The Kingdom of Benin perhaps, is famous for its striking brass sculptures, beautiful ivory carvings and artistic plaques which mostly portrayed the rulers of the kingdom and their families. The Benin Kingdom produced some of the finest artworks in Africa.
According to ancient oral traditions, the roots of the people of Benin can be traced to the Kingdom of Ife’s ancient traditions – also located in modern day Nigeria. Benin flourished thanks to its trading activities with neighboring kingdoms like Ife. It is common belief amongst the people of Benin that the King of Ife sent his master craftsman to Benin in the 13th century CE to spread his sculptural skills. Ancient Benin traditions also reveal that its people invited Prince Oranmiyan of Ife to rule over them and his son Eweka became the first king of Benin. There are a lot of similarities between the two cultures such as the use of leopards in connection with death. However, archaeology is yet to establish a firm connection between these two kingdoms.
The Kingdom of Benin is one of the oldest and highly developed pre-colonial states in West Africa. It sprang up in the 900s and was founded by the people of Edo who settled around the southern rain forest region of West Africa (in modern day Nigeria). At first, theses people lived in small groups which slowly grew and developed into a kingdom. The kingdom was known as Igodomigodo. Over the coming years, Ogisos this kingdom would be ruled by Ogisos – meaning rulers of the sky. By the 1100s, the Ogisos lost control of the kingdom due to internal struggles for power.
Fearing that their beloved kingdom would fall into chaos, they asked for help from the King of Ife who in turn, sent his son Oranmiyan to restore peace to the Edo kingdom. Oranmiyan made his son Eweka the first King (Oba) of Benin.
Around the year 1440, Ewuare became Oba of Benin, marking the beginning of the Golden Age. He embarked on a number of notable reforms including rebuilding Benin City and the royal palace, building a standard army and acquiring new territories. The likes of Oba Ozolua and Oba Esigie – who were both kings after Ewuare – encouraged trade with the Portuguese and they built massive armies with the proceeds.
The Kingdom continued to flourish until the 1860s when it became weakened by internal conflicts and civil wars. It became increasingly difficult for the Obas to rule their people.
The Kingdom had hundreds of specialized artists belonging to various guilds. Often, Membership of these guilds was hereditary and most of them worked for the Oba of Benin. Dutch geographer Olfert Dapper described the royal palace of the Benin court as having “beautiful and long square galleries as big as the exchange at Amsterdam, some bigger than others, resting on wooden pillars, covered from top to bottom with cast copper, on which deeds of war and battle scenes are carved.” Many of the artworks were made of bronze/brass, ivory or wood. They adorned the royal palace of the Oba. The Benin sculptors made these pieces for the ancestral altars of past kings and queen mothers.
The British Threat to Benin
In the 1890s, showed interest in Benin palm oil and rubber which of course, the Oba resisted. By 1897, a group of British envoys went to Benin and by the time they arrived, some Benin soldiers murdered them. In response to these killings, the British embarked on a punitive expedition to capture the city of Benin. They burned the Oba’s palace, sent him on exile and massively looted the palace. They plundered and auctioned off thousands of cultural artifacts and about 3,000 to 6,000 bronze pieces in England to pay for the cost of the expedition. Today, you can find most of these beautiful pieces of art scattered all over the world in museums; the British Museum in London having in its possession the largest collection.
Over the years, there have been clamours by the Nigerian government and the people of Benin for the return of these valuable artifacts. In 1977, the Nigerian government offered to pay the British £2m to loan the Queen Idia ivory mask for the Festival of Black & African Arts & Culture. Sadly, British flatly rejected this request.
A ray of hope
Very recently, CNN reported that more than a century after the sacking and looting of Benin City by British soldiers, some of these bronzes are coming back to Nigeria – with conditions attached. The Benin DIALOGUE Group (BDG) struck a deal that would see some of the most iconic pieces returned on a temporary basis to form an exhibition at the New Benin Royal Museum in Edo State, Nigeria within three years.