Benin and its Bronzes

Story posted: Friday, 20. May 2011 by CPA Media

Pictures From History / Themes / BENIN BRONZES




Benin and its Bronzes




The Benin Empire (1440–1897) was a pre-colonial African state in what is now modern Nigeria. It is not to be confused with the modern-day country called Benin, formerly called Dahomey.

The original people and founders of the Benin Empire, the Edo People, were initially ruled by the Ogisos (Kings of the Sky) who called their land Igodomigodo. The city (later called Benin City by the Portuguese in the late 15th century) was initially founded by the 8th century AD and was surrounded by autonomous settlements protected by large earthen walls.

The Ogiso dynasty was brought to an end in 1180 AD by Eweka I, the first Oba who changed the ancient name of Igodomigodo to Edo and 'Ogiso' dynasty to Oba dynasty. The word oba is an Edo name meaning 'red'; oba refers to blood, representing life and conquest, as well as the coral beads of the crown, which represent prosperity.

Eweka the First was the first 'Oba' and originator of that title. It was not until 15th century during the reign of Oba Ewuare the Great that the city began to be known as Ubinu, an Itsekhiri-derived name for the royal administrative centre of the kingdom of Edo. 'Ubinu' would be later shortened by the those living in the royal administrative centre of the kingdom to ‘Bini’ when referring to the administrative centre of the empire which they live in. The Portuguese would corrupt this to Benin City.

About 36 known Ogiso are accounted for as rulers of the empire. According to the Edo oral tradition, during the reign of the last Ogiso, his son and heir apparent, Ekaladerhan, was banished from Igodomigodo as a result of one of the queens having deliberately changed an oracle message 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, according to the Yoruba, the Ifá oracle said that the Yoruba people of Ile-Ife (also known as Ife) would be ruled by a man who would come out of the forest. Following Ekaladerhan's arrival at the Yoruba city 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, 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 Oduduwa (the Ooni) to return to Igodomigodo (later known as Benin City in the 15th century during Oba Ewuare) 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 become the next king there.

Eweka I was the first 'Oba' or king of the new dynasty after the end of the era of Ogiso. He changed the ancient name of Igodomigodo to Edo.

Centuries later, in 1440, Oba Ewuare, also known as Ewuare the Great, came to power and turned the city-state into an empire. The Ancient Benin Empire eventually gained political ascendancy over Ife-Ife, gained political strength and ascendancy over much of what is now Mid-Western and Western Nigeria, with the Oyo Empire bordering it on the west, the Niger river on the east, and the northerly lands succumbing to Fulani Muslim invasion in the North. Much of what is now known as Western Iboland and even Yorubaland was conquered by the Benin Kingdom in the late 19th century.


Benin’s 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 Eweka I son of the banished Prince Ekaladerhan son of the last of the Ogiso.

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 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 50 feet (15 m) deep. This was excavated in the early 1960s by Graham Connah. Connah estimated that its construction, if spread out over five 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 nine 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 raised to mark out territories for towns and cities. Thirteen years after Ewuare's death tales of Benin's splendours lured Portuguese traders to the city.

At its maximum extent, the empire extended from the western Ibo tribes on the shores of the Niger River, through parts of the southwestern region of Nigeria. Expansion of the mid-western Benin Kingdom eastwards was stopped by the aggressive autonomous Igbo villages southeast of the Niger river, the Oyo Kingdom, which extended through most of southwest Nigeria in the west to parts of present day Republic of Benin, and the Northerly tribes united under the Islamic faith.

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 depicting the Obas of Benin. The most celebrated artifact is the mask of Queen Idia, used in 1977 as the emblem of the Nigeria-financed and hosted Second Festival of Black & African Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77).


European Contacts

The first European travelers to reach Benin were Portuguese explorers in about 1485. A strong mercantile relationship developed, with the Edo trading tropical products such as ivory, pepper and palm oil with the Portuguese for European goods such as manila hemp and guns. In the early 16th century, the Oba sent an ambassador to Lisbon, and the king of Portugal sent Christian missionaries to Benin City.

The first English expedition to Benin was in 1553, and significant trading developed between England and Benin based on the export of ivory, palm oil and pepper. Visitors in the 16th and 17th centuries brought back to Europe tales of  ‘Great Benin’, a fabulous city of noble buildings, ruled over by a powerful king. However, the Oba began to suspect Britain of larger colony designs and ceased communications with the British until the British Expedition of 1896-97.


The Dutchman Olfert Dapper visited Benin in 1668 and wrote:

The 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 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...

 Olfert Dapper, Nauwkeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaansche Gewesten


The Legions of Benin

The Kingdom of Benin represents 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 army stood the Oba of Benin, who 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’.

Until the introduction of guns in the 15th century, traditional weapons like the spear and bow held sway. Efforts were made to reorganize a local guild of blacksmiths in the 18th century 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. By this time, European activity in the area, most notably through the Trans-Atlantic slave-trade, resulted in major disruptive repercussions. However, Benin's power was somewhat revived in the 19th century with the development of the trade in palm oil and textiles. To preserve Benin's independence, the Oba gradually banned the export of goods from Benin, until the trade was exclusively in palm oil.

Benin resisted signing a protectorate treaty with Britain through most of the 1880s and 1890s. However, after Benin discovered Britain's true intentions, eight unknowing British representatives, who had come to visit Benin, were killed. As a result a punitive expedition was sent in 1897. The British force, under the command of Admiral SSir Harry Rawson, razed and burned the city, destroying much of the country's treasured art and dispersing nearly all that remained. The stolen portrait figures, busts, and groups created in iron, carved ivory, and especially in brass, conventionally called ‘Benin Bronzes’, are now displayed in museums around the world.


Benin Bronzes

The Benin Bronzes are a collection of more than 3000 brass plaques from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin, located in present day Nigeria. They were seized by soldiers of the British ‘punitive expedition’ in 1897. About 200 of these ended up in the British Museum in London, while the remainder were divided between a variety of collections, with the majority being purchased on behalf of the Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin (the present-day Ethnological Museum). In 1936, Oba Akenzua II began the movement to return the stolen art now famous in modern art discourse as the 'Benin Bronzes'.

The seizure of  Benin art and particularly the ‘Bronzes’ led to a greater appreciation in Europe for  African culture. Bronzes are now believed to have been cast in Benin since the thirteenth century, and some in the collection date from the 15th and 16th centuries.

Strangely the creation of bronze plaques is thought to have been revived by the arrival of European traders in Benin. The traders brought brass bracelets known as manilas which were exchanged for spices, ivory or slaves. This metal was melted down and used to create the plaques that decorated the palace in Benin.

The Bronzes depict a variety of scenes, including animals, fish, humans and scenes of court life. They were cast in matching pairs (although each was individually made). It is thought that they were originally fixedto walls and pillars in the palace as decorations, some possibly also offering instructive scenes of protocol.

Nigeria, which includes the area of the former Kingdom of Benin, purchased around 50 Bronzes from the British Museum between the 1950s and 1970s, and has repeatedly called for the return of the remainder, in a case which parallels that of the Elgin Marbles – except that the latter were purchased from the Ottoman authorities occupying Greece, while the Benin artifacts were, quite simply, looted.




Main article adapted from Wikipedia: 'Benin Empire', June 2011

Category:  Nigeria

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