Benin Empire or Edo Empire
(1440–1897) was a pre-colonial African state of modern Nigeria.
It is not
to be confused with the modern-day country called Benin (and
formerly called Dahomey).
Bronze plaque of Benin Warriors with
16th–18th centuries, Nigeria.
According to one traditional account, the original people and
founders of the Benin Empire, the Bini
were initially ruled by the Ogisos (Kings of the Sky). The city of Ubini
(later called Benin
City) was founded in 1180 AD.
About 36 known Ogiso
are accounted for as rulers of the
empire. One oral tradition states that during the reign the last
Ogiso, his son and heir apparent Ekaladerhan was banished from
Benin as a result of one of the Queens changing a message from the
oracle 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 the
Ifá oracle said that the Yoruba people of
Ile Ife (also known as Ife) will be ruled by a man who would come out of the
Following Ekaladerhans arrival at the Yoruba city of
Ife also known as Ile Ife, he finally rose to the position of the
Oba (meaning 'king' or 'ruler' in the Yoruba language) and later
received the title of Ooni 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 and Eleduwa, 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 Oba
(King) Oduduwa to return to Benin 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 Benin to become the
Note: there are other versions of the story of Oduduwa. Many Yoruba
often attribute Oduduwa as coming from a place towards the east of
the land of the Yoruba peoples, however it tends not to be
attributed to Benin City.
(also known as Oranmiyan), one of
the sons of Oduduwa and son of Oduduwa's Yoruba wife Okanbi, agreed
to go to Benin. He spent some years in Benin before returning to
the Yoruba lands before establishing his own Yoruba kingdom at
. It is said that he left the place in
anger and called it 'Ile Ibinu' (meaning, 'land of annoyance and
vexation) and it was this phrase that became the origin of Benin
city's former name 'Ubini'. Oranmiyan, on his way home to Ife,
stopped briefly at Ego, where he impregnated Princess Erimwinde,
the daughter of the Enogie of Ego and she gave birth to a son named
During Oranmiyan's reign as Alaafin of Oyo, Eweka became the oba at
Ile Ibinu. Oba Ewedo, an ancestor of Oba Ewaka I, changed the name
of the city of Ile Ibinu to Ubini, which the Portuguese, in their
own language, corrupted it to Benin or Bini. In 1440, Oba Ewuare,
also known as 'Ewuare the Great', came to power and turned the
city-state into an empire. Around 1470, he named the new state
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
Oba Ewuare was a direct descendant of Oduduwa, the first Oni of
Ife. Oduduwa was considered divine according to some legends the
god Oduduwa descended to Ife (the center of all creation) and
became its first Oni or ruler. Other legends say he came from Mecca
or Egypt. 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 or king 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 deep. This was excavated in the
early 1960s by Graham Connah. Connah estimated that its
construction if spread out over 5 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 9 fortified
gateways. 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 thrown down to mark out
territories for towns and cities. 13 years after Ewuare's death
tales of Benin's splendors lured the Portuguese traders to the city
maximum extent the empire is claimed by the Edos to have extended
from the Igbo kingdom of Onitsha in the east
of Nigeria, through parts the southwestern region of Nigeria,
Modern day Benin
Republic, Togo, and into
the present-day nation of Ghana.
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. The
most common artifact is based on Queen
, now best known as the FESTAC Mask
it was used in 1977 in the logo of the Nigeria-financed and hosted
Second Festival of Black & African Arts and Culture (FESTAC
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 16th 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 19th century. The first
English expedition to Benin was in 1553, and a significant trade
soon grew up between England and Benin based on the export of
ivory, palm oil and pepper. Trade consisted of: 20% ivory, 30%
slaves, and 50% other things. Visitors in the 16th and 17th
centuries brought back to Europe
"the Great Benin", a fabulous city of noble buildings, ruled over
by a powerful king.
seventeenth century Dutch engraving
from Olfert Dapper's Nauwkeurige
Beschrijvinge der Afrikaansche Gewesten, published in Amsterdam in 1668 wrote:
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
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..."
The Legions of Benin
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 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. The Portuguese were the
first to bring firearms, and by 1645, matchlock, wheelock and
flintlock muskets were being imported into Benin. Firepower made
the armies of Benin more efficient, and led to several triumphs
over regional rivals. Efforts were made to reorganize a local guild
of blacksmiths in the 1700s 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
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 genius 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.
The city and empire of Benin declined after 1700. This was due to
different groups not being able to decide who to sell into slavery
from their population. However,it was revived in the 19th century
with the development of the trade in palm oil, enslaved captives,
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.
resisted signing a protectorate treaty with Great Britain through most of the 1880s and 1890s.
However, after the slaying of eight British representatives in
Benin territory, a 'Punitive
' was launched in 1897, in which a British force,
under the command of Admiral Sir Harry
, conquered and burned the city, destroying much of the
country's treasured art and dispersing nearly all that remained.
The 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.
The Benin Empire or Edo Empire (1440-1897) was a large pre-colonial
African state of modern Nigeria. The palace of Benin is the center
of ritual activity focused on the spiritual, mental, physical,
social, political, and material well-being and prosperity of the
Each year the Oba (King) of Benin performs in rituals that honors
his royal ancestors to enhance the good fortunes of his people. One
important ceremony, Igue, is focused on the Oba’s mystical powers,
which are demonstrated in a subsequent ritual, Emobo, whose main
purpose is for the Oba to drive away any evil forces.
The Oba sits in a red pavilion, red being a ‘threatening’ color to
help force away evil. Later he dances with an ivory gong, striking
it to repel malevolent forces.
This type of mask, as depicted here, was worn by the Oba, usually
around his neck, during the Emobo ceremony. The pendant mask
represents Queen Mother Idia, mother of Oba Esigie who ruled in the
sixteenth century. The top of the pendant is decorated with heads
representing the Portuguese, symbolizing Benin’s control over and
alliance with the Europeans.
Unfortunately, such African treasures were stolen from Africa and
are housed primarily in European, and North American museums
throughout the world, the result of the criminality and
exploitiation of colonialism.
- Time Life Lost Civilizations series: Africa's Glorious Legacy
(1994) pp. 102–4
- Osadolor, Osarhieme Benson, "The military system of Benin
Kingdom, c. 1440–1897", (D) : Hamburg, Universität, Philosophie und
Geschichtswissenschaft, 2001, pp. 4–264
- Robert Sydney Smith, Warfare & diplomacy in pre-colonial
West Africa, University of Wisconsin Press:
1989, pp. 54–62
- Osalodor, op. cit
- Osalodor, op. cit
- R.S. Smith, Warfare & diplomacy pp. 54–62
- Bondarenko D. M. A Homoarchic
Alternative to the Homoarchic State: Benin Kingdom of the 13th–19th
Evolution & History. 2005. Vol. 4, No 2.
- Roese, P. M., and D. M. Bondarenko. A Popular History of
Benin. The Rise and Fall of a Mighty Forest Kingdom.
Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2003.
- Mercury, Karen. The Hinterlands, historical fiction
about the Benin Expedition of 1897. Medallion Press, 2005.