African villages shelled, machine gunned and burned to the ground

Depiction of a village on the Niger – c 1888.
Louis Gustave Binger via The British Library.

16 November 1882

Shortly after dawn on 16 November 1882,  the gunboat HMS Flint shelled, rocketed and opened up with its Gatling gun on the village of Abari on the Forcados river, a navigable channel of the Niger Delta. A report carried in at least two British newspapers noted that the bombardment was maintained ‘for some time…. the village was set on fire and several natives were killed,’ adding that ‘subsequently a boat’s crew, under the command of the senior lieutenant… landed and completed the destruction of the place.’1

Edward Hewett, a rigid archetypal Victorian major general with a droopy moustache who had recently been appointed Her Majesty’s Consul for the Bights of Benin and Biafra, watched the carnage from the ship’s deck. He had ordered the complete destruction of Abari as a punishment for the disappearance of the British manager and four employees of a nearby factory, who he suspected had either been sold into slavery or murdered.2 He then ordered the crew to steam further up river and, to cite a British press report, ‘did the same for Victoria [ aka Asaba] village’, who’s population he also deemed to be complicit in the earlier crime merely due to its proximity.3 The following day, another nearby settlement, Torofani, was also destroyed, despite protestations of innocence by its inhabitants.4

It is interesting to contrast the immediate and indiscriminate extrajudicial punishment of the villagers for the disappearance of the British factory manager and employees, with the halfhearted legal procedures which were followed when a fifteen year old African girl was killed four years earlier by British trained missionaries, Mr and Mrs Williams and Mr and Mrs John, stationed at Onitsha on the River Niger. They had illegally kept two slave girls on whom they inflicted a vicious flogging, then forcing their schoolchildren to whip them and rub red pepper into their wounds; one of the girls dying a few hours later.

When local women asked Mrs Williams ‘Surely this is not a part of your teaching ?’ she had insisted angrily that ‘she had the right to do as she pleased with them’.  Initially, the colonial government was reluctant even to prosecute and it cliamed that the witnesses were ‘too ill.’ When, after three years, the case finally came to court in July 1882, the four were convicted only on the lesser charge of manslaughter. Colonial historian Sir William Geary, writing in ‘Nigeria Under British Rule,’ explained that the procrastination was because ‘the Queen’s writ ran but slowly and intermittently up the Niger,’ and of course this was true if the victim was merely an African.5

FOOTNOTES

  1. ‘Shelling an African Village,’ The People, 24 December 1882, p. 1, ‘British Expedition Up the River,’ The Edinburgh Evening News, 1 January 1883, p. 4 and Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa, 1876-1912, Abacus, London 2003 p. 193.
  2. ‘British Expedition up the Niger,’ The Edinburgh Evening News, 1 January 1883, p. 4 and ‘Punishing the Niger Pirates,’ The Yorkshire Gazette, 6 January 1883, p. 4.
  3. Ibid. Victoria was probably the village of Asaba on the river Niger. It is the name given in ‘Expedition up the River Niger by HMS Flirt,’ The Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, 10 January 1883, p. 2. Thomas Pakenham also mentions Asaba as one of the villages destroyed. The Scramble for Africa, 1876-1912, Abacus, London 2003 p. 193.
  4. ‘British Expedition up the Niger,’ The Edinburgh Evening News, 1 January 1883, p. 4 and ‘Punishing the Niger Pirates,’ The Yorkshire Gazette, 6 January 1883, p. 4.
  5. ‘Missionaries in West Africa,’ The Times, 12 April 1883, p. 5 and Sir William M. N. Geary, Nigeria under British Rule, Routledge, London 2013, pp. 173-174.

Please feel welcome to post comments below.  If you have any questions please email alisdare@gmail.com

© 2020 Alisdare Hickson All rights reserved

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