Benin, “Ile ibinu” is steeped in history. Today, she is the capital city of Edo State in Nigeria, although her influence spanned a much wider part of West Africa from Nigeria to Ghana, nearly two centuries ago. Because the inhabitants of the City, the Edo, did not have a culture of writing, much of that history was oral before the Portuguese visited her in the fifteenth century. Therefore, what happened in the centuries before the Ipotoki, as the people of Benin City call them to this day remains grey. But what some Nigerian historians recall and write about her these days, often takes on the character of a tapestry with the warps wound to suit the historian’s design. And his labyrinthine mind would tell or write it, never failing to add his cynicism and compelling self-interest.
But Benin was the metropolis of the Great Benin Empire which flourished for centuries. She appeared to have declined when European influence grew in West Africa, but not before she had established new territories or her people had migrated to other places to encounter and influence their inhabitants. The Ga of Ghana emigrated from Benin during the reign of Omo N’Oba Udagbedo in the thirteenth century. Urhobo of Nigeria’s Delta State migrated from Benin to Abraka and surrounding areas some seven decades later. Other émigré founded Onitsha about two hundred years later during the reign of Omo N’Oba Esigie. Indeed, the Republic of Benin celebrated one hundred years of the last king in Dahomey about twenty-five years ago. Because of the centuries old ties the country has had with Benin Kingdom, the President of the country wanted people of the kingdom represented at the ceremony and Omo N’Oba N’Edo Erediauwa sent a delegation of six of his chiefs. Dahomey was the name of the Republic of Benin, barely thirty-two years ago.
About 1550 AD, Omo N’Oba Orhogbua ordered the creation of a camp (Eko) in an island place now called Lagos. Before Abuja, Lagos was the Federal Capital of Nigeria. Dear reader, you have just had a glimpse into the past of Great Benin – the Benin this website is about.
by Lizzie Williams
(Culled from The Bradt Travel Guide)
The capital of Edo State is Benin City, which is famous for its unique bronze, brass and ivory works of art. Modern Benin City is a rapidly developing metropolis and the centre of Nigeria’s rubber industry, but there are a few reminders of its long and turbulent history. The old city’s moat and wall survive in places, and the National Museum houses an interesting collection of Benin royal art. Benin is to the West of Igboland, and it’s mainly populated by the Edo and Bini people, hence its name.
An early traveller, a Mr Cyril Punch, wrote of Benin before it was destroyed in 1897:
Benin has an extraordinary fascination for me which I cannot explain. All the rest of West Africa that I know is squalid. Benin in the old days was more than squalid, it was gruesome. . No-one who went there came away without being impressed
Benin served as the capital of the Benin Kingdom, which ruled much of the Yoruba, Igbo, Ijo, and Itsekiri peoples, and was probably founded in the 13th century. According to legend the warrior Oranmiyan stalked south from Ife and married a local woman. Their son Eweka became the first Oba of Benin and the palace was thought to have been built during his reign. The kingdom flourished from the 14th – 17th centuries, when it was ruled under the dynamic leadership of a chain of warrior kings and traditional Obas. Benin City was the first inland settlement to be visited by the Europeans, despite not being near the sea or having a river port, but the reputation of the Benin civilisation motivated the Portuguese in the 15th century to seek it out. By the early 16th century, Benin Kingdom had sent an ambassador to Lisbon and in return, the King of Portugal had sent missionaries to Benin. Portuguese was to remain the foreign language for the Benin aristocracy for centuries and elements of the language have continued to survive in palace circles even today. Early trade items included cowries, ivory, pepper, and palm products. Although some slaves were exchanged for goods, Benin was not a slave-dealing nation, preferring to use its manpower and prisoners of war as construction workers, to build and maintain the royal palace, the expansive residencies of the aristocracy, and the city walls, moats, and ditches that surrounded the city. At the height of the Benin Kingdom, great walls were built between 1450 and 1550, and the city was split up into the Oba’s Palace and 40 wards, and the network of walls, stretched from the city and enclosed the surrounding villages in a radius of over 100km. There could have perhaps been over 5,000km of wall. These walls enclosed over 500 compounds and were 9m tall at their highest. The palace is said to have been flanked by an enormous gate of two towers, each surmounted by a bronze python some 15m long. The walls were made of red mud but the inside was thought to be very ornate and full of ivory, brass, and iron figures and bronze busts. In each of the city’s wards were communities of artisans who made items to decorate the palace. Benin is known predominantly for its 15th - century wax bronzes, which are considered to be some of the finest African ancient art.
The Benin Kingdom declined after 1700 and not much is known of what went on in the city before the British arrived. The conquest of Benin in 1897 was sparked by the massacre of the British consul and his party, who were on their way to investigate reports of ritual human sacrifice. Human sacrifice was going on, but it was assumed that this was a last ditch-effort by the oba at the time to appease the gods and stop the encroachment of the British and in the only way he knew. Here is a chilling account from a member of the British party that attacked Benin, a Captain Boisragon, who wrote in The Benin Massacre in 1898:
As we neared Benin City we passed several human sacrifices, live woman slaves gagged and pegged on their backs to the ground, the abdominal wall being cut in the form of a cross, and the uninjured gut hanging out. Men slaves, with their hands tied at the back and feet lashed together, also gagged, were lying about. As we neared the city, sacrificed human beings were laying in the path and bush – even in the king’s compound the stench and sight of them was awful. Dead and mutilated bodies were everywhere – by God! May I never see such sights again! In the king’s compound, on a raised platform or altar, beautiful idols were found. All of them were caked over in human blood. Lying about were big bronze heads, dozens in a row, with holes in the top, in which immense carved ivory tusks were fixed. The whole place reeked of blood. Fresh blood was dripping off the figures and altars.
On discovering these atrocities, the British promptly ransacked the palace of its artwork, massacred most of the heathen people, and torched the city. That was the end of the Benin Kingdom. Boisragon went on to say:
…fire, smoke and charcoal seemed to have removed all the smell, and the city became sweet and pure again.
The British took an estimated 5,000 pieces of artwork, and only the few that escaped their notice remain in the Benin Museum and Lagos Museum. Much of it was sold off in Europe (some of it is in the British Museum), but most has never been recovered. The reigning oba was exiled to Calabar where he died in 1913, and a new palace was built by his son; it was said to be about a tenth of the size of the old one. . . .
. . . Further down Sakpoba Road and along Murtala Muhammed Way are some pathetic remains of old Benin’s city walls and moats. At their highest point, the walls were 9m high and the moat 9m deep. Unfortunately in the past few years, the walls and moat have been the victim of extensive soil excavation and are used as a source of building materials, and are so overgrown it’s hard to even make out what you are looking at. The wall is now just a mound of brown earth covered in rubbish, and the moat is a green slimy area full to the brim with plastic garbage. And while we stood and looked at it rather incredulously, a man came up to the wall and shovelled a load of the earth into his wheelbarrow and took it away.