Canada’s Role in the Sacking of West Africa’s Benin City

Once a great metropolis, Benin City is today a forgotten city, destroyed without a trace

Few Canadians are familiar with pre-colonial African cities and even fewer know a Canadian military leader helped sack one of West Africa’s great metropolises.

In the fifth installment of its Story of Cities series the Guardian recently focused on Benin City, the lost capital of an important precolonial state. At its height in the ‘Middle Ages’ Benin City and 500 interconnected settlements were the site of the largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era. The walls built in what’s now southern Nigeria were “four times longer than the Great Wall of China” – 16,000 km in all.

Before most other cities Benin City had public lighting. In 1691 Portuguese ship captain Lourenco Pinto wrote that the city was “larger than Lisbon” and “so well governed that theft is unknown.”

Dating to the 11th century, Benin City faced growing pressure from European encroachment and the transatlantic slave trade. Finally, in 1897 a well-armed British force of 1,200 sacked the city, stealing or destroying its wealth. Today one is more likely to find remnants of the Benin City in the British Museum in London than in Nigeria.

And the Canadian connection? A star pupil of the Kingston, Ontario, based Royal Military College played a part in this little-known imperial history. Born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, William Heneker helped London conquer Benin City and surrounding territory. In his 1906 book Bush Warfare the RMC grad writes: “Savage nations have, as a rule, to be cowed, either by having their warriors severely beaten in action and made to suffer heavy losses, as, in the case of the taking of Benin City.”

During the Benin Expedition of 1897 Captain Heneker guarded an imprisoned chief, Oba. Not long thereafter Heneker helped capture Oba’s son. Benin Under British Administration explains, “The exiled Oba’s son, Aiguobasimwin, was also dislodged from Igbanke by troops under Captains Heneker and Sheppard.”

In May 1898 Heneker was part of a small force that conquered the town of Ehor and surrounding villages of the decaying Benin Empire. One account notes how British forces “seized the opportunity to utterly destroy it [Ehor], burning it and knocking down the walls.”

The next year Heneker was an intelligence and survey officer in the Benin Territories Expedition, which was the final destructive blow to Benin resistance. In Correspondence Relating to the Benin Territories Expedition, 1899 consul general Sir R. Moor mentioned Heneker leading a force that destroyed the towns of Udo and Idumere and a company under the RMC graduate’s command “burnt and completely destroyed the large town of Ugiami, including the king’s house.”

The invasions of Benin gave the British access to valuable commodities. Author William Geary remarks, “the results of the operations opened up 3000 or more square miles rich in rubber forests and other African produce.” After the expedition British capitalists intensified efforts to exploit the area’s rubber forests and the Royal Niger Company expanded deeper into Benin.

As he rose through the ranks of the Southern Nigeria Regiment, which was part of the West African Frontier Force, Heneker led ever more soldiers. With a force of more than 200 men, he commanded the Ulia and Ishan Expeditions. In Bush Warfare Heneker described the scorched-earth policy the Ishan Expedition employed: “A fighting column left camp every morning, and one after another each town in the country was attacked and taken. All the juju groves [sacred natural forests] were cut down, and stores of food either destroyed or carried back to camp.”

Heneker and other Canadians’ role in the region steadily grew. “Canadian participation in the pacification of West Africa,” notes Canadian Army Journal editor Andrew Godefroy, “appeared to climax in late 1901 when the British launched a substantial civil-military operation against the Aro group of the Ibo tribe.” At least a dozen Canadians were among the white officer corps who led a force of some 2,000 soldiers and 2,000 porters to open a 193 km wide and 144 km long area of today’s Eastern Nigeria to British directed commerce. Early planning for the Anglo-Aro War was actually initiated by the Royal Niger Company, which wanted a bigger piece of the area’s trade.

Canadian Militia Lieutenant J.L.R. Parry was “Mentioned in Dispatches” for his services during the Aro Expedition. So was Canadian Militia Lieutenant James Wayling. During a major battle at Edimma, wrote overall British commander A. F. Montanaro: “Lieutenant A.E. Rastrick, Canadian Militia … who was in command of the Maxim [gun], used it with great effect, and so good was the fire control and discipline that the enemy was forced to retreat.”

Yves Engler is a former junior hockey left-winger and co-author of Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Environmental Decay. Read other articles by Yves.