Benin History and the Museum's Benin Collection

Benin History and the Museum's Benin Collection

The art of Benin is the product of an urban royal court, symbolizing and extolling the power, mystique, grandeur, continuity, and endurance of the ruling dynasty and its governing institutions.

From at least the 11th century to date, the Oba, a divine ruler, ruled Benin and headed the political system of titled chiefs. Under royal support, a number of craftsmen's guilds produced brass, ivory, and wood sculptures and brocaded and appliquéd cloth that museums prize and that command high prices on the art market.

The tradition of the Oba as patron of the arts has continued. In 1914, Oba Eweka II lifted the restrictions on the sale of art work, and traditional craftsmen began to create for the public as well as for the court. Benin art has been resilient in the face of political, economic, social, and religious change. Traditional forms continue to be made today, and new forms are emerging to become part of contemporary Benin culture.

The Benin case in the African Gallery includes:

Ivory symbolized royalty and the continuity of dynastic rule. White is the color of ritual purity, so the Oba often wears ivory on ceremonial occasions. Such was the skill of ivory carvers that they worked the pieces without any preliminary sketches.

Cast in high relief, chiefs of all rank wear these small pendants to decorate the fastening of the typical Benin men's wrapper, which is secured on the left hip (as seen in the picture of Commemorative Plaque above). Leopard and human faces were common.

rested on altars and rang to attract the attention of the ancestors. Warriors in battle also wore them around the neck; the sound of these bells announced their victories upon returning home.

Royalty and nobility wore armlets and bracelets. Only the Oba wore ivory armlets, especially in ceremonies where he danced with the eben sword or handled a gong, because they kept his elaborate coral bead costume from getting tangled.

Benin History

For over six hundred years the city of Benin was the capital of a prosperous, well-organized empire of the same name. At its peak during the 15th and 16th centuries, the empire stretched from Dahomey to the Niger River and reached to the Atlantic coast in places. 

The palace in Benin was the height of a complex feudal society characterized by widespread competition for power, prestige and wealth. The arrival of the Portuguese around 1485 created a new era of prosperity and rapid expansion. The Portuguese provided economic and militaristic strength for the kingdom, acting as a conduit for overseas trade and fighting in Benin military campaigns.

Conflicts stemming from colonial ambitions helped bring about the conquest of the kingdom in 1897, when an official British delegation was ambushed en route to see the Oba, despite his unwillingness to meet with it. In retaliation, the British sent the Oba into exile and burned the palace. In order to further weaken the Oba, and to deter additional bloodshed --the Oba had made sacrifices to the gods—the British, in keeping with the tradition of war booty, removed over two thousand objects from the palace. These objects—including the Oba's primary symbol of power, his coral-beaded wardrobe—were auctioned to defray the costs of the military expedition.

Today Benin City is the capital of Edo State and part of Nigeria's federal structure.

Benin Art and Beliefs

The sophistication and symbolism of Benin art illustrate the monarchy's ability to use the arts as instruments of the state. As the influence of the chiefs grew over the centuries, the office of the Oba became increasingly ceremonial. As a result, court ritual and art focused on what set the Oba apart from the chiefs: his ability to claim divine origins.

The divinity of the Benin monarchy is linked to Osanobua, the Creator God, and Olokun, his eldest son, who is associated intimately with the human world and with aspects of wealth, fertility, and beauty. His symbols are the python and the crocodile: animals that can live in water and on land, sent by Olokun to punish wrongdoing. The mudfish also inhabits the dual worlds of the riverbank and the shallow waters, and its powerful electric shock exemplified the potential violence of ancestors, warriors, and Obas. Symbols such as these helped reinforce the political legitimacy of the monarchy.

Benin royal art is primarily made of ivory and bronze. In the past, the Oba controlled the ivory trade, and any hunter who killed an elephant was obliged to give one of its tusks to the palace. In this way the rulers of Benin amassed huge stocks of ivory to be carved by the Igbesanmwan, the hereditary guild of ivory carvers, or sold to Europeans. Ivory's ritual importance stems from its white color, shared with orhue (chalk), considered the perfect symbol of purity, prosperity, and peace.

Before the arrival of the Portuguese, trade with northern neighbors supplied bronze. In the 15th century a great expansion in bronze-casting took place, reflecting the increased commercial importance of Benin. Bronze heads of Obas and Queen Mothers form the pinnacle of this artistic tradition.

While it is common to emphasize the continuity of art and culture in traditional societies, Benin's development was far from static. Although the kingdom of Benin's independence ended in 1897, the Oba continues to commission art to inspire public loyalty and pride, as well as preserve historical memory during the changes of 21st century Nigeria.



- Abolish Edoid Group of Race for One Edo Nation or Edoid Nation!

- Contesting the History of Benin Kingdom By Peter P. Ekeh

- Benin - Urhobo Relationship By Dr. Nowa Omoigui

- Language and unity of Edo people By Uyilawa Usuanlele

- Benin_Igbo_Yoruba Historic relations (Onitsha, Orisha) By PHILIP EM...

- Esan Not An Ethnic Group But Benin(Edo) By Uwagboe Ogieva

- Ogiso and Eweka times: A prelimnary history of Edoid Complex of cul... By Peter P. Ekeh
- Let Boko Haram have their own country, says Omoruyi By Omo Omoruyi

- Crisis in Belgium:If Flanders Secedes Wallonia Disintegrates

- Edo-African heritage within the context and the dynamics of Nigerian culture

- First European Contact With Nigeria Was 1485 By The Great Benin Emp...

- Greatness of an African Queen Mother: IDIA By Uwagboe Ogieva

- Excellence in education and culture for the new millennium By Chief Oje Aisiku, PhD

- Bini Names in Nigeria and Georgia By Roger Westcott, Professor Emeritus, Drew University

- Nigeria: The Edo of Benin By Osamuyimen Stewart, Ph.D.


- Agbor link with Edo people "Origin of Agbor - Agbon" By By Emeka Esogbue

- Benin (Nigeria) and its Mystique By MIKE JIMOH

- Benin History and the Museum's Benin Collection From the




- Benin and the Europeans, 1485-1897 by Alan Frederick Charles Ryder
Product details: Hardcover: 388 pages / Publisher: Prentice Hall Press; 1st Edition edition (July 1969) Language English / ISBN-10: 058264514X / ISBN-13: 978-0582645141

- Graham Connah. 1975. The Archaeology Of Benin: Excavations and other researches in and around Benin City, Nigeria. Clarendon Press : Oxford. Pages - 266 (plus photographs) ISBN - 0 19 920063 7

- Kings, Magic,& Medicine " by Chief Dr. Dayl Peavy JD. An African American that has an Esan Chietaincy title (2007). An Ob'oguega as well as an Ob'orunmila. Have been conducting research in Edo State since 1997 and published in a book titled: "Kings, Magic & Medicine".

- Evolution Of Benin Chieftancy Title (Very specific facts on Edo and Edo's in Diaspora). $25.00

- Benin City Pilgrimage Stations (Detailed Edo History). $25.00

- Benin City- Edo State Capital (More details on the colonial Era).

- The Edo Man of the 20th Century (Oba Eweka 11 life history). $10.00

- Erediauwa, Prince of Benin. (About the Price and not this Oba).$10.00

- Iwu- The body marks of Edo People. $10.00

- A DVD on Edo History from Ogiso to current. Concluded by an address by Omo N'oba himself. $10.00

[Contact Tina Iyare Tel:610-563-9131 Tel:610-873-6842** TO PURCHASE ANY OF ABOVE BOOK WITH PRICE TAG]



- The Portuguese National Archives in Lisbon

- British Museum

- National Museum Benin City







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