Sunday, August 29, 2021 2:00 pm
…and 124th anniversary of Oba Ovonramwen’s trial after the British invaded Benin
By Ademola Adegbamigbe
It was unbelievable that even with the energy sapping fights he engaged in to defend his throne and the stunts in the movie, Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman (King T’Chala) was nursing the pains of colon cancer. His death exactly one year ago on 29 September, 2020, revealed that fact. This epic movie where he played a major role made Blacks proud everywhere. The racial profiling of anus-scratching, armpit smelling and never-do-well maids or slaves or pick pockets or rapists evaporated. Black Panther brought up the mystique of the Black as a Super Hero in the form of James Bond, Spider man, Emperor, scientist and millionaire.
His death raised two issues: Racial discrimination in Hollywood and 124th anniversary of the trial of Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, the last Emperor of an indigenous Kingdom in British colonoised Nigeria. Here is how.
First, Mike Omoregbee who played Oba Ovonramwen in Invasion 1897 was reacting on social media last year to two stories published by TheNEWS, entitled, “Chadwick Boseman and What His Black Panther Means to all Africans,” and “Black Panther: Why The Culturally Unschooled Do Not Get It.” (The second by Ena Ofugara). The two-in-one story details the racial discrimination in Hollywood against the black actors in the US.
Omorogbee reacted: “Awesome and even futuristic. Like you (Ofugara) said, you can’t be if you are not in their shoes. I had a strange experience and enlightenment when I attended the premiere of our movie Invasion 1897 by Lancelot in Atlanta five years ago. By the way, I played Oba Ovonramwen.
The movie ends with the black narrator-hero being given a white girlfriend to kiss when he was discharged and acquitted. What should have been a glorious climax, (which it was elsewhere we premiered) almost turned into a nightmare!
A black lady challenged Lancelot bitterly. How dare we allow the glory of the narrator-hero be shared by a white lady! I was shocked and confused. Lancelot was trying to preach unity by bringing the black narrator into relationship with a white lady. It seemed a good way to rest an Ovonramwen story in which the British had sacked the Benin nation, deported their Oba, looted, raped and plundered.
The lady told us they wanted no reconciliation. They were okay for blacks and whites to remain in perpetual enmity. It was a rude shock from which I recovered only gradually as I understood what was at stake better.”
Having said that, Omorogbee made a post, in honour of Boseman, Keeping the Smile…What’s Your Excuse?: “The world is shocked by the death, at 43, of Chadwick Boseman, the actor who gave life to the character, King Tchalla of Wakanda in the high grossing movie, Black Panther. No one lives forever. Death, even at rather young ages, doesn’t shock the world too much any more. It is a debt owed and neither race nor creed has ever been known to provide an armour against it. Kobe Bryant was 41 when he lost his in a helicopter crash January this year.
What’s touching and worth learning from in the death of Boseman, the Panther is that he is reported to have been diagnosed of stage 3 colon cancer in 2016. All through the four years he battled the disease, he still made great movies, including the largest selling movie ever directed by a black person and the most black stars studded movie of all times, Black Panther. Black Panther was first in many things, yet the lead was not smiling while making others laugh. What’s our excuse? Rest, Panther, rest.”
The second issue was the 124th anniversary of the trial of Oba Ovonramwen by the British on 1 September 2020. On 1 September, 1897 Sir Ralph Denham Rayment Moor, KCMG, as posted by Dr. Raphael James, presided over the council of chiefs that tried Oba Ovonramwen of Benin. “Moor was the first High Commissioner of the British Southern Nigeria Protectorate.”
In his remark on the thread of Ena Ofugara’s essay on Black Panther, Omorogbee who was Oba Ovonramwen in Invasion 1897, reminisced: “Lancelot (Imasuen, producer and director of the movie) was trying to preach unity by bringing the black narrator into relationship with a white lady. It seemed a good way to rest an Ovonramwen story in which the British had sacked the Benin nation, deported their Oba, looted, raped and plundered.”
Invasion of Benin by the British and the Story of Oba Ovonramwen
As recorded by various historians and aggregated by Wikipedia, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi was the Oba of the Kingdom of Benin up until the British punitive expedition of 1897. Born circa 1857, he was the son of Oba Adolo. He took the name Ovonramwen Nogbaisi at his enthronement in 1888. Every Oba took a new name at his coronation, Ovonramwen meaning “The Rising Sun” and Nogbaisi meaning “which spreads over all”.
According to Thomas Uwadiale Obinyan, in “The Annexation of Benin”, in Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Sep., 1988), pp. 29-40, at the end of the 19th century, the Kingdom of Benin had managed to retain its independence and the Oba exercised a monopoly over trade which the British found irksome. “The territory was coveted by an influential group of investors for its rich natural resources such as palm-oil, rubber and ivory. The kingdom was largely independent of British control, and pressure continued from figures such as Vice-Consul James Robert Phillips and Captain Gallwey (the British vice-Consul of Oil Rivers Protectorate) who were pushing for British annexation of the Benin Empire and the removal of the Oba.
As recorded also by Sven Lindqvist, in Exterminate All the Brutes, p.57-62, a British invasion force headed by Phillips set out to overthrow the Oba in 1896. The force’s weapons were hidden in baggage, with troops disguised as bearers. Phillips plan was to gain access to Ovonramwen’s palace by announcing that he intended to negotiate. Ovonramwen’s messengers issued several warnings not to violate Benin territorial sovereignty, claiming he was unable to see Phillips due to ceremonial duties. Having been warned on several further occasions on the way, Phillips sent his stick to the Oba, a deliberate insult designed to provoke the conflict that would provide an excuse for British annexation. Phillip’s expedition was ambushed and all but two were killed. “
Subsequently, according to Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History. University of California Press, a military operation against Benin in 1897 led by Harry Rawson resulted in the burning of Benin City, the destruction and looting of the royal palaces, and the deaths of untold numbers of its inhabitants. “Although the British had orders to hang the Oba, Ovonramwen escaped, but returned to the city to formally surrender on 5 August 1897.
H.L. Roll recorded in Great Benin Its Customs, Art and Horrors, 1903, recorded that when Ovonramwen returned to the city, after six months spent in evading capture in the forest, he was richly dressed and laden with coral beads and accompanied by an entourage of seven hundred to eight hundred people. “He attempted to escape exile by offering Consul General Ralph Moor 200 puncheons (barrels) of oil worth £1500 at that time and to disclose where his 500 ivory tusks were buried (of a value of more than £2M at that time). However, this offer was dismissed as Moor had already discovered them.”
Ovonramwen was exiled to Calabar with two of his wives, Queen Egbe and Queen Aighobahi. He was received and hosted in Calabar in a small town called “Essien Town” by Etinyin Essien Etim Offiong, the progenitor of Essien Town. He died in Calabar around the turn of the new year in 1914 and buried in the grounds of the royal palace in Benin City.
It is the story that the 2014 movie, Invasion 1897, depicts.
-Ademola Adegbamigbe, editor of TheNEWS, who has been reporting arts, business and political stories for the past 27 years, adapted this story from what he wrote on 3 September 2020.