kingdom of Benin
kingdom of Benin

Extending at its peak from the Niger River in the east to the port of Lagos on the western coast, Benin was a dynastic kingdom in what is now southern Nigeria, in the West African forested region. Present-day Benin City (called Ibinu; it was founded in 1180) was once where the kingdom was centered, and the modern Benin kings trace their lineage to its original dynasties.

Early southern Nigeria had been inhabited since 9000 b.c.e., with the Iron Age beginning around the second century b.c.e. Ironworking appears to have displaced Neolithic techniques without an intermediate bronze period, suggesting that iron smelting was probably introduced by outsiders, perhaps the Berbers of early antiquity.

There is little information about the first millennium c.e. in the area, other than the prosperity and subsequent disappearance from the historical record of the Nok people in what is now northeastern Nigeria. The founders of the Benin kingdom were the Bini (an ethnic subgroup of the Edo language group to which many modern inhabitants belong), but they or their ruling dynasties had a significant relationship to the Yoruba people of Ife.

According to one version of the founding of Benin, people called for the Ife prince Oranmiyan to come to their aid and displace the tyrannical rule of the Ogisos dynasty, which founded the city of Ibinu and had ruled the area for the previous few centuries or more (36 Ogiso dynastic rulers are known). Another version omits the plea for help, painting Oranmiyan as a simple invader.

At the time of the Ife incursion—whether it was invited or not—most of the power in Benin rested in the hands of the council of chiefs, the uzama. Beginning with Oranmiyan’s son Eweka (1180–1246), the uzama was presided over by the oba, a war leader who over time became a more powerful monarch with religious significance. As the oba became paramount, the kingdom became an empire.

Beginning with Ewuare (1440–73), the title of oba became a hereditary one, while Ibinu was rebuilt with military fortifications in order to protect the Benin center of power, as Ewuare’s forces expanded to conquer the lands surrounding them. The port of Lagos was established around this time, and diplomatic and trade relations began with Europe, beginning with the Portuguese. Early trade was primarily in ivory, pepper, and palm oil, before the slave trade became prominent.

The kingdom of Benin is not related to the modern day Republic of Benin, except insofar as that nation took its name in 1975 from the Bight of Benin, the bay along which both entities are or were situated.