Benin

Ancestral head of an oba (a king), part of an exhibition on empire and museum holdings. Photo:Matt Neale. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The study of Benin offers a remarkable opportunity to study the history of a kingdom which produced exquisite works of art and which sustained its royal power for over five centuries, often in resistance to the forces of colonialism and the slave trade.

Benin’s art has become famous around the world, with hundreds of examples stored in Museums such as the British Museum. The bronzes reveal transformations of identities and the expression of this through art in the tumultuous period from 1450 to 1700. The fact that they can be visited easily in the British Museum adds to the appeal of the study of the Kingdom’s history.

Benin was one of the first kingdoms in the region of what is now Nigeria to have sustained contact with European traders.

Benin bronze from the 16th Century, Benin Kingdom. Photo: Bengt Oberger. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The Portuguese had established a trading post at Gwaton (Ughoton) by 1500, and had ambassadors at the court of the Oba from this time. Unlike many of its neighbours, Benin’s trade with Europeans was based primarily in textiles made in the kingdom, since the Obas barred the sale of male slaves into the Atlantic trade. As the Atlantic slave trade became more important from 1650 onwards, this made Benin’s relative position weaker compared to its neighbours, and decline set in before revitalisation under Oba Eresoyen towards 1750. Thereafter Benin remained a strong independent force in the region until its conquest by the British in 1897.