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A guide to...

Benin Kingdom

What was the Kingdom of Benin?

When people refer to Benin Kingdom they do not mean the modern day country of Benin in West Africa. Instead, they are talking about an area of land that was known in the past as ‘Benin Kingdom’ but is now a part of modern day Nigeria. The kingdom began as a group of small villages that joined together and it rose to become a wealthy and powerful empire in the 16th Century. Benin Kingdom was destroyed when British forces invaded in 1897. With few written sources, what we know about Benin Kingdom comes mostly from either artefacts and monuments that archaeologists have discovered or the rich heritage of oral tradition that still exists among the people of Nigeria today.

How was the Kingdom of Benin established?

Benin Kingdom began as a group of small villages situated in the rainforests of West Africa. In order to gain improved trading and security, some of the villages made a decision to join together as a conglomerate around AD 900. They were ruled by a dynasty of kings called Ogisos (meaning ‘Kings of the Sky’) and the people began to build an impressive earthen moat around the boundaries of the kingdom, the remains of which can still be seen today. They began to form an identity as a unified kingdom, which became called Igodomigodo. People worked hard as farmers and craftsmen to ensure that the kingdom had high quality goods to trade with foreigners.

A big change occurred around AD 1180 when the Ogiso and his family were exiled for misrule. This left Benin Kingdom in a state of unrest, with fighting among the people about who would be king. After plenty of drama, a young man called Eweke became king and began a new dynasty of rulers called the Obas. The Obas were very powerful and were treated like gods. Under their rule, Benin Kingdom began to flourish and expand its boundaries.

When was the Kingdom of Benin most powerful?

 

Over the next few hundred years (AD 1300-1700) Benin became a powerful and wealthy kingdom and it controlled large amounts of land in West Africa. Geographically it was perfectly situated for trading its high quality goods with other African kingdoms. Visitors from Portugal and other European countries began to arrive and set up important trading links too. Other countries desired Benin’s impressive arts and crafts as well as the exotic crops produced by its farmers. Later they began trading slaves too, providing Benin with a great source of wealth. Benin’s army was powerful and the Oba enjoyed his wealthy lifestyle in the many exquisite palaces and courts of Benin City.

What happened to the Kingdom of Benin?

After AD 1700, Benin Kingdom began to decrease in both wealth and power. The people began to fight again about who should become the next Oba and a series of civil wars led to a huge decrease in the population. The wars also distracted the people from providing important services like making high quality trading goods and fighting well in the formerly powerful army. In addition, European countries began to ban the Slave Trade and Benin lost one its biggest sources of wealth. Instead, European countries were racing to colonise Africa and it seemed that Great Britain had hopes of making Benin part of its colonial empire. After a series of disputes over signing a treaty and an incident in which Benin warriors killed a group of British officials, British troops invaded Benin City. The troops burned down the city’s buildings and looted its valuable artworks before exiling the Oba and taking control. Benin Kingdom was taken under British rule and the area was later to become part of independent Nigeria in the 1960s.