Advantageously situated, the moats were duged in such a manner that earthen banks provided outer walls that complemented deep ditches. According to Graham Connah, the ditch formed an integral part of the intended barrier but was also a quarry for the material to construct the wall or bank (Keys 1994: 594). The ramparts range in size from shallow traces to the immense 20-meter-high (66 feet) around Benin City (Wesler 1998: 144). The Guinness Book of World Records describes the walls of Benin City as the world's second largest man-made structure after China's Great Wall, in terms of length, and the series of earthen ramparts as the most extensive earthwork in the world.
During the second half of the 15th century, Oba Ewuare the Great (ruled 1440-1473 AD) ordered a moat to be dug in the heart of the city. The earthworks served as a bastion and also afforded control of access to the capital which had nine gates that were shut at night. Travel notes of European visitors also described the Benin walls (e.g. Pacheco Pereira 1956: 130-147; Dapper 1668). It was finalized around 1460, at that time being the world's largest earthwork. (See historical photos of Benin City).
Early European visitors never failed to be impressed with the Benin City's grandeur and level of organization. Benin as it appears in documents of the seventeenth century the natural reflection of centralized wealth was its magnificent capital city Benin. Reports from the anonymous Dutchman D.R. (c. 1600) and David van Nyendael (some fifty years later) described Benin City as an extraordinarily extensive and flourishing city which easily matched the European metropolis of it time (Hodgkin 1960: 119-120; Ben-Amos 1995: 42ff).
The Portuguese compared it with Lisbon, the Dutch with Amsterdam or Antwerp, the Italians with Florence, and the Spaniards with Madrid (Kea 1971: 187). Its size was matched by dense habitation; houses built close to each other along long, straight streets. The royal palace, a city within the city, was also impressive, with countless squares and patios and innumerable doors and passageways, all richly decorated with the art that has made Benin famous. The city was orderly, well laid out, and sparkling clean so that the walls of the houses appeared polished (Dapper 1693: 122). The people clothes; some are dressed in white, others in yellow, others in blue or green; and the city captains are regular judges who resolve lawsuits, debates and conflicts.
Evolution of Benin Military Culture
The development of Benin military culture evolved in four phases: first, the period before the emergence of warrior kings up to c. 1440; second, the era of warrior kings from 1440 to 1608; third, the period of Benin's military power, 1606 to 1800; and finally, the 19th century transition from 1800 to 1897.
Up to the end of the 15th century, Benin expanded without firearms. The weapons produced enabled Benin warriors to use a variety of weapons such as bows and poisoned arrows, spears, swords, assegais and the crossbow. The variety of weapons used for war made it possible to compose the warriors into divisions of swordsmen, archers, spearmen and crossbowmen.
The swords produced in Benin were the curved single-edged swords (umozo) which is remembered in Benin tradition as one of the oldest of all fighting weapons. It was broadbladed and short, which was better for attack than defense. Benin warriors also used two types of spear (asoro) - the long and the short - which ranked next to umozo as the chief weapon used in battle. Among the spearmen were those who were famous for their skill in using the assegais - a type of slender iron-tipped spear of hardwood. Benin warriors also used bows (uhanbo) and arrows (ifenwe) long before the crossbow was introduced. The crossbow (ekpede) fired heavy arrows which made it a significant weapon of war. To successfully use the bow and arrow, and the crossbow, the warriors had training in target and field archery.
It is plausible to argue that since Benin warriors were successful in most of their campaigns, they and their commanders may have excelled in the strategy and tactics which were appropriate to the use of the locally produced weapons. The use of weapons alone was not the only factor which enhanced success in warfare. The overall strength of Benin was the result of the strength of its component parts which possessed armies that could be called upon to perform its tasks. Dutch sources have pointed out that the Oba (king) of Benin City could mobilize twenty thousand soldiers in a day, and raise an army of eighty thousand to one-hundred eighty thousand men. His authority stretches over many cities, towns, and villages. There is no King thereabouts who is in the possession of so many beautiful cities and towns, or is his equal (Dapper 1668).
This 16th century work of art shows a Benin war chief in a ceremonial war dress. The shields and long spears were weapons used in war and the helmets for protection, and bell.
(Not to be confused with Benin, Kingdom of Benin is an area of Nigeria, Benin City in that region).
The use of iron and development of its technology in Benin kingdom has had influences in the state-building process. Iron technology led to the development of weapons which changed the character of war. Generally, in West Africa, the states that rose to power in the period between 1400 and 1700 AD such as Benin, Nupe, Igalla, and Oyo in present day Nigeria, dominated others partly because of the advantages in the development of iron technology. The earliest known iron working in sub-Saharan Africa was discovered at the site of Taruga in present day Central Nigeria, where an advanced iron technology existed as early as the sixth century BC. Archaeological excavations unearthed a number of iron-smelting sites at Taruga, with radiocarbon dates from the fifth to the third centuries BC. (Osadolor 2001: 107)
Rich iron ore deposits were not available in Benin and had to be imported from the Etsako area - north of Benin - which had large deposits. Benin was able to develop an indigenous capacity to work the iron material into weapons of war. It is probable that this indigenous capacity which was basically the possession of iron smelting knowledge was acquired through training and apprenticeship of Benin blacksmiths in Etsako. By the second half of the fifteenth century when Benin expanded its Empire virtually in all directions, it established control over the iron ore sources which was considered to be essential to the development of iron technology in the state.
Defensive Fortification of Ancient Benin City
Edo, the people of Igodomigodo famously known for almost a millennium as Benin, had built a moat complex to protect themselves in the wars they fought. The defensive fortification of Benin City, the capital, consisted of ramparts and moats, call iya, enclosing a 4000 square kilometer (2485.5 miles) of community lands. In total, the Benin wall system encompasses over 10,000 kilometers (6213.7 miles) of earth boundaries. Patrick Darling, an archaeologist, estimates that the complex was built between 800 and 1000 up to the late fifteenth century (Keys 1994: 16).
Bronze Benin warrior wears trousers under a sort of pleated kilt and a basketry cap, is armed with a flintlock musket and short sword or dagger, and a trophy head at his feet. Source: Bryna Freyer, Royal Benin Art in the Collection, 1987, p. 55.
After each battle, the arrows which remained unshot were brought back to the king’s arsenal, and the fetish-priests poisoned new ones to replace those which were lost. Although the warriors had responsibility to own their weapons but in the king’s palace, there was a huge arsenal of iron weapons produced in readiness for war. In the arsenal were bows and arrows, swords and spears. The universal weapon of protection was a big shield, made from hide, wood, and basketwork. It had a curved top and was straight at the bottom - apparently designed to be placed on the ground in order to cover an adult sized man when kneeling. The helmet were worn by senior officers (chiefs) as well as highly decorated warriors (non-commissioned officers). They were made of padded basketwork or of hard crocodile skin and wood. The body armor (which consisted of a top and a bottom reaching down to the knees) was made of quilted ponchos covered with leopard skins, firm enough to prevent the penetration of an arrow or spear. They all carried charms for protective purposes usually keep in a small calabashes (ukokogho) and attached to their war dresses. Warriors also wore protective armlets round their arms. Some used the symbol of 'the sun and moon', which symbolically meant that just as the sun and the moon always reach their destinations in the evening and return the next day, so would the warrior return safely from his campaign. Each warrior wore a quadrangular bell, egogo. The clanging of hundreds of these bells accompanied by blasts by the military hornblowers, increased the psychological impact of the army's approach as they entered enemy territory, and gave them courage. (Plankensteiner 2007: 78 & 409).
At the time of the arrival of the Portuguese in 1485 AD there was a highly organized society in Benin, wealthy and militarily powerful and governed by an Oba (king) supported by a court aristocracy and an efficient bureaucracy (Levenson 1991: 64). Artists and craftsmen, such as the metal casters and ivory carvers, were organized into guilds and worked exclusively for the king, living in separate neighborhoods set aside for them. The kingdom maintained independence from European control also under Oba Ewuare, as well as under the next two obas, relations between Benin and the Portuguese were largely peaceful and cooperative.
Bronze Benin horseman. The spear is a typical weapon. The filial that top the headgear is an ancient crown, a hollowed out maize cob or woven palm fonds filled with amulets.
Dapper, Olfert. Naukeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaensche gewestern. Amsterdam: Jacob von Meurs, 1668
Dapper, Olfert. Beschrijvinge, 122; APF: SOCG, vol. 517, fol. 308v, Pinto to Propaganda Fide, 28 May 1693
Darling, Patrick J. Archaeology and History in Southern Nigeria: The Ancient Linear Earthworks of Benin and Ishan. Cambridge Monographs in African Archaeology II, B.A.R. International Series 215. Oxford: B.A.R. 1984.
Egharevba, Jacob U. A Short History of Benin. 4th ed. Ibadan: University Press, 1968
Iliffe, John. Africa: The History of a Continent. Cambridge: Cambrudge University Press, 1995
Kea, Ray A: For comparisons to Amsterdam, see the report of the first visit by Dutch to Benin, 1598 cited in Ray A. Kea, 'Firearms on the Gold and Slave Coasts from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century', Journal of African History, 12 (1971), 187; Dapper, Beschrijvinge, 122; for Florence, see Bonaventura da Firenze, 'Come entro la fede di Giesu Christo nel regno d'Ouere per la Prima Uolta,' fol. 28v, in Salvadorini (ed.), Missioni (with original foliation of MS marked); for comparisons to Madrid, see APF: SOCG, vol. 249, fol. 351v, Felipe de Hijar to Propaganda Fide, 25 July 1654; de Sandoval, Instauranda, 78-9.
Keys, David. Digging in the Dirt. The Independent (UK), 25th January. Cited in ACASA Newsletter 39, April 1994
Levenson, Jay A. Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration, Yale University Press, 1991
Oba Erediauwa during the Igue festival with an Idia (queen mother) ivory mask on his left hip.
Photo: Joseph Nevadomsky, 1985.
Igue festival is one of the important festivals among the people of Benin Kingdom in Edo State. The period ending one year and signaling the beginning of another, that is December to January, is usually an important period in the lives of the people of Benin Kingdom in Edo State, particularly their monarch, the Oba of Benin.
Igue is a thanksgiving time for the Edo people; a time for banishing evils from the nation and a time to invite blessings for the coming year since it marks the end and beginning of Edo year.
The Igue festival is an affair of parents and they are expected to bring their children and family members to benefit from the group worship where the spirit of the Edo nation is activated for both spiritual cleansing and blessing.
The origin of Igue dates back to the mid-15th century when Oba Ewuare Nogidigan, better known as Ewuare the Great, introduced it.
From the 17th century on European traders, led by the Dutch, began to sell firearms in large quantities. European firearms used in Benin were of three types: the match-lock, wheel-lock and, from 1635, the flintlock, with a range of 200 yards. Flintlock firing mechanisms were used on firearms from the 1600s to about 1850. Its technology improved on an earlier type as it had a piece of flint in the cocking hammer. The possession of firearms strengthened the Benin army. The use of European firearms played a crucial role, and Benin's soldiers learnt much from Europeans, particularly the Portuguese (Plankensteiner 2007: 77). Gunpowder assured victory on the battlefield, although the use of firearms by Benin warriors was restricted by the Oba (king) to those authorized, mainly war and regimental commanders.
The kings of Benin during the 18th century and 19th century were conscious of their dependency on European firearms. This compelled Oba Akengbuda (ruled 1750-1804) to encourage local production of light firearms, muskets and flintlock hand-guns. The Oba organized the guild of blacksmiths (Igun Ematon), specialists in iron-casting, by creating a new quarter at Igun n'Ugboha (Plankensteiner 2007: 80). In spite of the initiatives in local production of firearms, in the 19th century more weapons were needed. Benin warriors had a few breech-loading rifles, the commonest being the muzzle-loading smooth-bore guns known as Dane-guns, because many were originally imported from Denmark. The arsenal of fire-arms in Benin was reduced since by 1890 the European powers had banned the export of arms to West Africa (Osadolor 2001: 198). The arms of Benin were obsolete, in comparison with the Maxims and rockets then produced in Europe. In 1885 the last Portuguese trade vessel departed from Benin.
The Fall of Benin Kingdom
King Ovonramwen, who ascended to the throne in 1888, came under increasing pressure from the British and their Niger Coast Protectorate (see map), established in 1884. The colonial administration had started to conclude trade agreements with influential chiefs and kings of neighboring peoples. After several unsuccessful attempts, they finally succeeded in 1892 in concluding such an agreement with the Oba of Benin, who could no longer escape doing so. In order to put pressure on King Ovonramwen to abide by the conditions set out in the trade agreement, the ambitious and inexperienced Vice Consul James R. Phillips undertook an expedition to Benin, without the blessing of the British Administration of the Protectorate. Despite a warning from friendly chiefs in the region and from emissaries of the Oba, who requested that the visit be postponed, as he was performing important ancestor ritual duties (Ugi’erh’Oba Festival) and could therefore not receive foreigners, the delegation set off for Benin anyway. When the Phillips' troops was ambushed in January 1897 by followers of the Oba, seven of the nine English members of the expedition and numerous native carriers lost their lives.
Within a month, the British dispatched 1,200 soldiers to Benin, under the command of Admiral Sir. Harry Rawson. On February 18th, 1897, just under two weeks after the landing on the coast, the so-called Punitive Expedition reached the city, which was taken despite unexpectedly strong resistance. The king and his high dignitaries had fled, and the city turned out to be almost deserted. The British installed their headquarters in the royal palace, and scoured the environs without success in search of the Oba and his retinue. In a courtyard of the royal palace, under a thick layer of dust, the occupiers found hundreds of unusual bronze reliefs; in other rooms and shrines of the palace, they came across further bronze artworks and ivory carvings. These objects were gathered to take them back to England for subsequent defrayal of the cost of the war. On the third day, a fire broke out which destroyed the palace and most of the city. The palace had to be evacuated in haste, and a portion of the art treasures discovered fell victim to the fire.
After the accomplishment of his mission, Admiral Rawson left Benin, and the city was handed over to the local colonial administration. The battles in the environs persisted even longer, since the army commander Chief Ologbosere had not yet capitulated with his troops. In August 1897, Oba Ovonramwen finally surrendered, and in September, he and six high dignitaries viewed as responsible were put to trial, under the leadership of Consul-General Sir. Ralph Moor. Oba Ovonramwen was able to substantiate his innocence of the massacure, and was exiled to Calabar, where he died in 1914. Two of the chiefs committed suicide before the trial; the others, who had also acted without the approval of the king, were sentenced to death and executed (Plankensteiner 2007: 199). The Benin monarchy was restored in 1914, but true power lay with the colonial administration of Nigeria. From May 30, 1967 to January 15, 1970 the city was part of the Republic of Biafra. During Biafran occupation Benin declared its "independence".
These decisive events occupy a central place in the collective memory of the Edo, and also form the subject of many bronze works created today.
The first firearms in Benin were those brought by the Portuguese. During the 16th century papal prohibitions banned the sale of arms and iron to non-Christians and this was adhered to by Portuguese traders (Ryder 1969: 41). Also, because of dependence on Flemish and German gunsmiths, the Portuguese government forbade the sale of firearms to West Africans and few guns reached the kingdom until late in the 16th century (Smith 1976: 107). Portuguese soldiers played a decisive role in the expansionist wars of Oba Esigie (ruled 1505-1550). With their assistance Oba Esigie subjugated Udo and also defeated the Igala army. Oba Esigie died in 1550, and was succeeded by his son Orhogbua (ruled 1550-1578).