The historical kingdom of Benin was established in the forested region of West Africa in the 1200s C.E. According to history, the Edo people of southern Nigeria founded Benin. They no longer wanted to be ruled by their kings, known as the ogisos. They asked a prince from Ife, an important West African kingdom, to take control. The first oba, or king, in Benin was Eweka. He was the son of the prince from Ife.

The kingdom reached its greatest power and size under Oba Ewuare the Great. He expanded the kingdom and improved the capital, present-day Benin City; the city was defined by massive walls. The height of power for Benin’s monarchs began during this period. To honor the powerful obas, the people of Benin participated in many rituals that expressed their devotion and loyalty, including human sacrifices.

Artists of the Benin Kingdom were well known for working in many materials, particularly brass, wood, and ivory. They were famous for their bas-relief sculptures, particularly plaques, and life-size head sculptures. The plaques typically portrayed historical events, and the heads were often naturalistic and life size. Artisans also carved many different ivory objects, including masks and, for their European trade partners, salt cellars.

The success of Benin was fueled by its lively trade. Tradesmen and artisans from Benin developed relationships with the Portuguese, who sought after the kingdom’s artwork, gold, ivory, and pepper. In the early modern era, Benin was also heavily involved in the West African slave trade. They would capture men, women, and children from rival peoples and sell them into slavery to European and American buyers. This trade provided a significant source of wealth for the kingdom.

Benin began to lose power during the 1800s, as royal family members fought for power and control of the throne. Civil wars broke out, dealing a significant blow to both Benin’s administration as well as its economy. In its weakened state, Benin struggled to resist foreign interference in its trading network, particularly by the British. A desire for control over West African trade and territory ultimately led to a British invasion of Benin in 1897. Benin City was burned by the British, who then made the kingdom part of British Nigeria (which became Nigeria after the country gained independence in 1960). After that time, the kingdom no longer played a governing role in West Africa. However, even today, the oba still serves in Benin City as a government advisor.

The Kingdom of Benin

Once rulers, oba still hold prestigious positions in Benin as government advisors. Here, a bas-relief of an Oba in ceremonial dress and weapons, which decorated the palace of the obas.

bas-relief
Noun

carving or sculpture in which figures project slightly from a flat background.

Benin
Noun

historic kingdom of West Africa (modern Nigeria) that flourished between the 13th and 19th centuries; descendants of the ruling dynasty still serve as kings, or obas, though they only serve as advisors to the government of Nigeria.

brass
Noun

family of musical instruments whose tone is produced by vibration of the lips.

Noun

learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

dynasty
Noun

series of rulers from one family or group.

invasion
Noun

an attack or move to take possession.

ivory
Noun

hard, white substance that forms the teeth or tusks of some animals.

oba
Noun

ruler or king of Benin.

ritual
Noun

series of customs or procedures for a ceremony, often religious.

sacrifice
Noun

destruction or surrender of something as way of honoring or showing thanks.

sculpture
Noun

three-dimensional artwork that is carved, molded, or modeled to create its shape.

Noun

land an animal, human, or government protects from intruders.

trade
Noun

buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.