The original name of the Benin Kingdom, at its creation sometime in the first millennium CE, was Igodomigodo, as its inhabitants called it. Their ruler was called Ogiso (Ruler of the sky). Nearly 36 known Ogiso are accounted for as rulers of this initial incarnation of the state.
By the 1st century BCE, the Benin territory was partially agricultural; and 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; 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; after centuries of exposure, some animals, such as cattle and goat, developed a resistance to the disease.
Excavations at Benin City have revealed that it was already flourishing around 1200-1300 CE. In 1440, Oba Ewuare, also known as Ewuare the Great, came to power and expanded the borders of the former city-state. It was only at this time that the administrative centre of the kingdom began to be referred to as Ubinu after the Portuguese word and corrupted to Bini by the Itsekhiri, Urhobo and Edo who all lived together in the royal administrative centre of the kingdom. The Portuguese who arrived in an expedition led by Joao Afonso de Aveiro in 1485 would refer to it as Benin and the centre would become known as Benin City.
The Kingdom of Benin eventually gained political strength and ascendancy over much of what is now mid-western Nigeria. By the seventeenth century CE, the Kingdom began to decline. Multiple civil wars broke out and disputes over the kingship took place.
THE MILITARY OF BENIN IN HER GRACE
Military operations relied on a well-trained disciplined force. At the head of the host stood the Oba of Benin. The monarch of the realm served as supreme military commander. Beneath him were subordinate generalissimos, the Ezomo, the Iyase, and others who supervised a Metropolitan Regiment based in the capital, and a Royal Regiment made up of hand-picked warriors that also served as bodyguards. Benin’s queen mother, the Iyoba, also retained her own regiment – the “Queen’s Own”. The Metropolitan and Royal regiments were relatively stable semi-permanent or permanent formations. The Village Regiments provided the bulk of the fighting force and were mobilized as needed, sending contingents of warriors upon the command of the king and his generals. Formations were broken down into sub-units under designated commanders. Foreign observers often commented favorably on Benin’s discipline and organization as “better disciplined than any other Guinea nation”, contrasting them with the slacker troops from the Gold Coast.
Until the introduction of guns in the 15th century, traditional weapons like the spear, short sword, and bow held sway. Efforts were made to reorganize a local guild of blacksmiths in the 18th century to manufacture light firearms, but dependence on imports was still heavy. Before the coming of the gun, guilds of blacksmiths were charged with war production—particularly swords and iron spearheads.
Benin’s tactics were well organized, with preliminary plans weighed by the Oba and his sub-commanders. Logistics were organized to support missions from the usual porter forces, water transport via canoe, and requisitioning from localities the army passed through. Movement of troops via canoes was critically important in the lagoons, creeks and rivers of the Niger Delta, a key area of Benin’s domination. Tactics in the field seem to have evolved over time. While the head-on clash was well known, documentation from the 18th century shows greater emphasis on avoiding continuous battle lines, and more effort to encircle an enemy (ifianyako).
Fortifications were important in the region and numerous military campaigns fought by Benin’s soldiers revolved around sieges. As noted above, Benin’s military earthworks are the largest of such structures in the world, and Benin’s rivals also built extensively. Barring a successful assault, most sieges were resolved by a strategy of attrition, slowly cutting off and starving out the enemy fortification until it capitulated. On occasion, however, European mercenaries were called on to aid with these sieges. In 1603–04 for example, European cannon helped batter and destroy the gates of a town near present-day Lagos, allowing 10,000 warriors of Benin to enter and conquer it. As payment, the Europeans received items, such as palm oil and bundles of pepper. The example of Benin shows the power of indigenous military systems, but also the role outside influences and new technologies brought to bear. This is a normal pattern among many nations
RELATIONSHIP WITH THE EUROPEANS
Benin began to decline after 1700. Benin’s power and wealth was continuously flourishing in the 19th century with the development of the trade in palm oil, textiles, ivory, slaves, and other resources. To preserve the kingdom’s independence, bit by bit the Oba banned the export of goods from Benin, until the trade was exclusively in palm oil.
By the last half of the 19th century Great Britain had come to want a closer relationship with the Kingdom of Benin; for British officials were increasingly interested in controlling trade in the area and in accessing the kingdom’s rubber resources to support their own growing tire market.
Several attempts were made to achieve this end beginning with the official visit of Richard Francis Burton in 1862 when he was consul at Fernando Pó. Following that came attempts to establish a treaty between Benin and the United Kingdom by Hewtt, Blair and Annesley in 1884, 1885 and 1886 respectively. However, these efforts did not yield any results. The kingdom resisted becoming a British protectorate throughout the 1880s, but the British remained persistent. Progress was made finally in 1892 during the visit of Vice-Consul Henry Galway. This mission was the first official visit after Burton’s. Moreover, it would also set in motion the events to come that would lead to Oba Ovonramwen’s demise.
At the end of the 19th century, the Kingdom of Benin had managed to retain its independence and the Oba exercised a monopoly over trade which the British found irksome. The territory was coveted by an influential group of investors for its rich natural resources such as palm-oil, rubber and ivory. After British consul Richard Burton visited Benin in 1862 he wrote of Benin’s as a place of “gratuitous barbarity which stinks of death”, a narrative which was widely publicized in Britain and increased pressure for the territory’s subjugation. In spite of this pressure, the kingdom maintained independence and was not visited by another representative of Britain until 1892 when Henry Gallwey, the British Vice-Consul of Oil Rivers Protectorate (later Niger Coast Protectorate), visited Benin City hoping to open up trade and ultimately annex Benin Kingdom and make it a British protectorate. Gallwey was able to get Omo n’Oba (Ovonramwen) and his chiefs to sign a treaty which gave Britain legal justification for exerting greater influence over the Empire. While the treaty itself contains text suggesting Ovonramwen actively sought Britain’s protection, this appears to be a fiction. Gallway’s own account suggests the Oba was hesitant to sign the treaty. Although some suggest that humanitarian motivations were driving Britain’s actions, letters written between administrators suggest that economic motivations were predominant. The treaty itself does not explicitly mention anything about Benin’s “bloody customs” that Burton had written about, and instead only includes a vague clause about ensuring “the general progress of civilization”.
An unidentified West African flag allegedly brought to Britain by Admiral F. W. Kennedy after the expedition.
When people in Benin discovered Britain’s true intentions were an invasion to depose the king of Benin, without approval from the king his generals ordered a preemptive attack on the British party approaching Benin City, including eight unknowing British representatives, who were killed. A punitive expedition was launched in 1897. The British force, under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, razed and burned the city, destroying much of the country’s treasured art and dispersing nearly all that remained. The stolen portrait figures, busts, and groups created in iron, carved ivory, and especially in brass (conventionally called the “Benin Bronzes”) are now displayed in museums around the world.
THE BENIN BRONZES
The Benin Bronzes are a group of more than a thousand metal plaques and sculptures that decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now modern-day Nigeria. Collectively, the objects form the best known examples of Benin art, created from the thirteenth century onwards, by the Edo people, which also included other sculptures in brass or bronze, including some famous portrait heads and smaller pieces.
In 1897 most of the plaques and other objects were looted by British forces during a punitive expedition to the area as imperial control was being consolidated in Southern Nigeria. Two hundred of the pieces were taken to the British Museum, London, while the rest were purchased by other European museums. Today, a large number are held by the British Museum. Other notable collections are in Germany and the USA.
The Benin Bronzes led to a greater appreciation in Europe of African culture and art. Initially, it appeared incredible to the discoverers that people “supposedly so primitive and savage” were responsible for such highly developed objects. Some even wrongly concluded that Benin knowledge of metallurgy came from the Portuguese traders who were in contact with Benin in the early modern period. In actual fact the Benin Empire was a hub of African civilization before the Portuguese traders visited and it is clear that the bronzes were made in Benin from an indigenous culture. Many of these dramatic sculptures date to the thirteenth century, centuries before contact with Portuguese traders, and a large part of the collection dates to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is believed that two “golden ages” in Benin metal workmanship occurred during the reigns of Esigie (fl. 1550) and of Eresoyen (1735–50), when their workmanship achieved its highest qualities.
While the collection is known as the Benin Bronzes, like most West African “bronzes” the pieces are mostly made of brass of variable composition. There are also pieces made of mixtures of bronze and brass, of wood, of ceramic, and of ivory, among other materials.
The metal pieces were made using lost-wax casting and are considered among the best sculptures made using this technique.
Forty-one female skeletons thrown into a pit were discovered by the archaeologist Graham Connah. These findings indicate that human sacrifice took place in Benin City since the thirteenth century CE. From the early days, human sacrifices were a part of the state religion. But many of the sensationalist accounts of the sacrifices, says historian J.D. Graham, are largely exaggerated or based on rumour and speculation. He says that all of the evidence “points to a limited, ritual custom of human sacrifice.” Graham also notes that many of the written accounts referring to the human sacrifices describe them as actually being executed criminals.
Humans were sacrificed in an annual ritual in honour of the god of iron, where warriors from Benin City would perform an acrobatic dance while suspended from the trees. The ritual recalled a mythical war against the sky.
Sacrifices of a man, a woman, a goat, a cow and a ram were also made to a god quite literally called “the king of death.” The god, named Ogiuwu, was worshipped at a special altar in the centre of Benin City.
There were two separate annual series of rites that honoured past Obas. Sacrifices were performed every fifth day. At the end of each series of rites, the current Oba’s own father was honoured with a public festival. During the festival, twelve criminals, chosen from a prison where the worst criminals were held, were sacrificed.
By the end of the eighteenth century, three to four people were sacrificed at the mouth of the Benin River annually, to attract European trade.
At the burial rituals of Obas, human sacrifice was present; bodyguards of the Oba include those sacrificed. Additionally, wives and slaves of the Oba committed suicide, so that they could continue serving him in the afterlife.
BENIN MOAT SUNGBO’S EREDO
The Walls of Benin are a series of earthworks made up of banks and ditches, called Iya in the Edo language in the area around present-day Benin City, the capital of present-day Edo, Nigeria. They consist of 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) of city iya and an estimated 16,000 kilometres (9,900 miles) in the rural area around Benin. Some estimates suggest that the walls of Benin may have been constructed between the thirteenth and mid-fifteenth century CE and others suggest that the walls of Benin (in the Esan region) may have been constructed during the first millennium CE. The Benin City walls have been known to Westerners since around 1500. Around 1500, the Portuguese explorer Duarte Pacheco Pereira, briefly described the walls during his travels. Another description given around 1600, one hundred years after Pereira’s description, is by the Dutch explorer Dierick Ruiters.
Estimates for the initial construction of the walls range from the first millennium CE to the mid-fifteenth century CE. According to Connah, oral tradition and travelers’ accounts suggest a construction date of 1450-1500 CE. It has been estimated that, assuming a 10 hour work day, a labour force of 5,000 men could have completed the walls within 97 days, or by 2,421 men in 200 days. However, these estimates have been criticized for not taking into account the time it would have taken to extract earth from an ever deepening hole and the time it would have taken to heap the earth into a high bank. It is unknown whether slavery or some other type of labour was used in the construction of the walls.
The walls were built of a ditch and dike structure; the ditch dug to form an inner moat with the excavated earth used to form the exterior rampart. The Benin Walls were ravaged by the British in 1897 during what has come to be called the Punitive expedition. Scattered pieces of the structure remain in Edo, with the vast majority of them being used by the locals for building purposes. What remains of the wall itself continues to be torn down for real estate developments. Fred Pearce wrote in New Scientist: They extend for some 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They cover 2,510 sq. miles (6,500 square kilometres) and were all dug by the Edo people. In all, they are four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops. They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet.
Ethnomathematician Ron Eglash has discussed the planned layout of the city using fractals as the basis, not only in the city itself and the villages but even in the rooms of houses. He commented that “When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganised and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet.”