Oba Esigie of Benin Empire (ruled c.1504-c.1550 AD)
Great ruler of the southern Nigeria region who commissioned great art

Great Benin, also known as Edo, was an important state that flourished in southern Nigeria. Oba Esigie ascended the throne in c.1504 and had a long and eventful reign of perhaps 46 years. He introduced a special post in the administration for his mother called the Iyoba, the Queen Mother. A Dutch chronicler would report a century later that the Oba "undertakes nothing of importance without having sought her counsel". The art of the time reflects this reality. Esigie commissioned a highly improved metal art that has since achieved worldwide distinction. Of the best-known pieces are the famous Queen Mother Idia busts. Professor Felix von Luschan, a former official of the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde, stated that: "These works from Benin are equal to the very finest examples of European casting technique. Benvenuto Cellini could not have cast them better, nor could anyone else before or after him … Technically, these bronzes represent the very highest possible achievement."

Affonso d'Aveiro and other Portuguese agents returned to Benin. They aroused Esigie's interest in the possibility of acquiring firearms from Portugal for future campaigns. There was, however, a catch. Manuel, the Portuguese king wrote Esigie, explaining to him that: "When we see that you have embraced the teachings of Christianity like a good and faithful Christian, there will be nothing within our realms which we shall not be glad to favour you, whether it be arms or cannon and all other weapons of war for use against your enemies; of such things we have a great store, as your ambassador Dom Jorge will inform you."

It was not to be. In 1516 and without Portuguese arms, Esigie scored a crushing defeat on Igala to the north. They had attempted an invasion that posed a threat to the very existence of Benin. Esigie compelled the defeated Igala to pay reparations. The Portuguese king did, however, send missionaries to Benin who successfully converted the Oba's son to the Christian faith. Bini Christians also established a few churches in Benin City at Ogbelaka, Idumwerie, and Akpakpava. The last church became the Holy Cross Cathedral. Christianity, however, remained distinctly a minority religion largely restricted to a few members of the court. It seems that the indigenous religion was just too well organised to be undermined by this foreign threat.

Emperor Ewuare the Great of Benin Empire (ruled c.1440-c.1473 AD)
Greatest ruler of the southern Nigeria region

Great Benin, also known as Edo, was an important state that flourished in southern Nigeria. In the fifteenth century, it was an empire distinguished by the sumptuousness and comfort of its capital, Benin City, and by the refinement of its royal art. Oba (i.e. King) Ewuare the Great, founder of the empire, reigned between c.1440 and c.1473. Noted as a brilliant ruler, he is remembered for strong leadership and military prowess. Marching against 201 towns and villages over the southern Nigeria region, he captured their leaders and compelled the masses to pay tribute. Among the subdued regions were Eka, Ekiti, Ikare, Kukuruku, and the Igbo territories west of the Niger River.

An able politician, he used religious authority and intimidation, as well as constitutional reforms, to strengthen his hand. He appointed a new tier of bureaucrats creating a strongly centralised system to administer his empire. These bureaucrats, the Town Chiefs, were appointed to undermine the control of the hereditary Palace Chiefs. One of the Town Chiefs headed the newly created standing army. Modern historians give different and conflicting explanations of how this worked but Stride and Ifeka explain it thus: "Benin was apparently governed by the Oba, the Uzama and the palace chiefs. The palace chiefs were divided into three associations of title holders: the chamberlains, household officials and the harem-keepers. Palace chiefs both inherited and achieved their titles by paying fees to their association. What Ewuare found was that the palace chiefs were too powerful … To strengthen the Obaship, Ewuare … introduced another association of chiefs, the town chiefs … They generally obtained their title on appointment by the Oba: only one title was hereditary. Ewuare appointed four town chiefs to increase his authority against the palace officials; later their number was much enlarged by Ewuare successors. Town chiefs played an important part in the government and the senior town chief, the Iyashere, became the commander-in-chief of the army. They sat with the palace chiefs and the Uzama on the State Council, which Ewuare was said to have set up."


The Warrior Obas

The 15th and 16th centuries are often called Benin’s Golden Age. Oba Ozolua the Conqueror (enthroned c. 1481) and his hier, Oba Esigie (enthroned c. 1504), were strategic in using the kingdom’s growing wealth and might, stimulated by trade with the Portuguese, to expand its boundaries. Recognizing the potential of the Portuguese as a source of political clout, Oba Ozolua arranged to have a Portuguese tutor for his son Esigie. After he became oba, Esigie invited Portuguese merchants and missionaries into the daily life of Benin while regulating their commerce through a guild of commissioned traders. He also took Portuguese mercenaries to war in struggles that ultimately strengthened the kingdom and consolidated its power under the oba.

Oba Esigie had another alliance that proved invaluable to him. His mother, Idia, used her deep knowledge of the occult to create protective and strengthening medicines for his soldiers and actively commanded her own army in battle. To honor Idia, Esigie created the title of iyoba (queenmother) and endowed the position with rights, privileges, and responsibilities that were more typically reserved for men.

Esigie was also a prolific patron of the arts. Under his rule, brass casting flourished, with casters achieving a highly refined style of naturalized idealism. Esigie was also the first oba to commission palace plaques, a new format with which Benin’s artists could honor ancestors, document exploits, and portray court life.

Explore more works related to this theme.

Plaque of Oba Ozolua with Warriors and Attendants, 16th/17th century. Edo; Benin Kingdom, Nigeria. Museum für Völkerkunde Wien, 64.717.

© 2011 The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 60603-6404
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