The first European travelers to reach Benin in about 1485 were the Portuguese. The nature of the relationship with Europeans at the early stages of their visits was difficult to define. From the beginning, the first group of European visitors behaved as if they were only participants in the internal African trade. For example, they were involved in buying slaves, cloth and Akori beads, in return for brass and copper. They also took these items and the slaves to the Gold Coast (now Ghana), where they were exchanged for gold. A strong trade relationship was soon established, with the Edo trading in tropical products such as ivory, pepper and palm oil. For their part, the Portuguese were importing European goods such as brass, copper, manila and guns. In the early 16th century, the Oba of Benin sent an ambassador to Lisbon, and the King of Portugal sent Christian missionaries to Benin City. Some residents of the city could still speak pidgin Portuguese in the late 19th century.

The first British expedition to Benin was in 1553, and important trade relationship developed between England and Benin based on the export of ivory, palm oil and pepper. European visitors in the 16th and 17th centuries took back to Europe tales of “the Great Benin”, a beautiful city of elegant buildings, ruled over by a powerful king. However, not long after their contact, the Oba of Benin started to suspect Britain of having larger imperial motives. The Oba therefore shut down communication with the British.


Consequently, the British expedition which led to the weakening of Benin was carried out in 1896-1897. For instance, a 17th century Dutch engraving from Olfert Dapper’s Nauwkeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaansche Gewesten, published in Amsterdam in 1668 wrote: “The king’s palace or court is a square, and is 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 of 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…”

Another Dutch traveler was David van Nyendael, who in 1699 gave an eyewitness account of his impression of Benin Kingdom.

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