The Kingdom of Benin was one of the most important states of pre-colonial Africa, and the most mentioned in contemporary European literature. It is known for Benin owed its extraordinary development in the forest region of West Africa to its monarchical traditions, the creation of a complex political and social hierarchy and, the growth of an imperial tradition. The history of Benin kingdom is divided into four periods on the basis of the enduring legacy of socio-political movements and developments in the last two thousand years: first, the period of gerontocracy before the emergence of kings in c.500AD; second, the rise and fall of the Ogiso dynasty from c.500 AD up to the 12th century; third, the coming of Oranmiyan and emergence of Eweka dynasty from c.1170 up to the fall of Benin to the British conquistadors in 1897; and fourth, the period from 1897 to the present day.
Linguistic evidence suggests that for upwards of three millennia, people speaking varieties of the Edo language have occupied their present location, and from them, the kingdom of Benin was established. Archaeological excavations in and around Benin City have shown that the settlement pattern was an aggregate of small groups in separate enclosures living in proximity to one another in the forest area. Ethnographic data further suggests the existence of discrete village settlement, which later developed as the basic unit of the wider political organization of the Benin kingship system.
Exploring the Benin past is to understand its history in the different phases of development. From its early beginnings, Benin consolidated from gerontocracy (the pre-dynastic rule of elders) to monarchy with a history of two dynasties – the Ogiso dynasty which collapsed before the middle of the 12th century, and the Oronmiyan-Eweka dynasty which began in c.1170 AD. A further growth of Benin Kingdom was the transformation into an Empire in the second half of the fifteenth century. From that time, “the Golden Age of Benin’ began with Oba Ewuare the Great c.1440-1473, as the first and greatest of the warrior kings. Benin expanded into an imperial power, whose boundaries were the River Niger to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the south, and which had established suzerainty over Yoruba areas to the west, and southwest up to the border of what became Dahomey, and in the late sixteenth century it reached a common boundary at Otun with Oyo.
The earliest European reports of Benin date from the period after the arrival of the Portuguese on the coast towards the end of the reign of Oba Ewuare the Great. The first recorded visit of a Portuguese, João Afonso d’Aveiro to Benin was in 1486. From the late fifteen century onwards, the name ‘Benin’ began to appear on European maps of Africa, and from that time Benin became an important trading partner with Europeans, first with the Portuguese, the British, Dutch and French, until the British conquest of 1897 in the age of European imperialism in Africa.
The first period in the history of Benin was the pre-Ogiso period
The people lived in village settlements and developed the earliest form of government known as gerontocracy – the rule of elders with the Odionwere or Okaevbo as the highest political authority in the village. In this pre-dynastic political arrangement, the Odionwere was assisted by four elders known as edion-nene, and whowere ranked in order of seniority. Relative seniority between those at the highest level in the age-grade organization was thus, at any particular time, rigidly defined. Each village community was independent, politically of the other, and expressed in their rights to be free from interference in their political life. The abundance of natural resources that supported human habitation earned the location the name Ubini – meaning land of inexhaustible resources.
The second period in Benin history was the rise and collapse of the Ogiso dynasty from c.500 AD to the middle of the 12th century AD
There were thirty-one kings of the Ogiso dynasty. The first king, Ogiso Igodo, built the first palace at Ugbekun, and his successor Ogiso Ere built the second palace at Uhunmwindun (present-day East Circular in Benin City). During this period, the seat of the monarchy in Benin became known as Igodomingodo. The establishment of the Ogiso dynasty was the first phase in the state formation process.
The institution of the monarchy emerged, and a palace was built at Ugbekun (a monument was erected at this site by the National Council for Museums and Momuments). The name Igodomingodo was for political unification for effective control and development, and the beginning of the process of integration of Benin villages into the new kingdom. The villages were bound together by language, religious worship, rituals and beliefs, shared experiences and possessions acquired in the course of generations a an ethnic group.
During this period, two levels of administration were created: a central government in the capital city, and district administration of the villages. The royal stool was established, chiefs were appointed and titles were conferred on important persons. Royal administrators known as Enigie were appointed by the kings, some Enigie became hereditary. The founder of the first dynasty created royal guards known as Odibo-Ogiso, and his successor, Ogiso Ere abolished the Odibo-Ogiso and replaced them with Avbiogbe as royal guards. Ere is reputed to have created the Ughoron, a class of royal reciters and recorders of events – the forerunner of the Ihogbe. Their main function was to record the deeds, achievements and main events in the reigns of various Ogisos (royal chroniclers).
He also created the council of five elders – the edion nisen, namely the Oliha, Edohen, Ero, Eholo, and Ezomo (all hereditary except the Ezomo). He also established the guild system for the organization of production. Members of each guild were craftsmen with monopoly rights to produce, standardize and market their products. Prominent among them were Owina (wood workers), Igbesanmwan (carvers), Emakhe (pot makers), Esohian (leather workers) and Ohue (hunters). He also founded the Ogiso market. He introduced the royal throne and swords of authority (ada and eben) and other administrative paraphernalia.
After a reign of thirty-one kings, the dynasty collapsed following the misrule and banishment of Ogiso Owodo, who was the last king of the dynasty. The period of interregnum witnessed the appointment of Evian as an administrator by the council of chiefs. The attempt by Evian to anoint his son, Ogiamien as successor to the throne was resisted by the Benin chiefs and elders.