The Great Benin Empire

Despite it being overlooked for many centuries Benin is probably one of the most precious germs in all of West African history, and three facts still remain :

The Benin Empire was one of the longest lasting empires in all of West African history.

It constructed a mega structure not seen anywhere else in the world.

Its arts greatly influenced all who lay eyes on it.

Located in Southern Nigeria, the people of Benin began its dominance at about 11 A.D to 1897, one of the longest empires in all of West African history.

The Benin Empire was one of the oldest and most highly developed States in West Africa. The founders of Benin were the EDO people, and they were led by Oba Ovoramwen Nogbaisi.

Oba Ovoramwen Nogbaisi the Great turned Benin into an empire, formed political structures in the Kingdom, and greatly expanded the territory of the Kingdom, and fostered the arts and festivals into what we know it as today.

All of history recounts 201 victories by Oba Ovoramwen Nogbaisi , over the various cities and towns, creating an Empire centred in EDO, even conquering many Yoruba States and incorporating them into the Benin Empire. Most notable Lagos State. The Name “EKO” (traditional name for Lagos) stems from the Benin word Eko, which means gathering place for warriors. This shows Lagos was a military outpost for the Benin Kingdom.

Around Benin City, Oba Ovoramwen Nogbaisi built significant large walls within the cities, and clearly divided zones for different craftworks.

Archeological evidence has found that the walls built around the city, and even out into the country was significant, and constructions taking years to complete. In addition he rebuilt the palace and seperated it from the rests of the Capital city.

The architecture of the Benin Empire was very unique. Well established Portuguese travellers were lured in by the magnificence of the Benin gate and walls and architectural structures they beheld. Travellers to Benin beheld it as the GREAT BENIN.

One 17th century Dutch traveller had this to say about the City:

The Kings palace or court is a square, and is as large as a Dutch town, and entirely surrounded by special walls that which encircled the town. It is divided into magnificent palaces, houses and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as an exchange in Amsterdam, resting on wooden pillars from top to bottom, covered with Caste and Copper in which are engraved pictures of their war exploits and battles.

The Benin Empire was very organised and even had its own flag. The Edo people were mobilised by Oba Ovoramwen Nogbaisi the Great and they invested in military structures and tactics. The Edo people were so dedicated to Military prowess that they built one of the most impressive structures in all of Africa.

Great Wall of Benin

The walls of Benin were the largest man-made structure lengthwise, and was hailed as the largest artwork in the world. It’s estimated that the earliest construction began in 800 and continued into the mid 15th Century. The walls of Benin city was the world’s largest man-made earth structure.

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A quote from Fred Pierce of the New Scientist has this to say about the walls of Benin :

They extended for some 9,900 miles in all in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlements and boundaries. They cover 2510 square miles and were all dug by the EDO people. In all they are four times longer than the Great Wall of China and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Giza.

They took an estimated 150 hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the single largest archaeological phenomenon on the planet.

Now that’s a pretty impressive feat for a small empire like Benin, putting itself on the world stage architecturally.


Benin ibo-ukwu bronze stature. Wikimedia commons

One can’t speak about Benin without its artistic splendour. The Art from the Benin Empire is magnificent and exemplifies the glory of West African civilization. According to oral tradition the technique of wax bronze casting was brought to Benin around the 14th Century from Ife, the ancient Yoruba Kingdom noted for its exquisite cast bronze commemorative heads.

British officials were interested in controlling trade in the area to access the empire rubber resources to support their own growing tire market. At the end of the 19th century the Kingdom of Benin had managed to retain its independence and the Great Oba Ovoramwen Nogbaisi exercised a monopoly over trade, which greatly annoyed the British. So the British wanted to annex Benin and remove the Oba.

First the British tried to make Benin sign a deceptive treaty that will make them a prirectorate, because of this the Oba bared all British officials and traders from entering Benin territories. Of course to the British this meant war.



In November James Robert Philips made a formal request to London for permission to invade Benin city. In late December 1896 without waiting for a reply or approval from London, Philip embarked on a military expedition with two Niger Coast Protectorate force officers, medical officers, two trading agents 250 African soldiers masquerading in part as potters, and in part as a drum and pipe bands.

To disguise their true intent, the forces weapons were hidden in baggges carried by the porters. His request to London was to depose the King of Benin city, replace him with a native council and pay for the invasion with the Ivory he hoped to find in the Benins Kings Palace.

In the meantime he sent a message to the Oba that his mission is to discuss trade and peace and demanding admission into the territory, in defiance of Benin law exploiting forbidding his entry. Unfortunately for Philips some Itsekiri chiefs sent a message to the Benin King that :

“The white man was bringing war”

In receiving the news the Benin King quickly summoned the city’s high ranking nobles for an emergency meeting, and during the discussions, Olognoseri, the Comander in Chief of the Benin Army argued that the British were planning a surprise attack and must be defeated.


The Benin King however argued that the British should be allowed to enter the City so that it can be assertained whether or not the visit was a friendly one. But the Commander ignored the Oba’s views and ordered the formation of a strike force that was commanded by Itsekiri chiefs a senior army commander.

This pre-emptive strike on the British and African forces was pretty much a slaughter fest, only two British officers survived the annihilation of Philips Experdition.


No surprise the British had to retaliate after they suffered that humiliating defeat, and led what was called the “punitive expedition”. This force was led by Harry Lawson.

On February 9 the assault began. The invasion force was composed of three collumes :

Sopoma Collume. Qwato Collume and Main collumes, with the Sopoma collumes consisting of Royal Marines and Sailors, the Qwato collume was made up of 100 Royal Marines and Sailors, and the Main colume consisted of 120 British Marines and 100 British sailors, 30 African scouts and 250 African troops drawn from the Niger Coast Protectorate Force.

The most heavily defended region of Benin was the region of Qwato. The British Royal forces met the greatest Benin defence led by Commander Ologboseri. After a bitter and bloody battle the British were forced to withdraw.

After the withdrawal the British Royal Forces tried a second time, and were again kept at bay at the outskirts of Benin city. Then ironically the African forces of the Niger Protectorate relieved the British forces and conquered the city, burning down the city and looting.

This was the end of the Benin Empire. The troops began looting the city, taking Benin artifacts and taking it back to the British museums.


The Art of Benin was so moving and majestic that its dispersal around the world forced people to reassess how they viewed Africans in general, as one cannot look at the sophistication and beauty of Benin art and justify their old adulterated and backward view of African people.

The Benin Empire was unique in that it single handedly forced people to view all West Africans differently.


The Art of Benin was copied and the style was integrated into the art of Art of many Europeans artists and thus a strong influence on the early formation of modernism in Europe. The culture and magnificent arts of Benin can sometimes make historians re-evaluate and question who the real conquerers are, the ones who captured the city or the ones who captured the mind?



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