For centuries Benin City was the center from which the ancient kingdom of the Edo people reigned over a large expanse of territory that extended as far as Lagos and the nearby country of Benin.

Located about 300 kilometers east of Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city, ancient Benin was ruled (and is still ruled) by the Oba, a supreme monarch of the Bini, as the people are also known.

According to Benin oral history, during the reign of the Ogiso dynasty in the 12th century, Prince Ekaledarhen, who was next in line, left the palace with his warriors in anger over some palace dispute. He ended up in Ile-Ife, where he was made king as Oduduwa (said to be a corruption of the Benin name, Izoduwa), regarded by the Yoruba as their founder.

When years later he was invited to take back the Benin throne, he sent his son Oranmiyan instead. Oranmiyan served for some time before handing over to his son Eweka 1 and returned to Ife, from where he went on to found the Oyo Empire as the first Alaafin.

Benin reached its peak under Oba Ewuare, who reigned in the second half of the 15th century,  just before the Portuguese arrived, according to historian Basil Davidson. Brass and ivory works made by court sculptors during this period, depicting royal events and personages, are rated the most artistically accomplished of the plaques for which Benin became renowned.

In 1485 the Portuguese made their first contact with the Benin Kingdom and started a trading and diplomatic relationship that resulted in the exchange of ambassadors. It began with a trade in spices, beads, ivory and ornaments, quickly followed and later dominated by slaves due to an insatiable demand by European  plantation owners in the Americas.

The Portuguese were followed by the Dutch, then the British. A Dutch trader who visited Benin in 1602 reported, clean-swept streets that were 10 times wider than what they had back in Amsterdam. He made a sketch of the city which survives until today.

A Dutch engraving of Benin city from the 16th century.

While the slave trade was the rage for the following 300 years after the coming of the Europeans, the Benin monarchy never quite embraced the trade wholeheartedly as was the case with some of the states that emerged on the eastern seaboard, according to Davidson.

By the 17th century decline had set in with so many slave wars going on in the neighborhood. Several delta states to the east were fully involved in slave raids, importing arms from Europe and reducing Benin’s sphere of influence.

As its influence shrank, Benin was said to have become increasingly dominated by a small traditional priesthood, which held the Oba hostage and prescribed more human sacrifice as a means to restore the lost powers.

By the 19th century the British had given up slave trade and in the wake of the industrial revolution were seeking colonial territories that would guarantee the supply of raw materials and markets for finished products. At this time European adventurers and colonists were in a race to secure colonial agreements with African rulers.

A British expeditionary force sent in 1897 to coerce the Benin into accepting British rule was ambushed by Benin warriors, killing all but two members of the group. The British retaliated by sending a much stronger expeditionary force two months later, which sacked the city and looted the Oba’s palace, taking away thousands of highly priced brass and ivory sculptures. The Oba Ovonramwen, who was reigning at the time, was forced into exile in Calabar.  Many of the stolen items are still on display at the British Museum in London until today.

 

A Modern City Emerges

With the fall of Benin, the British moved quickly to establish its dominion over the colony that became Nigeria. In the administrative structure that followed under British rule, Benin became the headquarters of the Benin Province. That was the state of affairs that prevailed until after Nigeria’s independence in 1960 and the introduction of the republican constitution in 1963, when the Midwest region was created with Benin as the capital.

In 1967, Benin became the capital of newly created Bendel state, comprising the erstwhile Benin and Delta provinces. This state of affairs remained until Delta and Edo states were created out of the old Bendel state in 1991. Benin City then became the capital of Edo state.

A view of Benin today.

Climate and Topography

Benin City falls into the tropical rainforest area of southern Nigeria. Here there almost nine months of the wet season in a year, followed by about three dry season months between December and March. Annual temperatures in Benin City range from about 20 degrees Celsius at the peak of the rainy season to about 32 degrees Celsius in the dry months just before the rains start in March.

Economy

One of the major attractions Benin had for the British is that it was in a region that produced important cash crops such as palm oil, timber and rubber. These have continued to be important agricultural products, especially for export. It is also an area that produces major staples such as plantains, banana, garri, snails and many other rainforest products.

Benin City is center for industries ranging from brewing, agricultural processing, furniture, plastics and pharmaceutical companies.  Guinness, the global brewing giant, had one of its plants located in the city.

It is also a centre for many educational institutions including the University of Benin and it’s medical college as well as other top tertiary and secondary educational institutions.

Tourist Attractions

The top tourist attraction in Benin City is the Oba’s palace and the centuries-old moat around the ancient quarters, which has been designated as a world heritage site by UNESCO. There is also a national museum where old artefacts related to Benin history are on display.

Visitors to the city also frequently throng to Igun Street, where artists work on brass, ivory and wood sculptures for which the city has been famous from ancient times. Also popular with local visitors and tourists alike is the annual Igue Festival celebrated in the last week of December every year to mark the culture of the Benin and pray for the coming year.