Benin Empire

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Benin Empire

The Benin Empire (1440–1897) was a pre-colonial African state in what is now modern Nigeria. It should not be confused with the modern-day country called Benin, formerly called Dahomey.

Origin

 

The original people and founders of the Benin Empire, the Edo people, were initially ruled by the Ogiso (Kings of the Sky) dynasty who called their land Igodomigodo. The rulers or kings were commonly known as Ogiso. Igodo, the first Ogiso, wielded much influence and gained popularity as a good ruler. He died after a long reign and was succeeded by Ere, his eldest son. After the death of Ere, the country was ruled by the followiing princes and princesses in succession: Orire, Akhuankhuan, Ekpigho, Oria, Emose, Orhorho,Oriagba, Odoligie, Uwa, Hennenden, Obioye, Arigho, and Owodo. Emose and Orhorho were women.It is said that thirty-one Ogisos reigned but few of their names are known and they are very hard to trace out. Therefore it is wise to make some research into it because some people doubt the existence of the first period of the Benin Empire. This is partly because many mythical and frightful tales have been attached to the people connected with the Ogiso. In 8th century AD, the ruling Ogiso successfully expanded Igodomigodo into a system of autonomous settlements . In 12th century AD, a great palace intrigue and battle for power erupted between the warrior crown prince Ekaladerhan son of the last Ogiso and his young paternal uncle. In anger over an oracle, Prince Ekaladerhan left the royal court with his warriors. When his old father the Ogiso died, the Ogiso dynasty was ended as the people and royal kingmakers preferred their king's son as natural next in line to rule. The exiled Prince Ekaladerhan who has since earned the title of Ooni (Oghene) at Ile Ife refused to return, and sent his son Oranmiyan to become king. Prince Oranmiyan took up his abode in the palace built for him at Usama by the elders (now a coronation shrine). Soon after his arrival he married a beautiful lady, Erinmwinde, daughter of osa-nego, was the ninth Onogie (Duke) of Ego, by whom he had a son. After some years residence here he called a meeting of the people and renounced his office, remarking that the country was a land of vexation, Ile-Ibibu (by which name the country was afterward known) and that only a child born, trained and educated in the arts and mysteries of the land could reign over the people. He caused his son born to him by Erinmwinde to be made King in his place, and returned to his native land,Ile-Ife. After some years in Ife, he left for oyo where he also left a son behind on leaving the place, and his son Ajaka ultimately became the first Alafin of Oyo of the present line, while Oranmiyan himself was reigning as oni of Ife. Therefore, Oranmiyan of Ife, the father of Eweka 1, the Oba of Benin,was also the father of Ajaka the first Alafin of Oyo.

By the 15th century, Edo as a system of protected settlements expanded into a thriving city-state. In the 15th century, the twelveth Oba in line Oba Ewuare the Great (1440–1473) would expand the city-state to an empire.

It was not until 15th century during the reign of Oba Ewuare the Great that the kingdom's administrative centre, the city Ubinu, began to be known as "Benin City" by the Portuguese, and would later be adopted by the locals as well. Before then, due to the pronounced ethnic diversity at the kingdom's headquarters during the 15th century from the successes of Oba Ewuare, the earlier name ('Ubinu') by a tribe of the Edos was colloquially spoken as "Bini" by the mix of Itsekhiri, Edo, Urhobo living together in the royal administrative centre of the kingdom. The Portuguese would write this down as Benin City. Though, farther Edo clans, such as the Itsekiris and the Urhobos still referred to the city as Ubini up till the late 19th century, as evidence implies.

Aside from Benin City, the system of rule of the Oba in his kingdom, even through the golden age of the kingdom, was still loosely based after the Ogiso dynasty, which was military and royal protection in exchange of use of resources and implementation of taxes paid to the royal administrative centre. Language and culture was not enforced but remained heterogenous and localized according to each group within the kingdom—though a local "Enogie" (duke) was often appointed by the Oba for specified ethnic areas.

Oral tradition

Bronze plaque of Benin Warriors with ceremonial swords. 16th–18th centuries, Nigeria.

About 36 known Ogiso are accounted for as rulers of the empire. According to the Edo oral tradition, during the reign of the last Ogiso, his son and heir apparent, Ekaladerhan, was banished from Igodomigodo (modern day "Benin Empire 1180-1897") as a result of one of the Queens having deliberately changed an oracle message to the Ogiso. Prince Ekaladerhan was a powerful warrior and well loved. On leaving Benin he travelled in a westerly direction to the land of the Yoruba.

At that time, according to the Yoruba, the Ifá oracle said that the Yoruba people of Ile Ife (also known as Ife) would be ruled by a man who would come out of the forest. Following Ekaladerhan's arrival at the Yoruba city of Ife, he changed his name to 'Izoduwa' (which in his native language meant 'I have chosen the path of prosperity') and became The Great Oduduwa, also known as Odudua, Oòdua, of the Yoruba.

On the death of his father, the last Ogiso, a group of Benin Chiefs led by Chief Oliha came to Ife, pleading with Oduduwa (the Ooni) to return to Igodomigodo (later known as Benin City in the 15th century during Oba Ewuare) to ascend the throne. Oduduwa's reply was that a ruler cannot leave his domain but he had seven sons and would ask one of them to go back to become the next king there.

There are other versions of the story of Oduduwa. Many Yoruba often regard Oduduwa as a god/mystery spirit or prince coming from a place towards the east of the land of the Yoruba peoples. Though this would rudimentarily seem to confirm the Bini spin on his history due to the fact that Benin is technically to the east of Ife, his origin tends not to be attributed to Benin City.

Eweka I was the first 'Oba' or king of the new dynasty after the end of the era of Ogiso. He changed the ancient name of Igodomigodo to Edo.

1440 Centuries later, in 1440, Oba Ewuare, also known as Ewuare the Great, came to power and turned the city-state into an empire. It was only at this time that the administrative centre of the kingdom began to be referred to as Ubinu after the Itsekhiri word and corrupted to Bini by the Itsekhiri, Edo, Urhobo, Ijaw, Calabar living together in the royal administrative centre of the kingdom. The Portuguese who arrived in 1485 would refer to it as Benin and the centre would become known as Benin City and its empire Benin Empire.

The Ancient Benin Empire, as with the Oyo Empire which eventually gained political ascendancy over even Ile-Ife, gained political strength and ascendancy over much of what is now Mid-Western and Western Nigeria, with the Oyo Empire bordering it on the west, the Niger river on the east, and the northerly lands succumbing to Fulani Muslim invasion in the North. Interestingly, much of what is now known as Western Iboland and even Yorubaland was conquered by the Benin Kingdom in the late 19th century - Agbor (Ika), Akure, Owo and even the present day Lagos Island, which was named "Eko" meaning "War Camp" by the Bini.

The present day Monarchy of Lagos Island did not come directly from Ile-Ife, but from Benin, and this can be seen up till in the attire of the Oba and High Chiefs of Lagos, and in the street and area names of Lagos Island which are Yoruba corruptions of Benin names (Idumagbo, Idumota, Igbosere etc.). Other parts of the present day Lagos State were under Ijebu (fiercely resisting domination by the Oyo Empire) and Egun (tossed between the Dahomey Kingdom, with its seat in present day Republic of Benin, and the Oyo Kingdom).

Golden Age

The Oba had become the paramount power within the region. Oba Ewuare, the first Golden Age Oba, is credited with turning Benin City into a military fortress 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.

Oba Ewuare was a direct descendant of Eweka I son of the banished Prince Ekaladerhan son of the last of the Ogiso.

A series of walls marked the incremental growth of the sacred city from 850 CE until its decline in the 16th century. In the 15th century Benin became the greatest city of the empire created by Oba Ewuare. To enclose his palace he commanded the building of Benin's inner wall, a seven mile (11 km) long earthen rampart girded by a moat 50 feet (15 m) deep. This was excavated in the early 1960s by Graham Connah. Connah estimated that its construction, if spread out over five dry seasons, would have required a workforce of 1,000 laborers working ten hours a day seven days a week. Ewuare also added great thoroughfares and erected nine fortified gateways.

 

 

Pendant ivory mask of Queen Idia (Iyoba ne Esigie (meaning: Queenmother of Oba Esigie)), court of Benin, 16th century (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Excavations also uncovered a rural network of earthen walls 4 to 8 thousand miles 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. Thirteen years after Ewuare's death tales of Benin's splendors lured more Portuguese traders to the city gates.

At its maximum extent, the empire extended from the western Ibo tribes on the shores of the Niger river, through parts of the southwestern region of Nigeria (much of present day Ondo State, and the isolated islands (current Lagos Island and Obalende) in the coastal region of present day Lagos State). Expansion of the MidWestern Benin Kingdom eastwards was stopped by the aggressive autonomous Igbo villages southeast of the Niger river, the Oyo Kingdom, which extended through most of SouthWestern Nigeria in the West to parts of present day Republic of Benin, and the Northerly tribes united under the new and fiercely proselytistic Islamic faith.

The state developed an advanced artistic culture, especially in its famous artifacts of bronze, iron and ivory. These include bronze wall plaques and life-sized bronze heads depicting the Obas of Benin. The most common artifact is based on Queen Idia, now best known as the FESTAC Mask after its use in 1977 in the logo of the Nigeria-financed and hosted Second Festival of Black & African Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77).

European contact

The first European travelers to reach Benin were Portuguese explorers in about 1485. A strong mercantile relationship developed, with the Edo trading tropical products such as ivory, pepper and palm oil with the Portuguese for European goods such as manila and guns. In the early 16th century, the Oba sent an ambassador to Lisbon, and the king of Portugal sent Christian missionaries to Benin City. Some residents of Benin City could still speak a pidgin Portuguese in the late 19th century.

The first English expedition to Benin was in 1553, and significant trading developed between England and Benin based on the export of ivory, palm oil and pepper. Visitors in the 16th and 17th centuries brought back to Europe tales of "the Great Benin", a fabulous city of noble buildings, ruled over by a powerful king. However, the Oba began to suspect Britain of larger colonial designs and ceased communications with the British until the British Expedition in 1896-97 which resulted in a weakned Benin Empire.

A 17th century Dutch engraving from Olfert Dapper's Nauwkeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaansche Gewesten, published in Amsterdam in 1668 wrote:

The king's palace or court is a square, and is as large as the town of Haarlem and entirely surrounded by a special wall, like that which encircles the town. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam, but one larger than another, resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles..."

—Olfert Dapper, Nauwkeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaansche Gewesten

The Legions of Benin

"The King of Benin can in a single day make 20,000 men ready for war, and, if need be, 180,000, and because of this he has great influence among all the surrounding peoples. . . . His authority stretches over many cities, towns and villages. There is no King thereabouts who, in the possession of so many beautiful cities and towns, is his equal."

—Olfert Dapper, Nauwkeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaansche Gewesten (Description of Africa), 1668

 

The kingdom of Benin offers a snapshot of a relatively well-organized and sophisticated African polity in operation before the major European colonial interlude. 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 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 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. In payment the Europeans received one woman captive each 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 and was to be reflected across Africa as the 19th century dawned.

Decline

 

The Gallwey Treaty of 1892

By the last half of the nineteenth century Great Britain had become desirous of having a closer relationship with the Kingdom of Benin. Several attempts were made to achieve this end beginning with the official visit of Richard Burton in 1862. Following that was an attempt 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. Progress was finally made by Vice-Consul H.L Gallwey's visit to Benin in 1892. This mission was significant in several ways. It was the first Official visit after Richard Burton's in 1862 when he was the consul at Fernando Po, and it would also set in motion the events to come that would lead to Oba Ovonramwen's demise.

Contrary to the stories told by Gallwey later, for a number of reasons there is still today some controversy as to whether the Oba actually agreed to the terms of the treaty as Gallwey had claimed. First, at the time of his visit to Benin the Oba could not welcome Gallwey or any other foreigners due to the observance of the traditional Igue festival which prohibited the presence of any non-native persons during the ritual season.Also, even though Gallwey claimed the King(Oba)and his chiefs were willing to sign the treaty, it was common knowledge that Oba Ovonramwen was not in the habit of signing one sided treaties. The Treaty reads "Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India in compliance with the request of [the] King of Benin, hereby extend to him and the territory under his authority and jurisdiction, Her gracious favor and protection" (Article 1). The Treaty also states "The King of Benin agrees and promises to refrain from entering into any correspondence, Agreement or Treaty with any foreign nation or power except with the knowledge of her Britannic Majesty's Government" (Article 2), and finally that "It is agreed that full jurisdiction, civil and criminal over British subject's and their property in the territory of Benin is reserved to her Britannic Majesty, to be exercised by such consular or other officers as Her Majesty shall appoint for the purpose...The same jurisdiction is likewise reserved to her Majesty in the said territory of Benin over foreign subjects enjoying British protection, who shall be deemed to be involved in the expression "British subjects" throughout this Treaty" (Article 3).

It makes little sense that the Oba and his chiefs would accept the terms laid out in articles IV-IX, or that the Oba or his chiefs would knowingly bestow their dominion upon Queen Victoria for so little apparent remuneration. Under Article IV, the treaty states that "All disputes between the King of Benin and other Chiefs between him and British or foreign traders or between the aforesaid King and neighboring tribes which can not be settled amicably between the two parties, shall be submitted to the British consular or other officers appointed by Her Britannic Majesty to exercise jurisdiction in the Benin territories for arbitration and decision or for arrangement." Oba Ovonremwen was a tenacious man, which is contrary to the accounts of treaty portrayers such as Gallwey; he was not doltish.

The chiefs attest that the Oba did not sign the treaty because he was in the middle of an important festival which prohibited him from doing anything else (including signing the treaty). Ovoramwen maintained that he did not touch the white man's pen. Gallwey later claimed in his report that the Oba basically accepted the signing of the treaty in all respects. Despite the ambiguity over whether or not the Oba signed the treaty, the British officials easily accepted it as though he did because they were driven (to a large extent) by greed; British officials were increasingly interested in controlling trade in Benin and also in accessing the kingdom's rubber resources to support their own growing tire market.

The city and empire of Benin declined after 1700. By this time, European activity in the area, most notably through the Trans-Atlantic slave-trade, resulted in major disruptive repercussions. However, Benin's power was revived in the 19th century with the development of the trade in palm oil and textiles. To preserve Benin's independence, bit by bit the Oba banned the export of goods from Benin, until the trade was exclusively in palm oil.

Benin resisted signing a protectorate treaty with Britain through most of the 1880s and 1890s. However, after Benin discovered Britain's true intentions, eight unknowing British representatives, who came to visit Benin were killed. As a result 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.

Monarchs

The mythic origins of Benin state that the city was originally under the rule of Ogisos, meaning "Kings of the Sky". When the last Ogiso died, the nobles and chiefs disagreed over who would be the next Ogiso, so the Benin sent a message to Ife to the Oni of Ile-Ife. Oba Oduduwa, the mythic ancient first king of Ife. The Benin pleaded with him to send them a king; eventually Oduduwa sent to them his grandson, prince Oranmiyan. When Oranmiyan came to Benin, he struggled with the culture and customs of the Benin people. Because of his own difficulties acclimating to his new kingdom, Oba Oranmiyan changed the name of the city to Ile-Ibinu (1180-1897) which in the Yoruba language means the "Land of Vexation," and decided to leave the city. However, before leaving Benin, Oranmiyan had a son, Eweka, by princess Erewinde who could not talk. When Oranmiyan heard of this, he sent to him seven marbles for the child to play with. One day, as the prince was playing, one of the marbles broke. He immediately said "owomika!" or "eweka!", meaning "I succeeded!" He immediately became the first true Oba of Benin, Oba Eweka I. Oba Eweka was the first to reject the title of the native Benin "Ogiso" and took the title "Oba," meaning 'king' in the Yoruba language. Allegedly Oba Eweka later changed the name of the city of Ile-Binu, the capital of the Benin kingdom, to "Ubinu." This name would be reinterpreted by the Portuguese as "Benin" in their own language. Around 1470, Ewuare changed the name of the state to Edo. This was about the time the people of Okpekpe migrated from Benin City.