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A Critical Analysis of the Treaty

As earlier indicated, the Treaty was the standard one used in consolidating the British stranglehold on different parts of the Oil Rivers Protectorate which the British had proclaimed on June 5, 1885. in fact, Galway had signed the Treaty as ‘Deputy Commissioner and Vice-Consul, Benin District, Oil River Protectorate,’ in other words, a vice-roy performing routine functions within his area of jurisdiction!


The opening clause of the Treaty tells an obvious lie to the effect that it was in compliance with the request of the Oba of Benin that the Queen of England intended to “extend to him, and to the territory under his authority and jurisdiction, her gracious favour and protection.” The British were impelled to so pretend in order to mask the fact that the Treaty was a colonial diktat. However, Art. 2 immediately exposes the true intent of the British to deprive the Oba of his independence at the foreign plane by stipulating that the Oba “agrees and promises to refrain from entering into any correspondence, Agreement, or Treaty with any foreign nation or power, except with the knowledge and sanction of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government,” a variant of the so-called ‘negative-sovereignty’ clause. 39

In other words, the Oba, to all intents and purposes, was to become a vassal of Queen Victoria, totally incapacitated in foreign affairs in the classical sense of a protected state. More significant is the fact that full and exclusive jurisdiction, whether civil or criminal, over British subjects and their property in Benin as well as over foreign persons enjoying British protection in Benin was reversed to Her Britannic Majesty. This was to be exercised by “such consular or other officers as Her Majesty shall appoint for that purpose.” 40

As I had observed elsewhere, treaties such as the one in question could not be likened to the capitulation treaties signed with the Ottoman Empire, under which certain sovereignty. 41 On the contrary, the Anglo-Benin Treaty was a leonine treaty forced down the throat of the African party with the singular objective of usurping the powers and functions of the Benin monarch.

More poignantly, all disputes between the Oba of Benin and other Kings and Chiefs or between him and British or foreign traders or between the Oba and other neighbouring ethnic groups, which could not be settled amicably between the two parties, were to be submitted to “the British Consular or other officers appointed by Her Britannic Majesty to exercise jurisdiction in the Benin territories for arbitration and decision, or for arrangement.” 42

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This was, quite plainly, another act of usurpation of the powers and responsibilities of the Oba within his domain. For, if the British had actually accorded due recognition to the Oba, it would never have crossed their mind to erode and hijack the judicial powers of the monarch over all persons, things or acts located within his domain. Not only did it smack of insufferable arrogance and race supremacy tendencies to accord extra-territorial status to all British subjects as well as British-protected persons in Benin, the action of the British was imperialist in nature and gregarious in the extreme.

Art. V of the Treaty was, arguably, the most outrageous. Under it, the Oba of Benin engaged “to assist the British Consular or other officers in the execution of such duties as may be assigned to them; and, further, to act upon their advice in matters relating to the administration of justice, the development of the resources of the country, the interest of commerce, or in any other matter in relation to peace, order, and good government, and the general progress of civilization.”

Even the most liberal reading of this clause cannot disguise the complete take-over of the sovereignty of the Benin Kingdom. The brazenness of the British endeavour was, quite simply, incredible. That an alien without firing a shot could extract such surrender remains a mystery. Perhaps, as happened elsewhere in Nigeria, the interpreter did not do a good job in communicating the true intent embodied in the text of the Treaty.43 perhaps Oba Ovonranmwen was agreeable to consenting to the British proposals as long as war was avoided. But whatever rationale one can provide, the Treaty was yet another act of chicanery perpetrated against the African people by those out to subjugate and humiliate us.

As if the was not enough, the British compelled the Oba to open up his territory to trade by all foreigners, with rights to own houses and factories therein.44  Besides, no hindrances were to be placed in the way of Christian missionaries while all forms of religious worship and religious ordinances were to be exercised throughout the domain of the Oba.45  In effect, it was ‘Open Sesame’ for all alien adventurers to exploit the wealth and resources of the Benin kingdom. And, as a final seal on the unequal arrangement, the Treaty provided that in the event of any wreckage of any British vessel within his domain, the Oba was obliged to render assistance to the crew and do everything in his power to prevent plunder and deliver any salvaged goods to the rightful owners of their agents while the resident British Consular officer should exercise powers of arbitration for any claims for salvage.46

Interestingly, the Treaty merely provided that it shall come into operation “so far as may be practicable, from the date of its signature.”47 While there was no provision for implementation

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by way of municipal action by both Parties, it has been observed that the British actually saw the Treaty as a mere stop-gap before unleashing their expedition aimed as they claimed at stamping out human sacrifice in Benin.48

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