Nigeria’s Pre-Colonial Legacy: The Great Benin Kingdom

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In the tapestry of Nigeria’s pre-colonial history, the Great Benin Kingdom stands as a testament to the grandeur and cultural richness of the region.

The Great Benin Kingdom

The Bini’s

There is no doubt that Bini, more than any other ethnic group has played major roles in the history of Nigeria. For instance, it was the first to be visited by the Europeans as early as 1472 A.D. According to Hubbard, “the second half of the century (fifteenth) saw the arrival of the first Europeans in Benin, the Portuguese Ruy de Sequeira in 1472 in Ewuare’s reign and Affonso de Aviero in 1484 in Ozolua’s reign”. The kingdom was also the first in the west coast of Africa to exchange ambassadors with a major European power. According to Ryder (1997), it was during the reign of Oba Ozolua (1481) that Benin sent an ambassador to Portugal while Egharevba (1960), the renowned Benin historian said it was during the reign of Oba Esigie (1504) that Benin sent an ambassador (a chief of Ughoton – a port town in Benin) to Portugal.

Political and social developments in Benin kingdom so impressed the Europeans that one of them who visited the kingdom in 1604 compared it with a major European country of that time :

The town seems to be very great. When you enter into it, you go into a great broad street, not paved, which seems to be seven to eight times broader than the Warmoes Street in Amsterdam… (Hodgkin, 1975)

Benin kingdom had a unique political system which centred around the Oba. According to Igbafe (1974), “the Oba was the pivot around which the socio-political system revolved”. He was the head of the kingdom and the succession to the throne was by primogeniture i.e the first surviving son succeeding his father. To hubbard,

the oba was not only the civil head of state, he was also the religious head as well. He was in fact regarded as divine person who in himself summed up the whole of the race… In him, dwelt the divine spirit passed on him from his forebears. (Hodgkin, 1975)

What then is the historical origin of these great people who built one of the great civilization south of the Sahara. Just like most Nigerian societies, the Benin people have various traditions of origins. While some trace the origin to a foreign land, others claim indigenous origin. The former claim that the people migrated from the East – probably Egypt or Ile-Ife.

According to Egharevba (1968), the Benin people emigrated from Egypt and in the course of their journey southward, they settled at Ile-Ife before finally arriving at their present location. However, as a result of recent historical research, the story is no longer tenable as it smacks of the now infamous Hamitic hypothesis.


Another Bini origin story

Another tradition has it that the Benin people have been living in the area “from the very beginning”. According to Benin mythology; Benin was the youngest child of Osanobua (the High God). He and his brothers, who included the king of Ife, were sent to live in the world. The children were asked by the High God to take whatever they want with them to the world. While others chose wealth, magical skills and material well-being, the youngest (on the advice of a bird) chose a snail shell. On arrival, they found that the world was covered by water. Following instruction from the bird, the youngest child turned down the snail shell, whereupon sand fell out of it and covered large part of the water to form land. Thus, the first ruler of Benin became the owner of the land, which made him powerful and wealthy as he had to share portions of it with his elder brothers who became his subjects. According to Igbafe (1974), “this legend may represent the mythological version of the origin of people and states in the Guinea forest, which archaeologists trace from the Makalian or wet phase of the Green Sahara through the desiccation period and the scattering of the sahara peoples, to the diffusion of iron working and technology which ultimately produced the cultural area in the part of West Africa. The tradition also supports the theory of separate evolutionary existence of people as distinct groups in their locality”.


The Ogiso era

The first period of pre-colonial Benin history is known as the “Ogiso era”. This is because their rulers were the Ogisos (King of the sky). The first Ogiso was known as Igbodo. He was succeeded by Ere who is credited to have created the guild system and laid a solid foundation for the kingdom. He encouraged various “craftsmen to form associations with the monopoly right to produce, standardize, market and attend to their products” (Igbafe, 1974). Among the guilds created in his time were those of the woodworkers (Owina), the carvers (Igbesamwan), leather workers (Esohian), the hunters (Ohue), the weavers (Owinaido), the pot makers (Emahe) etc. Ere is also said to have introduced the royal throne (Ekete) and the sword of authority (Ada and Eben).

On his death, Ere was succeeded by Orire, who himself was succeeded by a number of Ogisos among whom were women. The last Ogiso was Owodo. He was the one that clashed with the nobles and eventually fell victim of intrigues of his wives which led to the banishment of his only son and his heir apparent Ekaladeran. On his banishment, Ekaladeran founded Ughoton – a port town in Benin. Recent tradition claims that Ekaladeran left Ughoton through Erua to Ife where he lived until there was political crisis in Benin and the nobles sent to him to return to rule over them. According to the tradition, as he was too old, he sent his youngest son Oranmiyan (Omonoyan – pampered child) who came and established the Eweka dynasty.


The Eweka dynasty

With the end of Ogiso dynasty, Benin went through a period of interregnum in which the elders established a form of republican government headed by Evian who eventually attempted to usurp the throne by nominating his son Ogiamen to succeed him. As Evian was not an Ogiso, the people of Benin rejected his son, Ogiamen. This led to a serious political crisis in the kingdom. During this crisis, two factions emerged – the pro-Ogiamen (republicanism) and pro-monarchy. It was in the course of this stalemate that the elders are believed to have sent a delegation to the Ooni of Ife requesting him to send a ruler to Benin to rule over them. The Ooni then sent one of his children – Oranmiyan who, on arrival found it difficult to rule the people. After staying for some time, he decided to leave. On his way back to Ife, he had an affair with a Benin woman (the daughter of Enogie of Ego Erinmwinda), who became pregnant and eventually gave birth to a child who eventually became Eweka I, who is credited to have established the present dynasty in Benin.

A recent version of this episode by some Benin elites has it that Oranmiyan who came from Ife to establish the present monarchy was a Bini prince. According to the version, Oranmiyan was the son of Ekaladeran who had earlier been banished from Benin and who subsequently settled at Ile-Ife. Ekaladeran according to them, was the son and heir apparent of the last Ogiso – Owodo. At a time in the course of his reign, there was a serious intrigue in his household which led to the banishment of his only son and heir apparent – Ekaladeran. On his expulsion from Benin, Ekaladeran travelled to a distant land (Ile-Ife) where he settled and eventually became the ruler – Oduduwa.

Ogiso Owodo eventually died without a successor and so, Benin nobles set up a form of republican government headed by Evian. At his old age, Evian decided to appoint his son Ogiamen to succeed him. This move was seriously resisted by a section of the nobility who wanted the restoration of the monarchy. Consequently, they sent a delegation to Ekaladeran at Ife urging him to return to take over the throne of his father. When the message was delivered to him, he remarked that he was too old to return to Benin but however, decided to send one of his sons, Oranmiyan (Omonoyan – pampered child) in Benin.

Oranmiyan’s arrival and rule in Benin were seriously opposed by Ogiamen and his supporters. As he found it increasingly difficult to rule, Oranmiyan decided to return to Ile-Ife remarking that “the country was a land of vexation. Ile-Ibinu (by which name the country was known afterwards) and that only a child born, trained and educated in the arts and mysteries of the land could reign over the people” (Egharevba, 1968). In the course of his journey back to Ile-Ife, he stayed briefly with the Onogie of Ego, Osanego, whom he married his daughter Erinmwinda, by whom he had a son. It was this son of Oranmiyan, born by a Benin woman and was subsequently “trained and educated in the arts and mysteries of the land” that eventually ascended the throne of Benin with the name Eweka I. Eweka thus became the first Oba of Benin and whose dynasty still reigns in Benin till this day.

The point being made here by Benin elite, is that although Oranmiyan came from Ile-Ife, the monarchy which he established is indigenous to Benin because he (Oranmiyan) was the son of a Benin prince, and his son, Eweka I, was conceived, born and brought up in Benin. To them, therefore, the present monarchy is indigenous to Benin. However, more research needs to be conducted to ascertain the veracity of this version.

Eweka had a long and glorious reign. He had many children who were sent to villages as Enogie (Dukes). Eweka was succeeded by Uwakhuhen (1220 A.D.). Other rulers included Ehenmihen (c.1235), Ewedo (c. 1255), Oguola (c. 1280), Edoni (c. 1290), Udagbedo (c. 1299), Ohen (c. 1334), Egbeka (c. 1370), Orohiru (c. 1440), Uwaifokun (c. 1440). Ewuare the great (c. 1440). These Obas set the kingdom on the path of growth and greatness.

Classification of Benin society

The Benin society was classified into two distinct classes – the nobility (Adesotu) and the commoner (Ighiotu). The nobility was organized into three groups of titleholders. These were the Uzama, the Eghaevbo n’Ogbe (palace chiefs) and Eghaevbo n’Ore (town chiefs).

Within the palace, there existed three societies, (Iwebo, Iweguae and Ibiwe) into which each of these Eghaevbo chiefs belonged. The ordinary people too, most especially those within the city, were organized into a number of guilds and each of these guild served the needs of the Oba based on its trade and specialization

The Uzama Nihiron

The Uzama was the highest-ranking state officials in the kingdom and formed a distinct branch of government. They traced their origin to the pre-monarchical era and succession was by primogeniture. They were initially six in number – the oliha, Edohen, Ezomo, Era, Eholor and Olaton. Oba Ewuare is said to have added the Edaiken (crown prince) to their number. The Uzama were heads of different quarters and villages within the city. Individually, they performed certain services for the Oba, the Ezomo was the commander of the army, Era took care of the aba’s mother, the Eholor was in charge of the fetish Ire, while the Olaton and Edaiken were responsible for sharing Oba’s gifts among the Uzama. It was their leader, the Oliha that crowned the Oba on his ascension of the throne. The Uzama formed part of the state council that governed Benin.

Palace chiefs

As a result of the rivalries which had existed since the inception of the monarchy between the Oba and Uzama, subsequently, Obas over the years decided to create palace societies. These societies were Iwebo, Iweguae and Ibiwe. The societies served the needs of the Oba and his household and they had their apartments at the palace. The most senior of these societies, Iwebo took charge of the Oba’s wardrobe including his regalia. In the course of time, they were given the responsibility in matters affecting the finance and trade in the kingdom. Their leader was Iwangue . The second society, Iweguae, was made up of the Oba’s personal attendant and domestic servants and their leader was Esere. The third, Ibiwe, took charge of the Oba’s wives and children and was headed by Oshodin.

Eghaevbo Title Holders

The Eghaevbo class of chiefs was made up of two categories of titleholders – Eghaevbo n’Ogbe – palace chiefs and Eghaevbo n’Ore – town chiefs. Membership of Eghaevbo n’Ogbe was drowned from the upper grade of the three palace societies and so, were more or less subservient to the Oba. These chiefs met with the Oba to deliberate on executive, judicial and legislative issues affecting the state.

The Eghaevho n’Ore on the other hand also belonged to the palace societies but did not actively participate in the affairs of this societies because they lived in the town and were therefore not regular in the palace. Their leader was the Iyase , who acted as the prime minister. It was the responsibility of the Iyase to confer titles on chiefs appointed by the Oba.

The guild system in ancient Benin

The guilds were professional groups to which the common people of Benin kingdom belonged. There were a number of them such as those of the carvers, brass-workers, blacksmiths, weavers, workers in ivory, iron, leather as well as doctors, drummers, butchers, priests and diviners. These guilds, which were affiliated to the palace societies supplied the needs of the Oba and his household. These guilds, most especially those that lived in defined quarters in the kingdom, had a system of administration which was the same as that of the villages.

The Benin invasion 1897

As can be seen from above, the kingdom of Benin had a great and glorious history which spanned several centuries. However, at about the eighteen century, the empire witnessed a number of political upheavals and crisis which weakened it. The role of the Oba changed from time to time – from leading the army in wars to restriction to the palace at which time some powerful nobles usurped most of his powers. This trend continued until towards the end of the nineteenth century when the kingdom had confrontations with the British – a situation which led to the British invasion of the kingdom in 1897. The British subsequently deposed and deported the oba to Calabar where he died in 1914. Just like the end of the Ogiso era which witnessed an interregnum in the political history of Benin, the years between 1897 and 1914 witnessed another interregnum in the political history of the Bini people. In the same way, just like the installation of Eweka I ended the interregnum of the thirteenth century, the installation of Eweka II in 1914 ended the interregnum which began in 1897.


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