The Ogiso Period
Ogiso ("Rulers of the Sky"), who may have numbered as many as thirty-one kings, ruling the kingdom of Benin between 900 - 1170 AD, which is the earliest period so far accounted for in Benin history (Plankensteine 2007).
The first ruler, according to Benin traditions, was Igodo, a prominent elder in his community (Odionwere) who exercised authority over all other elders (Edionwere). Igodo is said to have ruled all the various small communities which collectively formed the kingdom known as 'Igodomigodo', meaning 'land of Igodo' or 'town of towns'. The most prominent among the known Ogiso rulers are Igodo, Ere, Orire, Oriagba and Owodo. The kingdom began as a union of juxtaposed clusters of independent communities, each surrounded by a moat (Egharevba 1968).
Fortification of Benin City
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 kilometres (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). 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 rampart (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 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.
Seventeenth-century engraving illustrating a court ceremony. In the foreground is the king of Benin on horseback, surrounded by musicians, dwarfs, and attendants with tame leopards, and leading a procession of chiefs and warriors, also on horseback. The middle ground shows the royal palace, which has high turrents surmounted by large cast-brass birds with outstretched wings. In the background, separated by a wall, is the town of Benin. Presided over by the oba, or king, the city was both a major trading center and the religious and political capital of the Edo people.
From Olfert Dapper, Beschreibung von Afrika (1967: pl. opp. 486), first published in Amsterdam in 1670.
Olfert Dapper, Description de l'Afrique: contenant les noms, la situation & les confins de toutes ses parties (Amsterdam: Wolfgang, Waesberge, Boom & van Someren, 1686) -- Source
View of Benin city in 1891 before the British conquest. H. Ling Roth, Great Benin, Barnes and Noble reprint. 1968.
Cavazzi. Istorica Descrizione de tre' regni Congo, Matamba ed Angola (Bologna, 1687); Book 6
da Monteleone, Francesco. APF: SRC, Congo 2, fol. 585, Francesco da Monteleone to Propaganda Fide, 24 May 1692.
Dapper, Olfert. "De Stadt Benin." In Beschreibung von Afrika. (Amsterdam, 1670)
Dapper, Olfert. Naukeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaensche gewesten. Amsterdam: Jacob von Meurs, 1668
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
Hakluyt, Richard. The Principal Navigations of the English Nation (London, 1589); On the Portuguese period, Ryder, Benin and the Europeans, 53-65.
Keys, David. Digging in the Dirt. The Independent (UK), 25th January. Cited in ACASA Newsletter 39 (April 1994)
Nevadomsky, Joseph. Palace of Benin. In Paul Oliver (ed.), Cultures and Habitats. (Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World 3; Cambridge:
University Press), 2047-2038
Pacheco Pereira, Duarte. Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis (1506-1508), Raymond Mauny, ed. Publicacoes do Centro de Estudos da Guine Portuguesa 19. Bissau
Ratelband, K. The great quantities of Benin cloth can be seen in K. Ratelband (ed.), vijf dagregisters uit het kasteel Sao Jorge da Mina (Elmina) aan de Goudkust
(1645-47) (The Hague, 1953), 37, 158; on the general pattern of trade, Dapper, Naukeurige Beschrijvinge, 124, 126.
Van Wassenaer, Historisch verhael, 19te Deel, fol. 23v, May 1630.
Wesler, Kit W. Historical Archaeology in Nigeria, Africa World Press, 1998
Ancient Benin City Ramparts and Moats
The Benin Moat
Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria
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 kilometres (6213.7 miles) of earth boundaries. They range in size from shallow traces to the immense 20-meter-high rampart (66 feet) around Benin City (Wesler 1998: 144). Patrick Darling, an archaeologist, estimates that the complex was built between 800 and 1000 up to the late fifteenth century (Keys 1994: 16).
The Benin City Walls were ravaged by the British in 1897. Since then, portions of the walls have gradually vanished in the wake of modernization. However, significant stretches of the walls remain, enclosing innumerable red earth shrines and vernacular elite architecture with red-fluted walls.
The earthworks attest the development of urbanization and rise of state societies in subsaharan Africa, a process that began in the seventh century A.D. and culminated in the founding of the Benin Kingdom of Bronze and Ivory in the fourteenth century.
City and Palace
The kingdom of Benin comprised the capital city, that is, metropolitan Benin, and the outlying districts. Just like the metropolis, the Oba of Benin directed the control of these districts from the central government at the capital.
Before its destruction, Benin City possessed an extensive network of streets up to 131 feet wide. A complex city wall system with nine gates, numbering among the most impressive earth structure in the world, protected the city from intruders. The palace compound itself occupied a large part, and is meant to have encompassed a surface area of 1148 x 2133 feet (Nevadomsky 1997).
Apart from these palace grounds encompassed the private living quarters of the king, various reception courts, the quarters of the three palace societies, and the royal harem. At least in the 17th century the wooden pillars supporting the roof of the galleries were decorated with mounted bronze reliefs plaques. In the 19th century the pillars were made of clay, and bore reliefs worked directly into the material. Doors and beams in the royal precinct were in some cases covered with hand-embossed sheet brass, or decorated with inlaid mirrors.
Numerous European visitors reported on the long waiting times before they were admitted to see the king. Access to the monarch was not only impeded by architectural hurdles, but also by the various ranks of dignitaries, who often actually posed an insurmountable obstacle (Plankensteiner 2007: 277).
Dapper, Olfert. Naukeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaensche gewesten. Amsterdam: Jacob von Meurs, 1668:
"The King's court is certainly as large as the town of Haarlem, and is entirely surrounded by a special wall. . . . It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and apartments of the courtiers. Fine galleries, about as large as those on the Exchange at Amsterdam, are supported by wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, and they are kept very clean."
Photo from: "De Stadt Benin." In Olfert Dapper's Beschreibung von Afrika. (Amsterdam, 1670)
Early Trade in Benin City
In 1553, English merchants lead by Thomas Wyndham were received in person by the Oba (king), who in turn traded with them in person, a practice common in the sixteenth century and confirmed by Portuguese reports as well (Hakluyt 1589: 53-65). According to a general description of trade written in 1623, Dutch pepper merchants participated in an extensive credit system, including use of written notes, with the two royal officials in charge of trade. Volume was considerable. Just one of the several Dutch ships involved in the Benin trade, the Olyphant, delivered 88,235 pounds of ivory and 1,337 pounds of Benin pepper to Texel, an island in the Netherlands, in 1630 (Van Wassenaer 1630).
The production of cloth was widespread and in local hands. Cotton growing and weaving were extensive throughout the Benin kingdom, as noted by visitors beginning with Welsh in 1588, followed by Ulsheimer in 1601, who noted its sale to Europeans through Lagos, then in Benin's hands, and Ruiters in 1602 (Hakluyt 1589). Samuel Brun, visiting Benin about 1614 noted that Benin made 'very beautiful cloths, which are exported far and wide and sold. Weaving was essentially a home industry, done by women in their spare time, if more recent documentation is any guide. Their cloth was not only for personal use, as the written accounts attest, but for long-distance trade with other African people, thousands of such cloths being shipped annually by the middle of the seventeenth century, either by the inland waterway past Lagos or on European shipping to the Gold Coast (Ratelband 1645). They even turned up, through European shipping connections, among the burial goods of Queen Nzinga of Matamba central Africa in 1663 (Cavazzi 1687: 110-12).