1860-1899 | Burning towns and cities | Looting and plunder | Nigeria

The ancient city of Benin looted and burned

A Maxim machine gun in use during the Benin campaign. The London Illustrated News, 27 March 1897, p. 26.
A Maxim machine gun in use during the Benin campaign. The London Illustrated News, 27 March 1897, p. 26.

[ 18 February 1897 ]

The Benin Punitive Expedition

On 18 February 1897, a punitive expedition of 1,200 Royal Marines, bluejackets and African troops, under the command of Rear Admiral Harry Rawson, seized the ancient city of Benin. Situated amid dense rain forest some 200 miles east of Lagos, it was the capital of the kingdom of Benin and was rich in palm oil and rubber. For years it had fiercely maintained its independence from British control, much to the frustration of the Royal African Company, which otherwise already dominated the commerce of southern Nigeria.

In January 1897, the ambush of an unauthorised expedition to Benin City by the acting consul general, James Phillips, and his killing along with all but two of the mission’s European participants, provided a timely pretext for the British to finally annex the kingdom. The evidence suggests that the Oba, or king, had acted on an understandable assumption that the party, numbering close to 300 men, intended to depose him.

Unfortunately, careful considerations of the context mattered little to the British press, which immediately insisted on vengeance; The Times urging that ‘the King of Benin must now share the fate of Nana, Ja-Ja, and other savage potentates who have mistaken the patience of the British government for weakness which could with impunity be defied, and when his stronghold of brutality has been destroyed British authority will most effectively be vindicated by the opening of an important district to civilised intercourse.’1

A map from The Freeman’s Exmouth Journal, 27 February 1897, p 6. I have circled the location of Benin in red.
A map from The Freeman’s Exmouth Journal, 27 February 1897, p 6. The location of Benin is circled in red.

When, after sailing up the Benin River and a night’s march through the forest, Rawson’s troops reached the city, they met according to a report published in several newspapers ‘with a more determined resistance than had been expected,’ and it was only due to their overwhelming firepower, which included rockets, seven pounders and a rapid fire Maxim machine gun, that after several hours of fierce fighting they captured all the key strongpoints including the Royal Palace, at the cost of just one officer and three men killed.

The number of African casualties probably exceeded a thousand but were never counted. Instead, attention was focused on the highly profitable prospect of looting the now almost empty city since, as one correspondent explained, the ‘people awestruck’ had ‘fled as one man.’2 The same reporter, as he wondered through the deserted streets, recorded his amazement at the

‘evidences of civilisation which one meets at every hand and which are shown in various way,’ adding excitedly that ‘still greater interest has been excited by traces of a civilisation much more ancient than probably that of Egypt,’ and that the Royal Palace, ‘was full of valuable antiquities, and would prove a splendid field for antiquarians.’3 

The looting of Benin’s antiquities

Antiquarians would never get the opportunity to view them in situ, as Rawson authorised the immediate removal of thousands of priceless bronze and ivory sculptures and metal plaques, some dating back to the thirteenth century, that decorated the vast compound. At least four thousand of these were transported back to Britain.

A ‘large quantity of quaintly carved ivory,’ was gifted by Admiral Rawson to the Queen, while other spoils were acquired by the British Museum, and, as the Illustrated London News informed its readers, ‘by Mr. Horniman for his Free Museum at Forest Hill, where they will doubtless be inspected with much interest by the public.’4 The remainder was sold off by the Admiralty as a contribution to the cost of the punitive operation.

One of those auctions appears to have taken place less than a month after Benin’s sacking, at the sale room of Mr. J. C. Stevens of King Street, Covent Garden, at which ‘arms and armour, native weapons and bronzes and curios were sold.’ One newspaper observed that ‘the number of items included was one of the largest ever put into one day’s sale,’ adding ‘some of the work was of a rather high character for a civilisation so savage as that of Benin.’5

Many were snapped up a bargain prices and General Augustus Pitt-Rivers, who had founded Oxford University’s Pitt-Rivers Museum thirteen years earlier, was one of the successful bidders, acquiring a ‘bronze mounted plaque of six figures of ancient origin’ for a mere eleven guineas (about £11).6

By September, the Bristol Times and Mirror was able to report that ‘the public had their first opportunity today to view the Benin loot (those items reserved for the British Museum) sent to this country on behalf of the government,’ explaining that they included ‘excellent samples of the rude art of Western Africa,’ and adding that it was ‘a pity the Museum authorities have not given more publicity to it.’7 

No comment in any newspaper was made as to the ethics of displaying such loot and even today, despite having a far better understanding of the religious and cultural value of the antiquities, the British, the Pitt Rivers and Horniman museums are still (as of April 2021) avoiding any definite commitment to return them.

Unluckily for the looters, they had not completed the plundering of the city, when on 21 February, during demolition work on selected buildings, a blaze was ignited which spread out of control, the conflagration feeding off the thatched roofs of the buildings until it engulfed the entire city. Ten days later, Rawson belatedly informed the Admiralty that ‘a serious fire broke out at Benin during the occupation of the town by the British expedition,’ adding that ‘there was no water to spare, so no attempt was made to quench the flames.’8 

The Illustrated London News noted with dismay that ‘the fierce fire which devastated a great portion of Benin City, after its occupation by the expeditionary force destroyed much of the spoil which would otherwise have been brought back,’ and ‘entailed the loss of much magnificent ivory and many objects of antiquarian interest.’9 Adopting a similarly despondent tone, a special correspondent cited in the Edinburgh Evening News noted that ‘many splendid ivories were quite charred.’10 There was, however, no comment as to the human cost of the fire for the thousands who had now lost all their homes, possessions and livestock.


  1. The Times, cited in Ian Hernon, Britain’s Forgotten Wars: Colonial Campaigns of the 19th Century, The History Press, Stroud, 2008, p. 413.
  2. ‘Benin City Captured,’ The Lincolnshire Chronicle, 27 February 1897, p. 3 and ‘The Benin Expedition: Capture of the City – Stubborn Resistance,’ The Bristol Times and Mirror, 27 February 1897, p. 12.
  3. ‘The Capture of Benin,’ The Edinburgh Evening News, 6 March 1897, p. 4.
  4. Regarding the gift to the Queen see ‘Presents from Benin,’ The Midland Daily Telegraph, 6 April, 1897, p. 4 and regarding the Horniman Museum see ‘Spoils from Benin,’ The Illustrated London News, 10 April 1897, p. 493. See also Bob Majiri Oghene Etemiku, ‘Looted Benin Arts: Before the West Returns Them,’ The Guardian (Nigeria), 20 February 2020, accessed online at url https://guardian.ng/opinion/looted-benin-arts-before-the-west-returns-them/
  5. ‘Sale of Curiosities from Benin,’ The Leicester Daily Post, 8 March 1898, p. 8.
  6. Ibid.
  7. ‘Our London Letter,’ The Bristol TImes and Mirror, 21 September 1897, p. 8.
  8. ‘The Capture of Benin,’ Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, 7 March 1897, p. 4.
  9. ‘Spoils from Benin,’ The Illustrated London News, 10 April 1897, p. 493.
  10. ‘The Capture of Benin,’ The Edinburgh Evening News, 6 March 1897, p. 4.

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