The Benin kingdom was one of the most powerful kingdoms in the ancient times. They were feared and very powerful. Their kingship system and power stretched far and wide. Their warriors and Obas were fearless and the Obas (Kings) were believed to be spirits. However, typical of the onset of colonialism, the powerful Benin kingdom was invaded, looted and brought to ruins.
The Kingdom of Benin, located in the southern forests of West Africa (modern Nigeria) and formed by the Edo people. The kingdom flourished from the 13th to 19th century CE. The capital, also called Benin, was the hub of a trade network exclusively controlled by the king or oba and which included relations with Portuguese traders. Who sought gold and slaves. However, Benin went into decline during the 18th century CE as the kingdom was racked by civil wars. And it was ultimately conquered by the British in 1897 CE. Today, the kingdom is perhaps best known for its impressive brass sculptures and plaques which frequently depict rulers and their family. They are considered amongst the finest artworks ever produced in Africa.
The success of this kingdom was very consistent from the start of the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century. Aside the influence and success, Benin was a beautiful city. Especially the residence of the leaders.
By the 1st century BCE, the Benin territory was partially agricultural. However, it became primarily agricultural by around 500 CE. But hunting and gathering still remained important. Also by 500 CE, iron was in use by the inhabitants of the Benin territory.
Benin City sprang up by around 1000 CE, in a forest that could be easily defended. The dense vegetation and narrow paths made the city easy to defend against attacks. The rainforest, which Benin City is situated in, helped in the development of the city because of its vast resources. E.g fish from rivers and creeks, animals to hunt, leaves for roofing, plants for medicine, ivory for carving and trading, and wood for boat building — that could be exploited. However, domesticated animals, from the forest and surrounding areas, could not survive. Due to a disease spread by tsetse flies. Although after centuries of exposure, some animals, such as cattle and goat, developed a resistance to the disease.
The original name of the Benin Kingdom, at its creation some time in the first millennium CE, was Igodomigodo, as its inhabitants called it. Their ruler was called Ogiso. Nearly 36 known Ogiso are accounted for as rulers of this initial incarnation of the state.
Golden Age Of Benin
Oba Ewuare, the first Golden Age Oba, is credited with turning Benin City into a city-state from a military fortress built by the Ogisos, 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.
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.
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.
Benin Kingdom Relationship With Colonialists
When the Portuguese first set foot there at the end of the 15th century, Benin was a city-state in the middle of the rainforest. That surpassed many late medieval European cities in urban development and where the streets were lit at night by palm oil lanterns.
“The king’s court is as large as the city of Haarlem, and … divided into many magnificent palaces, houses and rooms of the courtiers, and … galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam,” the Dutch geographer Olfert Dapper wrote in 1668 about the Oba’s court. Based on accounts of explorers and missionaries who had visited Benin.
At the time, the Benin Kingdom was at the height of its military and political power. And stretched far into the east and west of modern-day Nigeria.
That supremacy strengthened Benin’s position towards the European intruders, explains history professor Osarhieme Benson Osadolor of the University of Benin.
“The Oba maintained his independence despite pressure from the Portuguese, Dutch, and British.”
There was, however, a lively intercontinental trade relationship, during which Europeans provided the Oba with firearms and other items in exchange for slaves that his army brought back after their conquests.
The people of Benin at the time used to produce palm oil and rubber which they traded with some Europeans. The British, whom were very powerful during that period decided to use their power to take over Benin kingdom and get rich by selling their rubber and palm oil and also diffuse their influence.
From the 19th century onwards the empire went downhill. The slave trade had been replaced by the trade in palm oil. And the Oba enforced a personal export monopoly that did not make him popular among his chiefs and the general population. Says the historian.
Therefore, when Oba Ovonramwen kept resisting annexation by the British because he was one of the few local leaders who still maintained their independence at the time. He did not receive the usual military back-up from his chiefs.
On several occasions, the British sent their officials to pay a visit to the kingdom to establish a trade relationship. But the leaders denied them entry because they knew of the dealings of the British power at the time being. In 1897, the British again sent another set of representatives to the kingdom who were driven away. In the heat of the encounter, there was violence attacks between the Benin warriors and the British representatives who were warned severally for their unwanted visits.
Some Benin warriors lost their lives, same as the British. This made the British officials angry. In return, they deployed over a thousand soldiers whom invaded the kingdom. They burnt it to the ground and looted the city.
On February 18, 1897, the once glorious city fell within a day. In the process, the British set a large part of Benin ablaze – though only after ransacking the palace’s treasures. Of which the famous bronze sculptures can be seen in the British Museum to this day.