Transformation Of Benin Into An Imperial State (1500 – 1900 A.D)



The history of the Benin kingdom, which in the later part of the period rose to an imperial status and subsequently earned the sobriquet of being an ‘Empire’, can be described as one of vacillating fortunes. The period opened with the phase of consolidation, in which the various enemy in the kingdom were trying to adjust to the monumental innovations introduced by Oba Ewaure Ogidigan into the social political realm of the kingdom.

The situation in Benin following the succession to Oba Ewaure was such that his previously exiled son, Okpame had to be recalled to take the throne, which he did with the name Oba Ozolua. Oba Ozolua continued with  the warrior tradition established by his father, and continued to consolidate the achievements of the great warrior, Oba Ewaure. The reign of Oba Ozolua is also remarkable on account of the facts that Portuguese explorers, who are reputed to have made contact with the state earlier in the previous reign, continued with attempts being made to reach the capital.

Oba Esigie was the successor of Oba Ozolua, and he was another very astute ruler. He further consolidated the achievements of his predecessora,  and also made renown as the Oba during whose reign the Portuguese sailor Joe Affonso d’Aveiro, reached the court of the monarch. Another remarkable achievements of his reign is the successful prosecution of the Idah war, which happened due to the collusion of the Oliha, a high ranking Uzama chief, with the Attah to attack the empire.

The phenomenal role played by Idia, the mother of Oba Esigie in leading the advanced armies and killing the Idah general, after which the Oba reckoned victory over his enemies led to the introduction of the title of the Queen mother with her own palace and coterie of guards and assistance. It is to Oba Esigie that the credit also goes for the defeat of the rival town of Udo, which had persistently competed with Benin for preeminence over the years.

Aside from creating the title of Iyoba (Queen Mother) and conferring to his mother Idia, Oba Esigie also holds the record of being the Oba during whose reign the practice of bronze and brass casting using the ‘lost wax’ method (cire perdue). According to tradition, the knowledge of this art form came from Ife, whence, in the late 14th century, knowledge of brass casting may have been introduced  into Benin City for the manufacture of commemorative heads for royal alters.

These heads have been grouped in stylistic sequence from moderate naturalism through increasing stylization. The basses also include figures in the round, groups on a common base, and plaques. The rectangular shape of the plaques, their narrative content, and in some cases their attempt at perspective have been attributed to thee influence of the illustrations in books carried by the Portuguese, who were in contact with the Benin from the late 15th century.

The technique of brass casting, however, had been introduced at least a century earlier. Bronze bars had been imported, probably from the interior, as early as the 13th century, but these were made into bracelets in Benin city only by smithing and chasing techniques, not by casting. There were certain limitations on the use of brass, and also ivory. Cult objects (such as memorial beads) were made of wood when intended for non royal purposes but of brass for the king. Regalia, if made for the king, were of ivory, but otherwise of brass.

The Regalia of Kung and Chiefs also included coral beads and red cloth, the color red signifying a mystical threat to the enemies of the kingdom. Wood was used for staffs commemorating ancestors, and these were placed on their alters. Pottery heads were made for shrines in the brass casters’ quarter; and life-size groups of royal figures in mud are still made for the cult of Olokun, divinity of the sea and wealth.

Outside Benin city, the editor people live in villages that have many localized cults of nearby topographical features and founder hero’s. The ekpo masquerade, occurring to the south and east of Benin, is performed by the warrior age group in ceremonies to purify the village ritually and to maintain health. At Ughoton, to the southwest of Benin, a different type of mask is used, in the cult of the water spirit Igbile. Both the cult and the sculptural style seem to have derived from Ijaw.

A number of bronze casting found in Benin have been classified tentatively as the lower Niger bronze industries. They include pieces from Tada and Jebba in the region now inhabited by the Nupe People, who regard them as relics associated with their own mystical ancestor, and other pieces from various parts of the delta of river Niger.

The development was greatly facilitated by the coming of the Portuguese to the Benin court, from about 1504 when the Oba received the European traders and adventurers. The Oba went further to establish diplomatic contact with the Portuguese by sending he Enogie of Ughoton, the principal port town of the realm, to Portugal as ambassador. These are even authorities that claim that Oba could read and write as well as speak Portuguese, and that he had his son educated in the language. The source goes further to sat that though the Oba never converted to Christianity, he had some of his sons, cheifs and slaves converted to the religion.

Lastly, it is also on record that human sacrifice is a phenomenon that is associated with the region of Oba Esigie use however be mentioned that the act was on one that could be carried out indiscriminately as only the Oba was empowered to order the performance of such ritual, and it was taken as a last resort solution in situations of national emergencies.

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The economic advancement recorded with the coming of Europeans and the introduction of exotic goods into the society, coupled with the importation  of fire arms all served to improve the fortunes of Benin over and above the neighboring states. Benin was able to expand and attract more Europeans during this period, such that after the Portuguese came the Danes, Brandenburgs, Dutch and later the English. Again the acquisition of fire arms served to improve the efficiency of the already formidable Benin army,  such that soon after Benin territory expanded as far as Mahin (in the area of present day Lagos) during the reign of Oba Ehengbuda.

In order to tap the opportunities that came with the burgeoning European trade, the Oba acquired a royal monopoly over the trade. Only his appointed agents could buy and sell from the Europeans directly, and with his central role in the control of the economy and by being patron of all the guilds, the Oba stood to reap more revenue from this profitable Comercial relationship.

While this economic buoyancy was maintained, the political fortunes of the Empire continued to experience advancement. The practice of formidable warrior kings leading his armies in battle continued. However, changes came in the direction when Oba Ehengbuda drowned in the course of expedition in the riverine area. It was considered that this was not good for the prestige of the Empire, and from that time the task of leading the Benin army subsequently fell on the Iyase, the head of the Eghaevbo n’ore class of Chiefs.

The eventual outcome of this situation was that the Oba now became more of a recluse, who was involved daily in an endless round of rituals that were meant to affirm his semi-divine status. These provided opportunity for the three classes of palace Chiefs categorized into the Eghaevbo n’ogbe Chiefs to cleverly turn the Oba into a hostage of sorts, as he could no longer appear in public except during the few annual ceremonies celebrated in the society. Access to his person were severely restricted and the incidence of human sacrifice was increased, to heighten the peoples’ awe of their ruler.

In the course of the development, the Institution of primogeniture established by Oba Ewaure, by which the eldest surviving son of the incumbent Oba is conferred with the title of the Edaiken (heir-aparent) and made a member of the Uzama council of Chiefs, underwent transformation. The chief varied the practice to one in which the Oba ostensibly pronounced his successor on his death bed and the Uwangue was to announce this after the death of the Oba. This made choice of a successor the preserve of the Chiefs, who also subsequently began to enthroned those candidate that they could manipulate.

This soon led to weakness in he center, and the contraction of the territories of the Empire, as many of the vassals and tributary states took advantage of this opportunity to make successful bid for freedom from Benin hegemony. All this while, Benin did not decline on account of the fact that the economy remained stable and the society remained vibrant, even with the incidence of weak and ineffective rulers. Again the Chiefs worked together harmoniously to share the proceeds accruing from the lucrative long distance trade while the continued to manipulate the process of succession to the throne.

The only incident of an assertive ruler was in the case of Oba Ahenkpaye, who deprived the Chiefs of their dues and perquisites front the lucrative European trade. When the chiefs could no longer tolerate his obstruction acts, they combined forced and had him forcibly eliminated from the throne in favor of a more compliant candidate who did not threaten the economic interests.

The collusion of the Chiefs gradually led to to decadence in the outlying parts of the realm, such that more of the previous dependencies of Benin continued their exist from its hegemony. The rate of decadence of the realm was severely aggravated when the harmonious relationship among the class of chiefs broke down on account of their inability to manage their opportunities that came along with their success in relegating the Oba to an inconsequential position. The soon quarreled over the sharing of the profits occurring from the increasing trade with the Europeans of different nations.

When the differences between the Chiefs became irreconcilable, they split into opposing camps, of which one group relocated outside the capital city with their supporters and soon after lunched offensive against their opponents. The civil war led to the great decline of the empire and more of the dependencies found this an appropriate time to declare their independence from the control of Benin. However, the political decline of Benin was paradoxically alternated by the continued sustenance of its economic potentialities.

The relevance of Oba was again reaffirmed when it was the enthronement of an able person that eventually resolved the conflict between the class of chiefs and restored normalcy to the troubled realm. The ascension of Oba Akenzua 1 led to the cessation of the civil war. He restored the balance of the level of pre-eminence among the Chiefs, with the Uzama maintaining the primary position. Again, he transfered the headship of the army from Iyase back to Ezomo, re-affirmed the supremacy  of the Oba, reorganized the economic balance of the society and ensured that the close tributaries that broke away were brought back within Benin hegemony.

This phase led to the revival of Benin to an appreciable level in its local and international obligations,with the Europeans presence taking a new dimension in the opening years of the 19th century. The changes in European economic and diplomatic history led later to the Berlin West African Conference of 1884-1885, which set the parameters for the European scramble and later partition of Africa into zones of economic and political influence. Previously in 1882, there had been a treaty of free trade and protection signed between Vice-Consul Gallwey of England and the embattled Oba Ovonramen.


As successor to Oba Osemwende, the ascension of Oba Ovonramen to the throne was through very turbulent process that led to his having to effect a purge in the rank of chiefs, assistants and supporters of his opponents. Thus, there was serious insecurity, palpable fear and uncertainty in the land which was returning to normalcy that had been effected by the revivalist tendencies of Oba Akenzua 1 and Osemwende.

The fortunes of the kingdom was beginning to experience a rise again on economic and political fronts, though Benin control of her major access to the sea and the Europeans had become shaky on account of the irasciblility of the Urhobos, Ijaws and Itsekiris who in collusion with the Europeans, sought to limit Benin hegemonic tendencies in the lower delta area. This period also coincided with the Era of consular Rule and the beginning of charted companies exercising administrative control over the areas of trade and influence.

The trade in  legitimate agricultural produce opened new Vistas of opportunity for the Benin kingdom, in that the area of realm was found to be abundantly blessed with rubber trees. This was of serious economic advantage due to the fact that the vulcanization of rubber had just been discovered in Europe and the value of this for the transportation industry could not be quantified. The British were desirous of having control of such trade on their own terms, without regard for the sovereign status of the Oba, whom they considered as the impediment of their interest especially on account of the fact that the Oba had such central role to play in the economy of Benin and the surrounding communities directly or indirectly under him.

Wherever the terms of trade was not favorable to the Oba, he would have the market closed and the Europeans would be hamstrung. This trend became an obstacle that the Europeans doughy to eliminate by all means, and it was obvious that the Oba would have to be brought within the ambit of European interest, which actually meant that his powers would be curtailed. This was the scenario that confronted Oba Ovonramen in the opening year of the 1890s.

The Oba got message from the British Acting Vice-Consul, H. R. Philips of his intention to visit the kingdom, and there was dilemma in the capital. Some quarters in the capital moved from pre-emptive strike against the British, while others advocated accommodation for the interest of the Europeans. The Oba actually opted for a middle course, by which they would bid for time to properly assess the situation and know what line of action to adopt thereafter.

While this was going on, reply was sent to the British that the Oba was undergoing the annual Igue festival, at which time tradition forbade foreigners of all shades from entering the kingdom and seeing the Oba. This fact was realistically communicated by the Itsekiri chiefs to the Europeans, who felt that it was beneath their dignity to be told when and on what terms they can be granted audience by a mere African king.

It was this open disregard for the rules of diplomacy and international relations that constitute causative factor that led to the crisis between Benin and Britain. The acting Vice-Consul embarked on the trip to Benin, despite all warnings and advise against such move. The Benins, in a bid to forestall a clash, also sent an advanced party to intercept the British before they could reach the capital and hence trigger a national and traditional upheaval in the kingdom. The two parties met at Ugbine, and in the ensuring disagreement, the British party was annihilated by the forces of Benin which had numerical superiority and element of surprise on their side.

The British felt their ego bruised by this act and failed to accept responsibility for the intransigence of the acting vice-Consul. The British decided to use this opportunity to once and for all settle the problem of Benin’s obstructive influence to their imperial ambitions in the area. It was an account of this that a punitive expedition was launched against the kingdom in 1897.

Though the Benins put up stout defence of their homeland, it was clear that the sophisticated of the British arms and ammunitions could be matched by the former. The capital soon fell to the invaders, who burnt it down it down but not before looting vast quantities of artwork in Ivory, bronze, brass, coral bead, wood carvings, and other expensive objects as spoils of war.

Oba Ovonramen initially escaped and went into hiding, but soon gave himself up when the futility of living as an ordinary individual became unbearable to him. He was subsequently tried by British, along with his principal chiefs and all were found guilty. Most of the chiefs were executed by hanging and the Oba himself was deported to Calabar from where he was not allowed to return until his death in 1914. Conclusively, the end of Benin as an autonomous sovereign African state actually took place after the British punitive expedition September 1897.

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