Times & Places

Benin Kingdom

The prosperous West African kingdom of Benin flourished from the 13th until the late 19th century. Located in what is now Edo state in southwest Nigeria, the Benin Kingdom came to control trade between Europe and the inland peoples during the 15th century, at the end of Oba Ewuare's reign. The power of its Obas depended largely on long-distance trade. Before European expeditions along the coast of West Africa, goods were traded from the Mediterranean across the Sahara to large trading centers such as Timbuktu in the savannas and Benin in the forest regions. In the Middle Ages, the most valuable product exported to Europe and Asia from West Africa was gold, which was mined in regions to the west of Benin. It was the search for gold that led European expeditions along the West African coast to find a way around the African-controlled Sahara trade routes. The Portuguese reached the coast of Benin in 1489, establishing relations that lasted for 400 years.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the rulers of Benin conquered their neighbors to control the supply of goods traded with the Europeans. Benin Kingdom did not have direct access to gold. Rather, the king controlled the trade of slaves, ivory, pepper, skins and other important goods with profits going to the support of his court and government; merchants could only trade with his permission. Europeans were seldom allowed to travel inland or visit Benin city, so they could not trade without the king's authority. Benin Kingdom's trade of slaves to the Portuguese took place mainly during the 15th century military expansion. Once this expansion was complete, the sale of slaves was abandoned until the 18th century when the kingdom began to disintegrate due to internal strife, at which time slave trading resumed. Those being trafficked to other locations in Africa and to Portuguese colonies in Brazil were peoples who had been conquered by Benin and made part of the kingdom or sent as tribute to the king.

Two of the most significant products which the Portuguese merchants offered to Benin Kingdom were brass and guns. Although West Africans had invented the smelting of copper and zinc ores, as well as brass casting, by at least the 10th century, West Africa could not produce enough metal to supply the casting industry in Benin city. The shortage created a ready market for Portuguese brass. The guns that Portuguese merchants brought to West Africa were the first to enter the continent. Africans learned to deploy them against other peoples whose weapon technology consisted of hand weapons or bows and arrows. The king of Benin also employed Portuguese soldiers as mercenaries to fight his wars.

Benin city was a sophisticated city with a well-articulated social structure. The Oba was the most important figure in government, and the interactions between the king and his subjects was governed by complex rules of etiquette. Patronage of the arts, royal architecture, and the establishment of annual festivities and rituals all solidified the royal power of the Oba. However, his power also depended on many other chiefs and officials who governed the city and its surrounding villages. There were two kinds of chiefs in the city: palace chiefs and town chiefs. The post of palace chief was an inherited position as a senior representative of a clan, while that of town chief was a merit-based appointment and was responsible for the administration of the province. The latter also represented the interests of their people rather than those of the king.

In the late 19th century, the British attempted to expand their own trade into the area, disobeying Oba Ovonramwen's instructions, and their envoys were killed by the Benin people. In retaliation, the British sent an armed expedition to capture the king of Benin in 1897, destroying his palace and carrying off a great number of sculptures and regalia without regard for their significance, an event known as the British Punitive Expedition. The son of the deposed king eventually revived the monarchy in 1914 under British rule. He reinstated some of the ancient traditions of the court that shed light on the meaning and significance of sculptures and regalia created by artists up to five hundred years ago. Benin was part of the British Empire until 1960 after which it became the independent nation of Nigeria. The Oba of Benin continues to lead religious ceremonies, but no longer rules.

Note: Benin Kingdom should not be confused with the present-day independent republic named Benin.

Drawn from

  • Kathleen Bickford Berzock, Benin: Royal Arts of a West African Kingdom (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and the Art Institute of Chicago, 2008): 5-14.

  • "Benin: an African kingdom," London: The British Museum, Education and information pamphlet, n.d.

  • Richard J. Reid, A History of Modern Africa: 1800 to the Present (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell: 2009), 23-31.

Fun Facts

  • Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, was founded by a Benin army during territorial expansion in the mid-16th century and paid tribute to the king of Benin until the end of the 19th century.

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