All you Need to know About Benin Empire:Rise,Fall and Legacy in the present day Nigeria

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Benin, one of the principal historic kingdoms of the western African According to  traditional account, the original people and founders of the Benin Empire, the Bini (or Edo people),

At first they lived in small family groups, but gradually these groups developed into a kingdom.
The kingdom was called Igodomigodo. It was ruled by a series of kings, known as Ogisos, which means ‘rulers of the sky’. The city of Ibinu (later called Benin City) was founded in 1180 C.E.

About 36 known Ogiso are accounted for as rulers of the empire; in the 1100s there were struggles for power and the Ogisos lost control of their kingdom. On the death of the last Ogiso, his son and heir apparent Ekaladerhan was banished from Benin as a result of one of the Queens changing the message from the oracle to the Ogiso. Ekaladerhan was a powerful warrior and well loved Prince. On leaving Benin he travelled to the west of the present day Nigeria to the land of the Yorubas. At that time the Yoruba oracle said that their King will come out of the forest and when Ekaladerhan arrived at Ife, he was received as a King.
He changed his name to Imadoduwa meaning "I did not misplace my royalty" and became The Great Oduduwa of The Yoruba Land.

In Benin Kingdom,there was struggle for power and supremacy after the death of the last Ogiso the Edo people feared that their country would fall into chaos, so they asked their neighbour, the King of Ife, for help. The king sent his son Prince Oranmiyan to restore peace to the Edo kingdom. Oranmiyan, the son of Ekaladerhan aka Oduduwa, agreed to go to Benin. He spent some years in Benin;  married and gave birth to a son named Eweka,after many years he came back to Ife And Oranmiyan chose his son Eweka to be the first Oba of Benin. Eweka was the first in a long line of Obas, who reached the peak of their power in the 1500s

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Benin Art

How did Benin become an empire?

Around 1440, Ewuare became the new Oba of Benin.He  rebuilt Benin City and the royal palace.Around 1470, and  named the new state Edo.The Oba had become the paramount power within the region. Oba Ewuare (reigned 1440 until 1473), 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  and started winning land.  The lands of Idah, Owo, Akure all came under the central authority of the Edo Empire.

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Warriors Benin Kingdom
Oba Ewuare was the first of five great warrior kings. His son Oba Ozolua was believed to have won 200 battles. He was followed by Oba Esigie who expanded his kingdom eastwards to form an empire and won land from the Kingdom of Ife. Ozolua and Esigie both encouraged trade with the Portuguese. They used their wealth from trade to build up a vast army.

The fourth warrior king was Oba Orhogbua. During his reign, the empire reached its largest size. At its maximum extent the empire is claimed by the Edos to have extended from Onitsha in the east, through the forested southwestern region of Nigeria and into the present-day nation of Ghana. The Ga peoples of Ghana trace their ancestry to the ancient Kingdom of Benin.

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 of the Obas of Benin.

Oba Ehengbuda was the last of the warrior kings. But he spent most of his reign stopping rebellions led by local chiefs. After his death in 1601, Benin’s empire gradually shrank in size.

Government and People

The empire was ruled by a regent called the Oba. Today, the Oba of Benin is still very respected in Nigeria; he is the most revered traditional ruler in Nigeria though his powers are largely ceremonial and religious. The capital of the Benin Empire was Edo, now known as Benin City in what is now southwestern Nigeria.

The Benin Empire derives its name from the Bini people who dominated the area. The ethnonym may possibly derive from groups in western Nigeria, where the term "ibinu" means "anger" reflecting the warring nature of the Binis or from central and north-central Nigeria, where the term birnin means "gated" or "walled area." The city and its people are more properly called the Edo. Today, this population is found mostly in and around modern day Benin City. It is from Portuguese explorers that we get the name the Benin Empire. However, the Bini name for the land and even the capital city was Edo.

European contact

The first European travelers to reach Benin were Portuguese explorers in about 1485. A strong mercantile relationship developed, with the Portuguese trading tropical products, and increasingly slaves, for European goods and guns. In the early sixteenth century the Oba sent an ambassador to Lisbon, and the king of Portugal sent Christian missionaries to Benin. Some residents of Benin could still speak a pidgin Portuguese in the late nineteenth century.

The first English expedition to Benin was in 1553. Visitors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought back to Europe tales of "the Great Benin," a fabulous city of noble buildings, ruled over by a powerful king. A significant trade soon grew up between England and Benin based on the export of ivory, palm oil, and pepper. Trade consisted of: 20 percent ivory, 30 percent slaves, and 50 percent other things.


The city and empire of Benin declined after 1700, but revived in the nineteenth century with the development of the trade in palm oil, enslaved captives, and textiles. Benin grew increasingly rich during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on account of the slave trade with Europe; slaves from enemy states of the interior were sold, and carried to the Americas in Dutch and Portuguese ships. The Bight of Benin's shore soon came to be known as the "Slave Coast."


How did the kingdom end?

By the 1860s Benin was no longer a powerful empire and the Obas struggled to rule their people.
Benin was also under threat from Britain. The British wanted to gain control of Benin so they could get rich by selling its palm oil and rubber. The Oba tried to stop all contact with Britain, but the British insisted on their right to trade. Benin resisted signing a protectorate treaty with Great Britain through most of the 1880s and 1890s. 

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In 1897 a group of British officials tried to visit Benin. They were sent away because the Oba was busy with a religious ceremony. As they approached the borders of Benin, a group of warriors ambushed them and several British men were killed. However, after the slaying of eight British representatives in Benin territory, a 'Punitive Expedition' was launched in 1897, in which a British force, under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, Benin City was burnt to the ground, conquered and burned the city, destroying much of the kingdom treasured art and dispersing nearly all that remained.  and the kingdom of Benin became part of the British Empire.The portrait figures, busts, and groups created in iron, carved ivory, and especially in brass (conventionally called the "Benin Bronzes") made in Benin are now displayed in museums around the world.This attack made the British furious. They sent over a thousand soldiers to invade Benin. 

Edo pendant mask
Edo marks



The Oba was captured and eventually allowed to live in exile until his death in 1914. However, the office of Oba continued to be recognized in colonial Nigeria. Eweka II (1914-1933) built a new palace to replace the one that the British destroyed when they burned the city. Akenzua II (1933-1978) received Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom during her state visit to Nigeria in 1956. In 1966 he became Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria. The Oba is advised by a Traditional Council. Both the Obo and the Nigerian Government (which has purchased back some items) have requested the return of what they describe as "stolen" art to Nigeria

Source:New World Encyclopedia


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