The Benin Empire

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Bronze plaque of the Oba of Benin, the ruler of Benin, in his divine aspect. His legs are mud-puppy fish, a symbol of the sea-god Olokun. CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

The pre-colonial Benin Kingdom or Empire was located in what is today southern Nigeria. (It is entirely separate from the Republic of Benin, which was then known as Dahomey.) Benin arose as a city-state in the late 1100s or 1200s, and expanded into a larger kingdom or empire in the mid-1400s. Most of the people within the Benin Empire were Edo, and they were ruled over by a monarch, who held the title of Oba (roughly equivalent to king).

 

By the late 1400s, the capital of Benin, Benin City, was already a large and highly regulated city. Europeans who visited were always impressed by its splendor and compared it to the major European cities at the time. The city was laid out on a clear plan, the buildings were reportedly all well-kept, and the city included a massive palace compound decorated with thousands of intricate metal, ivory, and wood plaques (known as theBenin Bronzes), most of which were made between the 1400s and 1600s, after which the craft declined. In the mid-1600s, the power of the Obas also waned, as administrators and officials took more control over the government.

Transatlantic Slave Trade

Benin was one of many African countries to sell slaves to European slave traders, but like all strong states, the Benin people did so on their own terms. In fact, Benin refused to sell slaves for many years. Benin representatives sold some prisoners of war to the Portuguese in the late 1400s, during the time when Benin was expanding into an empire and fighting several battles.

By the 1500s, however, they had stopped expanding and refused to sell more slaves until the 1700s. Instead, they traded other goods, including pepper, ivory, and palm oil for the brass and firearms they wanted from Europeans. The slave trade only began to pick up after 1750, when Benin was in a period of decline.

Conquest, 1897

During the European Scramble for Africa in the late 1800s, Britain wanted to extend its control northwards over what became Nigeria, but Benin repeatedly rejected their diplomatic advances. In 1892, however, a British representative named H. L. Gallwey visited Benin and reportedly convinced the Oba to sign a treaty that essentially granted Britain sovereignty over Benin. Benin officials challenged the treaty and refused to follow its provisions in regard to trade. When a British party of officers and porters set out in 1897 to visit Benin City to enforce the treaty, Benin attacked the convoy killing almost everyone.

Britain immediately prepared a punitive military expedition to punish Benin for the attack and to send a message to other kingdoms that might resist. The British forces quickly defeated the Benin army and then razed Benin City, looting the magnificent artwork in the process.

Tales of Savagery

In the build-up and aftermath of conquest, popular and scholarly accounts of Benin stressed the savagery of the kingdom, as that was one of the justifications for conquest. In referring to the Benin Bronzes, museums today still tend to describe the metal as being purchased with slaves, but most of the bronzes were created prior to the 1700s, when Benin began to participate in the trade.

Benin Today

Benin continues to exist today as a Kingdom within Nigeria. It might best be understood as a social organization within Nigeria. All subjects of Benin are citizens of Nigeria and live under Nigerian law and administration. The current Oba, Erediauwa, is considered an African monarch, however, and he serves as an advocate of the Edo or Benin people. Oba Erediauwa is a graduate of Cambridge University in Britain, and prior to his coronation worked in the Nigeria civil service for many years and spent a few years working for a private firm. As the Oba, he is a figure of respect and authority and has served as a mediator in several political disputes.

 

Sources:

Coombes, Annie, Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture, and Popular Imagination. (Yale University Press, 1994).

Girshick, Paula Ben-Amos  and John Thornton, "Civil War in the Kingdom of Benin, 1689-1721: Continuity or Political Change?" The Journal of African History 42.3 (2001), 353-376.

"Oba of Benin," Kingdoms of Nigeria web page.