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 a Bish, 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 later became Izoduwa or Oduduwa the first Oni in uhe (ile ife). Oranmiyan, grand son of Oduduwa 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.
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, 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.
1 Oral tradition
2 Golden Age
3 European contact
4 The Legions of Benin
5.1 Britain seeks control over trade
5.2 The Gallwey Treaty of 1892
5.3 The conflict of 1897
6 See also
9 External links
Bronze plaque of Benin Warriors with ceremonial swords. 16th–18th centuries, Nigeria.
The first name of the Benin Empire, since its creation some time in the first millennium CE, was Igodomigodo, as called by its own inhabitants. Their ruler was called Ogiso.
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 reportedly became a king. Most Yoruba cultures and festival ethnics are now practiced by Edo such as Ishango, Ogun, Festac of Idia Mother of Oba Esigie of Benin. Also most foods of the Yoruba are now consumed by the Edo, such as Iyan, Eman, Usi, Ighiawo and Ogi
On the death of the last Ogiso, a group of Benin Chiefs led by Chief Oliha came to Ife, pleading with Oduduwa (The Ooni) to come reign as King in 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.
An Edo figure from the reign of the oba Esigie (c. 1504-1550) Brooklyn Museum.
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 on expedition led by Joao Afonso de Aveiro 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.
Nowadays, scientists discovered out that the Edo people did not have a writing system, but their art work, had let the scientists discover their true history. Including the armor, magnificent drawing skills.
Benin city in the 17th century.
The Oba had become the mount of 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, an 11-kilometre-long (7 mi) earthen rampart girded by a moat 6 m (20 ft) 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.
Pendant ivory mask of Queen Idia, court of Benin, 16th century, (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Excavations also uncovered a rural network of earthen walls 6,000 to 13,000 km (4,000 to 8,000 mi) 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. 13 years after Ewuare’s death tales of Benin’s splendors, more Portuguese traders were lured 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 well-known 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).
Drawing of Benin City made by an English officer, 1897
The first European travelers to reach Benin were Portuguese explorers headed by Joao Afonso de Aveiro 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 British Expedition in 1896-97 when British troops captured, burned, and looted Benin City as part of a punitive mission, which brought the Benin Empire to an end.