The history of the kingdom of Benin from African historical sources & British sources


This post is going to combine a number of different sources. We are going to take a look at the history of Benin.

All pictures in this post are from Google images.


Below is a list of towns and tribes in the picture box


To start we have a summary from 

I have found a teachers  guide to the kingdom of benin. I thought twice about adding the information from The British Museum however Europe and England do seem to hold relevant information that can be used along with the other sources to get an understanding of Benin.Compiled by Bolaji Aluko

The Benin Empire and Slave Trade – A History Lesson in 5 Minutes

Source of map:

The military system of Benin Kingdom 1440-1897 (O.B. Osadolor; PhD Thesis, Hamburg, July 2001

Benin Empire,  A House Divided: 1100 – 1299

The first kingdom of Benin is believed to have developed in the 12th or 13th century. It was located in present-day southern Nigeria, east of the Yoruba land and west of the Niger River. The inhabitants of Benin spoke a group of closely related languages known as Edo. In fact, the Benin Empire may also be referred to as the Edo Empire. During this early time, historians believe that the forested area around Benin City housed as many as several dozen small, quarrelsome chiefdoms.


Benin Unites: 1300 – 1350

Around 1300 [SOME PUT IT 100 YEARS EARLIER], the chiefdoms around Benin City united. Benin tradition tells us that when the chiefs agreed to unite, they invited Oranyan (also known as Oranmiyan) from nearby Ife to come and be their leader. Oranyan married a Benin woman, and their son, Eweka, is considered the first king, or oba, of Benin. However, some historians argue that the story of Oranyan being “invited” to rule Benin and marrying the daughter of a Benin chief was invented to cover up the fact that Benin was at that time occupied by invaders. It was during this time period (and possibly as a result of Oranyan coming to Benin) that Benin people supposedly learned from Ife people how to cast brass and bronze.


Oba Ewuare Makes Reforms: 1400 – 1486

During the 15th century, Oba Ewuare of Benin made many important reforms. One of his primary aims was to lessen the influence of the uzama, a body of hereditary chiefs who participated in the selection of the oba. He did this in part by implementing primogeniture, the rule that a father should be succeeded by his son. He also created new types of chiefs – “palace chiefs” and “town chiefs” – to compete with the uzama. The palace chiefs and town chiefs were appointed by the oba and were responsible for collecting the tribute that the villages and districts offered to the court twice each year. Through these reforms, Ewuare established a system of checks and balances in which “palace” and “town” chiefs competed with the uzama for influence. Also, free male commoners were able to improve their station in society by competing for the chiefly titles awarded by the oba. Benin tradition credits Ewuare with constructing a huge system of walls and moats around the capital, Benin city. Ewuare also greatly increased the domain of the Benin Empire. He and his son, Ozolua, expanded the territory under Benin rule from the Niger River in the east to the eastern portions of Yoruba land in the west.

Enter the Europeans (and Esigie):  1486 – 1550

In 1486, Portuguese sailors became the first Europeans to reach the area of West Africa in which the Benin Empire was located. Unlike the Chinese at that time, the obas of Benin saw the benefits of trading with Europeans. Ozolua’s son, Esigie, who reigned from around 1504 until 1550, forged close contacts with the Portuguese. Some accounts say that he even learned to speak and read Portuguese. Four of Benin’s primary exports were pepper, ivory, palm oil, and cloth. The obas controlled trade in pepper and ivory through a government monopoly.

Arts also flourished during Esigie’s time. Esigie’s grandfather, Ewuare, had divided Benin City into two wards – one for the palace and one for artists and craftsworkers. Trade with Europe during Esigie’s reign brought copper and brass into Benin, allowing Benin’s artists to refine techniques of bronze and brass casting that had been known to them for centuries. Artists produced an amazing array of brass plaques and sculptures and bronze bas-reliefs that adorned the walls of the oba’s palace.

The Slave Trade: 1486 – 1807

Throughout much of Benin’s history, the slave trade played a role – sometimes large, sometimes smaller – in Benin’s economy. There are a couple of possible conflicts among sources regarding the slave trade. According to

 “Benin prevented the depletion of its own population by prohibiting the export of male slaves during the 16th and 17th centuries, although it did import slaves purchased by Europeans elsewhere in West Africa, and resold some of them to the region which is now Ghana.” On the other hand,

states that “The Portuguese first visited Benin in the late 15th century, and, for a time, Benin traded…slaves with Portuguese and Dutch traders.” The latter source makes no mention of restrictions regarding the trading of male slaves. Also,

says that “Benin grew increasingly rich during the 16th and 17th centuries on the slave trade with Europe; slaves from enemy states of the interior were sold, and carried to the Americas in Dutch and Portuguese ships.”

There is also a possible conflict between the same three sources regarding Benin’s policy on the slave trade during the 18th century. The view of

 is that “Historians of Benin know relatively little about the kingdom’s history during the 18th century, although they recognize that slaves supplanted cloth as Benin’s major export after it abolished the prohibition on slave exports.” However,

 asserts that “Benin stopped trading slaves with Europeans in the 18th century and focused attention on dependent regions around it.” These statements, while seemingly contradictory, are not mutually exclusive. It is possible that Benin did lift the ban on exporting male slaves during the 18th century, but that they decided to export slaves to nearby regions rather than Europe. However, this theory is contradicted by

which says that “It [the Slave Coast] became one of the most important export centers for the Atlantic slave trade from the early 16th century to the 19th century.”

Benin Declines: 1807 – 1897

In 1486, Portuguese sailors became the first Europeans to reach the area of West Africa in which the Benin Empire was located. Unlike the Chinese at that time, the obas of Benin saw the benefits of trading with Europeans. Ozolua’s son, Esigie, who reigned from around 1504 until 1550, forged close contacts with the Portuguese. Some accounts say that he even learned to speak and read Portuguese. Four of Benin’s primary exports were pepper, ivory, palm oil, and cloth. The obas controlled trade in pepper and ivory through a government monopoly.

Arts also flourished during Esigie’s time. Esigie’s grandfather, Ewuare, had divided Benin City into two wards – one for the palace and one for artists and craftsworkers. Trade with Europe during Esigie’s reign brought copper and brass into Benin, allowing Benin’s artists to refine techniques of bronze and brass casting that had been known to them for centuries. Artists produced an amazing array of brass plaques and sculptures and bronze bas-reliefs that adorned the walls of the oba’s palace.

Tradition asserts that the Edo people became dissatisfied with the rule of a dynasty of semimythical kings, the ogisos, and in the 13th century they invited Prince Oranmiyan of Ife to rule them. His son Eweka is regarded as the first oba, or king, of Benin, though authority would remain for many years with a hereditary order of local chiefs. Late in the 13th century, royal power began to assert itself under the oba Ewedo and was firmly established under the most famous oba, Ewuare the Great (reigned c. 1440–80), who was described as a great warrior and magician. He established a hereditary succession to the throne and vastly expanded the territory of the Benin kingdom, which by the mid-16th century extended from the Niger River delta in the east to what is now Lagos in the west. (Lagos was in fact founded by a Benin army and continued to pay tribute to the oba of Benin until the end of the 19th century.) Ewuare also rebuilt the capital (present-day Benin City), endowing it with great walls and moats. The oba became the supreme political, judicial, economic, and spiritual leader of his people, and he and his ancestors eventually became the object of state cults that utilized human sacrifice in their religious observances.

Ewuare was succeeded by a line of strong obas, chief of whom were Ozolua the Conqueror (c. 1481–c. 1504; the son of Ewuare) and Esigie (early to mid-16th century; the son of Ozolua), who enjoyed good relations with the Portuguese and sent ambassadors to their king. Under these obas Benin became a highly organized state. Its numerous craftsmen were organized into guilds, and the kingdom became famous for its ivory and wood carvers. Its brass smiths and bronze casters excelled at making naturalistic heads, bas-reliefs, and other sculptures. From the 15th through the 18th century Benin carried on an active trade in ivory, palm oil, and pepper with Portuguese and Dutch traders, for whom it served as a link with tribes in the interior of western Africa. It also profited greatly from the slave trade. But during the 18th and early 19th centuries the kingdom was weakened by violent succession struggles between members of the royal dynasty, some of which erupted into civil wars. The weaker obas sequestered themselves in their palaces and took refuge in the rituals of divine kingship while indiscriminately granting aristocratic titles to an expanding class of nonproductive nobles. The kingdom’s prosperity declined with the suppression of the slave trade, and, as its territorial extent shrank, Benin’s leaders increasingly relied on supernatural rituals and large-scale human sacrifices to protect the state from further territorial encroachment. The practice of human sacrifice was stamped out only after the burning of Benin City in 1897 by the British, after which the depopulated and debilitated kingdom was incorporated into British Nigeria. The descendants of Benin’s ruling dynasty still occupy the throne in Benin City (although the present-day oba has only an advisory role in government).


The Ogiso Dynasty (Before the Obas of Benin) By: Naiwu Osahon




The kingdom of Benin was well known to European traders and merchants during the 16th and

17th centuries, when it became wealthy partly due to trading in slaves. The relationship between Benin and the European traders on the changed during the 18th and 19th centuries, as European governments increased their control of areas of the coast. In 1897, a British punitive expedition invaded Benin City to avenge the murder of a British consul. They reported being met by the  sight of dozens of human sacrifices, and blood strewn over the palace of the ruler, the Oba.  The booty from the attack on Benin included carved ivory tusks, coral jewellery and hundreds  of bronze statues and plaques. Many of these objects were auctioned off to cover the costs of the expedition. The plaques were most sought after and were bought by museums across Europe and America – you can see the plaques at the British Museum, in Chicago, Vienna, Paris and a large collection can be viewed in Berlin.

The arrival and the reception of the bronze plaques caused a sensation in Europe. Scholars struggled to understand how African craftsmen could have made such works of art, putting forward some wild theories to explain them. Quickly, however, research showed that the Benin bronzes were entirely West African creations without European influence, and they transformed European understanding of African history.

Why study the kingdom of Benin?

To research and understand a society that produced such stunning works of art is perhaps reason enough for studying the kingdom of Benin, as is consideration of the contradiction between such creativity on the one hand, and the practice of human sacrifice, the acquisition and selling of human captives, and the exceptionally warlike inclinations of the kingdom on the other.

For schools following Key Stage 3 History in the English National Curriculum, this section could be a case study to complement study of the slave trade. To get an idea of what an African state was like at the time of the slave trade will help to challenge preconceptions about Africa in the 16th–18th centuries. It is also significant because contact with the Europeans seems to have affected the kingdom of Benin, increasing its appetite for taking slaves, precipitating its decline.

The kingdom of Benin can be seen both as a society corrupted by the European demand for slaves and one that willingly satisfied this demand as a further and more lucrative outlet for  its commercial ambitions. Consideration of this will help pupils realise that those affected  by the slave trade were not just the captives themselves, but whole societies.


Located wholly within what is now Nigeria, the kingdom of Benin at its zenith stretched from  Lagos in the west to beyond the River Niger in the east, an area that equates to about a fifth  of modern-day Nigeria. Inland from the fertile coastal belt there is tropical forest, beyond which lies a narrow strip of grassland savannah which is suitable for agriculture. A European traveller who visited in the 1720s described the many villages, carefully cultivated fields, and the production of three or four harvests a year (Des Marchais, quoted in Gayibor 1986:16):


According to the kingdom of Benin’s mythology, their land is the cradle of the world which was founded by the first king, the youngest son of Osanobua the Supreme God. When the Supreme God sent his children to the world, the earth was all water and void, and he gave them the option to choose their heart’s desires. One of his children chose wealth, one chose knowledge, and another chose medicine or mystical knowledge. The youngest child had nothing apparently to choose and looking around, he saw a snail shell which was found to contain sand. On the instructions of a divine bird, the youngest son upturned the snail shell in an area which became land – the kingdom of Benin. The youngest son became the owner of the land, which made him powerful and wealthy, and on the request of his elder brothers, he had to share portions of it with them for their settlement.


The history of Benin as a unified kingdom is believed to have begun in the 12th or 13th centuries AD. According to belief, the local Edo chiefs tired of fighting among themselves and decided to invite the Ife chief, Oduduwa, to become their leader. He sent his son, who had a child, Eweka, by the daughter of a local chief. This child became the first king (Oba) of Benin. This tale might, however, hide the fact that Benin was invaded by the kingdom of Ife.

Oba Ewuare

The most famous Oba was Ewuare, who ruled between about 1440 and 1480. Before Ewuare took over there was a state of near anarchy in Benin with conflict between the Oba and the Uzama, the traditional council of chiefs, which even resulted in two of the royal sons being exiled. Ewuare came to power by murdering the Oba, his brother, not an unusual occurrence in a society in which the rules of succession were blurred. He inherited a city which had been partly destroyed in the turmoil, and set about rebuilding it. He increased his own power through a series of reforms designed to weaken the influence of the Uzama.

The Uzama was responsible for choosing the next Oba, so Ewuare established the principle of succession by primogeniture, and underlined the point by making the crown prince an automatic member of the Uzama. He also created new types of chiefs – the palace chiefs and the town chiefs – and ensured that they competed against each other for influence, rather than against him. He finished the huge walls, moats and earthworks that surrounded Benin City, said by some to be 30 feet high and stretch for 1,200km. He also greatly increased the territory of the kingdom, and his son Ozolua carried on his work bringing the empire to its furthest limits.

Though the Oba had full and supreme power, he was still expected to take the advice of the Uzama, and also to consult with both the town and palace chiefs. The Queen Mother was also raised to a position of prominence. She had her own domain and fiefs, and she was the political and spiritual protector of the Oba. In accordance with the power dynamics of the period, she functioned as a member of the town chiefs.

Ewuare allowed his newly created chiefs the right to collect tribute – paid twice-yearly in palm oil, yams and other foodstuffs. He divided Benin City into two areas separated by a wide avenue – on one side the palace, on the other the town. He began the period of the warrior kings in which Benin expanded militarily.

Oba Ozolua

Ozolua ascended the throne around 1483 and was a great warrior king who ‘fought many desperate battles and waged war upon war.’ Benin tradition still remembers him as an able strategist who ‘would sometimes march against the enemy with very few soldiers in order that he might feel the weight and seriousness of the fight.’ It is said that each time he prayed, he would always pray to his ancestors to give him war.

Oba Esigie

Ozolua’s son Esigie established close links with the Portuguese when they arrived in the 1500s, and it is said he learnt to read and speak their language. He established a royal monopoly over trade with Europeans in pepper and ivory. Yet he kept his distance regarding the Portuguese demands for slaves, forbidding the export of male captives from the kingdom. Nevertheless, he allowed women captives to be exported, and was not averse to making war in order to capture people for later sale. Under Esigie there was a flourishing of arts and crafts, and many of the famous palace bronzes date from his reign.


Benin began to decline during the 17th century. From about 1600, the Obas stopped leading their troops into battle and became more symbolic figures. Several hundred years later, in the years prior to the British Punitive Expedition in 1897, royal influence in Benin was increasingly under threat from rival forces, both internal and external, who wanted economic power and control of the important trading monopolies. Some scholars say that the insatiable demand of Europeans for slaves caused the Obas to overreach themselves both in terms of external aggression and internal repression, and in the selling of their own people into slavery. Nevertheless, the court and palace remained the political and spiritual centre of the kingdom.

British Punitive Expedition 1897

This episode has to be seen in the context of the spread of British control over the whole of what  is now Nigeria at the start of the colonial period – the kingdom of Benin was just one of the targets. The initial problem arose out of the decision by a British consul, Phillips, to visit the Oba with a small armed group, against the advice of the British Governor, other Nigerian chiefs, and repeated warnings, threats and pleas by the Oba himself. Phillips persisted and he and his group were killed. A punitive expedition was then sent, which arrested and deposed the Oba and put an end to five centuries of the kingdom’s history, with the British Army looting and destroying the capital city.


Farming was the main economic activity at village level, and large family units were encouraged to provide an effective labour force. Polygamy was practised, and it may have arisen because of the need to increase the number of hands for farm labour.

All land for farming or residence purposes was communal and held by the Oba on behalf of the people. This probably explains the origin of the payment of tribute by each village to the Oba through his representatives – usually town or palace chiefs. Generally, the payment of tribute was one aspect of the economic support for both the local and central government in the kingdom of Benin. After farming, the manufacture of palm oil was undoubtedly the most important industry.

The production of cloth was widespread, and cotton growing and weaving were practised extensively throughout the kingdom. Samuel Brun, visiting in about 1614, noted that the kingdom of Benin made ‘very beautiful cloths, which are exported far and wide and sold’. Weaving was generally done by women in their spare time. Their cloth was not only for personal use, but for long-distance trade with other African societies, thousands of such  cloths being shipped annually by the middle of the 17th century. This may have given  women greater status in Benin society.


The kingdom of Benin had had contact with the Mediterranean for at least 1,500 years before the Europeans arrived on the coast of West Africa. The kingdom’s commercial and foreign relations were well established. Copper bracelet money (called manillas) as well as cowrie  shells and other currencies were used.

These manillas were part of an international trading relationship. They were mass produced  in Europe at this time and were sent to Benin in exchange for slaves. These manillas were often melted down and used in the production of bronze and brass goods, including the bronze plaques, and the finished works might then be exported back to Europe.

In 1553, an English merchant, Thomas Wyndham, was received by the Oba, who conducted trading negotiations with him in person, a practice common in the 16th century and confirmed by Portuguese reports. Trade with Europe was considerable. Just one Dutch ship, the Olyphant, delivered 88,235 lbs of ivory and 1,337 lbs of pepper from the kingdom of Benin to the Netherlands in 1630.


Enslavement was practised in the kingdom of Benin long before the Europeans arrived. The possession of a large number of slaves was a sign of the social status and prestige of a man or chief in the society. Enslaved people were used as the labour force in the domestic economy,  n wars of conquests or expansion, for human sacrifices, and by the Oba in the maintenance  and expansion of the guild system. New villages composed entirely of slaves were set up by  the Obas and chiefs to increase farming productivity.

During the 16th century, the Obas imposed a ban on the sale of Benin male captives to Europeans, though the ban did not extend to women. Male captives won in conquest could, however, be sold, and this encouraged the warlike tendencies of the kingdom. In the 17th century, the Obas lost the monopoly of the kingdom’s trade with Europe, and the chiefs rescinded the ban on selling male captives for the transatlantic trade.


The basis of the craft guild system was that each guild was created to supply the needs of the Oba. For instance, the guild of blacksmiths and ironsmiths supplied the weapons of war and other implements, while the guild of bronze-casters and carvers supplied all objects required by the palace. Also practising were the guilds of doctors, leather-workers, drummers, leopard hunters, dancers and carpenters. In return for their services, each guild was given a monopoly  in its particular trade or craft.

Copper, which was needed for the making of brass and bronze, had to be imported from mines in central Africa or acquired in trade. Many of the goods that were made were used in the  export economy.


The palace was the focus of public ceremonies which followed the different stages of the farming calendar. These ceremonies had the benefit of confirming the Oba as the focus of affairs of the kingdom, and of celebrating his power and importance in all aspects of daily life.

Many people from different sections of society, including chiefs and officials, craft guilds or representatives of local communities, played a part in the ritual pageantry. Craftsmen produced splendid costumes and ritual materials for the king and chiefs, and farmers supplied food for the feasts.

Human sacrifice, usually of criminals or prisoners of war, was practised. This was partly linked  to the religious practice of vodun (voodoo). The bodies of young women found at the bottom of a well, dressed in jewels and finery, are evidence of the importance of such rituals.

Benin City

Before its destruction, Benin City possessed an extensive network of wide streets. A complex city wall system with a moat and nine gates protected the city from intruders. The palace compound itself occupied a large part of the city.

The city was divided into the palace where the Oba and the palace chiefs lived, the town where the town chiefs and the artisans lived, and outside the walls where the Uzama had to live in villages.

Palace grounds also encompassed the private living quarters of the king, various reception courts, the quarters of the three palace societies, and the royal harem. Around the 17th century the wooden pillars supporting the roof of the galleries were decorated with the famous bronze plaques. In the 19th century the pillars were made of clay, and bore reliefs worked directly  into the material. Doors and beams in the royal precinct were in some cases covered with hand-embossed sheet brass, or decorated with inlaid mirrors.

The defensive fortification of Benin City included over 10,000km of earth boundaries, and was probably constructed between about AD 800 and 1500. The Guinness Book of World Records describes the walls as the world’s second largest man-made structure after China’s Great Wall in terms of length, and the series of earthen ramparts as the most extensive earthwork in the world.

Dutch writer Olfert Dapper described Benin City at its height:

‘When you go into it you enter a great broad street, which is not paved, and seems to  be seven or eight times greater than Warmoes Street in Amsterdam. This street is straight, and does not bend at any point. It is thought to be 4 miles long.

At the gate where I went in on horseback, I saw a very big wall, very thick and made  of earth, with a very deep and broad ditch outside it… And outside this gate there is also  a big suburb. Inside the gate, and along the great street just mentioned, you see many other great streets on either side, and these are also straight and do not bend… The houses in this town stand in good order, one close evenly placed with its neighbour, just as the houses in Holland stand… They have square rooms, sheltered by a roof that is open in the middle, where the rain, wind and light come in. The people sleep and eat in these rooms, but they have other rooms for cooking and for different purposes… The king’s court is very great.  It is built around many square-shaped yards. These yards have surrounding galleries where sentries are always placed. I myself went into the court far enough to pass through four great yards like this, and yet wherever I looked I could still see gate after gate which  opened into other yards.’


The Oba was the supreme military commander of the army and took responsibility for leading the soldiers to war personally. He was thus entitled to receive the largest share of tribute and fines, and of plunder taken in war. This made him the richest member of the state, and gave him the most followers and the most captives. He needed these to maintain status, and so  he was virtually obliged to take an active role.

Warriors used a variety of weapons such as bows and poisoned arrows, spears, iron swords, assegais and the crossbow. The variety of weapons used for war made it possible to compose the warriors into divisions of swordsmen, archers, spearmen and crossbowmen. There was no cavalry in the army since the tsetse fly made it virtually impossible to breed horses.

The army was divided into regiments, companies and platoons, and training was thorough, especially in battlefield tactics. There were almost as many sieges as pitched battles.

The use of firearms by the Portuguese mercenaries who accompanied Esigie to the war with Idah in about 1515 had a decisive effect on the outcome of the war, and so the Obas began importing guns in great quantities. They had to pay for them with captives, which meant further wars were needed, and so the cycle continued.


Unlike some African civilisations, quite a lot is known about the kingdom of Benin at its height, since this period coincided with the arrival of the Europeans who gave accounts of what they saw. The objects that were produced also reveal a considerable amount about matters such as crafts, weapons, clothing, court ritual, etc.

Two of the most quoted written accounts – those of Dapper and Equiano – need to be treated with caution. Dapper never visited the kingdom, and the much-used illustrations in his book are based on the accounts of European travellers, but he was credited with extensive research and reading of first-hand accounts from travellers. Equiano may never have lived in Benin, and, therefore his reports may also be based on other people’s accounts.


Dapper, O, 1668, Naukeurige Beschrijvinge de Afrikaensche gewesten (Jacob von Meurs)

Equiano, O, 1789, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, (privately printed) online at, accessed 10 May 2010

Graham, J, 1965, ‘The Slave Trade, Depopulation and Human Sacrifice in Benin’,  Cahiers d’études africaines, Vol. 5, No. 18, 317–334

Ohadike, A, 1964, A Social History of the Western Igbo People (Ohio University Press)

Osadolor, O, 2001, The military system of Benin kingdom, c. 1440–1897 (Hamburg)

Plankensteiner, B (ed.), 2007, Benin Kings and Rituals: court arts from Nigeria (Snoeck)

Read, C H, and Dalton, O M, 1898, ‘Works of art from Benin City’, in The Journal of the

Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 27, 362-382

Sargent, R, 1986, ‘From A Redistribution to an Imperial Social Formation: Benin c. 1293–1536’, Canadian Journal of African Studies Vol. 20, No. 3, 402–427

Shillington, K, 2005, Encyclopedia of African history, Vol. 1 (Fitzroy Dearborn)

Wysinger, M, 2008, ’Ancient Benin City Ramparts and Moats’, online at http://wysinger. accessed on 10 May 2010


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