I don't know about you, but I always find it fascinating to learn about ancient civilizations. One of my all-time favourite kingdoms is the ancient kingdom of Benin.
It was one of the most powerful and wealthy early medieval African empires. Located in present-day Nigeria, the ancient Benin Kingdom flourished from the 1200s to 1897. Let's delve into the history of this kingdom beginning with its formation, famous kings and queen mothers such as King Ewuare and Queen Mother Idia, the famous Benin Wall, and much more!
Edo People Settle In West Africa In The 900s
In the 900s, the Edo people settled in the rainforests of West Africa. They initially lived in small family groups, and these groups eventually grew into a kingdom.
The kingdom was known as Igodomigodo and had rulers known as Ogisos or "rulers of the sky."
The kingdom of Igodomigodo continued to thrive until the 1100s. The Edo people grew dissatisfied with the rule of the Ogisos. They called on help from King Ife from a neighbouring powerful West African kingdom. King Ife sent his son, prince Oranmiyan to save the Edo people and restore peace. Oramiyan was successful in restoring peace among the Edo people. He chose his son, Eweka, to be the first Oba (which means king in the Bini language) of the Benin kingdom.
Benin Empire Forms In The 1200s
Oba Eweka took over the reins of the Benin kingdom. He ruled over the kingdom for 35 years, and his children succeeded him.
The Benin kingdom had a long list of obas since Eweka. Five kings stand out in the kingdom's history. They are known as the five great Obas/warrior kings who expanded the empire and took it to great heights.
The 5 Great Obas
Oba Ewuare took over in 1440 AD and was the first of the five great warrior kings. He created an army, conquered lands, and rebuilt Benin city and the royal palace.
His son, Oba Ozolua, was the second great warrior king. He is said to have won over 200 battles. Following him was Oba Esigie.
Oba Esigie is credited with expanding the kingdom and winning land from the Ife kingdom. One thing that stands out about Oba Esigie is that he received a great deal of assistance from his mother, Queen mother Idia. Both Ozolua and Esigie encouraged trading with the Portuguese and used the wealth accrued from the trading to expand their army.
Oba Orhogbua took over from Esigie. He was able to expand the empire to its highest height. It stretched from River Niger to as far as present-day Ghana.
The last of the great warrior kings was Oba Ehengbuda. His rule mostly involved stopping rebellions started by local chiefs.
Unfortunately, after Oba Ehengbuda's death, the Benin empire started slowly shrinking.
The Great Wall of Benin
The Great Wall of Benin is considered one of the great wonders of the world. It is in the Guinness World Book of Records as the world's largest earthworks carried out before the mechanical era.
Illustration of the Great Wall of Benin from our children's book, Idia of the Benin Kingdom.
Fred Pearce, a scientist, wrote that the Great Wall of Benin was four times longer than the Great Wall of China. Pearce also stated that the Benin Wall consumed more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops.
Oba Oguola who ruled from 1280 - to 1295, completed the first phase of the wall. Oba Ewuare then expanded the wall by about 3200km.
The wall protected the kingdom. It was built in a way that was difficult for attackers or invaders to climb over it. Some soldiers also guarded Benin outside of the wall.
Life In Benin City
Benin City was one of the most beautiful and best-planned cities in the world, at the time. The Benin Kingdom consisted of hundreds of interlocked cities and villages. It was also one of the first cities in the world to have some form of street lighting.
When the Portuguese first discovered the city in the 1400s, they called it the "Great City of Benin". Additionally, in the 1600s, a Portuguese captain, Lourenco Pinto, observed that the houses in Benin city were large, and the king's palace was beautifully decorated and reinforced with fine columns.
Pinto also noted that the palace alone was larger than Lisbon. Lastly, he observed that the city was so secure that people did not have doors in their homes.
One of the defining characteristics of the old kingdom of Benin is its Benin bronzes. The Edo people are the best bronze casters in the world. The skill of bronze-making began during Oba Oguola's reign. It is a profession that has carried on for centuries.
Many bronzes were commissioned to honour different Obas and Iyobas (meaning Queen Mothers). They were made of bronze, ivory and brass.
Queen Mother Idia's Ivory Pendant Mask which was commissioned by Oba Esigie.
Unfortunately, many of these bronzes were looted by both colonizers and explorers. A majority of them are in Europe. There has been slow progress in that two Benin Bronzes were returned to Nigeria after more than a century.
There is hope that the rest of the bronzes will be returned to their rightful ancestral home.
The Fall Of The Benin Kingdom
By the 1800s, the once powerful Benin Kingdom was losing control. As mentioned earlier, Oba Ehengbuda's rule mainly consisted of stopping rebellions. The kings who followed him struggled to rule the people. In addition, the kingdom was facing an external threat from the British.
The British were forcefully trying to trade with the kingdom despite the king's resistance.
In 1897, a group of British officials went to visit the kingdom. They were sent away because the Oba was busy. However, the British officials insisted that they needed to speak to the king. As they approached the Benin wall, a group of soldiers attacked them. It resulted in several British men dying.
This action infuriated the British, and as a result, they sent thousands of soldiers to invade the kingdom. The British troops attacked Benin and burnt it to the ground.
That was the sad end to the once wealthy and prosperous kingdom.