Decline of Benin Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Edo kingdom of Benin, a highly organized state located in the forests of south-central Nigeria, had expanded into Yoruba and Igbo territories and incorporated Edo-speaking peoples by the end of the sixteenth century. However, dynastic and political crises set the stage for the decline of the state, forcing it to virtually recoil into its heartland by the end of the seventeenth century.

Summary of Event

The kingdom of Benin had emerged as a powerful state in the forests of south-central Nigeria by the early sixteenth century. At its height by the early seventeenth century, the Benin Empire had stretched west to Lagos (now in Nigeria); established varying degrees of overlordship over the eastern Yoruba communities of Owo, Akure, and Ado-Ekiti, together with their subordinate settlements; and had established its sway eastward over the western Igbo communities. In the immediate vicinity, Benin incorporated Edo-speaking groups—the Esan, Afenmai, and Owan—in effect acknowledging that Benin was the source of their chieftaincy and cultural institutions. Benin also had expanded toward the coast, establishing contacts with European traders and controlling the offshoot Itsekiri kingdom. [kw]Decline of Benin (late 17th cent.) [kw]Benin, Decline of (late 17th cent.) Expansion and land acquisition;Late 17th cent.: Decline of Benin[2550] Government and politics;Late 17th cent.: Decline of Benin[2550] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Late 17th cent.: Decline of Benin[2550] Africa;Late 17th cent.: Decline of Benin[2550] Benin;Late 17th cent.: Decline of Benin[2550] Nigeria;Late 17th cent.: Decline of Benin[2550] Benin

A central feature of the kingdom was the monarchy, which served as the fulcrum of social, political, and economic activities in the state. Until the 1630’, the oba (ruler) was actively involved in leading military campaigns. He was assisted in the administration of the state by the three orders of chiefs–uzama, eghaevbo n’ore (town chiefs), and eghaevbo n’ogbe (palace chiefs)—who acknowledged his suzerainty. However, there were struggles between the Crown and the chiefs that led to disputes over succession and to civil wars, weakening the state in the seventeenth century. Such conflicts pitted a despotic monarchy against restive subjects (including the chiefs) who were aiming to check the excesses of the monarchy.

However, stable rule under able obas led to the rapid development of the kingdom. Arts and crafts, as well as regional and international trade, flourished. Guilds were established for brass-casting, a royal art, and for traders on the various routes that radiated from the capital. The guilds operated under royal patronage, and Bini traders enjoyed diplomatic immunity in the subject territories. The king also held a royal monopoly on items such as ivory and European wares. Taxes, tribute, and profit from trade constituted the economic basis of royal power.

Consequently, on one hand, royal power was bolstered, leading to greater despotism. On the other hand, the chiefs sought to wrest as much autonomy as was possible from the oba. Accordingly, the chiefs exploited disputed succession to extract concessions from rival claimants to the throne. The propensity for civil wars in many cases of disputed succession tended to weaken the authority of the oba.

Against this background of internal struggles for power and influence, the death in 1600 of Oba Ehengbuda Ehengbuda while on an expedition in the coastal lagoons had a negative impact on the state and its institutions, especially the monarchy itself. The oba was no longer to command the army in person, a practice that had been introduced by Ehengbuda himself but that became tradition. Under Ehengbuda, the Iyase, head of the town chiefs, often had commanded the army, but that responsibility now passed to the Ezomo, an uzama chief. Henceforth, the oba became a secluded semidivine ruler, confined to the palace except for the few occasions in the year when official ceremonies called for him to appear in public. His life and schedule became more rigorously regimented, and the palace chiefs who controlled access to him accordingly enhanced their position at his expense.

The increasing influence of the palace chiefs upset the delicate balance of power in the kingdom. Paradoxically, these chiefs, who had been raised to counter the influence of the uzama, had developed as well into a growing center of power. One example of their rising power was their ability to change the mode of succession from primogeniture to one that enabled them to influence the choice of a prince who was pliable. Consequently, the palace chiefs succeeded in enthroning a series of weak obas for much of the seventeenth century. These were mainly old men or those who had an outside chance but whose accession was facilitated to weaken the monarchy vis-à-vis the chiefs. However, successful claimants who later attempted to assert themselves were susceptible to intrigues by the chiefs. Consequently, the monarchy suffered a discernible decline in the seventeenth century, though this was masked by the economic prosperity of Benin.

The prosperity of the state derived from the collection of tribute in foodstuffs and in slaves or livestock twice per year from proximate and distant subject provinces respectively, from tolls on commercial traffic into the city, and from the booming trade with the Europeans, especially in cloth and ivory. The oba and the chiefs held a monopoly on the pepper and ivory trades with the Europeans. The chiefs collected tolls and tribute, only half of which they remitted to the oba. However, the distribution of wealth from trade, tribute, and tolls eventually would generate conflict between the monarchy and the chiefs, including the major crisis that led to the deposition of Oba Ahenkpaye Ahenkpaye , who appeared to have attempted to recover part of the lost influence and accompanying economic perquisites of the monarchy.

Tradition relates that Ahenkpaye was deposed because he “usurped” the privileges of the chiefs and was perceived to be tightfisted. His fall in the closing decade of the seventeenth century was made possible by a rare unity of the three orders of chiefs. However, this unanimity did not endure in the face of the conflicting interests of the contending chiefly and royal power blocs in the kingdom. A major split between the town and palace chiefs over their respective shares of the wealth accruing from external trade led to a protracted civil war. After several years of attrition, which left the capital city in ruins, peace was restored, with Oba Akenzua Akenzua I reasserting royal power and effecting some fundamental reforms.


The kingdom of Benin had developed into a sizable empire in south-central Nigeria by the end of the sixteenth century. However, the death of Oba Ehengbuda in 1600 led to a fundamental change in the military and political systems of Benin. The oba was now forbidden to lead the army in person. The Iyase, leader of the town chiefs, and the Ezomo, an uzama, took over the role of head of the army while the oba became a secluded, semidivine potentate. The consequent increase in the influence and wealth of the chiefs steadily undermined the position of the monarchy, thus setting the stage for the manipulation of succession to the throne and political instability.

The political decline of Benin in the seventeenth century was, however, accompanied by the economic prosperity of the state, which further aggravated the conflict between the Crown and the chiefs. The devastating civil war of the last decade of the century was followed by the emergence of Oba Akenzua, who introduced reforms and restored the former glory of the state. He established primogeniture as the rule of succession to obviate interference by the chiefs and introduced the practice of installing the crown prince (edaiken) in the lifetime of an oba, a practice that subsists into the twenty-first century. One cannot understand subsequent developments, which have contemporary implications, without a knowledge of seventeenth century events in Benin.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ajayi, J. F. A., and Michael Crowder, eds. History of West Africa. 3d ed. Vol. 1. London: Longman, 1985. Contains two chapters on Benin history in the wider context of intergroup and interstate relations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Akintoye, S. A. “The North-Eastern Yoruba Districts and the Benin Kingdom.” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 4, no. 4 (1969): 539-553. An authoritative study of relations between Benin and the subject peoples of northeast Yorubaland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bradbury, R. E. The Benin Kingdom and the Edo-Speaking Peoples of South-Western Nigeria. London: International African Institute, 1957. A detailed ethnography of the Benin kingdom and the Edo-speaking peoples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bradbury, R. E. Benin Studies. London: Oxford University Press, 1973. Bradbury is a leading authority on Benin history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Egharevba, J. U. A Short History of Benin. 4th ed. Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1968. The fundamental text on Bini history, a collection of traditions, which deserves to be read critically.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Igbafe, P. A. “Benin in the Pre-colonial Era.” Tarikh 5, no. 1 (1975): 1-16. A concise account of the origins and development of the Benin kingdom.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ikime, O., ed. Groundwork of Nigerian History. Ibadan, Nigeria: Heinemann, 1980. Contains a good synthesis by a leading expert on Benin history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ryder, A. F. C. Benin and the Europeans, 1485-1897. London: Longman, 1969. A detailed and reliable study of relations between Benin and the Europeans from the fifteenth century to the British conquest.
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Categories: History