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Centered in what is now south-central Nigeria, the long-lived Benin Empire influenced much of Africa through military power and trade beginning in the eleventh century. Ruled by a sophisticated mixture of monarchy and oligarchy, the people of Benin enjoyed a standard of living that rivaled any of the world’s great cities, until the British conquered them in 1897.
The empire of Benin was among Africa’s most important, with roots going back to the eleventh century, and it lasted until its conquest by Britain in 1897. Benin, one among many large empires of the Guinea Belt (the forest region of the southern half of west Africa), was located in the south-central part of what is now Nigeria (and not be confused with the modern nation of Benin).
Oral tradition reveals that the people of Benin (who now refer to themselves as “Edo”) migrated from the east. They likely settled first at Ile-Ife before founding Benin City around 1000 CE. Little is known of Benin’s earliest history. Oral tradition records thirty-one kings from the Ogiso dynasty, of whom Owodo was the last. Owodo was so cruel and inept that he was banished. The chiefs of Benin then ruled as a council with one of their own elected as ruler.
This oligarchic (relating to government by the few) experiment collapsed when the head of the chiefs attempted to make his position hereditary. Unable to resolve the crisis the people of Benin requested that a son from the royal house of Oduduwa, the mythical ruler of Ile-Ife, rule them. Oduduwa sent his son Oranmiyan. Historians debate whether the story of Oranmiyan represents dominance or conquest by the Yoruba people. Oranmiyan eventually left the city in frustration, and the next oba (the title by which the king of Benin was henceforth known) was his son, Eweka I. The obas of Benin claimed divine descent from Oranmiyan, and this pedigree was central to royal authority.
Political History and Transformation
Tension between the oba and the chiefs remained a central part of Benin’s politics. Ewuare (reigned 1440–1473) was likely Benin’s most famous king and is credited with turning the kingdom into an empire. He came to power after a violent succession dispute and introduced a new level of militarism. Benin conquered many of its neighbors, including the western Igbo, some Yoruba kingdoms, and various riverine peoples of the Niger River delta. The empire was indirectly ruled; indigenous leaders were left in power so long as they paid tribute.
Ewuare redesigned the capital by separating the palace (ogbe) from the town (ore) by a broad avenue. The densely populated city of intersecting streets featured craftspeople, artisans, merchants, blacksmiths, and priests organized by guilds and age grades. Ewuare created two important associations: Eghaevbo n’Ogbe (Palace Chiefs) and Eghaevbo n’Ore (Town Chiefs), who were his highest advisers, although none of the offices was hereditary. In time the Town Chiefs became a permanent source of opposition to the palace, particularly its head, the Iyase, who was commander of the army. Ewuare created an elaborate annual cycle of royal ceremonies and introduced coral beads as a symbol of royal power. A century of expansion continued after Ewuare under Ozolua, Esigie, and Orhoghua.
Royal power was supplemented by religious power from the head priests, the Osa and Osuan. The Emeru (Seven Caretakers of Sacred Brass Vessels) and Ooton (Seven Caretakers of Royal Ancestors) also lent their supernatural power to the oba. Like many peoples of the Guinea Belt, the people of Benin engaged in human sacrifice. Written accounts indicate that human sacrifice was restricted to royal rituals and involved a limited number of victims.
Succession disputes were common in Benin’s history. The royal line had become so dissipated by the seventeenth century that extreme competition developed among rivals. As the power of the oba weakened, the strength of the chiefs increased. This increase culminated during the late seventeenth century in a civil war between obas Ewaukpe and Akenzua and Ode, who was the Iyase. The war strengthened the power of the Ezomo, a chief who controlled the village of Uzebu. The Ezomo gained the right to appoint his own chiefs, becoming, in essence, a secondary oba. From this period onward royal art grew increasingly important and innovative as it became a political tool to assert royal control. Benin emerged from the civil war stable and prosperous for most of the latter half of the eighteenth century. The political history of Benin during the nineteenth century consisted of complex interplay between the oba, Ezomo, Eghaevbo n’Ogbe, and Eghaevbo n’Ore.
Benin and Africa
Military might largely held the Benin Empire together. In an indirectly ruled empire local leaders had a large degree of autonomy. Benin’s military ensured that local leaders paid their tribute. Local rulers did sometimes break way from Benin, as the trading state of Warri did during the nineteenth century. Relations with various Yoruba kingdoms to the north were often violent, particularly with the growth of the areas of Ilorin, Oyo, and Nupe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Benin served as a nexus for trade goods from throughout the region, including textiles, beads, slaves, ivory, pepper, coffee, palm oil, woods, leather goods, horses, and salt. Via Hausaland, Benin participated in trans-Saharan trade.
Benin and the World
Benin’s first contact with Europeans came during the reign of Ewuare. The first visitors were impressed with what they saw and remarked on the hospitality of the people, the safety of the streets, and the high standard of living and cleanliness. Records show that the people of Benin probably lived as well as people in any major city of the time. Europeans of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries saw Benin as a sophisticated civilization. The Portuguese sent Catholic missionaries to Benin during the reign of Esigie, but few converts were gained.
As European interest in African slaves grew, Benin participated in the transatlantic slave trade. Although a significant source of income, slave trade never dominated Benin’s economy, nor was it related to Benin’s territorial expansion. Scholars traditionally argued that the slave trade lowered the value of human life in Benin, leading to an increase in the volume of human sacrifice. Current scholarship suggests that nineteenth-century European accounts of widespread human executions were exaggerated to justify conquest. Despite heavy resistance, the British captured Benin in 1897 and integrated it into the British protectorate of Nigeria. This conquest ended the oba’s political power, but the institution of the oba continued. The memory of the empire of Benin remains important in south-central Nigeria, and the oba retains great ritual and symbolic importance.
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