Oba Ovonranmwen, Last Sovereign King of the Benin Empire, before exile by the British in 1897.
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 palmoil, 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.
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 a military operation against Benin in 1897 led by Harry Rawson resulted in the burning of Benin City and the deaths of untold numbers of its inhabitants. Although the British had orders to hang the Oba, Ovonramwen escaped.