The extent of Benin in 1625
|Capital||Benin City (then called Edo)|
|•||1440–1473||Ewuare (1440–1473) would expand the city-state to an empire|
|Ovonramwen (exile 1897)|
|•||1979–||Erediauwa I (post-imperial)|
|Historical era||Early Modern era|
|•||Annexed by the United Kingdom||1897|
|•||1625||90,000 km² (34,749 sq mi)|
The Benin Empire was a pre-colonial empire located in what is now southern Nigeria. Its capital was Edo, now known as Benin City, Edo. It should not be confused with the modern-day country called Benin, formerly called Dahomey. The Benin Empire was "one of the oldest and most highly developed states in the coastal hinterland of West Africa, dating perhaps to the eleventh century CE", until it was annexed by the British Empire in 1897.
The original people and founders of the Benin Empire, the Edo people, were initially ruled by the Ogiso (Kings of the Sky) dynasty who called their land Igodomigodo. The rulers or kings were commonly known as Ogiso. Igodo, the first Ogiso, wielded much influence and gained popularity as a good ruler. He died after a long reign and was succeeded by Ere, his eldest son. In the 12th century, a great palace intrigue and battle for power erupted between the warrior crown prince Ekaladerhan son of the last Ogiso and his young paternal uncle. In anger over an oracle, Prince Ekaladerhan left the royal court with his warriors. When his old father the Ogiso died, the Ogiso dynasty was ended as the people and royal kingmakers preferred their king's son as natural next in line to rule.
The exiled Prince Ekaladerhan died at Ogheton. Oranmiyan took up his abode in the palace built for him at Usama by the elders (now a coronation shrine). Soon after his arrival he married a beautiful lady, Erinmwinde, daughter of Osa-nego, was the ninth Enogie (Duke) of Ego, by whom he had a son. After some years residence here he called a meeting of the people and renounced his office, remarking that the country was a land of vexation, Ile-Ibinu (by which name the country was afterward known) and that only a child born, trained and educated in the arts and mysteries of the land could reign over the people. He caused his son born to him by Erinmwinde to be made King in his place, and returned to Yoruba land Ile-Ife. After some years in Ife, he left for Oyo, where he also left a son behind on leaving the place, and his son Ajaka ultimately became the first Alafin of Oyo of the present line, while Oranmiyan himself was reigning as Oni of Ife. Therefore, Oranmiyan of Ife, the father of Eweka I, the Oba of Benin, was also the father of Ajaka, the first Alafin of Oyo. Oni of Ife and Alafe of Oyo is a Bini spoken language all the Kings title in Southerner are Edo Language. In Nigeria Edo has the greatest and rich culture and most influence in West Africa and powerful King in Nigeria.
By the 15th century, Edo as a system of protected settlements expanded into a thriving city-state. In the 15th century, the twelfth Oba in line, Oba Ewuare the Great (1440–1473) would expand the city-state to an empire.
It was not until the 15th century during the reign of Oba Ewuare the Great that the kingdom's administrative centre, the city Ubinu, began to be known as Benin City by the Portuguese, and would later be adopted by the locals as well. Before then, due to the pronounced ethnic diversity at the kingdom's headquarters during the 15th century from the successes of Oba Ewuare, the earlier name ('Ubinu') by a tribe of the Edos was colloquially spoken as "Bini" by the mix of Itsekhiri, Esan, Ika, Ijaw Edo, Urhobo living together in the royal administrative centre of the kingdom. The Portuguese would write this down as Benin City. Though, farther Edo clans, such as the Itsekiris and the Urhobos still referred to the city as Ubini up till the late 19th century, as evidence implies.
Aside from Benin City, the system of rule of the Oba in his kingdom, even through the golden age of the kingdom, was still loosely based after the Ogiso dynasty, which was military and royal protection in exchange of use of resources and implementation of taxes paid to the royal administrative centre. Language and culture was not enforced but remained heterogeneous and localized according to each group within the kingdom, though a local "Enogie" (duke) was often appointed by the Oba for specified ethnic areas.
Nowadays, nearly 36 known Ogiso are accounted for as rulers of this first form of the state. According to the Edo oral tradition, during the reign of the last Ogiso, his son and heir apparent, Ekaladerhan, was banished from Igodomigodo as a result of one of the Queens having deliberately changed an oracle message to the Ogiso. Prince Ekaladerhan was a powerful warrior and well loved. On leaving Benin he travelled west to the land of the Yoruba where he became king and renamed himself Izoduwa, which is now corrupt to Oduduwa by Yorubas. Most Edo cultures and festival ethnics are now practiced by Yorubas such as Ishango, Ogun, Festac of Idia Mother of Oba Esigie of Benin. Also most foods of the Edo are now consumed by the Yorubas, such as Iyan, Eman, Usi, Ighiawo and Ogi. Most current cities in West Nigeria are a mix of Edo and Yoruba, such as Ekiti, Kogi, Oyo, Ogun, Ondo and Lagos itself.
On the death of his father, the last Ogiso, a group of Benin Chiefs led by Chief Oliha came to Ife, pleading with Oduduwa (the Ooni) to return to Igodomigodo (later known as Benin City in the 15th century during Oba Ewuare) to ascend the throne. Oduduwa's reply was that a ruler cannot leave his domain but he had seven sons and would ask one of them to go back to become the next king there.
Eweka I was the first 'Oba' or king of the new dynasty after the end of the era of Ogiso. He changed the ancient name of Igodomigodo to Edo.
Centuries later, in 1440, Oba Ewuare, also known as Ewuare the Great, came to power and turned the city-state into an empire. It was only at this time that the administrative centre of the kingdom began to be referred to as Ubinu after the Itsekhiri word and corrupted to Bini by the Itsekhiri, Edo, Urhobo living together in the royal administrative centre of the kingdom. The Portuguese who arrived in 1485 would refer to it as Benin and the centre would become known as Benin City and its empire Benin Empire.
The Ancient Benin Empire, as with the Oyo Empire which eventually gained political ascendancy over even Ile-Ife, gained political strength and ascendancy over much of what is now Mid-Western and Western Nigeria, with the Oyo Empire bordering it on the west, the Niger river on the east, and the northerly lands succumbing to Fulani Muslim invasion in the North. Interestingly, much of what is now known as Western Iboland and even Yorubaland was conquered by the Benin Kingdom in the late 19th century - Agbor (Ika), Akure, Owo and even the present day Lagos Island, which was named "Eko" meaning "War Camp" by the Bini.
The Oba had become the paramount power within the region. Oba Ewuare, the first Golden Age Oba, is credited with turning Benin City into City States from a military fortress built by Ogiso, protected by moats and walls. It was from this bastion that he launched his military campaigns and began the expansion of the kingdom from the Edo-speaking heartlands.
Oba Ewuare was a direct descendant of Eweka I great grandson of Oduduwa, Oni of Ife.
A series of walls marked the incremental growth of the sacred city from 850 AD until its decline in the 16th century. In the 15th century Benin became the greatest city of the empire created by Oba Ewuare. To enclose his palace he commanded the building of Benin's inner wall, a seven-mile (11 km) long earthen rampart girded by a moat 50 feet (15 m) deep. This was excavated in the early 1960s by Graham Connah. Connah estimated that its construction, if spread out over five dry seasons, would have required a workforce of 1,000 laborers working ten hours a day seven days a week. Ewuare also added great thoroughfares and erected nine fortified gateways.
Excavations also uncovered a rural network of earthen walls 4 to 8 thousand miles long that would have taken an estimated 150 million man hours to build and must have taken hundreds of years to build. These were apparently raised to mark out territories for towns and cities. Thirteen years after Ewuare's death tales of Benin's splendors lured more Portuguese traders to the city gates.
At its maximum extent, the empire extended from the western Ibo tribes on the shores of the Niger river, through parts of the southwestern region of Nigeria (much of present-day Ondo State, and the isolated islands (current Lagos Island and Obalende) in the coastal region of present-day Lagos State). The Oyo Kingdom, which extended through most of SouthWestern Nigeria to parts of present-day Republic of Benin was to the West.
The state developed an advanced artistic culture, especially in its famous artifacts of bronze, iron and ivory. These include bronze wall plaques and life-sized bronze heads depicting the Obas of Benin. The most common artifact is based on Queen Idia, now best known as the FESTAC Mask after its use in 1977 in the logo of the Nigeria-financed and hosted Second Festival of Black & African Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77).
The first European travelers to reach Benin were Portuguese explorers in about 1485. A strong mercantile relationship developed, with the Edo trading tropical products such as ivory, pepper and palm oil with the Portuguese for European goods such as manila and guns. In the early 16th century, the Oba sent an ambassador to Lisbon, and the king of Portugal sent Christian missionaries to Benin City. Some residents of Benin City could still speak a pidgin Portuguese in the late 19th century.
The first English expedition to Benin was in 1553, and significant trading developed between England and Benin based on the export of ivory, palm oil and pepper. Visitors in the 16th and 17th centuries brought back to Europe tales of "the Great Benin", a fabulous city of noble buildings, ruled over by a powerful king. However, the Oba began to suspect Britain of larger colonial designs and ceased communications with the British until the when British troops captured, burned, and looted Benin City, which brought the Benin Empire to an end.
The king's palace or court is a square, and is as large as the town of Haarlem and entirely surrounded by a special wall, like that which encircles the town. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam, but one larger than another, resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles..."— Olfert Dapper, Nauwkeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaansche Gewesten
Another Dutch traveller was David van Nyendael who in 1699 gave an eye-witness account.
The Legions of Benin
"The King of Benin can in a single day make 20,000 men ready for war, and, if need be, 180,000, and because of this he has great influence among all the surrounding peoples. . . . His authority stretches over many cities, towns and villages. There is no King thereabouts who, in the possession of so many beautiful cities and towns, is his equal."— Olfert Dapper, Nauwkeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaansche Gewesten (Description of Africa), 1668
The kingdom of Benin offers a snapshot of a relatively well-organized and sophisticated African polity in operation before the major European colonial interlude. Military operations relied on a well trained disciplined force. At the head of the host stood the Oba of Benin. The monarch of the realm served as supreme military commander. Beneath him were subordinate generalissimos, the Ezomo, the Iyase, and others who supervised a Metropolitan Regiment based in the capital, and a Royal Regiment made up of hand-picked warriors that also served as bodyguards. Benin's Queen Mother also retained her own regiment, the "Queen's Own." The Metropolitan and Royal regiments were relatively stable semi-permanent or permanent formations. The Village Regiments provided the bulk of the fighting force and were mobilized as needed, sending contingents of warriors upon the command of the king and his generals. Formations were broken down into sub-units under designated commanders. Foreign observers often commented favorably on Benin's discipline and organization as "better disciplined than any other Guinea nation", contrasting them with the slacker troops from the Gold Coast.
Until the introduction of guns in the 15th century, traditional weapons like the spear, short sword, and bow held sway. Efforts were made to reorganize a local guild of blacksmiths in the 18th century to manufacture light firearms, but dependence on imports was still heavy. Before the coming of the gun, guilds of blacksmiths were charged with war production—–particularly swords and iron spearheads.
Benin's tactics were well organized, with preliminary plans weighed by the Oba and his sub-commanders. Logistics were organized to support missions from the usual porter forces, water transport via canoe, and requisitioning from localities the army passed through. Movement of troops via canoes was critically important in the lagoons, creeks and rivers of the Niger Delta, a key area of Benin's domination. Tactics in the field seem to have evolved over time. While the head-on clash was well known, documentation from the 18th century shows greater emphasis on avoiding continuous battle lines, and more effort to encircle an enemy (ifianyako).
Fortifications were important in the region and numerous military campaigns fought by Benin's soldiers revolved around sieges. As noted above, Benin's military earthworks are the largest of such structures in the world, and Benin's rivals also built extensively. Barring a successful assault, most sieges were resolved by a strategy of attrition, slowly cutting off and starving out the enemy fortification until it capitulated. On occasion however, European mercenaries were called on to aid with these sieges. In 1603–04 for example, European cannon helped batter and destroy the gates of a town near present-day Lagos, allowing 10,000 warriors of Benin to enter and conquer it. As payment the Europeans received items, such as palm oil and bundles of pepper. The example of Benin shows the power of indigenous military systems, but also the role outside influences and new technologies brought to bear. This is a normal pattern among many nations and was to be reflected across Africa as the 19th century dawned.
Britain seeks control over trade
The city and empire of Benin declined after 1700. By this time, European activity in the area, most notably through the Trans-Atlantic slave-trade, resulted in major disruptive repercussions. However, Benin's power was revived in the 19th century with the development of the trade in palm oil and textiles. To preserve Benin's independence, bit by bit the Oba banned the export of goods from Benin, until the trade was exclusively in palm oil.
By the last half of the 19th century Great Britain had become desirous of having a closer relationship with the Kingdom of Benin; for British officials were increasingly interested in controlling trade in the area and in accessing the kingdom's rubber resources to support their own growing tire market.
Several attempts were made to achieve this end beginning with the official visit of Richard Burton in 1862 when he was consul at Fernando Po. Following that was an attempt to establish a treaty between Benin and the United Kingdom by Hewtt, Blair and Annesley in 1884, 1885 and 1886 respectively. However, these efforts did not yield any results. Benin resisted becoming a British protectorate throughout the 1880s, but the British remained persistent. Progress was made finally in 1892 during the visit of Vice-Consul H.L. Gallwey. This mission was significant, being the first Official visit after Burton's. Moreover, it would also set in motion the events to come that would lead to Oba Ovonramwen's demise.
The Gallwey Treaty of 1892
The Gallwey treaty allegedly signed by the king required the Benin Empire to abolish the Benin slave trade and human sacrifice. Despite the stories later told by Gallwey, there is today still some controversy on a number of points—most of all as to whether the Oba actually agreed to the terms of the treaty as Gallwey had claimed. First, at the time of his visit to Benin the Oba could not welcome Gallwey or any other foreigners due to the observance of the traditional Igue festival which prohibited the presence of any non-native persons during the ritual season. Also, even though Gallwey claimed the King (Oba) and his chiefs were willing to sign the treaty, it was common knowledge that Oba Ovonramwen was not in the habit of signing one sided treaties. The Treaty reads "Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India in compliance with the request of [the] King of Benin, hereby extend to him and the territory under his authority and jurisdiction, Her gracious favor and protection" (Article 1). The Treaty also states "The King of Benin agrees and promises to refrain from entering into any correspondence, Agreement or Treaty with any foreign nation or power except with the knowledge of her Britannic Majesty's Government" (Article 2), and finally that "It is agreed that full jurisdiction, civil and criminal over British subject's and their property in the territory of Benin is reserved to her Britannic Majesty, to be exercised by such consular or other officers as Her Majesty shall appoint for the purpose...The same jurisdiction is likewise reserved to her Majesty in the said territory of Benin over foreign subjects enjoying British protection, who shall be deemed to be involved in the expression "British subjects" throughout this Treaty" (Article 3).
It makes little sense that the Oba and his chiefs would accept the terms laid out in articles IV-IX, or that the Oba or his chiefs would knowingly bestow their dominion upon Queen Victoria for so little apparent remuneration. Under Article IV, the treaty states that "All disputes between the King of Benin and other Chiefs between him and British or foreign traders or between the aforesaid King and neighboring tribes which can not be settled amicably between the two parties, shall be submitted to the British consular or other officers appointed by Her Britannic Majesty to exercise jurisdiction in the Benin territories for arbitration and decision or for arrangement." Oba Ovonremwen was a tenacious man, which is contrary to the accounts of treaty portrayers such as Gallwey; he was not doltish.
The chiefs attest that the Oba did not sign the treaty because he was in the middle of an important festival which prohibited him from doing anything else (including signing the treaty). Ovoramwen maintained that he did not touch the white man's pen. Gallwey later claimed in his report that the Oba basically accepted the signing of the treaty in all respects. Despite the ambiguity over whether or not the Oba signed the treaty, the British officials easily accepted it as though he did.
The conflict of 1897
When Benin discovered Britain's true intentions, eight unknowing British representatives, who came to visit Benin, were killed. As a result, a was launched in 1897. The British force, under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, razed and burned the city, destroying much of the country's treasured art and dispersing nearly all that remained. The stolen portrait figures, busts, and groups created in iron, carved ivory, and especially in brass (conventionally called the "Benin Bronzes") are now displayed in museums around the world.