Benin Empire developed from a number of small chieftaincies. Benin oral traditions claimed that the first rulers were called Ogiso (Kings of the Sky), and there were thirty-one of them. It was during their time that certain symbols of royal authority were introduced.
Oral tradition also claimed that the reign of the last Ogiso was unsuccessful. For a while, they experimented with republican government, but they then asked the Oni of Ife to send them one of his sons to be their king. He was said to have sent Oranmiyan. Oranmiyan, however, decided that the Benin people would be better ruled by one of their own. Oranmiyan had a son Eweka, by a Benin Noblewoman. He later returned to Ife. Subsequently, he founded the old Oyo Empire.
The founding of the Benin dynasty was wholly attributed to Eweka. It has been suggested that Eweka was the first Oba of Benin. Eweka ruled through the pre-dynastic Uzama Chiefs who had hereditary titles.
FACTORS THAT LED TO THE RISE OF BENIN EMPIRE
Oranmiyan’s son, Eweka founded a new dynasty with the title of Oba. Eweka probably lived between 1200A.D. and 1300A.D. At this time, the Benin Empire was very small. The power of the Oba was limited and shared with traditional chiefs called Uzama. The strengthening of the power of the Oba and the expansion of the empire were mainly the work of two Obas, Ewedo and Ewuare.
Ewedo was the fourth Oba, and he lived towards the end of the thirteenth century. The art of bronze casting is said to have brought from Ife to Benin during Ewedo’s reign. Ewedo built a new palace, and established his own hierarchy of chiefs. He weakened the authority of the Uzama who could no longer have swords of state carried before them and had to stand, not sit in his presence.
Consequently, Ewuare’s reign in the late 15th century was equally eventful. Ewuare came to power after a civil war, and may not have been a member of the royal family. He was a great conqueror. Tradition claims that he captures 201 towns mainly in the eastern Igboland and western Yorubaland. He expanded Benin City by building great walls and ditches and protecting it with powerful charms. He created the office of Edaiken, for the heir to the throne. He introduced Benin facial marks, royal beads and scarlet cloth. He created the body of Town chiefs whom the Oba could balance against the palace chiefs. His successors extended the Benin Empire to the south-west and a tributary kingdom was established in Lagos.
Following the end of military expansion in 1600A.D, the Oba stayed in their palaces and their armies were led by a Great War Lord, the Iyase.
In summary, the factors that led to the rise of Benin Empire were: the roles of Oba Ewedo and Oba Ewuare and their successors, military expansion of the empire, Benin arts, revenue accruing from tributary states and trade between Benin and other parts of the region.
FACTORS THAT LED TO THE FALL OF THE BENIN EMPIRE
The factors that led to the fall of Benin Empire were, internal political crisis, the breaking away of vassal states, pressure from powerful neighbours, economic problems and conquest.
- Internal Political Crisis: After the death of Ehemgbuda, the Oba changed from active leadership of the armies, to sacred figures, living secluded life in the palace. The 17th century Obas was weak and power was controlled by great officials. Akenzua I who died in 1713, restored the power of the king, but even after this, the monarchy had some challenges. The most serious of these was that after the death of each Oba, his eldest sons tended to fight for the throne.
- The breaking away of vassal states: As trade with Europeans became more important, Lagos and Warri became wealthy and their control by Benin was nominal. Warri weakened the Benin Empire by controlling much of the trade from the coastal area. Further inland, the Esan and the western Igbo Kingdom of Agbor, revolted in the 19th century against Benin authority.
- Pressure from powerful neighbours: One of the factors which had helped Benin’s expansion in the first place was the fact that it was surrounded by very small states. These included the Ishan, Efik and others. In the 19th century, Ibadan became a strong military power and established its rule in Ekiti that had been under Benin Empire. The new Emirate of Nupe attacked Esan which owed allegiance to Benin Empire.
- Economic problems: Trade with Europeans was an important source of income to the ruling class. Warri was better situated for the trade in palm oil and there was little demand for Benin cloth.
British conquest: In 1851, the British conquered Lagos. In 1894, the British overthrew Nana of Itsekiri. In 1897, they captured Benin and sent Oba Ovonramwen into exile. This marked the end of indigenous rule in the kingdom. The British were, at this time, in control of the social, political and economic life of the people of Benin.