Ewuare the Great - King of Benin

Ewuare the Great - King of Benin
Ewuare the Great - King of Benin

Oba Ewuare the Great of West Africa was one of the most celebrated kings of Benin. However, since most of the history of Benin during this period was oral, it is sometimes difficult to separate legend from reality in the accounts of this powerful and charismatic monarch.

Known as the first of the warrior kings of West Africa, Ewuare belonged to a group of 15th and 16th century kings of Ife origin who transformed Benin City from a group of small villages into a thriving metropolis. Ewuare’s three brothers, Egbeka, Orobiru, Uwaifiokun, occupied the throne of Benin for 70 years.

After succeeding Uwaifiokun, Ewuare continued to reign for 33 years. As oba, Ewuare designated his eldest son as the heir-apparent, discontinuing the practice of collateral transmission to the throne. Ewuare subsequently bestowed the title of Ihama upon his family.

Ewuare is credited with conquering at least 201 surrounding towns and villages during his reign. By the time his new subjects had been resettled, Ewuare’s kingdom had grown from a small group of villages to a substantial kingdom.

To solidify his position, Ewuare built a palace and fortified the city’s defenses. He also proceeded to rid the Beninese government of hereditary tribal heads. In their place, Ewuare created a patrimonial bureaucracy in which freemen served as military and administrative chiefs.

Ewuare did not strip these chiefs of all powers, however, but divided Benin into departments and placed each department under the control of a group of chiefs. Ewuare also persuaded the tribal chiefs to allow their firstborn sons to serve him in the palace.

Together, Ewuare and his son and successor Oba Ozolua were responsible for establishing a viable foreign trade in Benin. Consequently, by the time the Portuguese arrived in Benin in 1486, trade was already well established. After the arrival of the Europeans, Benin became the entry point for arms and other European goods designated for transport to points around Africa.

Statue of Ewuare the Great
Statue of Ewuare the Great

Oba Ewuare was a monarch of wide interests and was responsible for establishing a number of religious and cultural rituals. He was also widely known for his celebration of Beninese arts. During this period, art in Benin was practiced chiefly by hereditary craftsmen who lived in the palace.

To honor members of the royal family, Ewuare had brass smiths cast the heads of the royal family, both past and present, on a variety of objects. According to Beninese lore, Ewuare preferred the likenesses of himself created by brass smiths to those created in other forms because he believed he looked younger in the brass casts.

It was common practice at the time to depict all kings as young men rather than the way they looked later in life. The technique used by the brass smiths of Benin combined European techniques with those handed down among the Ife people.

Ewuare also had a more practical side and was responsible for massive architectural innovations and extensive town planning in Benin. The monarch was a great lover of ceremony, and he established the practice of holding annual ceremonies in which the participants wore elaborate costumes and used ritualistic paraphernalia to depict various religious and cultural elements.

Ewuare commanded the Beninese people to wear distinctive facial markings that identified them according to their status and barred all foreigners from the palace. Among the Beninese people, Ewuare was highly esteemed for his introduction of coral beads, which became an essential part of royal symbolism.

The Beninese people also greatly admired Ewuare for his discovery of red flannel, which he had probably received from a source with European connections. Under Ewuare, ivory and woodcarvings became common in Beninese works of art. Somewhat surprisingly, Ewuare was also interested in herbology and was a noted herbologist.

Dedicated to building up the treasures of Benin, Ewuare founded the Iwebo Palace Association, which was given the responsibility for caring for all royal regalia. However, during Ewuare’s reign, the royal store-houses were twice burned down, and an untold number of priceless relics were destroyed.

Further historical relics were lost to history when the royal storehouses were looted in the early 18th century under the rule of Oba Ewuakpe and when they were again burned during the reign of Oba Osemwede in the early 19th century.

In Benin, the Emeru were designated as caretakers of all iru, the sacred brass vessels used in Beninese rituals. The more contemporary irus were replicas of those used during Ewuare’s time when it was believed that the vessels had mystical powers that allowed spirits who resided in the vessels to affirm the prayers of the faithful in audible voices.

These vessels were placed on the Ebo n’Edo shrine in Ewuare’s palace. According to the legend of the iru, after Ewuare died, a successor broke the pots in an attempt to discover what was inside. Because the spirits supposedly fled from the broken pots, new vessels were cast. Thereafter, the royal family was required to mimic spirit voices during ceremonies.

Another legend has it that Ewuare predicted that if a king named Idova ascended to the throne of Benin, the country would experience a major change in government. He declared that he did not know whether the change would be for good or ill. When Oba Ewuakpe became king in 1700, it was noted that his given name was Idova.

Whether Oba Ewuare had had some premonition of what would happen during Ewuakpe’s reign, or whether events were a result of his being expected to institute major changes, Oba Ewuakpe responded to political conflicts by initiating a number of reforms in Benin. However, the monarch later fell out of favor with the people. When his mother died, he ordered that human sacrifices be made in her honor. Outraged, the people rebelled and thereafter boycotted the palace.