The History of The Great Benin Kingdom


African history is extensive and fascinating, especially the history concerning African kingdoms or empires such as the Oyo Empire. Most ancient empires were located in the region of what is today modern Nigeria. This article will generally discuss the Benin Kingdom, one of the many Kingdoms in what is now present-day Nigeria.

Brief Description of the Benin Kingdom

The Benin empire was the most long-lasting Kingdom in all of West African history. Besides, history describes the art and architecture of the Benin Empire as being extraordinary. The state was so great that it identified itself with a flag.

Edo was the capital of the Kingdom. The Empire of Benin was one of the most advanced states in the coastal surroundings of West Africa. The Edo people established it in the 11th century AD and lasted until the British Empire seized it in 1897.

Early History of Benin

By the 1st century BC, Benin’s region was partly agricultural, and it became majorly agricultural by 500 AD. However, hunting and gathering remained part of the primary activities in the region. Besides, by 500 AD, the occupants of the Benin area used iron. The original name of the Benin Empire was Igodomigodo. Their leader was known as Ogiso, which meant Ruler of the Sky.

Benin city was an establishment that arose in a forest. As such, its occupants could easily defend themselves from any form of invasion. The town had narrow paths and dense vegetation, making it easy for its inhabitants to hide and launch surprise attacks. Other than defense, the rainforest vegetation in the region promoted an abundance of resources in the city.

The trees provided raw materials like leaves and timber. The people used the leaves in thatching of their rooftops and the wood in the boat building. Since the forest also provided a habitat for numerous wild animals, they had plenty of animals to hunt. Fish was also plentiful in the region. As such, the inhabitants of Benin had a lot to feed.

Since they emulated a healthy lifestyle, they became resistant to diseases. Rarely would any Benin occupant suffer an illness. History documents that more than 30 rulers have reigned the Benin state.

The Benin Architecture

Here, we will talk about Benin’s Great Walls, a sequence of earthworks made up of ditches and banks. They comprise 9.3 miles of city Iya and more than 9000 miles of rural iya.

Some estimates reveal that probably the architects constructed the walls between the thirteenth and mid-fifteenth century. And others approximate that it might have been amid the first Millennium AD.

The European Contact

Before trade and interactions with the Europeans, provisions of metal were few in Benin. After the Benin Empire commenced trading with the foreigners, the number of bronze castings and thickness of casting increased.

The first European explorers to arrive at Benin were the Portuguese travelers under Afonso de Aveiro in 1485. A strong trade relationship grew with the Edo exchanging slaves and tropical goods such as palm oil for European items such as guns.

In the 16th century, the ruler sent a representative to Lisbon, and the ruler of Portugal sent missionaries who were Christians to Benin City. The 1st English journey to Benin was in 1553, and trading developed between Benin and England.


The British Encounter in Benin

Benin’s wealth and power were flourishing in the 19th century with the growth of trading palm oil, ivory, and other goods or items. The ruler then prohibited the export of products from Benin to maintain the Empire’s independence. The trade became solely in palm oil.

Later on, Great Britain came to the Benin territory because it wanted a closer and more robust association with the Empire. Its officials were interested in dominating trade in the region. The Empire refused to become a British colony, but the British kept pushing.

At the end of the 19th century, the Kingdom managed to maintain its independence, and the king exercised a monopoly over trade. The British found that to be very annoying. In 1892, Henry Gallwey, the British Vice-Consul of Oil Rivers Protectorate, visited Benin in the hope of opening up trade and capture Benin and make it a British colony. Gallwey attempted to get Ovonramwen and his assistants to sign a deceptive agreement that would give Britain a legitimate defense for using greater control over the Kingdom.

When the Benin people realized Britain’s true intentions, the king’s generals ordered an attack on the British. In 1897, the British launched a revengeful expedition. The British force burned the city, destroy and steal the Empire’s arts.

Art of the Benin Empire

Benin art refers to the extraordinary art from the Empire of Benin. The Benin people made the Benin art out of cast bronze and carved ivory. They produced the art primarily for the court of the ruler or Oba of Benin.

Amongst the Benin arts were the royal ones. The royal arts confirmed that the divine king, Oba, was a central leader, portraying his divine nature. These arts showed the significant historical events of the Benin kingdom and the King’s involvement amid these events. The artisans who made the arts considered the raw materials such as ivory, brass, and coral, which they used as sacred. The value and the time the Benin artisans dedicated to making the art and the level of skill symbolized the influence, wealth, and the power the Oba had.

The brass casting which the craftsmen used was the casting they honored the most. Then what followed it was the igon ematon, ivory, and woodcarvers. There has been so much debate concerning the origin of brass casting. Some say that the brass castings were from Ile Ife, which was the capital of medieval Ife, while others suggest that the brass casting originally is from Benin.

Although Benin’s royal arts promoted creativity and innovation, the artisans based the artwork mostly on convention, primarily as it intended to bring out a reflection of the royal prerogative. The arts have served many rulers by providing them with past information concerning the Kingdom. Through art, they have managed to orient themselves, gathering data to carry out their initiatives.

Some of the Benin arts include the ivory double bell. It is also called the Egogo. It is among the surviving ancient African sculptures. People only know of six of these ivory gongs. The Oba used these sculptures during the Emobo ceremonies to scare away evil spirits.

Benin art has been on display since the 13th century. Although it is only after the Punitive Expedition in the 19th century when the western nations knew they existed.

What happened during the Punitive Expedition? At this time, the Benin arts were reduced because the British caused an impairment in the creation of the arts. It was around 1897, on 18th February, when British men arrived in the city of Benin, intending to conquer it and rip the people of their land.

Amid the chaos and violence, the arts belonging to the Oba and his court got destroyed. Moreover, the British sold most of the artifacts to settle the expedition.

The Ceremonies of the Benin Kingdom

Functions in the Benin Empire marked crucial moments. Amid the pre-colonial times, the people performed different rites of passage to celebrate their Kingdom’s well-being and promote their history. Hence the Oba emphasized the significance of conducting the festivals. Most importantly, the end of the year festival, which is the Igue.

The Igue ceremony usually happens during the winter holidays, so that many people can attend it. This festival involves cleansing of the Kingdom’s unruly spirits and renewing Oba’s supernatural powers. Another festival is the Ague. It consists of blessing the first budded yams in the hope of a successful harvest come next time. There is also the Ugie Ivie, where people dipped the coral and the red stone regalia belonging to Oba in the blood of a cow. This is to restore it with spiritual force.

Lastly is the Ugie Erha Oba, a festival that honors the King’s father and all the paternal ancestors. Moreover, the people accompanied these rituals with the ivory double gongs. The name double gongs are because they have small resonating cups at their front.


The Flag of the Benin Kingdom

Flags are significant pieces of cloths that represent the identity of a state. Different countries have flags of different colors that have meanings. Just like present-day countries, the Benin Kingdom also had a flag. Benin’s empire’s flag is an anonymous West African flag that people found in the Benin Kingdom region. People believe that Admiral Kennedy is the one who brought the flag to the United Kingdom. The National Maritime Museum currently holds the original flag.

In conclusion, we can say that the Benin Empire was tremendous and extraordinary in its way following the construction of the Great Walls and the creation of its art. The Nigerian government should strive and retrieve the lost arts of the Great Benin Empire. By doing so, they help preserve and restore the history and culture of Benin’s ancient inhabitants.



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