Ancient Benin Empire was one of the oldest and most highly developed states in the coastal hinterland of West Africa. The empire offers a snapshot of a relatively well-organized and sophisticated African polity in operation before the major European colonial interlude.
Benin Empire rose to the height of its glory thanks to the daunting contributions and sacrifices made by some outstanding men, women, leaders and warlords. Most of them went as far as laying down their lives for the advancement of the kingdom.
Heroines of ancient Benin Kingdom
The lives and deeds of some outstanding heroines of the ancient Benin empire
Queen Idia was the wife of Oba Ozolua, the Oba who reigned in about 1481 AD. Queen Idia became the first Iyoba (Queen Mother) of Benin when Esigie conferred upon her the title and the Eguae-Iyoba (Palace of the Queen Mother).
She played a very significant role in the rise and reign of her son, Oba Esigie. Queen Idia is the famous warrior who became even more popular when an ivory carving of her face was adopted as the symbol of FESTAC in 1977.
Emotan is one of the heroines of Benin Kingdom. She was an ordinary trader who sold her wares at the exact point where her statue now stands.
She is credited to have founded the first informal creche in Benin as her hut was a popular make-shift nursery for the children of families patronizing the market.
Her hut also served as a solace and hideout for Prince Ogun. She showed immense kindness to the prince when he was fighting to gain back power from his usurper brother, Oba Uwaifiokun who reigned about 1432 AD.
Emotan played a significant role in helping Prince Ogun (who eventually became Oba Ewuare) ascend the throne. Oba Ewuare reigned as the 12th Oba of Benin in about 1440 AD.
Following Emotan's death a short while after Ewuare’s ascension to the throne, the Oba decreed that she should not only be buried in her hut, but that her grave be marked with an Uruhe tree and she should be deified as the conscience of justice. Every celebratory procession in Benin pays homage to the burial site.
Oba Akenzua II, in cooperation with the British Colonial authorities commissioned in 1954, a life size bronze statue of Emotan as a young woman, sculpted by Mr. John A. Danford, in his Chelsea, London, studio in 1951, from a miniature model cast by Igun Street artists.
Queen Iden is yet another heroine whose sacrifice helped shape Benin Kingdom. She was the queen during the reign of Oba Ewuape in about 1700 AD. She is known to have volunteered herself as a sacrificial lamb for the welfare of her husband and that of the entire kingdom.
Her husband, Oba Ewuape, ascended the throne in very turbulent times. His kingdom and chiefs rebelled against him. He had the kingdom but had no subjects. His palace was deserted, save for Queen Iden. She stood by Oba Ewuape and refused to leave the palace. The oracle divined that for peace to be restored to Benin Kingdom, a human sacrifice was needed. Queen Iden offered herself as a sacrificial lamb for the restoration of the monarchy. She was given a befitting burial and her tomb lies close to Oba market (in Benin City) till date.
Warlords who defended the city walls of the Benin Empire
The lives and deeds of some outstanding warriors of the ancient Benin empire
General Asoro is one remarkable historical figure Benin Kingdom will not forget in a hurry. He was one of the most outstanding warriors who fought gallantly during the Benin-British war. He led other warriors in resisting the entry of British invaders in 1897 into Benin City.
His statement "no other person dare pass this road except the Oba" (So kpon Oba) was later translated to "SAKPONBA", the name of a well-known road in Benin. To commemorate his contribution, his statue was erected at what is now Oba Ovonramwen Square, at the beginning of Sakponba Road, Benin City. According to tradition, that was the very spot Chief Asoro died.
Chief Obasogie is another outstanding Benin warrior of old who defended the kingdom against external invasion. He gallantly resisted the British from invading Benin Kingdom during the punitive expedition.
Chief Obasogie was not just a warrior; he was also a black blacksmith and sculptor. Most of his designs and works can be found in and around the city.
The architectural design of Chief Obasogie's house which sits magnificently opposite the entrance of Igun Street leaves much to say about this warlord.
General Ebohimi is another Benin gallant warrior who fought till death during the British Punitive Expedition. It was said that he died while standing on his feet and his corpse was rooted up and brought down.
Although the British eventually invaded Benin Kingdom, his contribution as a defense warrior remains a significant achievement.
Leaders of thought who chiseled the affairs of ancient Benin Empire
The lives and deeds of some outstanding Oba of the ancient Benin empire
Oba Ewedo who reigned in about 1255 AD is credited to have removed the seat of government from Usama (a village outside Benin city) to the present palace. He was known to be a disciplinarian and it is to his credit that the first prison in Benin was built.
Edionisen were the five elders of Benin Kingdom during the reign of Oba Ewedo. Oba Ewedo called them "Emwan nei zama omwan" meaning "people who have no respect for their monarch". This name was later corrupted to Uzama. To avoid more power struggle, Oba Ewedo moved the kingdom seat of government from Usama to its present place in Benin City the heart of the kingdom.
Oba Oguola reigned in Benin Kingdom in about 1280 AD. He achieved a remarkable feat by digging the first and second moats to fortify the city from invaders.
He further instructed that a similar moat be built around notable towns and villages in the kingdom to serve as a defence mechanism. Twenty of such moats were erected around Benin during his reign. He also encouraged the systematic organisation of the ancient guild of brass casting in Benin kingdom.
Oba Ewuare, known as Oba Ewuare the Great by the Binis was one of the most prominent of the Benin Obas. He reigned in about 1440 AD and was helped by Emotan during the reign of Oba Uwaifiokun his usurper brother.
He is considered as the the greatest, the most revered, dynamic, innovative and successful monarch to have reign in Benin kingdom.
He introduced the royal beads and scarlet cloth (Ododo) which remains the Benin royal colour. The "ugie Ewere" began during his reign. He was also the first Oba to come in contact with Europeans. He encouraged ivory and wood carving in the kingdom.
He is said to have been a great mystic, physician, traveler and warrior. He constructed Akpakpava street which still exists till date. Oba Ewuare also created the inner city wall in Benin kingdom which still attracts tourist to Benin City.
Oba Esigie who reigned in Benin Kingdom in about 1504 AD is one of the leaders of thought who helped transform the kingdom into an empire.
European connection with the kingdom became stronger during his reign as Portuguese missionary activities were encouraged in the kingdom. He created a school following astrology (Iwoki) and could speak Portuguese language fluently.
He fought and defeated his brother Arhuanran (Goliath-type stature) the powerful ruler of Udo town some kilometres outside Benin City during the Benin-Udo war.
The title of Iyoba (Queen Mother) was created by Oba Esigie and was conferred for the first time on his mother Idia. He also built a palace for her, Eguae-Iyoba (Palace of the Queen mother) which is currently located at the lower part of Uselu, a suburban area in Benin City.
Oba Eresoyen was the 29th Oba of Benin that reigned at about 1735 AD. Benin kingdom advanced during his tenure. He is credited to be the first Oba to introduce the idea of banking in the kingdom. He built a house called Owigho (Bank). He also invented ivory flutes and introduced Odudua Masquerade.
Oba Ovonramwen was the last independent Oba to reign before Benin Kingdom fell to British forces during the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897. The kingdom was destroyed and looted of its many valuable artifacts.
Oba Ovoranmwen was dethroned, and deported to Calabar where he lived and dead in January 1914 after sixteen years of British captivity.
Although Oba Akenzua II reigned 36 years after the fall of the old Benin Empire, his contributions in revamping Benin after its fall are worth mentioning. His era witnessed intellectual, cultural, social and economic advancement.
During his reign, Edo college, the oldest secondary grammar school in the Mid-Western Region of Nigeria was established. He also opened the Benin Divisional Council museum in 1947. He began the campaign for the creation if mid-western region, then Bendel, now Edo and Delta states. He erected the statue of Emotan on the 11th of March, 1954.
Her majesty, Queen Elizabeth II visited Benin on the 9th of February, 1956 during his tenure to pay the kingdom a courtesy visit and as well strengthen the relationship between England and Benin City.
Oba Akenzua II was also appointed chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria on the 9th of March, 1966.
In 1936, Oba Akenzua II began the movement to return to Nigeria the Benin Bronzes stolen in the punitive Benin Expedition of 1897.
During his reign, only two of the 3,000 royal court bronzes were returned. One of those was the coral regalia of Oba Ovonramwen, which was returned in the mid to late 1930s when the earl of Plymouth visited Benin. Sir John Macpherson, governor-general of Nigeria, stands on the left.
But for the immense contributions of these heroines, war lords, Obas, and many other individuals, Benin Kingdom would not have risen to the peak of its glory, nor would it have evolved into a strong city.
As in the days of old, new leaders – men and women – are constantly needed to help the city to attain even greater heights.
Patrick Enaholo - Exhibit Initiator/Supervisor
Rita Moemeke - Curator
Oral Historian - Moses Obakpolo, Director, Edo Arts Council
Solomon Iyobosa Edebiri Centre for Change
Osas Bronze Collections
Institution - School of Media and Communication, Pan-Atlantic University