The Oracle: Why and How History Defines Who We Are (Pt 5)

By Chief Mike Ozekhome SAN



In our recent discourse on the great Benin Kingdom history, we have so far dealt extensively with the origin of the Benin Kingdom, showing how the kingdom started in 900s, and the Golden Age that heralded Oba Ewuare, also known as Ewuare the Great, who was credited with turning Benin City into a city-state, from a military fortress built by the Ogisos. We also discussed the European Contact with the Portuguese explorers under Joao Afonso de Aveiro in about 1485 and the kingdom’s military superiority which was commenced last week. Today, we shall conclude the golden age and beam our search light on the military superiority of the kingdom. We shall then discuss the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, how Britain sought to control over the trade, the Galway Treaty of 1892 and the conflict and conquest of 1897. Yet, more will come.

THE GOLDEN AGE (continues)

At its height, Benin dominated the entire trade along the entire coastline from the Western Niger Delta, through Lagos to modern-day Ghana. It was for this reason that this important coastline was named the Bight of Benin. The present-day Republic of Benin, formerly Dahomey, decided to choose the name of this Bight as the name of its country. Benin ruled over the tribes of the Niger Delta, including the Western Igbos, Ijaws, Itshekiris, and Urhobos, amongst others. It also held sway over the Eastern Yoruba tribes of Ondo, Ekiti, Mahin/Ugbo, and Ijebu. It also conquered what eventually became the city of Lagos hundreds of years before the British took over in 1851.

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 and Iyobas of Benin. The most well-known artifact is based on Queen Idia, now best known as the FESTAC Mask after its use in 1977 in the logo of the Nigeria-financed and hosted Second Festival of Black & African Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77).

By the late 1400s, the capital of Benin, Benin City, was already a large and highly regulated city. Europeans who visited were always impressed by its splendor and compared it to the major European cities at the time. The city was laid out on a clear plan, the buildings were reportedly all well-kept, and the city included a massive palace compound decorated with thousands of intricate metal, ivory, and wood plaques (known as the Benin Bronzes), most of which were made between the 1400s and 1600s, after which the craft declined. In the mid-1600s, the power of the Obas also waned, as administrators and officials took more control over the government.


The first European travelers to reach Benin were Portuguese explorers under Joao Afonso de Aveiro in about 1485. A strong mercantile relationship developed, with the Edo trading slaves and tropical products such as ivory, pepper and palm oil for European goods such as manillas 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. Some residents of Benin City could still speak a pidgin Portuguese in the late 19th century.

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, pepper, and slaves. Visitors in the 16th and 19th centuries brought back to Europe tales of “Great Benin”, a fabulous city of noble buildings, ruled over by a powerful king. On his part, the Oba began to suspect Britain of larger colonial designs and ceased communications with the British until the British Expedition in 1896-97, when British troops captured, burned, and looted Benin City as part of a punitive mission, which brought the kingdom’s imperial era to an end. A 17th-century Dutch engraving from Olfert Dapper’s Nauwkeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaansche Gewesten, published in Amsterdam in 1668 says.

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.

Another Dutch traveler was David van Nyendael, who in 1699 wrote an eye-witness account.


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, short sword, 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 (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. As payment, the Europeans received items, such as palm oil and bundles of pepper. The example of Benin shows the power of indigenous military systems, but also the role outside influences and new technologies brought to bear. This is a normal pattern among many nations.


Benin was one of many African countries to sell slaves to European slave traders, but like all strong states, the Benin people did so on their own terms. In fact, Benin refused to sell slaves for many years. Benin representatives sold some prisoners of war to the Portuguese in the late 1400s, during the time when Benin was expanding into an empire and fighting several battles. By the 1500s, however, they had stopped expanding and refused to sell more slaves until the 1700s. Instead, they traded other goods, including pepper, ivory, and palm oil for the brass and firearms they wanted from Europeans. The slave trade only began to pick up after 1750, when Benin was in a period of decline.


Benin began to decline after 1700. Benin’s power and the wealth was continuously flourishing in the 19th century with the development of the trade in palm oil, textiles, ivory, slaves, and other resources. To preserve the kingdom’s independence, bit by bit the Oba banned the export of goods from Benin, until the trade was exclusively in palm oil.

By the last half of the 19th century Great Britain had come to want a closer relationship with the Kingdom of Benin; for British officials were increasingly interested in controlling trade in the area and in accessing the kingdom’s rubber resources to support their own growing tire market.

Several attempts were made to achieve this end beginning with the official visit of Richard Francis Burton in 1862 when he was consul at Fernando Pó. Following that came attempts to establish a treaty between Benin and the United Kingdom by Hewtt, Blair and Annesley in 1884, 1885 and 1886 respectively. However, these efforts did not yield any results. The kingdom resisted becoming a British protectorate throughout the 1880s, but the British remained persistent. Progress was made finally in 1892 during the visit of Vice-Consul Henry Galway. This mission was the first official visit after Burton’s. Moreover, it would also set in motion the events to come that would lead to Oba Ovonramwen’s demise. (To be continued).


“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.” (James Baldwin).

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