Admiral Sir Harry Rawson was a renowned British naval officer who became famous for leading the 1897 Benin Expedition, which ended in the capture and sacking of Benin City, the eventual fall of the Benin Kingdom, and its incorporation into colonial Nigeria.
Admiral Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson was a British naval officer known for his service in the Royal Navy. He gained recognition for his leadership during the 1897 Benin expedition, where his troops captured and sacked Benin City, resulting in the Kingdom of Benin’s demise and its subsequent incorporation into colonial Nigeria.
A Prelude to the Expedition
In the late 19th century, the Kingdom of Benin, located in present-day Nigeria, was renowned for its artistic and cultural achievements. The kingdom’s ruling elite, headed by the Oba (King) of Benin, fostered a rich artistic tradition that produced intricate bronze sculptures, exquisite ivory carvings, and awe-inspiring architectural wonders. These artifacts held immense cultural and historical significance, symbolizing the power and heritage of the Benin kingdom.
However, the rise of British imperialism in Africa and the scramble for territories led to increasing tension between the British Empire and the Kingdom of Benin. The British were driven by both economic interests and the desire to expand their colonial influence. They aimed to establish control over the region and gain access to its abundant natural resources.
In 1897, an incident unfolded that presented the British with the opportunity they had been seeking. In November 1896, James Phillips, the Acting Consul-General of the Niger Coast Protectorate, formally requested permission from his superiors in London to visit Benin City. His purpose was to discuss a trade agreement made between the Oba in Benin City and the British, which the Oba was not honoring. In late December 1896, without waiting for a reply or approval, Phillips embarked on the journey. Despite warnings, the delegation continued, eventually encountering resistance from the Benin military. This confrontation led to the deaths of several members of the British expedition, including Phillips.
This tragic event served as a pretext for the British government to launch a punitive expedition against Benin, seeking retribution and, conveniently, an opportunity to exert control over the region. Sir Harry Rawson was appointed as the leader of this military campaign, entrusted with the task of avenging the deaths of the British delegation and safeguarding British interests.
Benin Expedition of 1897
On January 12, 1897, Sir Harry Rawson, the commander of the Royal Navy forces at the Cape of Good Hope and West Coast of Africa Station, was appointed by the Admiralty to lead a mission aimed at invading the Kingdom of Benin and apprehending the Benin Oba. This operation was officially designated as the Benin Punitive Expedition.
In February 1897, Sir Harry Rawson and his contingent of approximately 1200 royal marines set out on the Benin Expedition. Within nine days, the British military, armed with superior weaponry and technology, swiftly overpowered the defenses of Benin City. They successfully captured the Oba and his palace, while also demolishing the city wall.
During the Benin Expedition, eight members of the punitive force were officially reported as killed in action. The exact count of military and civilian casualties among the Benin people was not estimated, but it is believed to have been significantly high.
Following the capture of Benin City, a wave of looting and destruction swept through the city, targeting houses, sacred sites, ceremonial buildings, and the palaces of numerous high-ranking chiefs. This destructive rampage extended to the very Palace building itself, which was set ablaze. Oba Ovonramwen, the ruler of the Benin Empire, was dethroned and exiled to Calabar, along with two of his wives. Consequently, a British Resident was installed to oversee the governance of the region.
The Benin Bronzes, comprising a remarkable collection of sculptures and artifacts, were among the items stolen from the royal palace and various locations in Benin City. These bronze artworks, created with exceptional craftsmanship, stood as a testament to the zenith of Benin’s artistic accomplishments. These pillaged treasures were confiscated and later distributed among European museums, private collectors, and art dealers.
Approximately 40% of the art found its way to the British Museum, while other works were given to individual members of the armed forces as spoils of war. The remaining pieces were sold at auction by the Admiralty to cover the expenses of the expedition.
Harry Rawson was decorated for his role in the expedition, receiving the Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath and a Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Medal.
Thirteen years after leading the Benin expedition, Sir Harry Rawson passed away on November 3, 1910, in London, just two days before his 67th birthday, following an operation for appendicitis. His legacy remains closely associated with the controversial Benin Expedition of 1897, a historical event that continues to spark discussions about colonialism, cultural theft, and the rightful ownership of plundered artifacts.