"As to their religion," says [Dutch physician and writer Olfert Dapper (1636-1689)], "it consists of a cult to the devil, to whom they sacrifice men and cattle; for, although they know full well that there is a God who has created heaven and earth, and still rules, they think it of no use to adore him, as he is not bad, but good; so they try rather to satisfy the devil with sacrifices, because he always treats them badly. They call God Orisa, and the white one (den ivitte Owiovisa) i.e., God's child. ... It was apparently in Dapper's time, as it is now, the fashion to speak of a non-Christian religion as that of the devil. The native explanation of why the devil is worshipped is, of course, the outcome of European teaching; before the advent of the latter such an explanation would probably never have occurred to a Bini.
According to the former their explanation for not adoring God was somewhat as follows.
"Our sovereign is really great; we see him seldom and hardly ever speak to him. If it happens that we are brought into his presence, we prostrate ourselves without daring to look at him, being obliged even to cover up our mouths with one hand. God is infinitely greater and also infinitely good, as he never does us any harm; there is, therefore, no need to worship him and besides, he thinks much less about us than does our king. But the same does not hold good with the devil, for as he is wicked, causes us as much evil as he can, and as all troubles come from him, we pray to him and worship him, and we give him victuals to appease him".
While according to Beauvais:
"The native believes in two beings; one a good one to whom he never prays because he has nothing but good to expect from him, and one an evildoer whom he invokes so as to avoid the evil which he may do him. The native cuts off his fellow creatures and sprinkles his fetishes with their blood in the hope of inducing his divinity to treat him well."
[There is] a certain wood (in which the devil is supposed to lurk) which is by them esteemed so sacred that they never permit a foreign negro or any of his wives to enter it. If any person accidentally happen on a path which leads to this wood, he is obliged to go on to the end of it, and must not return until he has been to the end; and they are firmly persuaded that if this law be violated...the land will be attacked by some severe plague.
Notwithstanding all which, I have frequently gone a-shooting in this wood; and to ridicule their credulity, designedly turned before I had gone half-way to the end of the path; by which means I not a little staggered the faith of some, who saw that my boldness was not attended with any evil consequences. But the roguish priests were immediately ready to hand with an exception, which was, that I, being a white man, their god, or rather devil, did not trouble his head about me, but if a negro should presume to do so, the danger would soon appear."
- H. Ling Roth, Great Benin; its customs, art and horrors (1903)
Here is what became of the loot from Benin:
Upon arriving in England, the British Admiralty confiscated the artefacts and sold them at auction to defray the costs of the expedition. One of the first examples was the display of "Some interesting bronzes from Benin City" that were put on display in the Royal Colonial Institute in London in June 1897. The notice that appeared in the Court Circular of The Times (July 1, 1897) mentioned the bronzes, "the precise origin of which is at present unknown". The bronzes were on loan from "the Hon. G.W. Neville, MLC, of Lagos"; The Times cryptically added that George William Neville "had accompanied Admiral Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson's recent expedition"...
This is the main entrance to the King’s compound. In this compound or village are the Juju compounds, Palava House, King’s House, and many houses for the King’s immediate followers and the Juju priests. It was in these Juju compounds that the main sacrifices were carried out. To describe one of these Juju places will be to describe all of them...The altar was made by three steps running the whole length under the shelter of the shed; slightly raised for some distance in the centre, on which raised portion were handsomely-carved ivory tusks placed on the top of very antique bronze heads. Near these tusks were carved clubs, undoubtedly for use upon the victims of the sacrifice. The altar was deluged in blood, the smell of which was too overpowering for many of us. This same awful smell seemed to pervade the whole compound, as if the grass had been watered with blood. In the centre of several of these Juju places was an iron erection like a hugh candelabra with sharp hooks. Its purpose was not known, but it is probable that it was some instrument of torture, or for hanging portions of the victims on. In most of the Juju compounds was a well for the reception of the bodies.”
He [meaning the Oba] was panic striken when he heard [i. e. the killing of Phillips and some of his men] and, consulting the soothsayers, engaged in a course of terrible pity which was much worse than the Massacre itself. He béseeched the Gods of Benin, his defied ancestors and the powerful spirits, with many hundreds of the most acceptable of sacrifices, to save the Kingdom from inevitable retribution. This went on all through the six weeks, redoubling as the Expedition came up from the Coast. Then they entered the near deserted City, they were met by corpses, new and old at every shrine.
Perhaps the king sought the blessing of victory from orisaOgun, the God of War. Perhaps he was sending messages with these royal subjects to the spirits of the departed in the ancestral realm - a practice described in detail by Bacon and Roth.
But it is very convenient that with all the talk about the human sacrifices and with all of the photographs taken during the expedition, there are scarcely any photos of the numerous scattered bodies which greeted the arrival of the expeditionary force. There is, rather, a least one photo of skulls. Could this assertion or embellishment have been mostly propaganda?
Roupell learned from "native officials" what kinds of people were sacrificed.
The people who were kept for sacrifice were bad men or men with bad sickness — they were all slaves; if a man had a slave who killed man or did very bad, he could give him to Overami who put him in jail, and when a man was needed to be sacrificed for the good of the town, they could take him.
Prince Edun Akenzua of Benin, the great grandson of Ovonramwen and the brother of the current Oba, acknowledges that human sacrifice and slavery were indeed central to the religion and culture of Benin. In an article for Nigeria Magazine, he explained:
When my grandfather, King Ovonramwen, succeeded to the throne of Benin, it was apparent that the relationship between the British and Binis was being badly strained. In 1862, Sir Richard Burton, who was Consul at Fernando Po, a missionary friend, visited Benin. He attempted to dissuade Ovonramwen's father, King Adolo, from making human sacrifices to propitiate his gods. Although the two, in Burton's own words, were "most hospitably " received, it was obvious that Adolo would rather have lost the friendship of the Europeans than incur the wrath of gods on whom the welfare, not only of himself, but also of the whole of his people seemed to depended [sic]. Naturally, he found it difficult to regard those men who decried his gods as friends.
The practise of human sacrifice was indeed reprehensible, but because it was so much a part of the religion of old Benin, it could not be so easily dismissed as Burton and his friend would have liked. They attacked too, the practice of slavery. But this also would have been very difficult for Binis to understand. After all, for years had not one of their main points of contact with the Europeans been over traffic in slaves? When suddenly, and for no apparent reason, the Europeans turned around to attack them for a practice which not so long ago, they had encouraged and actually taken part in, the Bini man was naturally bewildered.
To understand the Bini Massacre in 1897, one must appreciate the very great lack if [sic] understanding between the British and Binis that existed in those days. On the one hand you had a people, steeped in customs and traditions which were, by English standards, admittedly horrible; on the other, you had the British self righteous and utterly confident that all their values were the right ones, to the point of never seeing that the people they were trying to convert, had reason, however misguided, for their traditions and practices. ...in those days, Binis were, almost to the point of fanaticism, devoted to their gods although those gods were insatiable in their lust for human blood. The Ague Festival itself was a time for extensive human sacrifice. But however wicked this may have seemed to the outside world, it was a great religious festival for Binis of those days. ... When Ovonramwen heard of the massacre, he knew at once that trouble would soon come to Benin. Thus, human sacrifices were intensified in the slender hope that the gods would ward off the danger that seemed imminent. This would help to explain the really lurid accounts of the human sacrifices witnessed (and characteristically exaggerated) by Ling Roth, surgeon to the punitive expedition, in his book Great Benin.
Akenzua wrote that after the trial, the king was told "he could never rule unless he undertook never to deal in slaves and to abolish human sacrifices."
He believes that if Benin survived, she may have "converted from her old ways in peace and understanding like so many other African peoples."
Stories were crafted about where the Europeans had been taking all the Africans over the years. Suspicions became folklore and these ideas were passed on through successive generations. The strange, soulless White men in their winged boats were vumbi - spirits returned from the dead to haunt the land and steal its people away on their sailing cauldrons.
Who had disturbed their peace?
What did they seek?
For what purpose did these ghosts abandon their eternal slumber?
For Blood, of course!
With the skin of Africans for fortune (meat), the brains of Africans for happiness (cheese), and the bones of Africans for power (gunpowder), the blood of Africans (wine) was the one thing that would finally quench their everlasting thirst.
They needed it for life.
They would expect nothing more. They would accept nothing less.
I mean...after all, what do we always say about our stereotypical aliens?
In September 1897, 300 bronze plaques were on display in the Assyrian basement.
The African Banking Corporation (ABC) had been established in 1890 by Lloyds Bank, National Provincial, Westminster, and Standard Bank of South Africa. It was a British Overseas Bank, that is, it had a headquarters in London but all its branches were overseas. Rather uncommon, it was a consortium bank (i.e., other banks jointly owned it), rather than being owned by individuals. It operated primarily in South Africa, where its first branch opened in 1891, and its second branch at Lagos in Nigeria early in 1892, by the efforts of George Neville. The Lagos branch was disposed of to the Bank of British West Africa in 1894, which remained under control of Mr. Neville. In 1920 the bank was bought out and merged with Standard Bank of South Africa. The Bank of British West Africa Limited (BBWA) was founded in 1893 by George Neville and Alfred Lewis Jones, and began operations in 1894, at Lagos, initially as an offshoot of the business of the Elder Dempster shipping line. It operated successfully for seventy-one years until being bought by another banking firm in 1965.
The original purpose for the British in confiscating the royal treasures was "to break the power of the monarchy and to end ritual practices." After some time, the British, recognizing the central role of these treasures in the traditions of Benin, returned certain articles of royal apparel to the delight of the new king. A modest palace was rebuilt. Oba Akenzua II would take the throne in 1933. Both of these kings commissioned new works of art for the royal court and continued some of the original rituals.
It cannot be overstated that while the people of Africa have enjoyed centuries - millennia, rather - of dominance in the world, they have also suffered many years of misfortune.
Entire towns and villages were depopulated from the slave trade. It left vast wastelands where nations and tribes had thrived in peace. Even those Africans who entered into the cycle for their slice of the pie met their own end sooner or later.
On British colonialism in South Africa, one chief remarked:
"We made many charges but each time we were beaten off, until at last the white men packed up and retreated. But for the Maxims, it would have been different."
Yes, that one is obvious. But there was one other problem...
Chapter 8: The Devil's* Advocate
How Africans Viewed Each Other in the Colonial Era
Private of the 3rd West African Frontier force standing to attention in front of building
While African rulers organized their own resistance against the encroaches of colonizers into their lands, the colonizers recruited Africans to further their domination.
In French West and Central Africa, they were known as "Tirailleurs Sénégalais". The Askari (from the Arabic and Swahili, meaning soldier) served the colonial powers in East Africa. Sometimes, these men, who were often formerly enslaved, were forced into their new roles as colonial infantry troops. When they did not volunteer, they were selected from among prisoners of war.
Commander Rocas of the French Foreign Legion wrote of King Behanzin's arrest following the Second Franco-Dahomean War:
...a squadron of Spahis Sudanese played in this capture a major role under the orders of Captain Villers, one of my classmates and companions in arms, son of a former director of the bank of Algeria: Captain Villiers died brigadier general.
Of the Hausa troops on the British side against Benin, Boisragon wrote:
During the expedition these troops did a lot of hard work, had a considerable amount of the fighting, and reflected much credit on themselves and their officers...the expedition owed a great debt to the hard work and the fighting of the Houssas.
There is evidence that some of these African soldiers and officers took part in the looting. This was, by no means, a method of payment for their services.
Louis Gustave Binger (1856-1936), was a French officer who claimed Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) for France and became its first colonial governor. He records in his 1892 account "From the Niger to the Gulf of Guinea" that he was welcomed very cordially by some Africans on Friday, February 17, 1888:
"According to Lamory's instructions to his men, they had to drive me to Niafounambo, with one of his parents who is named Wouintetou. I arrived early in this village, where I was very welcomed. In the evening it was decided that the men of lamory would continue to serve as escort to Limono, residence of Dakhaba, brother of Lamory. ... In many of the villages I passed through, the inhabitants insisted to me to camp at home: I had to refuse, looking forward to be fixed about my entry to Kong."
At first, he was questioned about his intentions in the land. But that changed when he started to hand out gifts.
As it was noon when I reached Limono, I limited myself that day to pay a courtesy visit to Dakhaba and Sabana, brother and sons of Lamorj-, who both reside at Limono. I returned to the next morning for the interview in which I had to expose them the purpose of my trip: it allowed me to open a few bales and offer these two people a few gifts which should have placed them in my favor. Dakhaba was very happy that I asked him for hospitality for the morrow; as well as Sabana, he gave me a goat and provisions of mouth.
To Dakhaba, who is a man of sixty, blind and almost paralytic, I made a gift of three pieces of cloth, a pistol with two blows and two flintlock guns. To Sabana, a young man in his thirties, I gave a flintlock double rifle and some small objects, ice cream, pearls, razors, purses, etc. They were both very satisfied with my gifts and repeatedly sent their men to tell me thanks. My case was won in advance, because the next day, after the first words exchanged, Dakhaba reassured me that it was simple curiosity that he asked me to tell him what I had to do in his country, and that I could be persuaded that he would do everything possible to help me.
Evidently, some Africans treated outsiders better than they did other Africans.
Binger making his entry into the city of Kong on February 20, 1888, mounted on a carrier ox, surrounded by a population neither benevolent nor hostile, but simply curious
In the illustration above are Africans over a century ago doing a great job of showing first class hospitality towards European tourists while treating their own people as a criminal underclass.
Here is a description of the old merchant city Kong in the northeastern part of the country:
The Muslim population was highly literate and tolerant, non-warlike, trade-oriented. Many captives were employed in menial tasks. The police were "dou" who used their whip to return home, for 22 hours, those who circulated without good reason.
"One year, day by day, after my departure from Bordeaux, I did my entry into Kong, modestly mounted on a carrier ox, in the middle of a population neither benevolent nor hostile, but eager to see a European. The roofs of the huts, the streets, the intersections were covered with people who were struggling to be in my way, and that's only thanks to a dozen vigorous fellows, captives of the chief, armed with whips, who were thrashing the curious, bulky streets and crossroads, which I managed to reach a small place where my convoy was stopped."
"despite all the protests of the people who were at my disposal, I could not escape the curiosity of this vast population only at night falling. Even several days after my arrival, I they still had to experience the curiosity of these people.
By going to the place where we usually need to be alone, I was sometimes followed by a thousand to fifteen people, which did not cease to be very annoying...
Binger wrote under the heading "Curiosity of the population", "I am obliged to speak in public to dispel fears that my arrival had awakened."
During the day I received the visit of Diarawary Ouattara [the head of the town of Kong (so Mayor), which made me very welcome.] and [King] Kara-Mokho-Oulé accompanied by chiefs of qbaïla and many notables, all literate Muslims. They came to ask me to explain in public the reasons which had brought me to Kong. I set myself at their disposal and started talking to them about France, of the establishment of the French on the high Niger, of the creation fortified posts intended to protect the merchants who circulate on the large road linking Senegal to Niger.
"For a long time," I said to them, "the French know the name of the city of Kong; we also know that the country is commanded by a family of Ouattara, that the inhabitants are peaceful and never make war, that they are active and traders, and that they are the ones who drain throughout the Niger loop the European products. These are these qualities which decided my government to send you someone to tie closer relationships with you. ... The French do not want to seize the land of blacks. You all know that we do not need slaves, you also know that there are many many centuries that our boats came to bring our products to the coast and that we have not sought in any way to seize neighboring countries, which would be easy, however, with the military forces we have..."
...everyone was satisfied, especially since a switch shouted: "If this white is a bad man, would Pegue, who is our friend, have put him in the hands of Lamory? "
Karamokho-Oule then declared that he was very happy that I could have to prove my innocence; for his Account he was convinced that a white did not do a similar job. That's why, without questioning me and to have seen me, he took me under his protection.
"If God let you cross so many countries, he says in conclusion, it is his will; it is not we who can act against the the will of the Almighty. "
Then it was Diarawary Ouattara (the mayor) who spoke:
"Kong is a city that is open to everyone, and what was said of its inhabitants is true: you can consider the city as the city of your father, and you'll stay there as much as you want. When you have chosen a way, we will give you guides and recommendations: we are known everywhere, and when we come from Kong we can go anywhere all; as long as we know that you come from here, we will not ask you nothing else."
The explanations that Ouattara had just provoked were absolutely necessary. Kong, like our big centers, contains a lot of sensible people; unfortunately, the ignorant and the discontented do no fault either.
Among this last class of the population, some tribunes have some days before my entry into the city, sought to bait the population against me and to excite them to make me a bad party by saying that I was going to kill the little business, that Samory had started by being a merchant and traveler, whom one must be wary of me, & c. ; their opinion was to let me to enter the city, to seize me during the night and to cut me by the neck. That's when Ouattara, all the literate Muslims, and people having some influence came together to consider what would be the course to take. After a session of several hours, on the advice of three brave old men, named Bala, Bakondé, Karayéguidian, and Ouattara, it was decided that I would enter the city, and until the day of my arrival, everything in the world would endeavor to calm the malcontent and to influence them in their opinion; Ouattara declared, moreover, that they took me absolutely under their protection. "There will always be time to execute it," they said, "if he does not give us sufficient explanation."
I received during the first three days a quantity of gifts, consisting mainly of millet, sorghum, yams, chickens, meat, etc. I did it generous on my side, which did little to ensure me the security of my stay here.
Portrait of Samory, the Koran in the hands taken by H. Gaden (Source: New York Public Library)
The man who was making trouble for the French colonial authorities was Samory Touré (1830–1900).
Originally from Guinea, he was the founder of the Islamic empire of Wassulu that covered Guinea, Mali, and parts of Sierra Leone and Côte d'Ivoire. This freedom fighter converted to Islam in 1867 as part of a transcultural resistance movement in which Malian kings united with Muslim kingdoms against European domination in West Africa. Touré's army consisted of over 30,000 infantrymen and a cavalry of 3,000.
Later in his book, the same Binger writes...
At this moment, the populations oppressed by this tyrant of Samory implode our assistance and claim our protectorate; from all sides came emissaries asking us to protect them and offering their alliance.
It is not known how either of these goals have been fully achieved...
Among the Negroes more than anywhere else, where despotism exists at highest degree, where the organization must be substituted for rapine and brigandage, it does not take large agglomerations of territories to the same individual. Let a leader call himself Damel, Brack, Bour, Massa, Almamy, Naba, as soon as he commands a population of more than 25,000 souls he must be deleted, otherwise it devastates instead of organizing and regenerating.
Ei-Hadj Moussa, the son of a chief named Karamokho Koutoubou, said of Binger during his stay:
"My father learned that a nasara (Christian) came to see him. My father does not need to see or have a relationship with that white, because [we] do not know what he's doing in the country. He does not come looking for nafalou (wealth), since all nasara are richer than us and that it is from them that the weapons, the powder, the stuffs, knives, mirrors, etc. My father sent me to replace him and ask this white what he wants. I'm waiting for him to speak."
Binger silently fumed...
This insipid speech of a fat and limited being put me out of me; I had all the trouble in the world to keep my cool; I succeed, however, to calm me down.
Binger then explained that he had already made his intentions known to the chiefs and then learned he was being forced to leave the next day. His writing reveals his truest sentiments of his dealings with proud African people and his future expectations for the people he would govern:
I was not sorry for the thing itself: my intention was good to leave the next day, the reception of the population not being done to encourage me to stay, but in other circumstances I would not have never tolerated that any black person would speak to me so authoritatively that the little son of Karamokho Koutoubou did. In these countries ignored, we should not undergo in turn annoyances and vexations, without anything to say. My goal is to succeed at all costs. I do not care, as long as I pass and I report a lot of information.
Collecting and reporting a lot of information...Sounds Familiar?
Le Petit Parisien, a French daily, published, on its January 15, 1899 cover, an illustration of Samory Touré as he was led to the city of Saint-Louis, Senegal, after his capture. (Source: New York Public Library)
In 1897, Kong was destroyed by Samory Touré, who saw the people as being far too friendly with the French. The city was rebuilt and came under French colonial rule the next year. Eventually, Touré died in a French colonial prison in Gabon in 1900 after suffering a military defeat during one of his final acts of defiance in 1898.
As you can see, colonization did a number on the African continent. Of course, there were many times during the height of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade that the people of Africa stood up for themselves like many other indigenous communities all around the world have done throughout history. However, they were no match for the Europeans, who had developed a resource that would become central to their mission of world domination and thus, the source of their own power. It was a weapon that, in a short time, would turn the tide of many conflicts between rival tribes that were generations in the making.
This vibranium was the almighty firearm in its various forms, and to its futile opposition, kryptonite.
Wood and plaster cast of a bas-relief from the ajalala (reception hall) in the Palace of King Glélé (1848-1889) in Abomey, Benin showing a Dahomean warrior killing a Nago of Ishaga (Nigeria). This episode is from a war against the Nago under the reign of Glèlè. The recreation was done by Georges Waterlot (1877 - 1939) in 1926. (Source: Quai Branly Museum)
As Alex O'Femi puts it in his book Marauders in the Tropics:
Many of the African leaders and elites who later opposed slavery once supported it. When it was members of rival ethnic groups that were being captured and sold, it was good business, but once the table turned, they realized that European and Arab traders did not differentiate one tribe from another, that all Africans are good for enslavement, be it a king or subject.
On October 18, 1526, King Alfonso I (ca. 1456-ca. 1541) of the Congo, sent a frantic letter to King João III of Portugal (conspicuously nicknamed "o Colonizador"):
"There are many traders in all parts of the country. They bring ruin…Every day people are kidnapped and enslaved, even members of the King's family."
He explained how the people of the community would kidnap their fellow neighbors at night, brand them with counterfeit tools, and pass them off as European merchandise so they could be sold for easy profits on the coasts outside the kingdom.
Several of his own relatives, including his 10 nephews and his grandsons, were intercepted by Portuguese traders on their way to Portugal for religious education and ended up as slaves in Brazil.
One letter after another were sent. Emissaries left to deliver his pleas to the pope.
"This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated. We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for Mass. It is our wish that this Kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves."
He requested the mending services of pharmacists, physicians, and surgeons over the dissecting operations of conniving businessmen.
It was all to no avail. The Portuguese pretender only disputed the Congolese complainant's arguments. He accused him of exaggerating the issue.
Alfonso wrote in return:
In this kingdom, faith is as fragile as glass because of the bad examples of the men who come to teach here, because the lusts of the world and the lure of wealth have turned them away from the truth. Just as the Jews crucified the Son of God because of covetousness, my brother, so today, He is again crucified.
*The word "Devil" is used here metaphorically as in "Playing the Devil's Advocate" - a common figure of speech.