Introduction to the Benin Empire
The Kingdom of Benin has been described as having the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era. It’s even been suggested by Fred Pearce, a writer for the New Scientist (an international science magazine) Benin City’s walls were once ‘four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and it consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops.’ He goes further and says that these walls ‘extended for some 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They covered 6,500 sq km and were all dug up by the Edo people… They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet.’
The Benin Empire lasted for over 700 years (1180 to 1897 CE). It began as a small Kingdom around 500 AD, when groups of people began settling in the region known today as modern day Western Nigeria. The Edo people were the founders of the Benin Kingdom. The Kingdom was also known as Igodomingodo, named after its first King, King Igodo. It was a highly successful kingdom as it produced world-renowned art and sculpture and had a city that was one of the most advanced in the world. It was designed according to the rules of symmetry and repetition, today known as fractal design.
Rulers of the Kingdom
As the Kingdom lasted for over 700 years, it had many rulers and at least 2 dynasties. The first rulers of the Kingdom were known as the ‘Ogiso’ or the ‘Sky Gods’ as they were thought to have descended directly from God. The first dynasty consisted of 16 Kings. The second dynasty started in 1170, after the first dynasty concluded. It was known as the ‘Oranmiyan’ dynasty named after the first Prince of this dynasty, Prince Oranmiyan. He came from the neighbouring Yoruba region. When he died, a new tradition started in the Kingdom. A sculpture was made of his head in brass and metals and was placed at his alter. This became the practise for all the subsequent Kings upon their death. With the start of this tradition, a guild of bronze smiths was established in Benin, which flourished manifolds in the subsequent decades and centuries.
Prince Oranmiyan’s successor was his son, Oba Eweka I. ‘Oba’ means emperor or head of state in the Edo lanagauge. Oba Eweka I introduced political reforms such as the installation of a body of counsellors of the state who would be used to help select future leaders. Oba Eweka I’s successor was Oba Ewedo who came to power in 1255 AD and constructed a new palace in Benin City. By 1300 AD, the Ogiso period came to an end and new leaders were selected by the assembly of Edo chiefs.
Oba Eware was one of the leaders chosen by this assembly and he came to power in 1440 AD, after a battle with his brother. He wanted to make the Kingdom into an Empire and set about on his mission to do this. This period was known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Benin.
The Golden Age of Benin
Oba Eware built his capital and called it ‘Edo.’ He expanded the Kingdom by incorporating the Yoruba and Ibo lands. He built a new palace that contained rooms for the Kings personal attendants and the royal harem of women. He established the ‘State Council of Benin’ that provided a central government for the nation. He was a very successful leader and this is best summarised in the historian and West African chief Jacob Egharevba’s quote,
‘King Ewuare fought against and captured towns and villages in Ekiti, Ikare, Kukuruju, Eka and Igbo country…He made good roads in Benin City…It was he who had the innermost and greatest of the walls and ditches made round the city, and he also made powerful charms and had them buried at each of the nine gateways of the city so as to ward against any evil charms which might be brought by people of other countries in order to injure his subjects.’
Moreover, Oba Eware also encouraged the spread of art and culture within the Empire. He is credited with starting the tradition of wearing red stones and scarlet colours. Furthermore, he started the ‘Igwe’ festival that marks the end of the year and commences the New Year. Oba Eware ruled for 33 years and died in 1473 AD.
Benin’s World Famous Artwork
The Kingdom produced a huge amount and variety of artwork. The sheer quantity and quality of the work produced meant that the workers were all organised into guilds that specialised in wood, leather, weaving, brass and ivory to name but a few. These guilds were so important that they were only allowed to work for the Oba.
The art created was used as a way to demonstrate the King and his family’s power and status. The leopard was frequently depicted as it was considered to be the king of animals much like the Oba was the King of the people. In fact, the Oba’s leopards were also paraded in chains on the streets on a yearly basis, as a way to demonstrate that the Oba was even more powerful than the King of the almighty beasts. The Oba was also shown as a crocodile because the crocodile represented speed and ferocity, traits that were necessary should the king have to put his subjects to death if they disobeyed him. Another popular animal used to depict the Oba was the Mudfish as the Mudfish can survive on both land and in water. This was meant to represent the Oba’s duality. The Oba was human which was represented by land, but also and more importantly, was a God, which was represented by water.
With regards to the materials used for the artwork, we know that Benin was famous for its bronze casting and smelting of copper. This was not new to the region but had started with the Nok Kingdom, the Yoruba, the Benin Kingdom and the Mande people of the Mali Empire as early as 600 BC. Other materials used included brass, coral and ivory.
Brass was considered to be so special that it was only used in the royal courts. People believed that the material harnessed the power to drive away evil. Hence, it was used to made ‘royal ancestral alters.’ These Alters would include a cast of the head of the previous King and would be used in the spiritual tradition to communicate with the ancestors for guidance.
Coral similarly was also thought to have powers. It was seen as a gift from the God of the Sea, Olokun. Whilst chiefs were allowed to wear coral bracelets, anklets and necklaces, it was only the Oba who could dress completely in coral.
Ivory was seen a symbol of strength and purity, hence carved ivory tusks were located by the Oba’s throne. In fact, the carvings were so detailed that they were also used when trumpets, also known as ‘Akohen’ were designed.
Gods in the Kingdom
The Kingdom worshipped multiple Gods, some of whom are still worshipped today by the Edo people. Their legends state that the Osanobua was the God who created the world. His daughter, Obiemven was known as the Goddess of farming and childbirth whilst his eldest son, Olokun was known as the God of water for example. Other Gods included Ogun, the God of iron and warriors and Osun, the God of medicine and magic. The rulers of the Kingdom were believed to have been direct descendants of Osanobua, hence why the rulers were also worshipped like Gods.
The city was one of the first cities in the world to have street lighting. There were huge metal lamps, which were fuelled by palm oil. They were lit at night to provide guidance for traffic. When the Portuguese arrived in 1485, they were astonished at the complexity of this Empire. There were hundreds of interlocked cities and villages that made up the Empire. Not only did they call it the ‘Great City of Benin,’ but also said that it was one of the most beautiful and best planned cities in the world. The Portuguese ship captain Lourenco Pinto observed in 1691 that,
‘Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the King, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.’
On the other hand, London during this period was described by a Professor of English, Bruce Holsinger from the University of Virginia as being a city of ‘thievery, prostitution, murder, bribery and a thriving black market (which) made the medieval city ripe for exploitation by those with a skill for the quick blade or picking a pocket.’
Why is the Benin Empire important?
The Benin Empire is important according to Robert Strayer because it was ‘one of the oldest and most highly developed states in the coastal hinterland of West Africa.’ It was an empire that lasted for well over 700 years and contributed technical innovation and art to the world. It had multiple Kings, 2 dynasties and instituted systems that were well ahead of its time. It could compete with the greatest powers in the world at its zenith and was clearly one of the most advanced places on planet earth for many centuries.