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General Orders for the Information and Guidance of the Officers and Men,

who are about to be landed in the Benin Expedition.

[No place: 1897] Stock Code: 143425
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"All plundering and unnecessary destruction of property are to be strictly repressed" – the ruin of the kingdom of Benin

Expedition leader Sir Harry Rawson's copy, his accompanying memo headed in pencil "Admiral's Copy". A genuinely rare and remarkable survival, these highly ephemeral orders relate to the punitive expedition conducted by the British against Benin in 1897; "justified as a legitimate military action... this brutal, violent colonial episode effectively marked the end of the independent Kingdom of Benin" (British Museum).

The covering memo from Rawson is dated 30 January 1897 from his flagship HMS St George, anchored at Brass, chief city of the Ijo people of Nembe in the Niger Delta. The General Orders open with a clarification that they are based on those of Sir Garnet Wolseley, issued on the eve of the Ashanti Expedition of 1873, "and are so appropriate to the present expedition, that they are to be read and acted on by all who may take part in it". These include details of maintaining health, with emphasis on avoiding exposure to the sun, pitching camp, "all water to be boiled", latrines, mosquitoes, and the issuance of quinine ("in the evening, the men parading for this"). Pages 2-7 cover "Mode of Fighting", with particular regard to command and control and tactics ("most probably fighting will take place in thick bush. At some places men may be able to get through the bush in skirmishing order; at others, they will have to use their sword bayonets to open paths for themselves"); other topics covered include preservation of ammunition, bugle calls, and strict orders on both plunder and the burning of villages. There then follows an extensive and detailed section (8-14) on organization, pages 12-14 consisting of tables listing officers and equipment; 15-17 covers ammunition and ordnance, of interest here is the mention of Maxim guns their deployment by the expedition being an early example of their use by the British Army, as historian Ian Hernon remarks, "the British troops placed great reliance on their new machine-gun"; 18-27 covers provisions, water, medical kit, and allowances. The map shows the course of the Benin River, running approximately 42 miles inland from the coast at Jalla to Sapele, illustrating the maze of creeks and tributaries but no topographical features of a land that has been described as "swamp-ridden bush" (Hernon, p. 412).

This fragile document - offering fascinating detail of the British army in the field - is headed in manuscript and underlined "Private", was presumably produced on a shipboard mimeograph and in very small numbers, with tropical conditions certainly contributing to a high rate of attrition. We have been unable to trace another copy. Rawson's memo elucidates that they were to be issued to the officers commanding the nine ships involved in the expedition "for the information of the Officers and Men", and also to "each Commissioned and Warrant officer, who is to land for service with the expedition"; in addition, a copy was to be "placed on the Lower Deck of each ship, and it is to be read to all the Officers and Men".

The Benin Expedition of 1897 was precipitated by the murder of the British acting consul in January of that year. However, the oba, or king, Ovonramwen was already under increasing pressure from British commercial and colonial encroachment. "He attempted to seal Benin off from Europeans but by 1892 was forced to sign a protection treaty with the British administration. Disputes over trade along the Benin River (189294) led to a campaign against Benin" (Encyclopaedia Britannica). "Rawson's force sailed up the Benin River in hired steamers They landed at Warrigi", which is clearly marked on the map, and skirmishing began. However, in a short space of time Benin City itself was taken. "The first task of the troops was to dismantle the palace and loot its treasures. The booty included 900 bronzes depicting important events in the history of the Benin people and quantities of carved ivory" (Hernon, p. 421). The houses of the ju-ju priests were torched but the fires got out of control and much of the city was engulfed. It cannot go unnoticed that under these General Orders it is emphasized that "all plundering and unnecessary destruction of property are to be strictly repressed".

Provenance: formerly in the possession of Evelyn de Winton, sister of Sir Harry Rawson (1843-1910), who married Major-General Sir Francis de Winton in 1864; with her bijou book-form season ticket for the Royal Military Exhibition, 1890, made out to and signed by her (70 x 50 mm, original sand-coloured pebble-grain cloth, stamped and lettered in gilt). De Winton had himself served in Africa, leading a punitive expedition of his own, against "the rebellious Yoni in the hinterland of Sierra Leone" in 1887 (ODNB); and again in Swaziland later in the decade.

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"Quarto". 27 leaves of mimeographed "manuscript" orders (25 of the leaves measuring c. 340 x 215 mm, the remaining two c. 205 x 330 mm); with a printed sketch map (205 x 33 mm). The whole now preserved in archival sleeves and housed in a custom black cloth solander box with dark red morocco label to front cover.


Map mounted on contemporary paper, a few tears, soling and some loss; a few leaves frayed and torn at edges, small hole in upper left corner of each where once pinned together, yet overall in surprisingly good condition.


Ian Hernon, Britain's Forgotten Wars: Colonial Campaigns of the 19th Century, Stroud, the History Press, 2007.


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