Punitive wars, pillage and plunder.

AuthorDaramy, Ade

The majority of wars fought in Africa started out as punitive' expeditions that escafated and invariably ended up with a victorious colonial power coming back, laden with loot and its men garlanded with medals, for having put in his place' some impertinent king, prince or chief.

There was a war involving one of these great powers' happening in every year from 1801--the Temne War in Sierra Leone--to the second Boer War of 1899.

What did the public think of their nationsgetting involved in so many wars? The short answer is: they loved it. Let's look at three British expeditions, as they were invariably described to the public, and specifically, the Benin Expedition of 1897 to Nigeria--the prelude and aftermath to which are a classic study in how wars are 'sold' to the public. The others were the 4th Anglo-Ashanti War of 1895 (Ghana) and the Hut Tax War of 1898 (Sierra Leone).

'White privilege' was defined long before the 19th century but many of the wars fought then re-emphasised the concept. In both the Anglo-Ashanti War and the Hut Tax War, it involved rulers (King Prempeh in Ghana and Bai Bureh in Sierra Leone) refusing to surrender to British sovereignty.

Neither had 'read the memo' that the European powers owned the world and it was simply a matter of deciding amongst themselves which bits they owned.

In January 1897, reports started appearing in the British press of a 'disaster at Benin', relating to the attack and slaughter of British Empire troops. Out of over 250, only two survived.

The widely circulated reports based on the account of one of the survivors, talked of Benin as a place of' the rankest superstition and a swarming native population, a prey to fetish-worship and the cunning priests who hold sway in its name.

The report ended with these natives '... finding expression in habits of disgusting brutality and scenes of hideous cruelty and bloodshed ordained by a degraded race of savages ...'

Obviously, they not only needed 'saving and being brought to the light of Christianity', they also needed to be taught a jolly good lesson. Every newspaper carried the story. Letters to newspapers simply implored: 'When are we going to act?'

Treasure trove

Those proposing the expedition were open enough to state the cost would be coveredby 'the large amounts of ivory, it is believed are in the King's palace'. They called it 'The Benin...

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