The kingdom of Benin

The kingdom of Benin began in the 900s when the Edo people settled in the rainforests of West Africa. By the 1400s they had created a wealthy kingdom with a powerful ruler, known as the Oba. The Obas lived in beautiful palaces decorated with shining brass.

Gradually, the Obas won more land and built up an empire. They also started trading with merchants from Europe.

For 200 years Benin was very successful, but in the 1600s the Obas started to lose control of their people. By the 1800s Benin was no longer strong or united. The kingdom came to a sudden end in 1897, when a British army invaded and made it part of the British Empire.

How did the kingdom begin?

Around the year 900 groups of Edo people began to cut down trees and make clearings in the rainforest. At first they lived in small family groups, but gradually these groups developed into a kingdom.

The kingdom was called Igodomigodo. It was ruled by a series of kings, known as Ogisos, which means ‘rulers of the sky’.

In the 1100s there were struggles for power and the Ogisos lost control of their kingdom.

The Edo people feared that their country would fall into chaos, so they asked their neighbour, the King of Ife, for help. The king sent his son Prince Oranmiyan to restore peace to the Edo kingdom.

Oranmiyan chose his son Eweka to be the first Oba of Benin. Eweka was the first in a long line of Obas, who reached the peak of their power in the 1500s.

A bronze statue of Prince Oranmiyan
This brass figure is believed to be Prince Oranmiyan. Edo legend says that no one in Benin had ever seen a horse before Oranmiyan arrived!

How did Benin become an empire?

Around 1440, Ewuare became the new Oba of Benin. He built up an army and started winning land. He also rebuilt Benin City and the royal palace.

Oba Ewuare was the first of five great warrior kings. His son Oba Ozolua was believed to have won 200 battles. He was followed by Oba Esigie who expanded his kingdom eastwards to form an empire and won land from the Kingdom of Ife. Ozolua and Esigie both encouraged trade with the Portuguese. They used their wealth from trade to build up a vast army.

The fourth warrior king was Oba Orhogbua. During his reign, the empire reached its largest size. It stretched beyond the River Niger in the east and extended west as far as present-day Ghana.

Oba Ehengbuda was the last of the warrior kings. But he spent most of his reign stopping rebellions led by local chiefs. After his death in 1601, Benin’s empire gradually shrank in size.

A plaque showing an Oba of Benin and attendants
This brass plaque shows the Oba, or King, of Benin and his attendants. Why do you think the Oba is shown to be much bigger than the other people?
In the year 1668 a Dutch writer called Olfert Dapper put together some merchants’ descriptions of their travels. This is what the merchants saw in Benin.

How did the kingdom end?

By the 1860s Benin was no longer a powerful empire and the Obas struggled to rule their people.

Benin was also under threat from Britain. The British wanted to gain control of Benin so they could get rich by selling its palm oil and rubber. The Oba tried to stop all contact with Britain, but the British insisted on their right to trade.

In 1897 a group of British officials tried to visit Benin. They were sent away because the Oba was busy with a religious ceremony, but they decided to visit anyway. As they approached the borders of Benin, a group of warriors drove them back and several British men were killed.

This attack made the British furious. They sent over a thousand soldiers to invade Benin. Benin City was burnt to the ground and the kingdom of Benin became part of the British Empire.

Photograph of Oba Akenzua II
Benin belonged to the British Empire until 1960. Then it became part of the independent country of Nigeria. Today, the Oba of Benin leads religious ceremonies, but he no longer rules his people.
A court scene with the Oba of Benin.