Most of the great West African Empires and Kingdoms flourished in the open savannahs that
make up vast areas of its hinterland, with their strategic trading position between north
and coastal Africa, and the openness that supported cavalry based military adventure, huge
empires rose and fell in this area over the centuries. By contrast the political structures
of the coastal regions consisted primarily of City-States and loose confederacies, one of
the few exceptions to this rule was the Benin Kingdom.
Located almost wholly with within what is now Nigeria, the Benin Kingdom at its zenith
stretched from Lagos in the west, along the coast of Nigeria to the River Niger in the east
and area that equates to about a fifth of Nigeria's current geographic area.
The Benin Kingdom dynasty is believed to have been founded in the 13th century and has a
direct lineage from the founders to the current Oba (King) of Benin - Solomon Erediauwa II,
who still holds considerable political, albeit unofficial, influence in the Edo and Delta
states of Modern Nigeria.
The actual genesis of the kingdom is shrouded in uncertainty, but some traditional accounts
have it that the Edo people who inhabit the Benin area invited Prince Oranmiyan of Ife (one
of the Yoruba states) to rescue them from the tyranny of the ruling Osigos. Alternative
versions of this account portray Oranmiyan as leading a Yoruba invasion of Benin and forcibly
removing the Osigos who had ruled from about 355BC. What is generally agreed is that Oranmiyan's
son, Eweka I became the first Oba of Benin.
In early stages of the Kingdom's emergence the power rested with the council of chiefs, the
Uzama, with the Oba at its head, however by the reign of Oba Ewedo in the late 13th century the
balance of power had begun to move firmly into the hands of the Oba. By the 15th century under Oba
Ewuare (Ewuare the Great), the Oba had become paramount within the kingdom. To consolidate the
Oba's power Oba Ewuare instituted hereditary succession. He further diluted the power of the
Uzama by creating more categories of chiefs. In addition to formalizing the political structure
of the kingdom, Oba Ewuare is credited for turning Benin City, the capital of the Kingdom, into a
military fortress protected by moats and defensive walls. It was from this bastion that he
launched his extensive military campaigns and began the expansion of the Kingdom from its
Oba Ewuare is viewed by many historians as the first Oba in what was Benin golden age, a
succession of Obas strengthened and expanded the Kingdom and some of the most famous were
Oba Ozolua (Ozolua the Conqueror), son of Ewuare, and his son Esigie. During their reign
Lagos was established by Benin as a garrison for their troops and Benin had begun the
exchange of ambassadors with the Kingdom of Portugal.
Over the next three centuries Benin thrived as the Kingdom set up an extensive trading
network with the Portuguese and later with other European nations. The trade was primarily
in ivory, palm oil, and pepper, but latter, as with most coastal powers in Africa, the
trade in slaves became prominent.
By the 19th century however the prosperity of the Benin Kingdom was under threat. The
British had begun to establish their colonial presence to the south, constant wars with
the Yoruba states to the west, Islamic Jihads and the Nupe kingdom's to the north, as
well as internal civil wars all conspired to weaken the Kingdom.
The final blow to the Kingdom came in February 1897. The British had an established what
they termed a protectorate over the Nigerian coastline and in order to ensure the viability
of this colony where keen to force Benin into British dictated trade relations. An officer of
the British Army stationed on the Nigerian coast, Lt. James Phillips requested for and received
permission to depose the Oba Ovonramwen for his opposition to trade with Britain on their terms.
Lt. Phillips wrote to the Oba stating his intention to travel to Benin City, on receiving no
reply he set off uninvited.
The arrival of the British convoy was treated by the Oba as an act of war and the ensuing
hostilities result in the Benin soldiers wiping out the British detachment including Lt. Phillips.
Britain responded by sending over 10,000 soldiers to Benin, where they massacred many civilians
and razed the city to the ground, in the process looting countless pieces of art and antiques. The
Oba was exiled to Calabar a town in the far eastern part on Nigeria, and the Benin Kingdom was
incorporated into the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria. With Independence it has re-established
its cultural significance within the Republic of Nigeria, but the political power is no more.
Probably the greatest legacy of the ancient Benin Kingdom is their glorious Bronze Sculptures
many of which reside in the British Museum in London. At the height of its greatness, Benin's
Obas patronized craftsmen and lavished then with gifts and wealth, in return for the depiction
of the Oba's great exploits as fabulous and intricate bronze sculptures. Today a strong campaign
is being waged to have these antiques returned to their rightful home in Nigeria.
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