The Kingdom of Benin: 1,660 Years from 355 AD to Present

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The Great precolonial Benin kingdom is one of the oldest West African civilisations in continuous existence that commands respect; having existed from 355 BC to Present. Well known for its brilliant bronze, ivory, iron artefacts and military prowess. This kingdom although annexed is still present-day Benin city in southwestern Nigeria. It is not clear when the state was established, but most scholars seem to agree its history can be traced back to 335 AD when it was established by the Edo people. The kingdom lost its sovereignty, independence and military in 1897 due to the British. According to Oba Orno N’Oba Eredauwa in his 1984 Lecture: The Evolution of Traditional Leadership In Nigeria, at the University of Ibadan, Institute of African studies, delivered on 11th September 1984: Benin used to be a combination of different heterogeneous villages, of which each was headed by the oldest man in the community referred to as “Odionwere” or village head. With time, the villages merged for security and better economic gains. The most powerful of the elders assumed the position of a King.  The people regarded him as “Ovevbogie Noriso” which translates to King from heaven and this is the origin of the title “Ogiso”. When expanded, it is “Ogie-Iso”. Ogie means King, Iso means Sky. Thus the Edo people believed their Rulers or Kings came from the sky or more appropriately put, from God. The Ogiso dynasty of the Benin Kingdom was hierarchical and lasted for many generations. The first Ogiso was called Ogiso Igodo who was widely regarded as a very good leader; he was succeeded by his eldest son Ere.  There were 31 recorded Ogisos.


1. Igodo Or Obagodo 2. Ere 3. Orire 4. Odia
5. Ighido 6. Evbobo 7. Ogbeide 8. Ernehen
9. Akhuankhuan 10. Ekpigho 11. Efeseke 12. Irudia
13. Etebowe 14. Odion 15. Imarhan 16. Oírla
17. Emose(Female) 18. Orrorro(Female) 19. Irrebo 20. Ogbomo
21. Agbonzeke 22. Ediie 23. Oriagba 24. Odoligie
25. Uwa 26. Eheneden 27. Ohuede 28. Oduwa
29. Obioye 30. Arigho 31. Owodo

The Ogiso was usually assisted by seven nobles “Uzama.” During their reign Edo lands were known as Igodomigodo. They had the administrative center or capital at Ubinu, established around AD1180, which later came to be called Benin city. Before that, some people of different ethnic groups living in the administrative capital called it “Bini” some of these ethnicities include Itsekhiri, Esan, Igbo, Ijaw, Edo and Urhobo. It was actually the Portuguese that called the capital Benin city when they first arrived around AD1480 which came to be later widely adopted by the Edo people. The Ogisos gave each community autonomy and by the 15th century Edo lands had been transformed into a system of protected thriving independent city-state communities ran by Obas.

benin - map
Map of Benin 15th to 17th Century


There are different versions of the incident that led to the end of the Ogiso and the Begining of Oba (kingship) dynasty in Benin kingdom. What they all seem to have in common was that sometime in the early 12th century, the crown prince Ekaladerham the only son of Ogiso Owodo (Ogiso Owodo will later turn out to be the last Ogiso) was sentenced to death, this was because Ogiso Owodo was unable to have any more children even despite his many wives. He became obsessed with having more male children because he feared the end of his family legacy if any ill were to befall his only son. He was persuaded especially by his wives to seek the oracle to know the cause and to find a solution, so Esagho the barren first wife was asked to go for the consultation. The Oracle revealed that she was the cause of the inability of the Ogiso’s wives to bear children and had to be executed to appease the gods before the Ogiso could father more children. Esagho instead turned the message around, saving her neck and implicating the prince: she said the prince was the cause and had to be sacrificed.

benin - ivory mask
Ivory mask of Queen Idia



Ogiso Owodo ordered for his son to be sacrificed but events took a different turn when the messengers of the palace on carrying out their orders realized the prince’s innocence. They pitied him and set him free at Ughoton near Benin. Part of the reasons for their actions might be connected to the fact that Prince Ekaladerham was a great warrior and well loved by his people.

Ekalederham made his way to Ife, a Yoruba land. The people accepted him, after judging his character and potential, made him their king. A prophecy from the Oracle of the land may have contributed. The prophecy revealed that a stranger warrior would emerge from the forest to lead them. Ekaladerham changed his name to Imaduduwa meaning “I did not misplace my royalty” and became the first King or Oni of Ife – the great Oduduwa of Yoruba land.

At this point, it should be noted that Nigerian historians cannot agree if Oduduwa was an indigen of Ife that rose to historic celebrity due to ability, an aristocrat that came from Northeast Africa, an aristocrat that came from the Near East (according to Samuel Johnson), or Prince Ekaladerham as the historians of the Benin kingdom claim.

The Edo people later rebelled against Ogiso Owodo for misrule and banished him from Benin. They went in search of a new King which led them to the exiled prince and the King of Ife. He was asked to come back and lead his people but the aged prince or king was reported to have told the delegation he was old and a king cannot abandon his kingdom. Rather, he rather offered his eldest son Oranmiyan.

Oranmiyan found it difficult to lead in a place different from where he grew up, he married a Benin woman Erinmwinde and fathered a son whom the Edo people called Eweka around AD1200 Eweka was the first Oba and thus ushered in the Oba Dynasty. While Oranmiyan returned to Ife.

The system of the Oba dynasty (which lasted until the crowning of Oba Ewuare The Great in 1840) was partially like the defunct Ogiso dynasty, succinctly put. It offered military and royal protection in return for resources, payment of tributes and taxes to the administrative capital. Language and culture were not imposed or forced but remained heterogeneous, but the Oba appointed a local “Enogie” for specific groups or ethnicities within the kingdom.


Before Oba Ewuare who was considered a key reformer of the Benin Empire, the powers and authority of the Oba were limited and checked by the Uzama. Uzama were a group of hereditary chieftains throughout the kingdom. They appointed and crowned the Oba and could check his authority.

Oba Ewuare is widely associated with building the Benin Empire. He radically reformed the political system of the Kingdom; he greatly expanded its territories and fostered its arts and festivals, limited the powers of the Uzama, created an administrative structure and established a hereditary succession to the throne. He created the “Edaiken” Title, to clearly indicate the oldest son held the right to carry on the lineage. This cleared up the issue of succession for 500 years, the source of 60% of the deadly wars of succession in Europe from to 1000 to 1799 (Kokkonen and Sundell, 2017). This method of transmitting executive authority is called primogeniture.

“The order of succession is not fixed for the sake of the reigning family; but because it is the interest of the state that it should have a reigning family.”

– Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (1748)

He introduced the town and palace chiefs “Eghabho N’ore” and “Eghabho N’ogbe” respectively. These administrative arms were directly appointed and answerable to the Oba. He built the moat systems for protection. Ramparts and moats “Iya” were also constructed  in the capital which encompassed around 2,485 miles of land. The Benin walls were about 6,213 miles long and  marked  territories. A moat was dug in the heart of the city. These earthworks functioned as a bulwark and also offered access to the capital. At the time it was the world’s largest earthwork. It took decades to complete. In other to enclose the palace, he built an 11-kilometer earthen rampart girded by a 20 feet deep moat with thoroughfares and nine fortified gates.

Researchers later discovered walls about 6,000 to 13,000 kilometres long that were apparently erected to mark territories. The capital city was rebuilt, and between 1440-1470 Oba Ewuare turned the Benin empire into a fortress protected by walls and moats, and that was from where he launched his military exploits and expanded the kingdom. Places like Idah, Akure, Owo all fell under his authority. At the height of its power, the Empire is said to have amassed territories beginning from present-day Onitsha in Nigeria through southwestern Nigeria all the way to the coastline of Ghana.

benin - brass plaque
Brass plaque of Oba with attendants. Image rights: British Museum.

They developed a highly artistic culture. This is evident in their famous bronze, iron and ivory artefacts. The most iconic is the Queen Idia, a Queen Mother, also referred to as the Festac mask.

benin - ewuare the great
Painting of Ewuare The Great, 16th Century. Image rights: public domain

The artists had special quarters in the capital and enjoyed royal patronage. By the time the first Europeans arrived Benin around 1485, Benin was already a very highly organized, wealthy kingdom with a powerful military and an efficient bureaucracy. It was the Benin kingdom that first established the first colony in Lagos and ruled over some eastern Yoruba tribes like Ondo, Ekiti, Mahin/Ugbo, and Ijebu. Also, Niger-Delta tribes were under the Kingdom.

benin - Brass figure of a Portuguese soldier holding a musket, 17th century C.E.,
Benin brass artwork of Portuguese soldier from 16th Century.


During the 15th And 16th century Benin kingdom was at the peak of its political and economic power. The Kingdom had mercantile relations with Europeans especially the Portuguese. Benin became very rich due to selling pepper, cloth, ivory and slaves. In exchange the Portuguese sold Benin “manillas” – brass ingots – copper products, guns, gunpowder.

Slaves were mostly captive people from conquered and enemy states. They were sold and shipped off in Dutch and Portuguese ships. The Bight of Benin came to be known as the Slave coast. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to make contact with Benin, and a trade relationship ensued. Benin exchanged palm oil, cloth, pepper, ivory and slaves with the Portuguese who in turn offered them, salt, metals, cloth and most importantly guns and powder. Benin conquered neighbouring states initially to create a monopoly over trade centres with Europeans along Nigerian coast.

dahomey - major west african trade centres
The West African Trade Centres 16th to 18th century. Image rights: R. Austen (1987).



benin - aerial drawing
Aerial drawing of Benin City, 16th Century


Between the 18th and 19th century the Oba’s of Benin were aware of the steady rise of the kingdom’s dependence on European firearms. At one time the king of Portugal king Manuel I  realizing the desperation of the Edo people to acquire guns which afforded them military superiority over their neighbours, threatened to end the gun trade unless the Benin people adopted Christianity. Of course, his boycott failed as the Portuguese themselves also gravely needed the slaves supplied by the kingdom. This dependence on the Europeans for firearms prompted Oba Akengbuda between 1750 and 1804 to explore the production of firearms, but despite his efforts, more guns were needed.

The European powers in the late 18th century around 1890 banned the exportation of firearms to West Africa. The services of European military mercenaries were employed sometimes and were paid with palm oil and sacks of pepper. The Edo people also traded with the British in the 16th century, to whom they exported mainly slaves and ivory. The last Portuguese trade vessel departed the kingdom in 1885. The Kingdom controlled and dominated trade route from the western Niger delta through Lagos up to modern-day Ghana. That was why the coast line was named after the kingdom “Bight of Benin”.


The Benin Military were extremely disciplined. The Oba was the head and issued commands to generals. Up until the 15th century its army won many battles and expanded without firearms. They had a variety of weapons like Bows (Uhambo), swords (Umozo), Poisoned arrows (Ifenwe), spears (Asoro), assegais and crossbows (Ekpede). These caused their army to be split into divisions like Archers, swordsmen, spearmen, and crossbowmen. Although the warriors were skilled swordsmen and archers which resulted in victory in many battles, the main strength of the Benin army lies in the control of other armies; these were the warriors from its controlled territories.  As much as twenty thousand soldiers could be mobilized in a day, up to an army of a hundred and eighty thousand could be summoned, as the Oba’s authority extended to many areas.

War arsenals were stored in the king’s palace which had a massive cache of iron weapons. The Benin warriors used a big shield for protection; big enough to protect a kneeling full grown man completely. The shield was made of wood and hide. Senior officers and decorated warriors wore helmets. After each war unused arrows were returned to the king’s arsenal and new ones were made and poisoned. The fighters carried charms and wore protective amulets on their arms. Each warrior wore a bell (Egogo). During war the clanging of thousands of these bells accompanied by blasts from the horn-blowers gave them a psychological edge.

Oba Ewuare the Great started the Igue festival. This became an important festival for the Benin people, customarily observed at the end of the year/beginning of a new year; ending of December through early January. It is a thanksgiving celebration observed to discard evils and ills from the land and usher in blessings for the incoming year. Parents are expected to bring their family to joint worship for spiritual cleansing and blessings.


By the late 19th century the British wanted to incorporate the Kingdom into its protectorate, but the kingdom resisted. Hostilities were mounting, and the Kingdom gradually stopped export of their resources until it was limited to palm oil. The British sent envoys to negotiate but efforts failed. By the time Oba Ovonramwen ascended the throne in 1888, it was hard not to give in owing to increased pressure from Britain and their already governed Niger coast protectorate.

benin - looting
Posing with the loot, the British Punitive Expedition in the Palace of the Oba of Benin 1897.

 In January of 1897 Vice Consul James R. Philips in his quest to put more pressure on the Oba undertook an expedition to Benin without approval from the British administration of the protectorate and against the advice of high placed chiefs in Kingdom. He had been advised not to enter the kingdom as it was the period of an important ancestral ritual festival in Edo land which prohibits foreigners from entering the kingdom. His entourage was ambushed by some Benin generals without approval and consent of the Oba. They attacked and killed eight Brits.

This led to a retaliatory British punitive expedition led by Admiral Sir Harry Rawson on February 18th 1897 that destroyed and looted the Kingdom. Most of the artefacts from this expedition are displayed in museums all around the world. The Admiral left Benin after his successful mission, but pockets of resistance still erupted because the commander of the Benin army was yet to surrender. Although Oba Ovonramwen escaped with his chiefs during the attack by Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, he finally surrendered in September and was put to trial with his commanders and generals under the leadership of Consul-General Sir. Ralph Moor. The Oba was able to prove his innocence yet was exiled to Calabar; he died there in 1914. Two generals committed suicide before the trial commenced and the others were sentenced to death and executed.

The monarchy of the Oba of Benin was finally restored in 1914, although from this point onwards the Oba was just ceremonial. The position no longer held executive power, military power, international relations autonomy or judicial power. The British colonial administration in Nigeria was now in control.

Although, the Oba of Benin remained important along with other first class monarchs in implementing the British policy of indirect rule. After independence, provisions were made to acknowledge the influence of first class monarchs in the Nigerian constitution.


1) Eweka I (1180 – 1246) 2) Uwuakhuahen (1246 – 1250)
3) Henmihen (1250 – 1260) 4) Ewedo (1260 – 1274)
5) Oguola (1274 – 1287) 6) Edoni (1287 – 1292)
7) Udagbedo (1292 – 1329) 8) Ohen (1329 – 1366)
9) Egbeka (1366 – 1397) 10) Orobiru (1397 – 1434)
11) Uwaifiokun (1434 – 1440) 12) Ewuare the Great (1440 – 1473)
11) Ezoti (1473 – 1475) 12) Olua (1475 – 1480)
13) Ozolua (1480 – 1504) 14) Esigie (1504 – 1547)
15) Orhogbua (1547 – 1580) 16) Ehengbuda (1580 – 1602)
17) Ohuan (1602 – 1656) 18) Ohenzae (1656 – 1661)
19) Akenzae (1661 – 1669) 20) Akengboi (1669 – 1675)
21) Akenkbaye (1675 – 1684) 22) Akengbedo (1684 – 1689)
23) Ore-Oghene (1689 – 1701) 24) Ewuakpe (1701 – 1712)
25) Ozuere (1712 – 1713) 26) Akenzua I (1713 – 1740)
27) Eresoyen (1740 – 1750) 28) Akengbuda (1750 – 1804)
29) Obanosa (1804 – 1816) 30) Ogbebo (1816)
31) Osemwende (1816 – 1848) 32) Adolo (1848 – 1888)
33) Ovonramwen Nogbaisi (1888 – 1914) (exiled to Calabar by the British in 1897) 34) Eweka II (1914 – 1933)
35) Akenzua II (1933 – 1978) 36) Erediauwa I (1979 – 2016)
37) Ewuare II(2016-Present


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The Kingdom of Benin: 1,660 Years from 355 AD to Present

by Editorial Team time to read: 11 min