Benin Empire began as a trading town, later a city, in Nigeria. The polity later grew after the formation of the Yoruba states and ruled by the Ogiso Dynasty, as related by oral traditions. Benin also engaged in the slave trade. Numerous Africans were sold to the New World from the Benin River, one of the Five Slave Rivers of the Bight of Benin.
Benin, most likely took notions of state craft, though not entirely, from the the Yoruba states. According to tradition, the Edo people became dissatisfied with their king. They asked Oduduwa of Ife for one of his son as ruler. Oduduwa sent his son, Oranmiyan (Oronyon) and a new period of political development began. Benin's political system was developed before the 1400s and was an established power by the 1500s in the Niger Delta region. The empire became powerful due to her strategic trading position in the region.
Oba Ewuare (c. 1450-1480) set the stage for the expansion of Benin. First, he consolidated his authority, built fortification of mud walls and ditches to house the nobility and royal court and contained the uzama--comprised of noblemen from important Edo families and districts. Ewuare for 30 years engaged in wars of expansion and conquest. His empire extended from Dahomey to the west to the Niger Delta in the east, to include some Yoruba towns in the north. He established primogeniture as the means of succession.
By 1550, Benin Empire was the most powerful and largest polity in the region, which occupied territories from Lagos to the Niger Delta. The empire's presence was all encompassing and trade links far and wide. The Portugues in 1486 at first contact beared witness to Benin's reach and influence. One chief of the empire was entertained at the Portuguese court.
Oba Ewuare was succeeded by Oba Esigie (1504-1550). Esigie further diminished the uzama, by replacing its members with commoners loyal to himself. Esigie retained strong ties with Europeans. He spoke fluent Portuguese. The obas that followed had long reigns.
As a representation of wealth and power, a new type of royal and court art developed in metal. Numerous heads and figures were crafted in brass. Brass plaques and rectangular plates with metal reliefs were molded and adorned the the royal palace. The copper was mostly from trade with the western Sudan. The metal was rare in the region.
The famed Benin City, destroyed by the Punitive Expedition, was a large complex of homes in coursed mud, with hipped roofs of shingles or palm leaves. Large ceremonial roads described as one hundred and twenty feet wide occupied Benin. Thirty of these large roads existed in 1602.
The Oba's compound was describe as large as the town of Haarlem divided into many palaces, apartments, and houses. The palace had a sequence of ceremonial rooms, and was decorated with brass plaques. Internally the palace had very long galleries supported by fifty columns, that lead to a mud wall with three gates. Casted copper snakes occupied the top of each gate. Behind the middle gate was a quarter square mile plaza, surrounded by low mud walls, leading to four more galleries, adorned with metal sculptures, the famous Benin pictorial plaques. At the end was the royal chamber. Ordinary people were not allowed to gaze at the Oba.
Benin city was enclosed by massive extensive walls. The Walls of Benin City is the world's largest man-made structure. Fred Pearce wrote in New scientist:
"They extend for some 16,000 kilometres in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They cover 6500 square kilometres and were all dug by the Edo people. In all, they are four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops. They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet(Pearce 113)"
Benin during the eighteenth and nineteenth century began to decline, largely due to the rise of Yoruba Oyo Empire. In 1897, the city of Benin was taken by the British and Oba Ovaramwen sent into exile, effectively ending the empire.
Related Articles: Common Edo Names, Benin Families and Related Salutation, Edo Numeration, List of Obas of Benin
Davidson, Basil, Buah, F. K. ,and Ajayi, J.F. Ade(1966). A History of West Africa. Doubleday:New York. pp. 99-102. Library of Congress Card #66-24317.
Collins, Robert O. and Burns, James M. (2007). A History of Sub-Saharan Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 134-136 ISBN 978-0-521-68708-9.
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