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