Colonialism and the expansion of empires

Ovonramwen, Oba of Benin

Photograph taken by JA Green, 1897

Object number courtesy of The Tom S Gardner Photographic Collection

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Ovonramwen, Oba of Benin

This photograph of the Oba, or king, of Benin, once belonged to Tom Singleton Gardner, an agent for the British trading company, The Africa Association Ltd, who lived in New Calabar, southern Nigeria, from around 1890 to 1917.

Many west African ports had grown up around settlements originally established as slave markets. In the later 1800s, the British worked to replace the transatlantic slave trade with what became known as the ‘legitimate trade’ in palm oil. The mechanisation of the textile industry in Manchester and the spread of railways increased demand for palm oil as a lubricant and it was also used in soap.

The Oba of Benin controlled the country's main export of palm oil. In 1893, the British Niger Coast Protectorate was formed, intent on gaining the monopoly of this trade. However, in 1896 the Oba closed all markets to outside trade. The acting British consul-general, Lieutenant James Robert Phillips, decided to deal with the problem. In January 1897, he marched into Benin city with an apparently unarmed group of men.

Despite repeated requests for them to retreat, the British party continued, resulting in military action from the Oba in which all but two of the party were killed. In response, the British organised a punitive raid on the city, sending in 1,500 troops, and the Oba was sent into exile. Several hundred sculptural bronzes, known collectively as the Benin bronzes, were taken as reparation for the killing of Phillips and his men. Many of these are now in private collections and museums around the world. This photograph shows Ovonramwen, the Oba, with guards on board the Niger Coast Protectorate yacht, SY Ivy, on his way into exile in Calabar in 1897.

Tom Singleton Gardner died in 1917 from tuberculosis. We know little about what sort of man he was or about his time in west Africa; his diaries are lost. However, photographs such as this, which now belong to his family, provide us with a glimpse of what life was like in west Africa at this time. Although it is possible that Gardner himself took some of these photographs, most are attributed to the black African photographer JA Green, whose studio was in Bonny.

This information was provided by curators from The Whitworth Art Gallery.