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The Benin Empire or Edo Empire (1440–1897) was a pre-colonial African state of modern Nigeriamarker. It is not to be confused with the modern-day country called Beninmarker (and formerly called Dahomey).


Bronze plaque of Benin Warriors with ceremonial swords.
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 Citymarker) 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 Ifemarker) will be ruled by a man who would come out of the forest. 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 next King.

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.

Oranyan (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 Oyo. 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 Eweka.

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 Edo.

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 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 gates.

At its maximum extent the empire is claimed by the Edos to have extended from the Igbo kingdom of Onitshamarker in the east of Nigeria, through parts the southwestern region of Nigeria, Modern day Benin Republicmarker, Togomarker, and into the present-day nation of Ghanamarker. 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. The most common artifact is based on Queen Idia, now best known as the FESTAC Mask after it was used 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 Portuguese trading tropical products, and increasingly slaves, for European goods and guns. In the early 16th century the Oba sent an ambassador to Lisbonmarker, 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 tales of "the Great Benin", a fabulous city of noble buildings, ruled over by a powerful king.

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

"The king's palace or court is a square, and is as large as the town of Haarlemmarker 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..."

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 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. 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 (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 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.

Benin resisted signing a protectorate treaty with Great Britainmarker through most of the 1880s and 1890s. 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, 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.

Oba mask

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 Edo peoples.

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.

See also


  1. Time Life Lost Civilizations series: Africa's Glorious Legacy (1994) pp. 102–4
  2. Osadolor, Osarhieme Benson, "The military system of Benin Kingdom, c. 1440–1897", (D) : Hamburg, Universität, Philosophie und Geschichtswissenschaft, 2001, pp. 4–264
  3. Robert Sydney Smith, Warfare & diplomacy in pre-colonial West Africa, University of Wisconsin Press: 1989, pp. 54–62
  4. Osalodor, op. cit
  5. Osalodor, op. cit
  6. R.S. Smith, Warfare & diplomacy pp. 54–62


  • Bondarenko D. M. A Homoarchic Alternative to the Homoarchic State: Benin Kingdom of the 13th–19th centuries. Social Evolution & History. 2005. Vol. 4, No 2. pp. 18–88.
  • 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.

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