*THE GREAT BENIN KINGDOM AND THE ORIGINS OF MAN *
Creation and Racial Dispersal
By Naiwu Osahon
The Universe is some 10 to 20 billion years old and the Earth 4.6 billion years. Humans are the late comers on Earth and have evolved over a period of 13 million years albeit as members of the chimpanzee family. We only started looking as we do now (i.e. Homo sapiens) 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. 15,000 years ago to be specific, the human race was still very primitive. The stirring of civilization started in earnest from Black Egypt less than 10,000 years ago. All races of the world originated from the African (Black), and moved to occupy the rest of the earth from Africa. Even when original African settlers all over the world had begun to change in skin colour due to climatic differences and had forgotten their African origins, new waves of Africans continued to invade their old colonies to assert their authority and teach new knowledge. From the Osirian reign in Egypt in 4100 BCE, Africans began to teach the rest of mankind farming, industrialization, commerce, and how to organize cities and nation states, while the African religion, the Mystery System, (which is the mother of all the religions of the world), began its uninterrupted supremacy until about 2000 years ago.
Africans from Egypt colonized Mesopotamia and Elam in 4000 BCE to teach the rudiments of civilization and introduce African religion (spirituality), which with emphasis on Nimrod, carved from the image of Ausar (Osiris), went through several phases to become Zoroastrianism. The African religion also gave birth to the Islamic religion in Persia, 1000 years before the birth of Muhammad. The Dravidians from Ethiopia took Hinduism to India in 3200 BCE. In 1640 BCE, 70 Hebrews entered Egypt but some 3,154,000 African-Hebrews left Egypt in 1230 BCE, under the leadership of the African prince called Moses. Moses trained in the Mystery System as a prince for 40 years and adapted its laws for his followers. Arabs are a hybrid of Africans and Caucasians. Muhammad was born in 570 CE and he adopted the Babylonian (African) religion that was already 1000 years old from Persia during his time.
The reverse dispassion of blacks from the Nile Valley began seriously as a result of the over population of the Valley, then as a consequence of social upheavals, and finally due to Persian 525 BCE, Greek 332 BCE, and Roman 55 BCE invasions of the black race Egypt. The civilizations that emerged from the Egyptian disturbances in the West African sub-region, not in any special order, where Ghana, Chad, Mali, Benin and Songhai, with some dating back to 1500 BCE, at least.
Creation according to Genesis is the creation myth found in the Bible – Genesis 1-2. It describes the making of the heavens and the Earth and of the first humans and by God (i.e. Elohim and/or Yaweh).
The two chapters contain two successive accounts of creation, the first taking the form of the "creation week", the second relating to the Eden narrative. These two accounts are believed to be of independent origins, but creationists and fundamentalists continue to argue that the second should be seen as a continuation and expansion of the first.
The creation week narrative begins with these words: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." It takes place over a period of six days and is followed by a seventh day of rest. In these seven days there are eight divine commands spoken.
The Eden narrative addresses the creation of the first man and woman and the creation of a garden in Eden into which they were placed:
- Genesis 2:4b: This is beginning of the Eden narrative, and it places the events of the narrative "in the day when God made the earth and the heavens."
- The forming of man: We are told that before any plant had appeared, before any rain had fallen, and while a mist watered the earth, God formed a man from dust of the ground and he breathed "the breath of life" into his nostrils, and the man became a "living creature".
- Garden in Eden: God planted a garden in Eden into which he put the man.
- Trees: God caused fruit trees to sprout up from the ground for the man to eat. The tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil are also mentioned as being in the middle of this garden.
- Rivers: An unnamed river is described that went out of Eden to water the garden. We are told that there it divided into four rivers: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates.
- The duty: God took the man and placed him in the garden to "work it and keep it."
- The command and the warning: God told the man that he may eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, "for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."
- The naming of the animals: God brought every living creature to the man who gave them all their names. At this time it was noticed that there was no helper fit for the man.
- The forming of woman: God said that it was not good for the man to be alone, and he resolved to make a helper fit for him. He then caused the man to fall into "a deep sleep," and he took one of his ribs, and from it he formed a woman. The man named her "Woman", "because she was taken out of man."
- Marriage: A statement instituting marriage follows: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh."
- Naked: We are told that the man and his wife are naked but they felt no shame because of it.
Charles Darwin - The Origin of Species.
The idea of biological evolution was around long before Darwin published On The Origin of Species. Some have traced the concept back as far as Aristotle. However, Christian thought in Medieval Europe involved complete faith in the ancient Biblical teachings of creation according to Genesis. Its concepts including "Created kinds" were interpreted by the priesthood as theology not scientific fact, but the Protestant Reformation widened access to the Bible and brought more literal interpretations. By the time of Darwin's birth in 1809, it was widely believed in England that both the natural world and the hierarchical social order were held stable, fixed by God's will, with nothing happening purely naturally and spontaneously.
In the 18th century Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon suggested that species might change, within limits, over time and that some similar species (such as lions, tigers, house cats) might be related by common descent. At the end of the 18th century Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus Darwin described more general ideas of common descent with all warm blooded creatures sharing a common ancestor and with organisms "acquiring new parts" in response to stimuli then passing these changes to their offspring.
In 1809 Jean-Baptiste Lamarck published the first fully developed scientific theory of evolution, which he called transmutation of species. Lamarck proposed two mechanisms of evolution. One was an inherent progressive tendency that drove species towards greater complexity. The second, which became known as Lamarckian inheritance or inheritance of acquired characteristics, was the ability of organisms to inherit changes brought about through increased use or disuse of organs in response to the organism's environment, producing adaptation. Lamarck did not propose common descent. Instead his concept was of separate lineages each progressing towards greater complexity
Darwin's theory is based on key observations and inferences drawn from them.
- Every species is fertile enough that if all offspring survived to reproduce the population would grow.
- Yet populations remain roughly the same size, with small changes.
- Resources such as food are limited and are relatively stable over time.
- A struggle for survival ensues.
- In sexually reproducing species, generally no two individuals are identical.
- Some of these variations directly affect the ability of an individual to survive in a given environment.
- Much of this variation is inheritable.
- Individuals less suited to the environment are less likely to survive and less likely to reproduce, while individuals more suited to the environment are more likely to survive and more likely to reproduce.
- The individuals that survive are most likely to leave their inheritable traits to future generations.
- This slowly effected process results in populations that adapt to the environment over time, and ultimately, after interminable generations, these variations accumulate to form new varieties, and ultimately, new species.
In the first two narratives of this conversation, I sought to demonstrate the various historical, religious and scientific origins of man. In the next few – I will attempt to draw linkages to the Great Benin Kingdom and our own story of the origins of man.
The following narrative will draw largely on the work of Naiwu Osahon “The correct history of Edo” and Edo Empire and Civilisation. Aspects of these works have been reproduced in whole or in parts in an attempt to keep their authenticity and accuracy. I am grateful to Naiwu for his scholarship in the history of the land of my birth and also for granting his permission for the reproduction of his work.
The Bini cosmological account of the universe draws significantly from the Egyptian one. The Egyptian version, which later formed the basis of Genesis in the Bible, is that the universe was created from chaos and primaeval (or ancient) ocean. After a hill (called ta-tjenen) arose from the bottom of the ocean, a son-god (God’s child or baby god) called Atom, (which is the Sun without which life on earth is impossible), appeared on the land created by the hill. The son-god or Atom then created eight other gods, which together with himself made nine gods. These nine gods are presumed by modern science to be symbolized by the nine major planets of the universe.
The Bini version is that, in the beginning, Osanobua (God, Oghene-Osa, Tu-SoS), decided to populate the world so He asked His four sons in Erinmwin (Heaven), to choose whatever gift of nature each fancied. The oldest chose wealth, the next in age chose wisdom, the third chose mysticism (spiritual energy), and as the youngest was about to announce his choice, Owonwon (the Toucan) cried out to him to settle for a snail shell. This did not make sense to him but he settled for it all the same. The brothers laughed at his stupid choice but Osanobua said it was a wise choice. That when they get to the middle of the water where He was sending them, the youngest son should turn his snail shell facing the water.
There was no land only water every where and the four sons were in a canoe, sailing, drifting, propelled by the power of eziza (wind). In the middle of the water stood a tree on top of which lived (Owonwon) the toucan. The importance of the emergence of the tree before man on earth is not lost on modern science, which recognizes that without the tree manufacturing oxygen, life on earth would have been impossible. Modern science has also confirmed the Bini cosmology that birds, insects etc preceded man to earth. The Bini myth of creation was earth based in scope.
When the children got to the middle of the water, the youngest son turned his snail shell upside down resulting in an explosion from the bottom of the water that forced volumes and volumes of sand to gush out of the water and fill up space around them for as far as the eyes could see. With the explosion, the four elements of creation, amen (water), eziza (air), arhen (fire) and oto (sand or land) were in place. Land was every where but the kids did not know what it was. They were afraid to climb out of the canoe to step on the land, so they sent the Chameleon to test its firmness. That is why the Chameleon walks with hesitation.
The youngest son of Osanobua was the only spirit out of the four sons who could have the physical human body attribute on stepping on the land, because that was the advantage of the physical or material choice he made. It was put in his hand from heaven. The other sons were deities. The youngest son, the ruler of the earth, represents innocence and so is susceptible to the powers of the deities, his brothers. These same weak and strong, good and evil, physical and spiritual, influences form the basic elements of all modern religions, with man endowed with the power to make choices.
Junior wanted his older spirit brothers to remain with him on his land. The oldest brother chose to take his spirit gift and live in what was left of the water. The other two brothers accepted junior’s invitation and deposited their spirit selves and gifts on the land as soon as they stepped on it from the canoe. Junior stepped on his land gingerly at first, then vigorously, stamping hard and repeatedly on it, running and rolling over it. He looked around and felt good and happy with his enormous gift. He called his land agbon (earth), and himself, Idu, meaning the first human on earth. He decided to walk around and explore the extent and nature of his gift. It had trees, shrubs, birds, animals, insects, which all came out of water with the land, and the land sprawled endlessly. After walking for a while pushing through shrubs; almost stepping on insects, ants and crawlers; talking to birds that appeared to be serenading him and animals that came close or ran from him, he was tired. He sat on the stump of a tree to rest, later lying on the ground to sleep.
While asleep, Osanobua came down with a chain from heaven, looked around to ensure that everything was in place, including the Sun and the Moon that were to regulate day and night and the seasons. When Idu woke up, he was excited to find himself in the presence of a huge, soothing illumination, surrounded by darkness. The earth was dark. He knew he was in the presence of the ‘Almighty’ and did not want to look directly at the illumination. He went down humbly and quickly on his knees to thank Osanobua for the immense earth gift bestowed on him.
“You are happy then?” Osanobua asked Idu. “Very, very,” Idu said, adding humbly, “but I am hungry. I have not eaten since I arrived here? What do I do for food?” Osanobua said, “Stretch your hand up above your head; the sky would respond by coming close to your hand. Pluck whatever you need from the sky. Don’t pluck more than you need to eat to satisfy your hunger at any one time though.” ”I won’t, I won’t,” Idu said eagerly, stretching his right hand right away to pluck a mouthful of food from the sky. As he munched away happily, eyes and head rolling to show joy and satisfaction, he managed to mumble, “it tastes very nice, I love it.”
“What else do you need?” Osanobua asked Idu. “Dad, I could do with a human companion. I am lonely. My brothers are spirits and I can no longer relate with them,” Idu said. Osanobua said, “You are not flesh and blood alone. You are part spirit too. Your spirit brothers are not far away. Experience would teach you how to harness wisdom, one of your spirit brothers, which would teach you how to combine your physical and spiritual energies to cultivate wealth and spiritual fulfillment, your other two spirit brothers.”
Osanobua gave the oldest son control of the waters. The Bini call this son, Olokun (meaning the god of the waters). Olokun represents aspects of life such as good health, long life, good luck, prosperity and happiness, to which man may appeal through ritual purity. The other spirit sons were allowed the freedom to use their magical powers to balance out the negative and positive forces of nature. To shorten the process of acquiring spiritual wisdom, Osanobua strengthened the mystical energy with three new forces: Oguega, Ominigbon and Iha, to provide humans with spiritual guidance to differentiate rights from wrongs.
Osanobua then told Idu to take sand with both palms from the ground and stretch his hands close together in front of him. As soon as Idu did as he was told, Osanobua called forth a female person, pointing His staff where she appeared in front of Idu. “Whao,” Idu exclaimed on beholding the beautiful female person standing in front of him. She smiled happily and went down on her knees to greet Osanobua, looking at Idu who she also greeted. Idu held her hands in response and hugged her. Osanobua said, “She is Eteghohi (a woman) and you are Etebite, (a man). In marriage you would multiply to ensure there is no shortage of hands in the management of the earth’s resources.”
As Osanobua was making to leave, Idu politely asked: “what if we have other problems and want to reach our creator quickly?” Osanobua said, “you can individually live for up to five hundred years, but you can come to me at will through your individual spirit self, ehi, whose double is permanently with me in heaven. All you would need to do is climb the Alubode hill and you are with ehi in heaven, who would bring you to me.”
As Osanobua left to his abode where the earth, water, and the sky meet, darkness was lifted from the earth.
Life was sweet and easy and before long, Idu and his wife, Eteghohi, were making babies. As the years rolled by, generations of extended Idu’s family began to spread out in all directions, setting up communities, villages and towns. The different communities farthest from base spoke variations of Idu language and knew that they came from one common ancestor, Papa Idu, the ancestor of all mankind. Everything went well for thousands of years until one day when Emose, a pregnant woman, out of greed, cut more food than she needed to eat at once, from the sky. There was an immediate explosion and the sky began receding from human reach. Direct interaction with Osanobua from then on became difficult because humans could no longer walk in and out of heaven at will. Emose’s greed destroyed the age of innocence and brought into human affairs, two new spirits, Esun and Idodo, both representing obstacles humans must now overcome to reach heaven. Idodo is the spirit ‘police’ that ensures that natural or divine laws are obeyed. Idodo seeks to ensure we repent and atone for our sins. Esun is the ‘servant’ spirit or angel that takes genuine human pleas, performed in the purity of heart, before Osanobua.
Emose’s greed also brought a lot of suffering and pains to humans. Forests were soon depleted of their natural food supply, so humans began to toil hard clearing forests, burning bushes, tilling the land, planting, weeding, nurturing, threshing and harvesting. It was not easy. Before long, the lazy began to die like fowls in the desert. Farming activities began to take their toll on the ecological balance of the earth too, causing droughts, unpredictable seasons, and environmental degradation. The soil began to suffer and die from over use, yielding less and less food despite the use of excrement as manure, which in turn caused its peculiar illness, pains and deaths.
Two new spiritual forces of nature were now evident and critical to human survival. They were Uwu (death), the harbinger of death, and Ogi’uwu (the spirit of death), representing mourning, evil omen, and diseases. Ogi’uwu owns the blood of all living things. Uwu and Ogi’uwu were causing havoc among humans. Humans who could live before for ukpo iyisen-iyisen vb’ iyisen (five hundred years) at a stretch, were now dying prematurely. Death was ready to take life at any time, and Ogi’uwu was sending every one who disobeyed Osanobua (or nodiyi-Osa) to death, regardless of age.
To convince Idodo to prevail on Uwu and Ogi’uwu to temper justice with mercy and get Esun to take our pleas to Osanobua to control the forces, required the services of our own individual spirit called ‘ehi.’ Ehi could no longer go directly to Osanobua because of Emose’s sin, except at the point before our birth. The Bini say there are two aspects of man. One half is ehi, which is the spirit essence, and the other half is the okpa, which is the physical person. Before birth, ehi, (the spirit essence) of the individual, humbly goes before Osanobua to request endorsement of the kind of life the individual would wish to live on earth (agbon). The request is obviously made with a baby’s sense of innocence about rights and wrongs, and the weight of the karmic debt and credit baggage of the individual from previous life cycles and styles. However, the choice of the new life style is patently and entirely the individual’s, and could be any of one or a combination of scenarios. The individual may want to be a powerful spiritualist, a rich business man or farmer, a great warrior or soldier, a happy or unhappy family man, a wimp or beggar, a revered medicine man, a famous chief, politician, or popular king, and even a notorious or very successful thief.
The Idu people, like other Africans, have only one Osanobua and several intermediaries in form of saints, gods, deities, because Osanobua became remote to humans as a result of Emose’s sin. With pains and suffering on earth refusing to abate after Emose’s sin and Osanobua’s anger by taking the sky (therefore food), too far out of human reach, Idu people started praying for abundant rainfall and sunshine all year round to replace the droughts they were experiencing.
The intermediary gods and deities were expected to intercede on their behalf before Osanobua over the relentless suffering on earth, and Ogi‘uwu’s merciless execution of the mandate of death. At their individual, family, and community shrines, Idu people plead their cases through their individual ehi to the deities to take their pleas to Osanobua. After a while they began to feel that the response to their pleas was too slow or inadequate and began yearning for the opportunity to continue to visit heaven at will and plead directly before Osanobua as it was in the beginning. They felt they could maximize their chances by combining their efforts to reach Osanobua through their ehi and deities, with direct plea. This happened thousands of years before the Christian era.
In fact, the Christian creation ideas about Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and the Son-of-God, appear to have been taken verbatim from the Idu (Edo) corpus. But the Idu (direct interaction concept) is superior to the Christian one because, while Christians rely on an intermediary or a Messiah to reach the Supreme God, Idu people go directly, collectively. They have a human saint too who died for their collective well-being, but they believe every human must account individually for his or her deeds. No Messiah can cleanse your sins for you because we each have our individual covenant with Osanobua through our ehi, on the day before our birth on earth.
Leaders and priests of all the Idu deities agreed that while they should continue with their various individual efforts to reach Osanobua, they should also come together regularly to plead and pray with one voice for Osanobua’s direct intervention and blessings in their lives. They each first went through self purification processes such as fasting and spiritual cleansing, and collectively cleansed the place chosen for the prayer gathering. The prayer sessions at the gathering point, went on regularly for a long while without any noticeable change in their plight, so one day, one of them, a powerful spiritual leader and priest by the name Okhuaihe, offered to take the people’s prayers and pleas to Osanobua in heaven. That meant dying for the uplift of his people, of course. The Idu people reluctantly agreed with him and promised to continue to pray at the chosen spot until he returned, or forever if he failed to return.
A huge ball of fire descended from the sky and with it came a thunderous voice confirming the presence of Osanobua and suggesting that Okhuaihe’s mission had not been in vain. The voice said: “Okhuaihe delivered your message to me, but your wishes are against my creative will and I will not grant them.”
A while after the voice spoke, another ball of fire descended from the sky through the darkness and fell on earth to lift the darkness. Idu people were expecting Okhuaihe to return with the lifting of darkness but he didn’t, so they declared that: Aimi ‘ose no ye ‘rinmwin.” Meaning life after death is beyond understanding. Idu people, however, consoled themselves with the thought that the new ball of fire from the sky must have brought a message from Osanobua. They organized a search party to locate where it fell and what it was. At the spot where the ball of fire fell, at the junction of Igbesanwman and today’s Aruosa Street, they found a strange huge black stone. The unique black stone, which looks alien to our world, is one of the relics the British took away during their sacking and burning of Benin City in 1897. Idu people named the stone ‘Aruosa,’ meaning the Eye of Osanobua (God) watching over His creation. It is a symbol of Idu people’s direct experience of God. They built a proper house of worship at the spot where they had always gone to pray to Osanobua. This happened over 3000 years ago. The ancient site is at a place known today as Akpakpava Road. Therefore, nobody can teach Idu (Edo) people anything about how to worship God. They knew and heard directly from God, thousands of years before the Christian era.
The Aruosa’s Ohen Osa led a delegation of Aruosa priests to Portugal in 1462, during the reign of Oba Ewuare. The Aruosa priests picked up a few ideas about mode of dressing which they adapted. They were surprised that baptism and confirmation in the Catholic Church played similar roles as the Aruosa initiation rites into the lower and upper sanctum of the Aruosa faith. Initiation at the level of baptism in Aruosa is not with water as in the Catholic faith, but with the white chalk (orhue), which is the symbol of cleanliness, purity, joy, and success. The equivalence to confirmation initiation rites in Aruosa, use palm fronds (igborhe), which is the symbol of renewal of life, multiplicity and endlessness. Christians use palm fronds in their Palm Sunday rituals as a symbol of renewal of life but deride Africans they copied from, as primitive and savage for using them.
The British, after conquering and burning Benin City, banned the worship of the Supreme God at Aruosa, describing the practice, which is not only superior to their concept and mode of worship, but older by thousands of years, and from which they took their religious bearing, as barbaric. Oba Akenzua II, defied the British ban in 1945, by building the first Aruosa Cathedral on the ancient Aruosa site at Akpakpava Road, which the Roman Catholic Church had usurped before that time to erect their Cathedral. Akenzua II set up 12 Aruosa schools in Benin City, Urora and other places, to spread the teaching of the faith. Through his influence Aruosa houses of worship were built in Onitsha, Umuahia, and Port-Harcourt, as well as in Cotonou in Benin Republic. The Nigerian civil war truncated the gains made by Aruosa during Akenzua’s reign. The military regime seized all mission schools, including the Aruosa’s, and ran them aground.
Ethos and Social Engineering
In the same way that each extended family had an Okaegbee, or leader, each ward, community, village, town, dukedom, had an Odionwere, who more often than not was the oldest person in the society. The community, village, town, or dukedom, organized itself into Otu (age) groups and guilds. Each Otu had seven divisions. The idea of seven started when a group of seven, known as the ‘Ominigie,’ was set up during the Ogiso era. Ominigie was a militant or warrior group that went to war for the society. According to myths, the group accompanied their war activities with music and dance and when they were eventually vanquished, it was said that they danced their way to heaven. Another group of seven was promptly set up after their demise and the rhythm of seven has prevailed since.
Each of the seven divisions of the Otu (age groups) represents special ethos translating roughly as follows:
- Oba’s tax collectors
- Community publicity officers
- Task masters or enforcers
- Self help gurus
- Enforcers of loyalty and patriotism to the land and kingdom.
Otu age groups divide as follows: 5 – 15 (Emwin-rhoba-evbo); 16 – 30 (Eroghae); 30 – 50 (Eghele); 50+ (Odion). The oldest male in the community was on his own and was known as the Odionwere. Membership of each group was for life and group members moved into new age groups together. Elevation into the 50+ age group was only by merit, based on a measurable quality of character, achievement, and demonstrable level of wisdom. Therefore, a child who is hard working and precautious could move through the ranks to meet his father. Only one person moves from Odion to Odionwere (leader of the society or community), when the Odionwere’s position is vacant.
Parallel with the Otu groups, which are largely concerned with administrative and security matters, are the guilds. The guilds are set up around professions, and are more or less like modern day trade unions, with a leader or head who is a chief and is appointed by the Oba. The guilds represent all facets of human endeavours. The Iwowa guild, for instance, is led by Chief Ogua and is responsible specifically for the digging of the underground burial chambers of a transited Oba. The Iwowa group is a branch of the Ihogbe, the monarch’s family group that takes care of his ancestral shrine, which includes the original Idu deity, and represents the ancestors of the kings.
Other guilds included the goldsmiths, brass smiths and black smiths; olopa (police); public health workers (including medical personnel, and nurses); warriors and peace maintenance or security; market men and women; sewers (fashion designers/producers, weavers); variety of sporting and games groups (such as wrestlers, chess players); farmers; wood carvers, ivory carvers; town criers; barbers; spiritual leaders (such as ‘Obo,’ oguega, (diviners); artistes (drummers, theatrical groups, singers, dancers, clowns, jesters, story tellers); builders, interior decorators etc; Each group lived largely in a specially designated section of town and had its own chiefs appointed by the Oba, and its festivals.
Idu people had days for work, play and rest. They observed a four day week, the fourth day, called ‘eken,’ was the rest day, and was reserved for sporting activities, games and all sorts of community programmes. They adopted the lunar calendar of 13 months in a year and 28 days in the month. The thirteenth month of every year was reserved for rest of humans and tools of work. Festivals and ceremonies were devoted to the period to propitiate and bless the tools and workers, and prepare them for another year. There were festivals such as Igue and Ague to celebrate the blessings of the out going year and to usher in the New Year. Other festivals included ones for elders, ancestors, facilities of trade or market days, single deities (such as Eho, Enorho) and Ikpoleki, for sweeping the market, which was more regular. Their primary food stuff consists of yam, cocoyam, plantain, cassava, corn, beans, peppers, okro, mellon tomatoes and other vegetables. Fish and rice came from neighbouring communities. Hunting bush meat is an industry, so they have plenty of antelopes, foxes, hares and snails. They rare cows, goats, sheep, fowls….
While Portugal and England traded largely in tinsel with Benin as recently as some 500 years ago, Holland brought in large quantities of iron bars, flint-lock guns, dane guns and ovbiosegba (or pistols). The Idu guild of iron-workers copied and produced the guns, and this industry is still very strong today in Benin. But Idu (Bini) people could not make gun powder, which in the end contributed to their conquest by the British. Bini people relied on the West for their supply of gun powder. The West only needed to dry the source and the guns became useless.
The Idu people evolved a very complex, elaborate, detailed and efficient machinery of government based upon a monarchical type of administration with spiritual and temporal authority. The head of government, who is like a modern day prime minister, is Chief Iyase; the title is not passed from father to son. To speak for the king or on behalf of the people to the king, are the Ekhaemwen. Each Ekhaemwen is like a modern day minister of government with specifically assigned duties in the palace and the land.
The Bini Monarchy
Benin chiefs are distinctly decked out in rich flowing white garbs with precious (ivie) coral beads around the necks and wrists; special hair cut that stands them out uniquely and with dignity, and are heralded always with their sword of honour. In fact, the hair style of Bini chiefs is similar to Pharaoh Ramses II’s famous helmet, while the small circles on the helmet appear also on many Bini bronzes. Bini Queens wear the world famous ‘okuku’ hairstyle resembling a packed high Afro, embellished with expensive (ivie) coral beads. Bini Queens’ hairstyles are identical to that of Pharaoh Mycerinus (Fourth-Dynasty), and Pharaoh Sesostris I (Twelfth Dynasty).
Bini kings had immense political powers, as ultimate judges in court matters, the deliverers of death penalty, the receivers of taxes and tributes, the regulators of trade, the nominal owners of the land of the kingdom, chief executives and lawmakers, and principal custodians of customs and traditions. Their powers were, however, hedged with checks and balances to prevent excesses. A retinue of advisers, Elders’ councils and taboos guide their utterances and actions. Their powers are held in trust for the entire community and cannot be exercised without consultation with other levels of authority, such as the kingmakers.
Bini monarchs demonstrate strong affinity with ancient Egyptian Gods and Pharaohs, with which they share identical authority, grandeur and a great deal of reverence from their subjects. Like the Pharaohs, Idu (Edo) monarchs are God-kings. Because they are God-kings and God-sons, they are considered divine and worshipped by their subjects, who speak to them always with great reverence, at a distance, and on bended knees. Great ceremonies surround every action of the Bini king. The kings of Benin (Bini) also adopt grand Osirian titles of the ‘Open Eye,’ signifying omniscience and omnipotence. Edo monarchs, when they transit to the beyond, are, like the Egyptian Pharaohs, set up in state, in a linked series of underground chambers, surrounded with their paraphernalia of power, and all of the items they would require for their comfortable sojourn in the ethereal world.
The Ada, another evidence of link with the Pharaohs of Egypt, is a scimitar or sword with a single cutting edge, like a machete curved at its broadest tip, used in desert battles. Edo use the Ada along with the Eben, another sword of battle, with double cutting edge, native to them, as conjoined emblem of state authority, in the manner the Egyptian Pharaohs used the ‘Double Crown,’ as symbol of authority and the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Oba Ewuare the great, was the most dynamic, innovative and successful Oba in the history of Edo kingdom. Under him, Edo was completely transformed religiously, politically, socially, physically and militarily. Ewuare re-organized the government of Edo by centralizing it and he set up three powerful palace associations of chiefs. The political elite of the kingdom was made up of titled chiefs and members of the royal family. The seven highest-ranking chiefs, who were, in fact, descendants of original elders of Edo, were constituted into Uzama with leadership authority next to the king. The brothers of the king who tended to be potential rivals were sent as hereditary rulers (Enogies) of administrative districts. The mother of the king was given the title of Queen mother and set up in her own palace in the town of Uselu just outside the city.
The palace, which did not have a permanent site in previous reigns, was constructed on a massive scale covering several acres of land at its present location and turned into a beehive of activities as the political and spiritual nerve centre of the vast kingdom. The Edo have a saying that in the Oba’s palace there is never silence. The complex includes shrine areas, meeting chambers for a variety of groups of chiefs, work spaces for ritual professionals, royal artists and craftsmen, storehouses, a large wing called Ogbe Ewuare, residential sections for the Oba’s numerous wives, children and servants. While the expansion activities in the palace was going on, the civil engineering work to dig the City’s inner moat was embarked upon. Oba Oguola’s outer moat, hugging the Ogbe river valley, kilometers away from Okoo village, left the palace rear exposed. Ewuare’s moat was less than a kilometer from the palace’s rear and so provided additional security for the palace.
A seventeenth century Dutch engraving from Olfert Dapper’s Nauwkeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaansche Gewesten, published in Amsterdam in 1668, described the palace thus: “The king’s palace or court is a square, and is as large as the town of Haarlem and entirely surrounded by a special wall, like that which encircles the town. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam, but one larger than another, resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, and are kept very clean. Most palaces and houses of the king are covered with palm leaves instead of square pieces of wood, and every roof is decorated with a small turret ending in a point, on which birds are standing, birds cast in copper with outspread wings, cleverly made after living models.”
The arts, particularly brass casting, flourished during Oba Ewuare’s reign. He set up a war machine that extended Edo notion of kingship, objects, aesthetic, ideas and power, across the West Coast of Africa and through dominance lent their name to the Bight of Benin. At its height, the Edo controlled vast Yoruba land with populations several times larger than that of Edo. The kingdom extended in the West to Lagos, where the Edo set up a military camp of occupation which they called Eko; in the North-east to Ekiti, Owo, Ondo, most of Delta state and all of the North-west to the River Niger . It also exerted considerable influence on eastern Yorubaland and maintained trading connection with Oyo. The kingdom’s dominance reached all the way to Togo and present day Ghana. The Edo have very close affinity, particularly in the area of traditions and culture, with the Ashantis of Ghana and are considered of similar or common stock.
It was towards the tail end of Oba Ewuare’s reign that the Portuguese first made their visit to West Africa in 1472. Oba Ewuare the great died in 1473. At the actuaries on the bank of what is today known as the Bight of Benin, the local people the Portuguese met there, when asked about the kingdom in the interior, told the Portuguese it was called Ubini. The Portuguese abbreviated this to Benin/Bini because they could not properly pronounce Ubini. When the Portuguese arrived in the kingdom of Benin, they were stunned by what they found on the ground in terms of level of administrative sophistication, social engineering and military activities. They found a monarchy dating back many centuries, with complex structure of chiefs and palace officials presiding over a kingdom that was expanding in all directions and a highly developed kingdom with unique and very sophisticated political, artistic, linguistic, economic, cultural and military traditions in the process of territorial conquests.
Benin City is where Christianity was first preached in Nigeria. The Portuguese failed to persuade Oba Ewuare and Oba Ozolua but made their first break through with Oba Esigie, to the shock and disbelief of the Uzama nobles and Benin people generally. With the Oba’s determination to have his way and replace Benin practices and faith with Christian ones, the Uzama nobles ostracized him. He retaliated by creating a parallel Uzama, headed by chief Inneh of Igun Street. His new Uzama was called Uzama N’ Ibie and had, apart from their leader, Chiefs Ogieamien, Elema, Ogiehor and three others.
Oba Ovonramwen (1888 – 1914 CE).
Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi was on the throne during the British invasion of Benin City in 1897. To prepare the grounds before the invasion, the British first sneaked military spies into Benin, to infiltrate the nation’s security system during the Igue festival, a period of acute spiritual sensitivity for Edo people, when their monarch goes into seclusion for two weeks for spiritual cleansing and cannot receive visitors. The spies were eliminated for their hostile acts. Some while after this, the British sent a delegation to Benin in March 1892. The delegation was led by Capt. Henry L. Gallwey, the Vice Consul for the Benin River District of the Niger Coast Protectorate, supposedly to conclude a Treaty of Protection with Oba Ovonramwen of Benin. The British had deceived King Dosumu of Lagos to sign a similar treaty that ceded Lagos to the British in 1861. They forced the same kind of treaty on the Jaja of Opopo in 1887 to gain access and economic control of the eastern coast of Nigeria.
Quoting Capt. Henry Gallwey, who after retirement became Sir Henry Gallwey, in a report on the 1892 visit to Benin, for the Journal of the African Society of April 1930, under the title: Nigeria in the (Eighteen) Nineties, he wrote in part: “Any idea I may have had of being received by the king the day I arrived was very soon dispelled. After being kept waiting for three days, I sent word to say that I could wait no longer. To support my threat, every half-hour, I sent a carrier away with a load I did not require, telling them where to wait for me. This artifice rather worried the king, and he sent word to me asking me “not to be vexed,” as my interpreters put it. However, that afternoon, it was arranged for me to have audience with the king. I accordingly donned my uniform and sallied out with my companions into the burning heat of the afternoon, a most unreasonable time of day at which to hold a palaver.
“I am afraid, however, that the kings of Benin were never renowned for their reasonable natures. In spite of these pinpricks, it was all very interesting and amusing, and I never gave a thought to the discomfort of being encased in a dress intended to be won at levees and such functions in temperate climes…….”
After attempting to compromise the nation’s security earlier on, the British delegation could not be received by the Oba of Benin immediately they arrived because of the need to check out their real mission. When the Oba signaled readiness to receive the delegates, they were in “encased dress intended to be worn at levees,” to the palace. In other words, they were in military uniform to the palace of an Oba who was weary of visits of Europeans. After the incidence of the Dutchman, Commandant Willem Hogg, who pulled a pistol and shot at Oba Oresoyen in 1735, while on a courtesy visit to the palace to discuss business matters with the Oba and his chiefs, Benin Obas became a little more careful about granting direct audience to European visitors.
This is the genesis of the difficulties experienced by Capt. Gallwey while trying to have an audience with the Oba in 1892. At the palace, the disposition and mannerisms of the visitors had to be carefully studied and analyzed before the Oba could receive them, since they were in military uniform. Capt. Gallwey said the Oba was “unreasonable” and then generalized “… as all Benin Obas are wont to be.” He had made up his mind before the visit and was looking for excuses to set up Benin kingdom for British invasion. To emphasize that Benin was a special case to crack, the British rushed to force treaties on neighbouring territories. They attacked the Nana of Itsekiri, in their ‘palm oil war’ in 1894 and exiled Nana to Ghana; attacked the Koko of Nembe in 1895, and the Ashanti Prempeh of Ashanti in 1896, to produce duress inspired spurious treaties to take control of the kings' respective areas of influence.
The British accused Oba Ovonramwen of lack of cooperation, and to look good in the eyes of the rest of the world, added “human sacrifice,” as their reasons for launching their full-scale war on Benin in January 1897. The real reason for the British Expedition was that the British viewed the Benin kingdom as the main obstacle in their expansion drive into the agricultural interior of the West African coast from the River Niger. The war lasted for eight days from January to early February 1897, and went in their favour because of their big guns and cannons, which the Edo army did not have. After capturing the ancient city of Benin and slaughtering thousands of the natives in cold blood, to grossly depopulate the city, and the few survivors had escaped to farms and villages, the British ransacked the palace of the Oba, homes of nobles and chiefs, artistes' workshops, and shrines, to rescue “pagan art” and relieve Benin of the “evil.” Then the British burnt the entire city down to the last house.
The palace of the Oba of Benin, according to Joshua Utzheimer, 1603, was about the size of the German City of Tubingen.” This was razed down by fire by the British invading force, claiming to be on a civilizing mission. Is razing cities after the surviving few victims of their assault have surrendered, not the epitome of barbarism? Can any thing be more callous than this? Oba Ovonramwen who could not be captured but who surrendered to the British in August, 1897, was exiled to Calabar (in south-east Nigeria), where he died in January, 1914.
Bini Obaship is one of the most revered institutions in the world because of the way it has sustained its awesome prestige with strict and meticulous attention to ancient traditions of valour, discipline and integrity. Bini chieftaincy titles cannot be bought or conferred on non-indigenes or frivolously. Every Bini chief performs a peculiarly sacred duty and responsibility to the people of Bini. It does not make sense, therefore, to think that a people who would not and have never conferred their chieftaincy titles on non-indigenes, would voluntarily invite, accept, or surrender to non-indigenes as their kings. Due to celestial origins, the Edo monarch cannot eat out and cannot be diverted from full time palace duties to hustle for contracts. In fact, he cannot function outside the palace confines without divine sanction.
European slave trade in West Africa started with the acquisition of domestic servants in 1522, and warrior kingdoms like Benin had plenty of them captured as war booties, but would not sell them. The slave trade was very unpopular with the Edo people. They thought it was silly to sell fellow human beings. Their Obas and nobles were vehemently opposed to the business of slave trade and to the export of the productive fighting male. The Edo, of course, could not control the day to day happenings of the slave merchants, who apparently largely acted under cover at first in the vast territories under Edo hegemony. However, it was forbidden to sell or take a native Bini into slavery and so elaborate identification marks on faces and chests were eventually contrived. The Bini, therefore, were hardly ever captured by Arabs or Europeans into slavery.
Alan Ryder, writing on this in his book: Benin and the European, narrated the experience of the Portuguese merchant, Machin Fernandes in Benin as early as 1522: That was during the reign of Oba Esigie.
“Of the whole cargo of 83 slaves bought by
Machin Fernandes, only two were males –
and it is quite possible that these were
acquired outside the Oba’s territory –
despite a whole month (at Ughoton) spent
in vain attempts to have a market
opened for male slaves. The 81 females,
mostly between ten and twenty years
of age, were purchased in Benin City
between 25 June and 8 August at the
rate of one, two or three a day.”
None of the 83 slaves was an Edo person, according to Ryder, and no Edo person could have been involved in the sales. It was taboo in Edo culture. Edo Empire was vast, with a great concentration of people from different ethnic backgrounds, Yoruba, Ibo, Itsekiri, Ijaw, Urhobo, Igalla etc, making a living in the lucrative Ughoton route that was the main centre of commercial activities in the southern area at the time, of what later became Nigeria.
This article benefited immensely from the works of Naiwu Osahon who gave his personal consent for it to be used.