the first time, actually seen – a body of them attempting to charge the head of our column as we advanced out of the narrow bush path. A Maxim, however, and a few volleys from the »St. George’s« A Company soon drove them back into the bush. There were also some heavy guns fired from the causeway which surrounded the King’s compound.

An advance was at once made along the road to the King’s palace, under a heavy fire from both sides, which, at such close quarters did us considerable damage.

25. At daylight on the 19th instant, […]

26. In the afternoon a strong force was marched out, and destroyed Chief Ijuma’s compound.

27. Orders had been sent to Ologbo beach for provisions and ammunition to be forwarded on to Benin.

29. The 20th and 21st were occupied in preparing a defensive position for the Protectorate Force, and in getting water for our march down.

30. Two parties were sent out to destroy the Queen-Mother’s and Chief Ichudi’s compounds. Also the sacrificial and crucifixion trees, and the whole of the Ju Ju houses.

31. The King, with all the inhabitants having disappeared, I was unable to carry out their Lordships’ wish that he should be captured.

32. We heard, from some liberated slaves, that no white prisoners had been brought to Benin City; but all the effects of the late ill-fated expedition were found in the King’s palace. […]

42. Captain Charles Campbell, C.B., H.M.S. »Theseus«, commanded the rear guard at the attack on the city; and by his prompt action at the fire which broke out on the 21st instant, saved the lives of the wounded.

Despatch from Consul-General Moor to the Marquess of Salisbury, Benin City, February 24, 1897 [pp. 2530–2533].

The City presented the most appalling sight, particularly around the King’s quarters, from which four large main roads lead to the compounds of the bigger Chiefs, the city being very scattered. Sacrificial trees in the open spaces still held the corpses of the latest victims – seven in all were counted – and on every path a freshly-sacrificed corpse was found lying, apparently placed there to prevent pursuit. One large open space, 200 to 300 yards in length was strewn with human bones and bodies in all stages of decomposition.

Within the walls the sight was, if possible, more terrible. Seven large sacrifice compounds were found inclosed [sic] by walls 14 to 16 feet high, each 2 to 3 acres in extent; against the end wall in each, under a roof, was raised a daïs with an earthen (clay) sacrificial altar about 50 feet long close against the wall on which were placed the gods to whom sacrifice is made – mostly being carved ivory tusks, standing upright, mounted at base, in hideously-constructed brass heads. In front of each ivory god was a small earthen mound on which the victim’s forehead would apparently be placed. The altars were covered with streams of dried human blood and the stench was too frightful.


A fire unfortunate only in that we were unprepared for it, broke out about 4 p.m. on the 21st instant and destroyed the King’s and all surrounding quarters, leaving us only open camp; but the cleansing effects of it compensated fully for the destruction of shelter and loss of baggage and provisions which occurred. Fortunately, just as the force was again settling down, a carrier column under escort arrived with provisions.


It is imperative that a most severe lesson be given the Kings, Chiefs, and Ju Ju men of all surrounding countries, that white men cannot be killed with impunity, and that human sacrifices, with the oppression of the weak and poor, must cease.
All buildings on this site, saturated as it is with blood of human victims, will be levelled to the ground, and no building of any description will ever again be allowed to be erected thereon. If a town is again built it must be nearer the water, which is now three miles distant.


Brief biography

The social status of the authors respectively represent the combined efforts of the Niger Coast Protectorate and the British admiralty services in organizing the incursion into the territory of Benin City: Rear-Admiral Harry H. Rawson (1843–1910) already had forty years of experience in the Royal Navy, including the Second Opium War in China and the Anglo-Egyptian war of 1882. In 1895, he was appointed commander of British naval forces at the West Coast Africa station at the Cape of Good Hope and it was from here that he set out on the Benin expedition, commanding a fleet of nine ships armed and manned as meticulously documented in this volume of archives, along with his prior »punitive expeditions« in Africa since 1885, in particular in Zanzibar. Consul-General Ralph Moor (1860–1909), on the other hand, was a man of more particular knowledge of the regional context. After a career that since 1891 had seen him rise in the ranks of the Protectorate administration of the Niger Coast region, he had been named Consul-General of the NCP just a year earlier, in 1896, taking over the position held by Sir Henry Lionel Galway (1859–1949).

Commentary – A Chronicle of Operations, and an Opportunity for Justification

In 1892, Sir Galway tried to negotiate a trade agreement with the Oba Ovenramwen (1888–1914) of Benin to allow for the free passage of goods through his territory and the development of the palm oil industry. As early as 1895, Moor’s letters to the Foreign Office put forward the necessity to oblige the Oba to adhere to the terms of the treaty and to establish better trading conditions, this he stated should be achieved if necessary by use of force (Igbafe 1970, 393). Other leaders of the region, such as Nana Olomu, chief of the Itsekiri in 1894, had already been removed in order to facilitate territorial expansion. In the case of Benin, a specific event finally convinced the Foreign Office in London to authorize military action. During Moor’s absence, his acting Consul-General James R. Phillips proceeded on a visit to Benin, that has been described by British sources as a peaceful expedition to negotiate a solution and by Nigerian sources as a reconnaissance mission, designed to prepare military action. The visit ended in the loss of the entire group of British envoys and their carriers as they were killed outside the walls of the city for refusing to turn back, despite having been informed that during this time of religious festival it would be impossible for the Oba of Benin to receive them.

It was this confrontation that led to the issue of the »punitive expedition« described here, the purported intention of which is recorded in the last lines quoted here by Moor: »It is imperative that a most severe lesson be given the Kings, Chiefs, and JuJu men of all surrounding countries, that white men cannot be killed with impunity, and that human sacrifices, with the oppression of the weak and poor, must cease.« The humanitarian and punitive reasoning put forward by Moor came to entirely erase the explicitly economic rational that he and other members of the Protectorate administration promoted in the months and years running up the events of February 1897.

Early accounts of the causes, the events and the consequences of the Benin Expedition of February 1897 are inherently divided. These extracts from the first accounts provided by British members of the expedition do not have an equivalent written counterpart on the Benin side of this case. Benin and Nigerian historians later had to rely on oral narratives and a critical reading of British sources such as this to establish their »own« version of this history (Igbafe 1970, 1979, 2018) and British historians (Home 1982) have equally sought to deconstruct narratives elements of this account as well as of the media coverage the »punitive expedition« received in Britain, the terms of which were more readily available to a large public (Coombes 1994). Yet, even the wording used to describe these events remains fraught as Nigerian sources more readily refer to them as an »invasion« or a »massacre«.

In recent retellings, these initial military reports are rarely quoted directly, their bias makes them difficult to use and of course they also reproduce elements of a propaganda discourse that has been largely challenged, or left aside as delicate, difficult histories so often are. In particular, the reference to human sacrifices as a justification for both the slave trade and later colonizing activities, have rendered any clear historical account of such practices nearly impossible to pursue (Law 1985). Transcribing such texts for easy online retrieval always presents the potential of contributing to a reproduction by other readers of the discursive violence that they represent, but the chosen extracts provide very important elements for understanding the destiny of Benin’s architecture and cultural objects, and the dispersal of Benin royal objects in museums and private collections across Europe. As their ownership is increasingly challenged due to their provenance as military seizures, these first reports provide some vital elements for a detailed understanding of how Benin art and culture was perceived in this »encounter«. Though strictly speaking such reports are designed to provide a chronicle of operations, clearly their authors also perceived them as an opportunity to justify the nature of the operations undertaken and their outcome.

The taking of Benin City lead to repeated discussions that tried to establish the extent of the destructions that the taking of Benin City provoked. Much has been said about the asymmetry of the conflict, made evident by the described use of Maxim machine guns. The origin of the fire that burned down a large part of the king’s quarter has also been a point of contention. It remains a key aspect in the memory of the events, especially as the objects, in particular the carved ivory tusks, bear visible burn marks that attest to what happened in a way that can still be easily remarked by those who observe them in ethnographic museums across the world. These extracts concur with internal correspondence in indicating the accidental nature of the blaze, which also destroyed a great deal of military equipment as it spread throughout the royal compound, perceived by Moor nevertheless as »cleansing«.

Benin sources have however maintained the idea of a voluntary burning of the city. Though perhaps factually unsound in relation to the burning of the king’s palace or compound on the 21st of February; such a position clearly reflects the memory of voluntary intent at a tabula rasa that is corroborated by these texts. On the days that followed the taking of the city, parties were sent out »to destroy« the palaces of the queen Mother and the main chiefs. Moor further states in relation to the royal palace that »All buildings on this site, saturated as it is with blood of human victims, will be levelled to the ground, and no building of any description will ever again be allowed to be erected thereon.« Despite this clear wording these same texts were used by some British historians to argue against defining what happened to the town as a »sack« as in a text published by the Benin specialist and curator at the British Museum, William B. Fagg (Fagg 1992) whose discussion only focuses on the fire of the 21st of February despite obvious references to other destructions. It should be added that a more general though perhaps less spectacular strategy of erasure had ramifications for traditional and religious practice in the entire area of southern Nigeria as laid out by Z. S. Strother in an article where she examines attacks on shrines and altars in the wider area from the 1880s onwards. In particular, she points to the term »juju« (perhaps stemming from the French joujou or toy), used by Moor here to refer to religious practitioners, as a term that evoked derision and horror, contributing to a colonial legacy »that has left many contemporary Nigerians ambivalent or hostile to the practice of African religions« (Strother 2017, 22).

It follows that it remains extremely sensitive to comment on the issue of human sacrifices presented here as one of the principal motivations of British forces. Generally considered to have been grossly exaggerated (Law 1985, 55, 66–67) here as elsewhere in order to establish the need for intervention, it is difficult to measure to what extent Moor’s and others’ observations are predetermined by a topos that was regularly used to justify slavery and later colonial activities and refers to over four hundred years of European descriptions of West Africa. Igbafe underlines that in the years running up to 1897: »once the consuls identified human sacrifices with the obstruction to trade, it became usual to regard any event in Benin which retarded trade as involving human sacrifices.« It is thus impossible to extricate this historical question from the implied moral issue as seen from an interested Western perspective and to approach the reality of this cultural system, which did include many forms of sacrificial practice. One widely held position is that certain traditional practices of sacrifice may have become more widespread during the period running up to the events of 1897 as a reaction to the encroaching menace posed by the expansion of European colonial powers. However, the imaginary of human heads being cut off on the altars as described by Moor, is a figure of pure fantasy, yet it remained part of the narrative attached to these pieces in the early years of the sale and circulation of Benin objects, enhancing their allure as trophies from a purportedly barbarous people.

The characterisation by Moor of the objects, which today are worth millions on the international art market (Bodenstein 2018), as »hideously-constructed brass heads« is particularly interesting as it is one of the first written appreciations that we have of Benin City artefacts. His predecessor, Henry Gallwey (later written Galway) was considerably more neutral (and considerably less judgmental) in his evaluation of the objects and their context during his visit to the city seven years earlier, making no mention of the issue of sacrifices and merely stating: »In each compound is a fetish shrine, composed of numbers of elephants’ tusks, some very beautifully carved, together with a collection of native brass-work, the whole freely besprinkled with blood« (Gallwey 1893, 30).

However, his preference, as in the case of Moor, also clearly went to the ivory pieces which he describes as »beautifully carved«. His reference in the 1893 report to the »tremendous stores of ivory in possession of the king of that land« may have allowed the administrators of the Niger Coast Protectorate to consider ivory stocks as a potential source of income for the expedition, as is often suggested, though there is very little archival evidence of this. However, it is clear that the most immediate sales organized by Moor of the objects taken in the city was a sale of ivories worth £ 800, a sum that he claims in a letter to the Foreign Office would have been higher had it not been for the fire in the King’s compound that had partially destroyed or damaged the tusks (FO 2/121, folio 241–242, 5th of March 1897. Kew National Archives, London). It was considered a source of income that might help to pay for what had been lost in military equipment during the fire itself. In December 1897, Moor calculated that the entire cost of the Expedition paid for by Protectorate funds was £ 5,365 and 13 shillings.This figure does not however include the costs incurred directly by the admiralty.

In later correspondence with Charles Read at the British Museum, Moor referred to the objects as »trophies« or »curios« of little interest. Nevertheless, he took as his own personal souvenirs two ivory masks and refrained from parting with them until his death by suicide in 1909 at which point they were acquired by Charles Gabriel Seligman. They would later come to be seen as most precious of all the pieces removed in 1897 and can be seen respectively in the British Museum and in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

In a period that saw the first attempts to codify behaviour with regard to historical and cultural property, there may have been a heightened sense for the need to justify such taking of spoils and trophies as they were called. Indeed, Benin City was taken just two years before the first Hague Convention of 1899, prohibiting the »seizure of, and destruction, or intentional damage done to such institutions, to historical monuments, works of art or science« (the Convention with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land was established on 29 July 1899, with articles 28 and 56 pertaining in particular to the issue of spoils of war and the destruction of enemy property).

The continuing changes in ethical discourses concerning military activities, in particular in the context of so called »small wars«, including those »punitive expeditions against tribes bordering upon distant colonies« (Callwell 1906, 22) has, particularly in postcolonial times, continued to influence and transform how the story of the capture of Benin City has been told.

Felicity Bodenstein is a PostDoc fellow at Technische Universität Berlin. Her research focus is on the history of archaeological and ethnographic collections, and her current project for translocations is entitled »A Twentieth Century History of Absence and Presence in Benin City: Presentations and Representations of Objects Looted in 1897«.

Sources and literature

Felicity Bodenstein, »Notes for a Long Term Approach to the Price History of Brass and Ivory Objects taken from Benin City in 1897«, in: Christine Howald, Brm Approach to the Price History of Brass and Acquiring Cultures. World Art on Western Markets, Berlin, New York 2018.

Charles Edward Callwell, Small Wars. Their Principles and Practice. 3rd edition vol. London 1906.

Annie E Coombes, Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture, and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England, New Haven 1994.

William Fagg, »Le pillage qui n’eut jamais lieu | Benin: the Sack that never was«, in: Art Tribal 1992, pp. 37–42.

H. L. Gallwey, »Journeys in the Benin Country, West Africa«, in: The Geographical Journal 1 (2): 1893, pp. 122–30, available online.

Robert Home, City of Blood Revisited: A New Look at the Benin Expedition of 1897, London 1982.

Philip Aigbona Igbafe, »The Fall of Benin: A Reassessment«, in: The Journal of African History 11 (3) 1970, pp. 385–400, available online.

Philip Aigbona Igbafe, Benin under British Administration. The Impact of Colonial Rule on an African Kingdom, 1897–1938, New Jersey 1979.

Philip Aigbona Igbafe, »Oba Ovonramwen Nssh Administration. The Impact of Colonial Rule on an African Ki«, in: Oriiz U. Onuwaje (ed.), The Benin Monarchy. An Anthology of Benin History, pp. 295–309, Nigeria 2018.

Robin Law, »Human Sacrifice in Pre-Colonial West Africa«, in: African Affairs 84 (334), 1985, pp. 53–87, available online.

Zoë S. Strother, »›Breaking Juju‹, Breaking Trade: Museums and the Culture of Iconoclasm in Southern Nigeria«, in: Anthropology and Aesthetics 67–68, January 2017, pp. 21–41, available online.

Cite this article as:
Rawson and Moor: The Capture of Benin City (1897), commented by Felicity Bodenstein, in: Translocations. Anthologie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Quellentexte zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike, https://translanth.hypotheses.org/ueber/rawson-moor, published 19.10.2018.

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