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The Treaty of Benin with the British of March 26, 1892

Pursuant to the expansionist designs of the British in the Benin area, in particular, and the Oil Rivers Protectorate, in general, it was felt that Benin should be brought speedily within the ambit of the protectorate.25 Not only did the British frown at the overlordship of the Oba of Benin in the hinterland in the Urhobo and Itsekiri areas, the sphere of influence of the Oba, especially in relation to trade and other matters was sufficiently irksome to the British that they decided that it was time for flag to follow trade. The appointment of Henry Galway as Vice-Consul for the entire area in 1891 signaled the intention of the British to plant their feet firmly on ground.


However, there was the small matter of how to disguise their intentions before the powerful Oba Ovonranmwen of Benin who generally superintended the trade in Benin and the adjoining areas in items such as palm oil, rubber, gum copal, gum Arabic, incense gums and timber, much to the annoyance of the British.26 As the British had done elsewhere, a carrot and stick approach was felt desirable in the circumstance. While they were most uncomfortable with the Oba’s predilection for what they considered fetish practices, the British decided to postpone their rendezvous with “the City of Blood”27 until much later, opting instead for negotiation with a ruler between whom there was no love lost. Accordingly, it was in this conjuncture that the 1892 Treaty was hatched. It should be pointed out immediately that the feelings of distrust and mistrust were mutual and the negotiations that led to the treaty smacked of a cat-and-mouse game.28

It is instructive that the British were determined to assuage the loss of prestige they had suffered when previous visits of emissaries were shunned by the Oba and his chiefs.29

Hence, this time around, Galway had commenced his mission by making elaborate plans, including reconnaissance of the Benin River as well as dispatch of numerous messengers to assure the Oba of the peaceful intentions of the British.30 However, he still managed some arm-twisting by informing the Oba that he would make only one attempt to negotiate and that

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he would not be offering any presents unless and until a treaty had been signed, unlike previously, when presents were given on arrival, a fact which he believed had caused the failure of the mission.31 The emphasis on the offering of presents by a visitor to his host became somewhat trivialized when it was actually an African tradition merely symbolizing the bona fides of a visitor before his host rather than a bribe or “dash” which the British had transformed it into.

Galway had arrived in Benin without an armed escort but could not be immediately received by the Oba. Nevertheless, the Vice-Consul took advantage of meeting the principal chiefs of Benin, by explaining the purpose of his mission with a view to softening the ground. However, when the chiefs could not deliver by expediting his meeting with the Oba, he felt it necessary to issue a thinly-veiled threat to depart at once and not return as a ‘friend’ if they were not forthcoming.32  In response, the chiefs only requested that he met them again, but this time, with only ‘the three leading men’. Although he agreed, he considered them all ‘a set of intriguing and lying individuals’, hell-bent on preventing or frustrating his meeting with the Oba. 33 Eventually, the Oba signaled his agreement to meet him but not until after he had been compelled to watch a specially arranged wrestling match, perhaps to symbolize the impending encounter with the Benin monarch.

After another two hours of waiting, the Oba finally appeared in full regalia, accompanied by his chiefs and courtiers to receive the British agent. Galway immediately rejected the Oba’s interpreter who he believed to be incompetent and substituted Ajayi, his own Akure interpreter, without any objection from the Benin side. The interpreter was saddled with the task of passing Galway’s remarks to the Oba through the principal chiefs. 34

While all this was going on, the Oba kept consulting with his chiefs, repeatedly inquiring whether Galway’s mission was for peace or war, more so as the Oni of Ife was said to have sent him a warning in 1890 that the Ifa oracle had foretold a great disaster in Benin35 while a man about to be sacrificed during the ugie-ivie ceremony in May, 1891 had also reportedly prophesied that white men would come to ‘spoil Ado.’ 36

It needs be emphasized that Galway had come armed with a standard form treaty of protection, modeled along the lines of the one earlier signed with Jaja. He was not actually prepared for negotiations. All he wanted was the signature of the Oba on the prepared instrument. However, once the Oba was assured that there would be no ‘war palavers’, he agreed to give his consent to the treaty though he himself refused to sign it and even refused to touch the pen pleading that such would have been in contravention of an important ritual.37 In the event, all the chiefs touched the pen in symbolic acceptance of the treaty as soon as

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 the Oba’s name (‘Ovurami’ instead ‘Ovonranmwen’) was written. 38

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