Feb. 9, 2023

The Benin Punitive Expedition

The Benin Punitive Expedition

February 9, 1897. In response to the massacre of a trade delegation, a British army invades Benin in a campaign known as the Punitive Expedition, overthrowing Oba Ovonramwen and marking the end of his independent kingdom.


Cold Open

It’s 3 PM in the afternoon on January 4th, 1897 in Benin, a kingdom in what is now Nigeria.

Captain Alan Boisragon trudges along a narrow path through a forest, following the footsteps of the men in front of him. Boisragon is the commander of troops in the Niger Coast Protectorate, a British-controlled state in neighboring Benin. But today, he is part of a delegation of 250 men—all but nine of whom are African servants and porters—hoping to strike a deal with the Oba, the ruler of Benin.

But the sound of a single gunshot halts the delegation’s procession. Confused, Captain Boisragon turns around and looks at the line of people snaking behind him.

As he tries to figure out which of them fired, a fusillade of shots rings out. Several men in the column fall. Smoke rises from the side of the path, and Boisragon spots Bini warriors from the Oba’s army crouching in the undergrowth, ready to ambush.

As bullets rain down on the delegation, Captain Boisragon sees some of his companions bolt into the forest, trying to escape the attack. Without a weapon of his own for protection, Boisragon wonders if he should do the same.

But a sound from behind stops him. Boisragon turns around to find a warrior less than five meters away, aiming his gun right at him.

The warrior fires… and Boisragon spins to the ground as a bullet hits his arm. The British commander winces, but the wound isn’t a serious one. Boisragon unsteadily gets to his feet and stumbles after the warrior, but the attacker melts away into the trees.

As he watches the warrior get away, Boisragon trips over a root and falls into a bush where he stays concealed for the rest of the ambush, listening helplessly to the sound of a massacre happening only a few meters away.

Three days ago, the British trade delegation crossed the border into Benin territory. At its head was James Phillips, the Acting Consul-General of the Niger Coast Protectorate. Just before he left, Phillips received a message from Benin’s ruler, Oba Ovonramwen, asking him to delay his trip. The Oba was in the middle of a month-long religious ritual during which he was forbidden from seeing foreigners. But Phillips was an impatient man; he ignored the request and set off anyway.

The move alarms Benin’s warrior militias who suspect that the trade delegation is the vanguard of an invasion force. In the end, Phillips’s ham-fisted attempt at diplomacy will result in two bloodbaths—the first when the trade delegation is ambushed, and the second when the British army invades Benin in what will become known as the Punitive Expedition on February 9th, 1897.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is February 9th, 1897: The Benin Punitive Expedition.

Act One

It’s the afternoon of January 4th, 1897, minutes after the British trade delegation was ambushed.

Captain Alan Boisragon tentatively eases himself out of the undergrowth where he hid during the Bini warrior's attack.

With the sound of gunfire and screams now over, Captain Boisragon quietly creeps back to the path. A sorry sight greets him. Bodies of the delegation’s African servants and porters are scattered everywhere. A small group of white men from the trading party lie face-down on the ground with bullet wounds. All are dead, except for one man who starts to shift and groan.

Ralph Locke, is a commissioner in the Niger Coast Protectorate. Like Boisragon, Ralph has been shot in the arm. He also has a wound in his hip. But Captain Boisragon helps him to his feet. Ralph is able to walk, albeit with a limp.

The two men huddle and come up with a plan to return to the safety of the Niger Coast Protectorate. It’s only seven miles away, but they decide to go through the forest and stay away from the path. They don’t want to stumble across any hostile warriors on the prowl for survivors. But just before leaving, Boisragon returns to the dead bodies. He rifles through the pockets of his fallen countrymen until he finds a compass to guide his way. Then, the two men head off.

The thick forest soon swallows them up. Without a machete, their going is slow. Boisragon fights through branches and vines. Occasionally, far-off gunshots ring out. Boisragon presumes it’s the sound of Bini warriors discovering the delegation’s servants as they flee, and the thought sends a shiver down his spine.

The two men try to keep a brisk pace, praying they avoid a similar fate. But two hours after plunging into the forest, Boisragon calls a halt. The sound of nearby machetes and voices drift through the forest. Boisragon and Ralph lie down, listening intently.

As darkness falls, the machetes stop chopping, but the voices continue. Captain Boisragon realizes they’re stuck for the night; whoever is out there is setting up camp, and it’s too risky to make any moves now. He must presume they are hostile forces, so Boisragon resigns himself to an uncomfortable night. For the next few hours, he and Ralph hover between sleep and wakefulness, trying to keep tabs on the nearby camp. When dawn breaks, the unfamiliar voices finally move away, and Boisragon and Ralph resume their slow trek through the forest.

Four days later, having eaten nothing and only drank the dew from leaves, the two men emerge from the forest, desperate for food and water. They stumble toward a village by the creek, so thirsty they no longer care whether its inhabitants are friends or foes. As they arrive, four men emerge from a hut, surprised at their appearance. Boisragon glances at Ralph understanding why the men look shocked. He and Ralph are filthy. Their clothes are shredded, and dried blood is crusted on their skin.

But the villagers quickly rush over to help. They bundle Boisragon and Ralph into a canoe, and paddle out into the creek, away from the village and any potential witnesses. There, they give two Englishmen water, and through a combination of simple English and sign language, they explain that Bini warriors have just left their village after searching for survivors in the massacre. Boisragon lets his head fall back, tears of relief rolling down his face.

The men of this village are friends with the British, and they take Boisragon and Ralph back to the border with the Niger Coast Protectorate. After five days on the run, the two men are safely back in British territory. But they are the only white survivors of the trade delegate, and they find that nearly 200 African servants and porters were slaughtered too.

The incident will become known as the Benin Massacre. And as soon as news of the bloodshed reaches London by telegram, orders will be issued to launch a military intervention. The Punitive Expedition, as it will come to be called, will be a violent retaliation, causing even greater suffering and spelling disaster for the Kingdom of Benin.

Act Two

It’s February 9th, 1897, one month after the Benin Massacre.

Captain Herbert Walker walks along a narrow forest path in Benin. Just like Captain Alan Boisgaron a month earlier, Captain Walker has crossed into the Kingdom of Benin from the Niger Coast Protectorate. But unlike Boisgaron, Captain Walker has hundreds of heavily armed soldiers with him.

After Boisgaron and Ralph Locke reported the Benin Massacre, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson—the regional commander of the Royal Navy—assembled an army for the Punitive Expedition. He organized his forces into three columns—two to protect the flanks, and a main column to advance on Benin City and capture Oba Ovonramwen. Captain Walker is part of that main column, and he strides through Benin determined to carry out his orders. His superiors made clear, he should show no mercy.

When Walker and his men hear a gunshot near the side of the path, they respond instantly. His troops turn to where the sound came from and lift their weapons. Walker shouts an order and jogs into the forest with a dozen soldiers at his back. They fan out and search the undergrowth. And after a few minutes, Walker hears another gunshot echo through the forest. A soldier’s voice calls out that he got a warrior. Satisfied, Walker and his men return to the column and resume their march toward Benin City.

But Captain Walker remains on guard. He’s been told to expect the Bini warriors to ambush them, as they did the trade delegation. And indeed, the British army comes under almost constant attack by warriors using guerilla tactics, striking from the forest and then melting away. But the well-drilled British quickly hunt down the warriors. None are captured. All are killed.


Nine days after the Punitive Expedition set out, Captain Walker ducks down as a bullet whistles over his head. The path ahead follows a narrow causeway with a sharp drop to each side. At the far end, the Binis have built a wooden fence and are firing from behind it.

Walker purses his lips in thought. Then he turns to his men and explains his plan of attack. They’ll creep toward the fence through the ravine next to the causeway. And they’ll blow it up using guncotton, an explosive normally used to fire artillery guns.

Walker takes the lead, moving out of sight of the Bini warriors, before dropping into the ravine. A few soldiers follow him. They sneak close to the fence, still not spotted by its defenders, and lay a charge of white, fluffy guncotton at its base. They attach a long fuse and retreat to the ravine before lighting it.

After a few seconds, the guncotton ignites with a bright flash. The explosion leaves a gap in the fence, and the British soldiers charge in. By the time Walker passes through, all Bini warriors have been shot. Walker asks one of his subordinates how many British were hurt, and the officer tells him proudly that everyone is unharmed.

Walker smiles, but, then, another soldier approaches, his face pale. He says that Walker needs to see what’s up ahead. Walker follows him to the side of the path. And in the far distance, it's a person—a Bini—tied to a stake. As he gets closer, Walker gags. There’s a terrible stench. As Walker moves closer still, he realizes why. The Bini’s stomach has been slashed and his entrails hang out. Flies buzz around him. Walker’s subordinate mutter that the Binis made a human sacrifice.

Walker orders his men to cut down the body and dump it in the trees, before continuing their march to Benin City. But as they traverse the last couple miles, the intensity of the attacks increases, until finally, warriors charge the head of the column in a last stand. But they cannot puncture the British formations and are easily picked off by British bullets.

Soon after, the Punitive Expedition will reach Benin City. In the end, only eight members of that expedition will be killed in action. But the number of Bini fatalities will be far higher. Hundreds of warriors will die in failed attacks on the British column. Many more men, women, and children will also die after the British burn villages and crops as they advance through Benin. The defeat will be crushing, signaling the end of the Kingdom of Benin, and presaging the most notorious acts of looting in British colonial history.

Act Three

It’s February 21st, 1897, three days after the Punitive Expedition captured Benin City.

Captain Herbert Walker strides through the royal palace in Benin’s capital. Soldiers bustle around him, carrying boxes of valuables. Walker hurries them along—he wants to complete his mission as quickly as possible and get out of this eerie place.

When Captain Walker and his fellow soldiers entered the royal compound three days ago, they were met by a gruesome sight. One large tree facing the main gate had two bodies tied to it, and 60 decapitated corpses underneath. According to captives freed from the palace cells, the Oba ordered the killings in a last act of desperation, hoping to appease the gods and stop the British advance with human sacrifices. But Oba Ovonramwen himself is nowhere to be found. He fled the city hours before the British arrived. Now, Captain Walker is supervising his soldiers as they take stock of the Oba’s possessions.

Walker looks on as an officer pries a metal decoration from a wall. British soldiers have found bronze sculptures and artwork all over Benin City, and the palace is overflowing with them. Soldiers have been told to collect them all, box them up, and put them in wagons, ready to be shipped back to Britain.

But as his men are not just following those orders, Walker can smell smoke in the air. He wanders over to a window to see it rising from one of the buildings in the palace compound. A fire is no surprise to Walker. Vengeful British soldiers have burned almost every building in Benin City. It was only a matter of time before the royal palace was razed too. So as the flames go closer, Walker heads back inside the palace and tells his officers to hurry up and evacuate with all valuables in hand.

Six months later, Oba Ovonramwen will be captured and put on trial. The court will decide that he did not order the trade delegation to be massacred, and his generals acted without his knowledge. But the Oba’s innocence will not stop the British deposing him and sending him into exile.

With Benin’s ruler gone, the kingdom will be occupied and absorbed into the Niger Coast Protectorate. The artifacts looted from Oba Ovonramwen’s royal compound will find their way into museum collections around the world. Today, the relics remain objects of contention between Britain and Benin. Many want them repatriated to their homeland, claiming they were seized illegally by the British – just one of the many lasting repercussions of the Punitive Expedition’s invasion of Benin on February 9th, 1897.


Next on History Daily. February 10th, 1962. At the height of the Cold War, America and the Soviet Union agree on a spy exchange.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.