Nigeria

The Benin Empire in the 19th Century

Written by Omolewa Taiwo, Department of History and International Studies, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State, Nigeria.

Oba Ewuare the Great

The kingdom reached its greatest power and size under Oba Ewuare the Great. He expanded the kingdom and improved the capital, present-day Benin City; the city was defined by massive walls. The height of power for Benin’s monarchs began during this period. To honour the powerful Obas, the people of Benin participated in many rituals that expressed their devotion and loyalty, including human sacrifices.

Artists of the Benin Kingdom

Artists of the Benin Kingdom were well known for working in many materials, particularly brass, wood, and ivory. They were famous for their bas-relief sculptures, particularly plaques, and life-size head sculptures.

The plaques typically portrayed historical events, and the heads were often naturalistic and life-size. Artisans also carved many different ivory objects, including masks and, for their European trade partners, salt cellars.

Benin’s contact with the Portuguese

The success of Benin was fueled by its lively trade. Tradesmen and artisans from Benin developed relationships with the Portuguese, who sought after the kingdom’s artwork, gold, ivory, and pepper. In the early modern era, Benin was also heavily involved in the West African slave trade.

They would capture men, women, and children from rival peoples and sell them into slavery to European and American buyers. This trade provided a significant source of wealth for the kingdom.

As at the 18th century, Benin Empire was already in a state of gradual decline, Benin continued to lose her vassal states till the end of the century when almost all the vassal states had regained their independence but the Oba of Benin still maintained effective control of Benin kingdom.

The Political Situation of Benin

In the 19th century, the political situation of Benin was in the worst state which eventually led to the decline of the Benin Empire.  One of the crises that led to the decline of the Benin Empire was the political crisis which caused unrest in Benin Empire, due to succession disputes, the emergence of weak and unpopular rulers which led to civil wars and revolts among vassal states, these can also be referred to internal problems that led to the decline of the empire.

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Succession Disputes

In the 19th Century, the Benin Empire was characterized by a debilitating succession dispute. Hence, after the death of Oba Osemewede in 1850, internal conflicts between rival princes and the external raids by Nupe into the Northern reaches of Edo Land weakened the cohesion and economic integrity of the state structure.

The Yoruba Inter-State Wars

Subsequently, The Yoruba inter-state wars of the first half of the nineteenth century, as well as Nupe strikes to the northern Edo speaking area within the same period, as stated earlier, disrupted Benin overland trade with its neighbours. This meant that the alternative routes for evacuating Benin’s exports to Lagos through the overland routes were blocked and the cloth trade with the Ijebu and the Nupe were also disrupted, worsening Benin’s Economic misfortune.

 Civil Wars Attendants

The internal politics of Benin did not differ much from that of the past centuries. There were the usual civil wars attendants upon disputes over succession to the throne whenever an Oba died, followed by periods of tranquillity and progress when a strong Oba was on the throne. Obanosa succeeded as Oba in 1804 after a civil war that followed his father’s death. 

After his death in 1816, the struggle for succession between his two sons plunged the state into another civil war. In the end, one of them—-Osemwede succeeded and reigned till 1848. Osemwede was a popular and ambitious Oba who tried to recreate the Benin Empire by his military campaign against the Yorubas of Akure and Ekiti who were made to pay tribute to him.

But the civil war which began again on the succession of Oba Adolo in 1848 ruined Osemwede’s achievement as Ibadan seized the opportunity of the turmoil in Benin to extend its power over Ilesha and Ekiti. However, Adolo eventually gained control, and during the greater part of his long reign, (1848-1888) Benin experienced a period of commercial prosperity.

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Treaty of Protection with Britain

The tradition of the Benin kingdom stated that the eldest prince of an Oba was to succeed him after death; struggles broke out among the princes as to who should succeed their father after death. For instance, Oba Obanosa died and his two eldest sons struggled for the throne which continued for a long time until when Oba Adolo died in 1888, his eldest son Idugbowa was crowned Oba taking the title of Ovanramwen. It was during his reign that the British government forced him to sign a Treaty of Protection with Britain.

Vastness of Territories

Another internal cause of the decline was that the territory became too vast and unyielding to be administered by the central administration. Prior to the advent of the Europeans, the Africans were masters of ‘pawnship’ otherwise known as ‘Traditional Trading System’.

This was a means of waging war against an inferior or small territory while, the indigenes would be subjugated as slaves under the victory state, as a result, the hostages served as palace servants, among others.

Hence, an empire is determined by the amount of territorial conquest. This was the case with the Benin Empire which had become so vast and as a result, the political strength began to be weakened by poor administrators or inefficiency.

As a result of the empire’s vastness, it had its extension in almost all coastal Yorubaland such as Owo, Ikale, Ilaje, and Lagos which furthered the collapse of these Yoruba settlements, as a result of Benin’s interest and military incursion into the region which also contributed to the fall of the Benin Empire.

Loss of Tributary States

As a result of the Benin Firearm and prowess, the Eastern Yoruba towns in Akure, Ekiti, Owo, and Ilesha were under Benin hegemony, paying tributes to the Oba of Benin who in turn provided them with some form of protection.

However, with the collapse of Oyo and the rise of the successive states of Ibadan and Ilorin, there was a contest by these two states for the domination of the Eastern Yoruba district.

Owing to the Benin kingdom’s internal weakness at the time, it was unable to defend its vassal states. Akure could only withstand the Ibadan onslaught through its own effort and the aid of Ogedengbe. As a result of this, the Benin kingdom lost its territories to the British aid to Ekiti.

Bombardment and Occupation of Lagos

Also the bombardment of Lagos in 1851 and its subsequent occupation in 1861, later removed Lagos from Benin’s sphere of influence. Subsequently, Nupe and Ilorin also launched various attacks on Benin, hence, Benin lost its territories which affected its economical strength and weakened the opulence of the Empire.

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Effect of the Yoruba Inter-state War

The effects of the Yoruba inter-state wars on the fall of the empire cannot be underestimated. The Yoruba inter-state wars of the first half of the 19th century disrupted Benin overland trade with its neighbours.

This meant that the alternative routes for evacuating Benin’s exports to Lagos through the overland routes were blocked and the cloth trade with the Ijebu and the Nupe was also disrupted which worsen Benin’s economic misfortune and led to its gradual decline.

 By the second half of the nineteenth century, Benin had developed a trade-in European manufacture goods with the hinterland states and these goods were gotten from the Itsekiri middlemen traders in exchange for slaves and palm oil while,  Benin received guns, gun powder among others.

Benin in the 1860s

In the 1860s when the trade flourished, Benin became the major supplier of firearms to Ife, Ibadan and Ondo to enhance the course of their war which was sent through the Oke-Igbo route. Nevertheless, in the early 1870s, the warring parties opened a direct route to the coast of Ondo which resulted in the decline of this trade.

The Slave Trade Flourished

Benin grew increasingly rich during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in account of the slave trade with Europe; slaves from enemy states (Pawnship System) of the interior were sold and carried for the Americans in the Dutch and Portuguese ships.

The bight of Benin’s shore soon came to be known as the ‘Slave Coast’. Again, the Benin monarch had previously been deriving revenue from the trade of ivory, palm, skins and cloth. Such revenues enhanced the economic strength of the Benin monarchy.

Abolition of the Slave Trade

However, with the abortion of the slave trade and the activities of the British naval squadron, it became risky for the European traders to visit Ughoton to transact business.

Hence, many scholars claimed that among fundamental internal causes of the decline of the Benin Empire, the abolition of the slave trade played a pivotal role as it is recorded that the Obas of Dahomey, Oyo and Benin became so rich during the slave trade, meanwhile, Benin been a coastal region made it so vibrant economically. Thus, the effects of the abolition of the slave trade cannot be overemphasized.

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Lack of Diversified Economy

Benin lack of a diversified economy was also another internal cause of the fall of the Empire. At the abandonment of the Ughoton port, Benin began to experience an economic downturn. Prior to the abolition of the slave trade, Benin majored on the Ughoton port to trade in slaves, ivory palm oil, skins and clothes in exchange for European goods while the Benin River was utilized by the Itsekiri who were beneficial of the River.

However, at the abolition of the slave trade, the European saw no need to build a warehouse at Ughoton, hence, they considered or preferred to anchor off the Benin River which was already of maximum benefit to the Itsekiri, therefore, the European would rather trade with the Itsekiri, this led to enmity between the Benin and Itsekiri. For Benin, this led to an economic downturn since Benin only depended on a source for trade. As a result, the strong and opulence Empire began to decline

Bas-relief of an Oba
Once rulers, oba still hold prestigious positions in Benin as government advisors. Here, a bas-relief of an Oba in ceremonial dress and weapons, which decorated the palace of the obas.
PHOTOGRAPH BY HERITAGE IMAGE PARTNERSHIP LTD

Mandatory Tribute to the Benin River Users

In the face of such a severe economically sequel, Oba Ovanramwen tried to maximize the benefits from the trade in the Benin area between 1888 and 1896. He did this by imposing a trade boycott if the Itsekiri reneged on the agreed terms of trade. The Itsekiri on such occasions lodged complaints to the British consuls on the coast who were annoyed with such obstruction by the Oba.

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All the above explanations put together were the internal causes that were of fundamental importance to the gradual decline of Benin. But, the total fall and events of the empire were a result of other factors (external causes).

Control of Trade System

Benin Empire enjoyed a high reputation in the European circle both in African and overseas because of her advanced civilization and rich culture. The traders from Europe competed among themselves to have trade contact with Benin traders.

The Benin traders had traded for a long time, not until the second half of the 19th century that the Europeans began to paint ugly pictures of their once admired friendly kingdom; they described Benin as uncivilized, barbaric and engaged in human sacrifice.

Benin’s close contact with Britain was during 1862 when a British Consul named Richard Burton visited Benin; he saw nothing good in Benin but moral decadence. Most of the states around had signed treaties with Britain and during the reign of Oba Ovanramwen, the King resisted signing but Britain desired to increase her volume of trade with African states and since she had been able to compel other African states to sign the treaties, Britain thought that it should have the same relation with Benin.

The Oba of Benin controlled the trading system in his domain and these attitudes did not go down well with its Itsekiri neighbour and Britain, they accused the Oba of promoting trade monopoly. Benin was alleged of evil practices mostly human sacrifice, this moved the British government to come down to Benin to put an end to such practices.

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Oba Ovanramwen’s refusal to see the Consul Annesley when he visited Benin was a big blow on the British government and the British viewed this as a great humiliation. The final visit was by the Vice-Consul Gallwey when he came down to Benin to put an end to the system.

Vice-Consul Gallwey’s visit to Benin ended with the Treaty of Protection between Britain and Benin, the Oba refused to sign the Treaty of Protection based on a tradition that he would not be able to “touch the pen” the chiefs on his behalf signed the Treaty of Protection, this gave the British right to interfere in Benin’s internal and external affairs among other things. 

It also required Benin to allow free trade in her territories but Benin did not respond effectively to the treaty signed, Britain imposed a trade tax and stop people from trading on articles of royal monopoly. The British traders refused to pay tax and it led to the blockage of trade by the Oba.

These trade policies annoyed both the Itsekiri and British traders, the British government felt that Benin was not willing to obey the terms of the treaty; they felt that to control trade policies in Benin the Oba’s power must be destroyed.

Mr. Philips’s Visit in 1897

This conviction led the Acting Consul-General Mr Philips to pay a visit to Benin in January 1897, Philips and his entourage were ambushed by Benin soldiers during which he and some others lost their lives. In February, well-armed British forces invaded Benin, carried away valuable properties including the Benin work art and Benin was left in total destruction.  The incident is referred to as the Benin Massacre or Punitive Expedition of 1897.

Oba Ovanramwen Deposed and Died

The Oba and his Chief were charged of ambushing and killing Phillips and his party. The Oba was found guilty for blocking trade and he was deposed, later given a few villages to control and he was made an ordinary chief. After the fall of Benin, some of his chiefs renounced their allegiance to him and transformed their loyalty to the British political resident. Oba Ovanramwen later went on exile to Calabar and died in 1914.

Benin kingdom did not come into the British official reckoning until the second half of the nineteenth century, despite the fact that various European nations had been engaged in commercial contact with Benin for four centuries.

Punitive Expedition of 1897

During the last decade of the nineteenth century, however, Benin City fell to British troops after a dramatic build-up of rapidly succeeding events culminating in the Punitive Expedition of February 1897. These events, as the evidence in this article reveals, were prompted by ‘economic’ rather than humanitarian considerations.

The Benin kingdom fell mainly because, in an age when the traders and the British consular officials had reasons impelling them to penetrate into the hinterland, Oba Ovanramwen was clinging to traditional policies of economic exclusiveness and monopolistic practices which inflicted economic losses on the revenues of the individual traders, the Itsekiri middlemen and the Niger Coast Protectorate government.

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The increasing fear of concerted European designs on his kingdom further strengthened the Oba’s adherence to his closed-door policy, which in turn increased the consul’s determination to bring him under their economic and political control.

This situation precipitated the events which culminated in the capture of Benin City by British forces in February 1897. At 2 pm on February 18, 1897, Benin City fell to the troops commanded by British officers. On the 19th and 20th, houses of major chiefs were burnt after being looted, on the 21st the entire city was consumed in fire started by British soldiers.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Benin in the nineteenth century has been explained above as well as the internal causes of the fall of Benin such as succession dispute, loss of territories, effects of the Yoruba inter-state war among others, likewise the external causes such as the European affairs in the internal and external affairs of Benin had been elucidated.

                                                 REFERENCES

  • Dike, K.O., ‘John Beecroft, 1790–1854: Her Britannic Majesty’s Consul to the Bights of Benin and Biafra, 1849–1854’ Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, I, no. 1 (1956), 5–14.Google Scholar
  • Dike, K. O.: Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta (Oxford, 1956), 128.Google Scholar
  • Sir, Richard Burton, My Wanderings in West Africa by a F.R.G.S., part II, ‘The renowned city of Benin’, (1863).Google Scholar
  • F.O. 84/2194, Macdonald to F.O. no. 26 of 16 May 1892. See p. 387 below for the terms of this treaty.Google Scholar
  • British Museum, London, State Paper Room, Accounts and Papers 1895, LXXI, i: ‘Report on the Administration of the Niger Coast Protectorate 1891–August 1894, Cmd. 7596.’
  • F.O. 2/85, Moor to F.O. no. of 12 Sept. 1895 contains Moor’s comments on these attempted visits to Benin; Ben Prof 7/6, I.Google Schola  F.O. 84/2194, Macdonald to F.O. no. 26 of 16 May 1892;Google ScholarHenry, Ling Roth, Great Benin, its Customs, Art and Horrors (Halifax, 1903), appendix 1.Google Scholar
  • Benin | historical kingdom, West Africa | Britannica. Retrieved at https://www.britannica.com/place/Benin-historical-kingdom-West-Africa

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About the author

Tadese Faforiji

I am Tadese Faforiji, a history student of the prestigious Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State- 21st-century University, properly called. I am a blogger and an avid writer.

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