• Oba - King of Benin

    Looking at the picture of the Oba of Benin, can you see which is the most important person?

    The African artist who made this brass plaque took care to make the man in the middle look bigger than the other people. Why? Because the man with the spiky head dress was an Oba, or king, of Benin in West Africa.

    The Oba's attendants hold shields to protect him, and shade him from the hot sun. His royal regalia is made from red coral - a rare imported material.

    This piece of art is called a 'Benin bronze', though it's actually made of brass (a mixture or alloy of copper and zinc), not bronze (copper and tin).

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  • 1200s - 1500s AD

    In the 1500s AD, when this plaque was made, Benin was a rich and powerful kingdom.

    Its history began in the 1200s. The story goes that the Edo people asked Prince Oranmiyan of Ife to be their ruler, and Oranmiyan's son, Eweka, became the first Oba, or king, of Benin. Later Obas, such as Ewuare the Great (1400s), made Benin rich and strong.

    The Oba was all-powerful. He collected taxes, and owned all the land. He left day to day matters to chiefs, and one group of palace chiefs, known as the Iwebo, were in charge of the palace craft-workers and trade.

    European traders had begun visiting Benin in sailing ships in the late 1400s. The Obas became rich from trade in ivory (elephant tusks), animal skins, palm oil and pepper, and also in slaves.

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  • Oba's court

    At the Oba's court, brass artists lived and worked together, in groups or guilds. There were also royal hunters, astrologers, musicians, weavers and carvers.

    Men and women shared some tasks, but only men worked with metals. Plaques like this were probably made in matching pairs, and were fixed to pillars in the Oba's palace.

    The British Museum's 'bronzes' were seized by British forces during a war against Benin in the late 1890s. This war ended the Oba's power, and made what is now Benin part of Nigeria.

    There is still an Oba, with a palace, in modern Nigeria, who continues to have considerable local power.

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Fun Facts
  • The city of Benin was enclosed by a long wall. Inside were broad avenues (roads).

  • The Oba of Benin had lots of wives - perhaps as many as 100!

  • Foreign visitors were impressed by Benin's police. They kept the city peaceful.

  • The first Europeans to visit Benin came looking for gold - but there wasn't any. The Obas wore necklaces made from coral instead.

  • The Oba's court musicians included drummers and trumpeters blowing elephant tusks.

  • The ancient kingdom of Benin was in what is now Nigeria. Modern Benin is a country next to Nigeria.

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