The kingdom of Benin

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Who started the kingdom?

  • The kingdom of Benin began in the 900s when the Edo people settled in the rainforests of West Africa.

  • At first, they lived in small family groups, but gradually these groups developed into a kingdom.

  • The kingdom was called Igodomigodo. It was ruled by a series of kings, known as Ogisos, which means ‘rulers of the sky’.

How did the Obas come to rule?

  • In the 1100s the Ogisos lost control of their kingdom.

  • The Edo people feared that their country would fall into chaos, so they asked their neighbour, the King of Ife, for help. The king sent his son Prince Oranmiyan to restore peace to the Edo kingdom.

  • Oranmiyan chose his son Eweka to be the first Oba of Benin. An Oba was a ruler.

  • By the 1400s Benin was a wealthy kingdom. The Obas lived in beautiful palaces decorated with shining brass.

This brass figure is believed to be Prince Oranmiyan. Edo legend says that no one in Benin had ever seen a horse before Oranmiyan arrived!

How did Benin become an empire?

  • Around 1440, Ewuare became the new Oba of Benin. 
  • He built up an army.
  • He also rebuilt Benin City and the royal palace.

Oba Ewuare was the first of five great warrior kings. Find out more about them below.

ObaWhat did they do?
Oba EwuareIntroduced hereditary succession (the heir to the throne is the current king's child).
Oba OzoluaBelieved to have won 200 battles.
Oba EsigieExpanded his kingdom eastwards to form an empire and won land from the Kingdom of Ife.
Oba OrhogbuaDuring his reign, the empire reached its largest size. It stretched beyond the River Niger in the east and extended west as far as present-day Ghana.
Oba EhengbudaSpent most of his reign stopping rebellions led by local chiefs.
This brass plaque shows the Oba, or King, of Benin and his attendants. Why do you think the Oba is shown to be much bigger than the other people? The plaque is on display at the British Museum.
  • Obas Ozolua and Esigie both encouraged trade with Europe.

  • Trade brought huge wealth to Benin and they used it to build up a vast army. Various goods were sold including ivory, palm oil, pepper.

  • Oba Ehengbuda was the last of the warrior kings. After his death in 1601, Benin’s empire gradually shrank in size.

Listen: What was trade like in Benin?

In the year 1668 a Dutch writer called Olfert Dapper put together some merchants’ descriptions of their travels. Listen to them in this audio clip.

How did Benin become part of the British empire?

  • By the 1800s, the kingdom of Benin began to lose power.

  • Benin was also under threat from Britain who wanted to gain control of Benin’s rich natural resources (palm oil and rubber).

  • The Oba tried to stop all contact with Britain, but the British insisted on their right to trade.

  • In 1897, a group of British officials tried to visit Benin. They were sent away because the Oba was busy with a religious ceremony, but they decided to visit anyway. As they approached the borders of Benin, a group of warriors drove them back and several British men were killed.

  • This attack made the British furious. They sent over a thousand soldiers to invade Benin. Benin City was burnt to the ground and the kingdom of Benin became part of the British Empire.

Benin belonged to the British Empire until 1960. Then it became part of the independent country of Nigeria. Today, the Oba of Benin leads religious ceremonies, but he no longer rules his people.

Activity: Quiz – Kingdom of Benin