Sunday 4 September 2022


Benin, a pre-colonial kingdom in what is now southwestern Nigeria, is believed to have been established before the eleventh century. It was founded by Edo-speaking peoples, but became more ethnically diverse when invaders from the grasslands of the Sudan settled and intermarried with local women. Based on oral tradition, Benin is said to have begun as family clusters of hunters, gatherers, and agriculturalists who eventually created villages.  By 1300, Benin was heavily involved in trade and the arts, using such mediums as copper, bronze, and brass.  The Benin bronzes eventually became some of the most famous art pieces produced in Africa.

Benin’s early society started as hierarchical, with an Ogiso (King of the Sky) as the head assisted by seven powerful nobles (uzama). These kings established the city on Ubini, later Benin City, in 1180 A.D. Around 1300 the people of Benin rebelled against the Ogiso and invested power in a new ruler, Oranmiyan, who took over only long enough to have a child, Eweka I. Oranmiyan created a new dynasty, calling himself the first Oba (king) of Benin.

The Obas would rule Benin for the next six centuries. Eweka  I, the second Oba, however, reorganized the army and took power from the uzama, giving it instead to his supporters.  Thus, the new nobility answered only to him.

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries marked the high-point of Benin’s economic and political power. The kings initiated military campaigns that extended the kingdom on all sides. They also began to trade with Europeans, especially the Portuguese who reached Benin City in 1485.  Benin exchanged palm oil, ivory, cloth, pepper, and slaves for metals, salt, cloth, guns, and powder.

Although Benin’s earlier power rested with its domination of interior trade routes, commerce with the Europeans required expansion to the ocean since Benin City, the capital, was 50 miles inland. This problem, however, was solved with the creation of a fort and port on the coast. Benin was desperate to keep trade with the Portuguese who supplied the guns that gave it military superiority over its neighbors especially after its attempt to manufacture guns locally failed. Recognizing his leverage, King Manuel I of Portugal threatened to end the gun trade unless Benin’s rulers adopted Christianity. The attempt failed but the Portuguese continued to supply guns because the slave trade proved too lucrative for either nation to end.

Benin, however, began a slow decline in the 1700s as neighboring nations gained access to Portuguese or other European firearms. The kingdom was also weakened by internal disputes over royal succession which often led to civil wars.  By the 1890s, Benin was unable to resist British conquest.  In 1897 it was incorporated into Great Britain’s Niger Coast Protectorate after a British force conquered and burned Benin City and in the process destroyed much of Benin’s treasured art while sending remaining pieces to London.

The British allowed the Oba of Benin to continue as a ceremonial ruler but all effective power from that point was in the hands of British colonial administrators. The current Oba of Benin serves as a ceremonial ruler in Nigeria.

The ancient kingdom of Benin which is believed to be 2054-year-old is considered one of the richest and most powerful kingdoms in the history of Nigeria. The Great Benin kingdom has been described as the center of Nigeria's development and with good reasons too.

Benin was a pre-colonial kingdom in what is now southern Nigeria. Its capital was Edo, now known as Benin City in Edo state. Benin which is often confused with the modern-day Republic of Benin, is one of the oldest and most highly developed areas in Nigeria.

Being one of the most talked about places in Nigeria, it comes as no surprise that a lot of things which have gained prominence in the country and the world today, first started or was witnessed in the Benin kingdom.

Here are some interesting facts about the ancient kingdom that proves how much of a great kingdom it really is:

1. The Oldest Church in West-Africa was established in Great Benin Empire by the Earliest Portuguese missionaries in the 16th Century which is today known as the Holy Aruosa (Benin National Church). Pope Pius XII visited Benin and handed the church to the Oba of Benin, Oba Oreoghene in 1692AD.

The church, Holy Aruosa which means 'Eye of God' is a traditional worship house of the Binis where the people are said to have direct contact with God without going through any intermediary.

2. Oba Orhogbua founded Lagos and planted a dukedom, the Obaship of Lagos.

His reign was marked with the expansion of the Empire westwards. He founded Eko and Badagry and established the monarchical rule in those places and placed his own representatives to rule them. He established the first Oba of Lagos.

3. Oba Ehengbuda was the last Oba of Benin to lead the Benin armies physically in battle.

After his death in 1601, the Benin kingdom gradually shrunk in size. The boundary of Benin Empire and Oyo Empire was set at Otun Ekiti during his reign after many wars was fought between the two Empires.

4. The Benin people are the best bronze casters in the world.

This is believed to be one of the greatest defining characteristics of the historic Kingdom of Benin. Established in the 14th century by Oba Oguola, the tradition of the casting profession remains a very preserved tradition only practiced by the Igun clan of casters by the official approval of the Oba.

5. No female king has ever ruled Benin kingdom across the two dynasties; the purported female Ogiso Emose (584-600AD) who at his coronation, took the mother’s name ‘Emose,’ and so earned the reputation of being regarded as a woman Ogiso and Ogiso Orroro (600-618AD), was blacksmith and a philosopher who ruled for 18 years and died at the age of 98 years holding an iron in his hand.

6 According to the 1974 edition of Guinness Book of Records, the walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom as the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era.

7 The King of Benin can in a single day make 20,000 men ready for war and more, if need be. This is due to the fact that he has great influences among all the surrounding peoples. His authority stretches over many cities, towns and villages.

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