Foundation of the West African States of Benin Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Commerce helped Benin become the earliest great West African empire and the largest polity in West Africa’s forest area. The divine monarch, or oba, exercised a system of political checks and balances that controlled all key appointments and political rewards.

Summary of Event

The highly centralized state of Benin became one of the major kingdoms of West Africa. It was located west of the Niger River in the forested area of what is now southern Nigeria. It was a powerful monarchy between the thirteenth and the nineteenth centuries, although evidence suggests earlier political organization. [kw]Foundation of the West African States of Benin (1400-1500) [kw]West African States of Benin, Foundation of the (1400-1500) [kw]African States of Benin, Foundation of the West (1400-1500) [kw]Benin, Foundation of the West African States of (1400-1500) Benin Africa;1400-1500: Foundation of the West African States of Benin[3070] Government and politics;1400-1500: Foundation of the West African States of Benin[3070] Oduduwa Oranmiyan Eweka Ewedo Ewuare the Great

The Portuguese who came into contact with the kingdom in 1485 described its wealth and orderly administration, but its history before European contact is speculative. Attempts to reconstruct this area’s early past have relied on multidisciplinary approaches using oral traditions, archaeological and linguistic evidence, and material culture.

Evidence shows that the area has been inhabited for several millennia. Linguistic studies indicate that the basic language, Edo, developed in relative isolation over the past four thousand years. Although the original inhabitants may have been affected by external influences, immigrant groups and outside innovations seem to have been absorbed by the developing Edo-speaking culture.

It is impossible to determine the date of the first monarchy or its origins. The autonomous village was the basic political unit of early Edo (also called Bini) agricultural settlements. Traditions state that rulers known as the ogiso emerged around 950 and ruled for several centuries. Such narratives claim that the ogiso period ended with the dethroning of the ruler and the appointment of a group of chiefs, who were commissioned to develop new leadership.

Both Edo and Yoruba narratives tell the story of how these Edo chiefs asked Oduduwa Oduduwa (legendary) , the king of Ife, to send one of his children to rule them. When his son Oranmiyan Oranmiyan arrived in Benin, he realized that as a foreigner to Edo culture and language, he would be unable to rule effectively. Oranmiyan fathered a child with the daughter of a local Edo chief and returned to Ife. Their son, Eweka Eweka , became the first king, or oba, of Benin.

The story of Oranmiyan may be semilegendary, but the derivation of the new dynasty from Ife is possibly true. However, it has been suggested that these narratives reflect a conquest rather than an orderly establishment of monarchy. It is important to note that although the kingship derived from Ife, the first oba was Edo, suggesting that the new and alien kingship adapted to the indigenous culture. Whatever the circumstances, the establishment of a central monarchy, probably in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, marked a new period in the development of the Benin state.

Benin City, located inland from the coast and about 80 miles (129 kilometers) west of the Niger River, was the capital of the kingdom. Archaeological evidence shows that the site was developed by the beginning of the common era. Its origins are unclear, but there are indications that it grew from a cluster of independent settlements. Studies of the city’s walls indicate such a fusion of communities before the emergence of a centralized kingdom. The merging was unusual for the Edo who generally organized into small autonomous villages.

Benin City established control of the surrounding countryside for a radius of 10 to 15 miles (16 to 24 kilometers). The town’s development most likely resulted from a combination of factors, including improved methods of food production and evolution of metal technology for better tools and farming implements. Whatever the initial impetus for the city’s origin, its growth was built on commerce. Situated near the Benin River northwest of the Niger Delta, it controlled trade routes in all directions. Its interior location and highly organized political system enabled its inhabitants to control early European trade in the area. Trade;Africa Africa;trade

The emergence of the new dynasty was a key point in Benin’s evolution from a small state to a powerful kingdom. However, the transformation was not a sudden one. According to traditions, the first obas lived under the influence of a hereditary council of local chiefs known as the Uzama. Late in the fourteenth century Ewedo Ewedo , the fourth oba, is believed to have reduced the power of the Uzama and set up the first hierarchy of chiefs to serve in his new palace. Under Ewedo, the state became highly centralized as the oba developed more autocratic control. Along with the new form of government came innovations such as new weapons and war tactics that enabled Benin to pursue a course of military expansion.

Traditions indicate that advances in metallurgy, such as the lost-wax casting process, were introduced to Benin City from Ife about this time. Copper was imported to make the alloys for casting. The city came to be known for its brass sculptures as well as its ivory and wood carvings. Portrait heads, figural works, and bas-reliefs glorified the monarchy through depictions of obas and others connected with palace life. There are stylistic affinities that link this early court art with the terra-cotta sculptures of the Nok culture (c. 500 b.c.e.-200 c.e.) in central Nigeria. Although Edo works portrayed the same royal themes that were found in Ife sculpture, they lacked the naturalism that was so characteristic of their Yoruba neighbors. Art;Africa Africa;art

Ewuare the Great Ewuare the Great was among the most powerful obas. It is believed that he seized the throne in what may have been a domestically disputed succession or part of a more widespread conflict. His reign was noted for political reform, consolidation of power, and military expansion. He further reduced the power of the Uzama and created new categories of leadership. In addition to “palace chiefs” dedicated to serving the oba and his family, he appointed “town chiefs” from the rural areas that had sometimes organized resistance to central power. Nonhereditary hierarchies of authority were established. Even male commoners had opportunities for advancement. Controlling all appointments, the oba rewarded service and loyalty, satisfied ambitions, and resolved conflicts. He developed a system of checks and balances. Palace and town chiefs competed with each other and with the Uzama for influence.

Ewuare rebuilt Benin City and fortified it with great walls and moats. He organized a powerful war machine and greatly extended the boundaries of the kingdom. Although the state never incorporated all of the Edo, under Ewuare’s military command additional Edo as well as non-Edo territories were incorporated into the kingdom. The oba became the supreme political, military, and judicial leader. He was elevated to divine status and was believed to possess supernatural powers. From this time, Benin had a central ruler and a central government with the means of ruling an empire.


The emergence of Benin marked a new development for the Edo, who had traditionally organized into small village-based communities. Although it emerged later than the great kingdoms in the grasslands to the north, Benin became the earliest great empire and the largest political system to rise in West Africa’s forest region. At its zenith, it extended from the Niger River westward to what is now Lagos. Through its highly centralized political structure and its complex nonhereditary reward system, the oba was able to manipulate competing interests and control the diverse constituencies of the kingdom.

When the first Europeans arrived in this area, Benin was a thriving empire. Portuguese merchants wrote of the kingdom’s size, wealth, and power. Early European contacts with the Edo involved relationships of equal partners. The oba received ambassadors from Portugal and sent Edo ambassadors to Europe. Benin regulated trade between inhabitants of the West African interior and Europeans seeking ivory, palm oil, pepper, and, eventually, slaves.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bradbury, R. E. Benin Studies. London: Oxford University Press, 1973. A collection of essays reflecting Benin’s complex cultural and political history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Basil. West Africa Before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850. New York: Longman, 1998. An overview of early West African social, political, and economic history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Egharevba, Jacob. A Short History of Benin. 1934. Reprint. Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1991. A pioneering work in Benin history with materials from informants who remembered the British conquest of 1897.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eisenhofer, Stephan. “The Origins of the Benin Kingship in the Works of Jacob Egharevba.” History in Africa: A Journal of Method 22 (1995): 141-163. Reconstruction of the history of Benin has been based on Egharevba’s data, some of which have proven to be questionable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Girshick, Paula Ben-Amos, and John Thorton. “Civil War in the Kingdom of Benin, 1689-1721: Continuity or Political Change?” Journal of African History 42 (2001): 353-376. Benin’s civil war marked a modification of earlier centralized political structure.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ryder, A. F. C. Benin and the Europeans: 1485-1897. New York: Humanities Press, 1969. An interdisciplinary approach to reconstructing the history of the kingdom of Benin.

Categories: History