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. When the British and Canadians took part in the ‘Scramble for Africa’, they did so with impunity, a complete disregard for property, sacred forests and people. They only saw savages that needed to be tamed.
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 was the site of the largest earthworks 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 a Portuguese ship captain, Lourenco Pinto, wrote that the city was ‘larger than Lisbon’ and ‘so well governed that theft is unknown’.
Dating back to the eleventh 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 the 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 3,000 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.’
Heneker was the senior Canadian during the Aro campaign. Second in authority to Montanaro, the RMC grad led one of the four columns dispatched in November 1901 towards Arochukwu, the capital of the Aro families. His force consisted of 19 European officers and 700 local rank and file.
The capture of Arochukwu was a brutal, one-sided affair. S.O. Onwukwe describes the ‘total destruction of the Empire’ in The Rise and Fall of the Arochukwu Empire, 1400-1902. ‘The British invaders did not spare Arochukwu, they were waging a punitive war and had no respect for any shrine. The order to the troops was “attack, destroy and burn”. The field force took this instruction literally.’
Between 1897 and 1906 Heneker fought in a dozen separate campaigns in West Africa. During a decade of working to conquer southern Nigeria Heneker received several mentions in dispatches, and a series of awards including the Distinguished Service Order. ‘One of the most successful British combat leaders on the West African coast’, Heneker would later be promoted to major general, lieutenant general and finally general. Heneker was one of dozens of Canadians trained at RMC, which opened in 1876 partly to train ‘proper white gentleman’ to be officers of British imperialism, who participated in the turn of the nineteenth century ‘Scramble for Africa’.
After completing his service in West Africa, Heneker published Bush Warfare, which for years was ‘required reading and a resource for all commanders’, and would inform the later War Office manual Notes on Imperial Policing. In a section of his book titled ‘General Dealings’ Heneker writes, ‘the great thing is to impress savages with the fact that they are the weaker, and that it is intended to occupy the country, enforce the will of the white man, and accomplish the object for which the expedition is organized. No leniency or half measures are of any use until the savage has felt the power of force. Leniency is treated as a sign of weakness.’
Unsettling, racist words from a Canadian who helped destroy one of Africa’s great precolonial cities. And part of our history.
* Yves Engler's latest book is Canada in Africa — 300 years of Aid and Exploitation
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