The wonderful civilization of the Benin kingdom (Nigeria)

The kingdom of Benin was founded in the thirteenth century by the Edo people. It is the ‘daughter’ of the Yoruba civilization of Ile-Ife. This kingdom was located at that time in the south of Nigeria. The tale of the European explorers and historians about this civilization, known for its sumptuous and prolific bronze sculptural arts, gives an idea about the prosperity and the organization in olden days. A part of those bronzes was stolen by the English colonizers and are now in British museums. It’s our duty to have them back.

Bronze sculptures from the kingdom of Benin
Bronze sculptures from the kingdom of Benin

‘The city is very big. When we get in, we walk through a large and straight street, wide and with no cobblestones. It seems to be 7 or 8 times wider than Warmoes street in Amsterdam. We think this street is 7 kilometers long. We can see a lot of streets on the side which go straight… houses in this city are all lined up just like are houses in Holland’ Dapper.

‘(The inhabitants of Benin) were absolutely not inferior to Dutch regarding cleanliness. They wash and they brush their houses to such a point that they are polished and shiny like mirrors’. Dapper

‘The palace of the king of Benin contained numerous apartments for the ministers of the prince and beautiful galleries which are for most of them as wide as these of the Amsterdam stock exchange. They are supported by wooden pillars decorated with red copper on which are depicted their victories. Each corner (of the royal houses) is trimmed with a small pyramid and on the peak of each pyramid there’s a red copper bird perched on it with their wings spread’ Dapper.

Ancient Benin City – Authentic representation of the kingdom of Benin by the Dutch explorer Olivier Dapper, during the XVII century. Image showing a procession of the king. We can see a well-disciplined royal guard and people in harmony with felines.
Ancient Benin City – representation of the kingdom of Benin by the ancient Dutch historian Olfert Dapper, during the XVII century.
Image showing a procession of the king. We can see a well-disciplined royal guard and people in harmony with felines.

‘The palace of the king is a set of buildings which occupies as much place as the city of Harlem and is surrounded by a wall’ Dapper.

‘The palace of the queen alone is 3 leagues wide. The city is 5 leagues wide. The city and the palace together have an 8-league-perimeter (it is to say 30 km)’ Dapper.

‘There are a lot of cities in Benin’ and ‘a very large number of villages’ Dapper.

‘In one side, there is the royal palace – which is alone an absolute city – wherein live a great number of qualified men, servants and women. On the other side, the city itself, that contains forty-or-so neighborhoods; and each has its own specialization’ Landolphe.

‘We can see the extraordinary refinement of scenery that is now scattered in museums. There are bronzes and sculpted elephant tusks, sculpted wooden doors covered with thin brass foils modeled on the sculptures. Sculpted beam treated the same way; wooden pillars covered with bronze layers linked together, ivory latches. The audience room was wide (around 100×55 feet), with a huge central impluvium supported by hundreds of pillars; a wooden polished seat along the 4 walls. With the exception of this seat, every wooden thing was profusely sculpted. There were as many palaces as there were kings who ruled in the country: 33 in Benin, 6 in Abomey…’ Mercier.

‘Knights armed from head to toe seem to prove that metal had different functions’ Cheikh Anta Diop.

A bronze stolen during the colonial invasion and returned to Nigeria by Great Britain. The perfection of this sculpture with every single fold and every single undulation represented, is absolutely stunning.
A bronze stolen during the colonial invasion and returned to Nigeria by Great Britain. The perfection of this sculpture with every single fold and every single undulation represented, is absolutely stunning.

By : Lisapo ya Kama

Notes :

  • Afrique noire, sol, démographie et histoire (Black Africa, soil, demography and history) ; Louise Marie Diop Maes – pages 96-131-133-162-168-169-176
  • L’Afrique noire précoloniale (pre-colonial Black Africa), Cheikh Anta Diop, page 196.