According to Benin traditions of origin, the people of Benin migrated from the East. After a long period of wandering, they settled at lle-Ife, from where they finally settled at their present location. The great kingdom of Edo started as a small city-state called Igodomido.
The Reign of the Ogisos
The Benin Kingdom in its earliest period (900-1300AD) was ruled by a line of Kings called the Ogisos. The first was said to have come from heaven, hence the name Ogiso – King from the sky. There were about fifteen such kings among whom were two women. The first Ogiso was Igodo and the last was Owodo. The Ogisos had great achievements which had enduring impact. It was during the period of the Ogisos that the development of various works of arts began and many villages were founded. Many trading networks were also established. However, between the late 11th and early 12 centuries, there emerged successive Ogisos who were either inefficient or tyrannical, a situation that led to unrest and anarchy. The death of the last Ogiso was followed by an interregnum (interruption) during which a republican system of government emerged in Benin. During this period, two men ruled Benin: Evian and Ogiamwe who acted as administrators.
The Coming of Oranmiyan
Tradition claimed that the people and the Ogisos were not satisfied with the administration of Evian and Ogiamwe and the republican administration.
So, they decided to make a return to the monarchical system of government and subsequently sent to lle-Ife for a prince of royal blood to help rule Benin. Oranmiyan was sent to Benin but faced great opposition from anti royal elements in Benin. As a result of this, Oranmiyan abdicated the throne to his son who was born to him by a Benin woman named Erinmwinde, the daughter of Osanego the Onogie of Ego. It is believed that this son, Eweka, was acceptable because he possessed Edo blood. Oranmiyan was said to have proceeded to Yoruba where he founded the Oyo Empire. Meanwhile, he named Benin, lle-Ibinu. During the early period of the establishment of Eweka dynasty, the King was only a King in name as the Uzama Nihiron (Kingmakers) who were, in fact ,descendants of the Ogisos were still powerful. They were: the Oliha, Edohen, Ezomo Ero, Eholorilre and Ololon all heads of quarters that made up Benin and saw themselves as the true rulers of Benin. However, during the reign of Ewedo, the Oba began to increase his power vis-a-vis the Uzama chiefs. This reached its climax during the period of Ewuare The Great.
The Benin Economy
The economy of Benin was based on industry, trade and agriculture. Benin was famous first as a centre of art craft. This was a major part of her economy; the Edo were known to trade in sacred carvings as well as secular art works. These were in the form of wood and ivory carvings; and brass-work of very high standards. The art industry in Benin was organised under guilds. Each aspect was controlled by a Guild which was responsible to the Oba. Therefore, there were the Guilds of goldsmiths, wood-carvers, ivory carvers and brass-smiths. Their products were determined by the specifications of the Oba of Benin.
Apart from industry, the people of Benin engaged in agriculture. They were known to produce tubers, spices and vegetables. These food crops were important in the sustenance of the large population within the Kingdom and later, empire.
Probably of great importance to Benin was trade. Benin carried out trade with her neighbours as well as with the Yoruba and the northern states of Nupe and Hausaland. It is believed that she was an important supplier of slaves to Hausaland before the advent of the Portuguese. There is also evidence to show that Benin traders went as far as North Africa.
With the advent of the Portuguese in the late 15th century, Benin acquired new importance as a great commercial centre. It became the pepper port during the late 15th century and early 16Th century and then the slave port from the 16th up to the 18th centuries.
Benin’s Contact with the Portuguese
The first European to set foot in Benin and indeed on the coast of Nigeria was the Portuguese. This was in 1472 when Ruy de Sequiera and his friend first landed on the port of Benin. Ewuare the Great was the King and his reception of the Europeans was eloquently appraised by European writers.
This contact made Benin an important centre for trade. During the reign of Oba Ozolua, John Alfonso d’Aveiro visited Benin between 1585 and 1586 and trade was established. Pepper (Black pepper) was the major export; others were native blue cloth, leopard skin, palm kennel, ivory, blue coral beads and many others. These were exchanged for European goods such as wire, woollen cloths, looking glass, cowries and iron products, copper bracelets and firearms. By the end of the 17th century, the trade in slaves eclipsed all other items.
Important Obas of Benin
Eweka succeeded Oranmiyan but found ruling difficult.
1. Eweka I
The son and successor of Oranmiyan, Eweka I, reigned in the second half of the 13th century. He created a council of state called Uzama; it was made up of the Onogie or Chiefs of Benin. He appointed his sons as local rulers in the districts as a means of strengthening his position.
2 . Ewedo CA.D. 1280
Ewedo’s reign was events-filled. He built the state prison and reformed the various punishments meted to people found guilty. He curbed the powers of the state council. He stopped them from carrying the sword of state as the Oba. Ewedo is also credited to have changed the name of Benin from lle – Ibinu to Ubini from which Benin derived its name.
3. Ewuare the Great 1440-1475
Under him, Benin became an important empire through his expansionist policy. He extended his influence over areas which today encompass Edo, Delta and Ebonyi states. It was he who received the Portuguese in Benin. Culturally, Ewuare developed Benin City. He constructed good roads and greatly increased the importance of the town. Administratively, he redefined the relationships between the Oba, the Uzama and the other Palace Chiefs. He also increased the importance of the Town Chief by making one of them the most senior, the commander-in-chief of the army.
4. Ozolua 1481-1504
Ozolua is noted to have expanded the Kingdom to the Yoruba country, especially the coastal states. It was during his reign that Alfonso d’ Aveiro visited Benin. This contact brought guns and gun powder to Benin. He also initiated diplomatic relations with Portugal.
5. Esigie 1504-1550
He promoted the trade with the Europeans and on his request, Catholic missionaries came to preach Christianity but the effort did not have an enduring effect.
6. Oba Orhogbua A D 1550
ObaOrhogbua was the first Benin man to acquire western education. He attended a Portuguese school and was baptised into Christianity. Oba Orhogbua encouraged missionaries in his domain to teach his subjects, the Portuguese language. During Orhogbua’s reign, there was a level of influence of the Edo on Lagos. This was sequel to his assistance to Ashipa in his bid for the seat of the Eleko of Eko. Lagos became the tributary of Benin and the Oba of Benin began to interfere in the politics of Lagos. It was in this sense that Lagos was referred to as “Edo House”. At the death of Ashipa, a son of Orhogbua became Eleko of Eko.
Republican: someone who believes in the form of government that allows people to choose representative who will lead them and cater for their interest.
Portuguese: refers to a native or inhabitant of Portugal.