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Benin Kingdom

Encyclopedia » History

Benin the capital of Edo state south-south Nigeria was founded in1440-1897 as a per-colonial African state. The original people and founders of the empire were ruled by Ogiso (King of the sky) who called their land Igodomigodo. In 8th century AD he (Ogiso) expanded Igodomigodo into a system of autonomous settlements that is protected by large earth walls under the rule of the king.

In 12th century AD, a great palace connives and battle for power broke out between the warrior crown prince Ekaladerhan son of the last Ogiso and his young paternal uncle, because of anger he left the royal court with his warriors. When his father died it ended their role as the law makers of the kingdom. But the royal kingmakers preferred their king’s son as the right person to rule them but the king’s son refused to return rather he sent his son (Eweka). His son became the first Oba; that changed the ancient name of Igodomigodo to Edo.

 In 15th century Edo protected settlements expanded into a booming city which is in line with the Oba Ewuare the Great (the twelveth Oba during 1440-1473). During his reign, Oba Ewuare the Great kingdom’s administrative center which is known as Ubinu was changed to “Benin city” by the Portuguese and was later adopted by the local people. Apart from Benin city the system of rule by the Oba during the Golden age of the kingdom still based on the Ogiso dynasty which was military and royal protection in exchange of use of resources and Implementation of taxes paid to the royal administrative center. Also language and culture was not enforced but remained heterogeneous and localized according to each group within the Kingdom.

Historically, the reign of the last Ogiso, his son and Ekaladerhan were banished from Igodomigodo as a result of one of the Queens deliberate change of an oracle message to the Ogiso. On leaving Benin Prince Ekaladerhan travelled in a west direction to Yoruba land. In accordance with Yoruba history the Ifa Oracle said that the Yoruba’s of lle-lfe will be ruled by a man from the forest. Following his arrival in lfe, he changed his name to Izoduwa (which means I have chosen the path of prosperity). Within a short period of time, a group of Benin chiefs led by Chief Oliha came to lfe to plea with Ooni of Ife (Oduduwa) to return to Igodomigodo to ascend the throne but Oduduwa replied them that a ruler cannot leave his domain but he has seven sons which he could ask one of them to go and ascend the throne.

The Golden Age

The golden age was credited to the turning of Benin City into a military fortress which was protected by moats and walls, from the citadel, the Oba launched his military campaigns which led to the expansion of the kingdom from Edo speaking heartlands. In 15th century, Benin was the greatest empire created by Oba Ewuare. To secure his palace he commanded for the building of Benin’s inner wall, a seven mile (11 km) long earthen rampart girded by moat 50 feet (15 m) deep. He also added great thoroughfares and erected nine fortified gateways. But thirteen years after his death, tales of Benin 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 River Niger through parts of the southwestern region of Nigeria. But the expansion to the Midwestern region was stopped by aggressive Igbo autonomous villages southeast of River Niger. 

European Contact with Benin Kingdom

In 1485, the first travelers to reach Benin were the Portuguese. They developed a strong mercantile relationship with Edo trading tropical products like ivory, peppers and palm oil in exchange of manila and guns. With this strong relationship the Oba in early 16th century sent an ambassador to Lisbon and the king of Portugal sent Christian missionaries to Benin City and because of that the Benin people learned how to speak Pidgin Portuguese till the late 19th century.

In 1553 was the first English expedition to Benin, England developed a significant trading based on the export of ivory, palm oil and pepper. Visitors to Benin in 16th and 17th centuries went back with the tales of “Great Benin” a fabulous city of noble buildings, ruled by a powerful king. When the Oba noticed what was going he ceased communication with them until the British expedition of 1896-97 which resulted in the weaken of Benin empire. 

 The fall of the Empire

At the last half of Nineteenth century, Great Britain made a desirous attempt from 1884-1886 to have a close relationship with Benin kingdom but to no avail. In 1892 Vice- Consul H.L Gallwey made a little progress he wanted the Oba and his chiefs to sign an agreement between the two parties which reads as follows "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" Despite the ambiguity over whether or not the Oba has signed the treaty, the British officials easily accepted it as though he did because they were driven by greed; they were more interested in controlling the trade in Benin and also accessing the kingdom's rubber resources to support their own growing tire market. But before then European activity in the area, were mostly on Trans-Atlantic slave-trade, which 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.

In 1880s and 1890s Benin resisted the signing of protectorate treaty with Britain because they discovered their true intentions. Eight unknowing British representatives who came to visit Benin were killed as a result of Punitive Expedition that was launched in 1897. And that led the British force under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson to raze and burn the city, destroying much of the country’s treasured art and dispersing all that remained.


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Updated 6 Years ago

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