The Kingdom of Benin

The Kingdom of Benin prospered from the 1200s to the 1800s C.E. in western Africa, in what is now Nigeria.

Image: Bas-relief of an Oba

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.


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.

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Benin Bronzes

The Benin Bronzes are a group of more than a thousand[a] metal plaques and sculptures that decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Nigeria. Collectively, the objects form the best-known examples of Benin art, and were created from the thirteenth century onwards by artists of the Edo people.[3][4] Apart from the plaques, other sculptures in brass or bronze include portrait heads, jewellery and smaller pieces.

A Benin Bronze plaque on display in the British Museum

Ancestral shrine Royal Palace, Benin City, 1891; the earliest-known photograph of Oba's compound

Most of the plaques and other objects were stolen by British forces during the Benin Expedition of 1897 as imperial control was being consolidated in Southern Nigeria.[5] Two hundred pieces were taken to the British Museum in London, while the rest found their way to other European museums.[6] A large number are held by the British Museum[5] with other notable collections in Germany and the United States.[7]

The Benin Bronzes led to a greater appreciation in Europe of African culture and art. Initially, it appeared incredible to the discoverers that people "supposedly so primitive and savage" were responsible for such highly developed objects.[8] Some even wrongly concluded that Benin knowledge of metallurgy came from the Portuguese traders who were in contact with Benin in the early modern period.[8] The Kingdom of Benin was a hub of African civilization long before Portuguese traders visited,[9][10] and it is clear that the bronzes were made in Benin by an indigenous culture. Many of the dramatic sculptures date to the thirteenth century, centuries before European contact, and a large part of the collection dates to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is believed that two "golden ages" in Benin metal workmanship occurred during the reigns of Esigie (fl. 1550) and of Eresoyen (1735–1750), when their workmanship achieved its highest quality.[11]

While the collection is known as the Benin Bronzes, like most West African "bronzes" the pieces are mostly made of brass of variable composition.[b] There are also pieces made of mixtures of bronze and brass, of wood, of ceramic, and of ivory, among other materials.[13] The metal pieces were made using lost-wax casting and are considered among the best sculptures made using this technique.[14]

A Benin Bronze depicting the Benin's Oba palace - British Museum

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