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Nation of people who are mostly located in the Midwestern part of Nigeria, Western  Africa.





By Peter P. Ekeh
State University of New York at Buffalo, USA 


In many ways, this lecture is a celebration of the
uniqueness of Benin and its culture. Let me hurry to
say, however, that I have not come here to praise
Benin history, but to analyze it. I have come before
you in the hope that I will be able to highlight
certain features of Benin history and culture in an
academic fashion. I cannot claim to know Benin in any
degree that is close to your intimate knowledge of
your own folkways and your command of the history of
Benin royal legacies. What I can do as an academic is
to foster a level of analysis of Benin history and
culture that will enable you to weigh your experiences
and acquaintance with the Benin past and its
traditions on a scale of knowledge that is different
from that to which you are used.

Let me begin that analysis by clarifying my assertion
concerning the uniqueness of Benin history and
culture. I will discuss a premier element of Benin's
uniqueness as my introduction to this lecture.  Benin
is unique in bridging the African past with our
present world. Ancient Africa experienced an abundance
of civilizations and state formations. They stretched
back to ancient Egypt of some five millennia removed
from our times through Kush, Ethiopia and other
Nilotic traditions of civilization to the triple state
formations of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai and the Hausa
and Yoruba states of West Africa. Except for the more
ancient instances of Egypt and Kush, which existed
long before the Christian era, most of these state
formations were contemporaries of Benin. Remarkably,
with the single exception of Ethiopia and Benin, all
the significant civilizations and state formations of
ancient Africa ceased to exist before the arrival of
European imperialism introduced a new era in African
affairs. Both Ethiopia and Benin had strong royal
traditions, even after the advent of European
imperialism in Africa. In the 1970s, Ethiopian royalty
collapsed, leaving Benin monarchy as the sole survivor
and exemplar of royalty from ancient times of African

In this respect, within the compass of recent and
contemporary Nigerian affairs, let me recall to your
memory that royal traditions have changed dramatically
in the last century of our history. The British sought
to control our royal traditions, supplanting those
occupants of thrones that did not readily accept their
imperial overtures. That was how such a formidable
royal presence of the nineteenth century as Muhammadu
Attahiru dan Ahmadu, Sultan of Sokoto, lost his
throne, allowing an occupant of that throne, Muhammadu
Attahiru dan Aliyu Baba, whose appointment by the
British in 1903 was dictated by their own imperial
needs (See H. A.S. Johnston 1967, Chapter 23). The
intense animosity between the British and the Benin at
the close of the nineteenth century, leading to the
fiercest war fought by the British for any territory
in Nigeria, was so palpable that the British were
clearly intent on changing the line of succession to
the Benin throne. The pragmatic British changed their
mind and accepted the verdict of the Benin people who
insisted on continuity of Benin royal succession by
way of primogeniture.

Let me remind you further that during the first blush
of civilian control of Nigerian affairs in the 1950s,
we in this country witnessed the quick removal of the
Alafin of Oyo and Emir Sanusi of Kano, both of whom
were not readily compliant with the wishes of the
ruling Action Group in Western Nigeria and the ruling
Northern Peoples Congress of Northern Nigeria,
respectively. If there was one stable source of
opposition to the ways of the Action Group from
Midwestern Nigeria in the 1950s, it was led from the
much beloved and tough-minded Akenzua II, the Oba of
Benin during the decade of campaign for Nigeria=s
independence from British rule. Yet it would be
unthinkable for the Action Group to interfere with
Benin royal traditions, even when their bearer was not
in its support. We should pose the following question
as a matter to attend to in this lecture: Whence did
Benin royalty gain such strength?


Answering that question may require further
characterization of Benin and its royal traditions
than what we have so far noted about their uniqueness.
Royal institutions have been at the center of Benin
history and culture for centuries, probably closer to
some two millennia than most current estimates allow.
There is a feature of royal traditions which are
readily identified with the histories of China and of
Europe, but which are rare in Africa, for which Benin
should be well noted. A sequence of reigns or rule by
members of a single royal family constitutes what is
referred to as a dynasty. We are probably much more
familiar with the dynasties of English history. The
Tudors (1485-1603) provided England with an impressive
line of succession of Kings and Queens that witnessed
a great deal of progress in English history. They were
followed by the much-maligned Stuarts who brought
England and Scotland together in a union that bore the
name of Great Britain. Most European kingdoms recorded
several dynasties. The Chinese historical record is
longer, and it also witnessed a good number of

Dynasties are, however, quite rare in African history.
Aside from the famed dynasties of Egyptian history,
Ethiopia and Benin again provide us with the most
distinguished instances of dynasties in African
history. The Benin case is quite remarkable. Benin=s
long history has been dominated by two ruling houses.
Jacob Egharevba and other students of Benin history
have given estimates of up to thirty-one Ogisos who
ruled Benin in its earlier period. That is an
outstanding line of succession that would be difficult
to replicate in other corners of African history.
While respecting that range of figures of ruling
Ogisos as indicating a broad accurate estimate, we
should be more circumspect with respect to the
duration of the Ogiso era of Benin history. Converting
events counted in African indigenous calendars into
the Gregorian calendar of reckoning is not an easy
If estimates that date the beginning of the Ogiso era
to the sixth or seventh century were upheld, ancient
Ghana and Benin would have begun their experiments in
building kingdoms about the same time. My own
suspicion is that the Ogiso era spanned a larger
canvas of time than that allowed by the learned
Egharevba and other scholars of Benin history,
generally estimated to cover some six centuries.  My
reason for saying so is that the kingdom built by the
Ogisos was a pristine state. Pristine states were
original political constructions that did not have
other examples and templates, from their past
histories or from elsewhere, on which to model their
behaviours. They were living experiments, making
mistakes and correcting their systems of rulership
along the way at a pace of development that was liable
to be slow. Pristine states, such as Egypt and Ghana,
to cite two prominent instances in ancient African
history, spanned much longer periods of time than
states that followed them. The Ogisos began an
experiment in statecraft in circumstances that were
elementary and their ascent to maturity must be
assumed to have taken a longer period of time than
their apparent achievements would indicate. It was
upon their accomplishments that the succeeding kings
in the ruling House of Eweka built a formidable
city-state and then an empire, at a much faster pace.

In any comparative assessment of dynasties, the
existence of two Ruling Houses in the total span of
Benin history is most conspicuous. Let us stay with
the example of English history because many of us are
much more familiar with it than other cases in
comparative world history of royalty. English history
boasts seventy one Kings and Queens, who have ruled
England from 827 C. E. to the present time, that is
for about twelve centuries. That time span is
obviously shorter than the history of Benin royalty.
Yet, counting the earlier Anglo-Saxon Kings together
until the epoch-making arrival of William the
Conqueror in 1066, English Kings and Queens are
grouped into eleven dynasties. It is fair to say that
in the comparative history of royalty, the Benin
historical experience of two ruling Houses of the
Ogiso and Eweka for more than one and a half
millennium is spectacular.

Whatever doubts there might be regarding the centuries
in which the House of Ogiso ruled, the record is much
clearer in the second dynasty of the Obas from the
House of Eweka who succeeded the Ogisos, following an
interregnum that the nobleman Evian presided over, in
the 12th century. So strong is the sense of oral
history in Benin and so secure is the entrenchment of
the House of Eweka that the names of the Obas have
been ingrained into Benin history and folklore with
remarkable clarity. Beginning in the 12th century,
there have been thirty-eight monarchs from the Ruling
House of Eweka. In the reckoning of dynasties, these
records for the Ogisos and for the Ewekas are quite

Such features of Benin history and royalty are
commonplace facts with which many in this hall are
thoroughly familiar. They may appear slightly
different because I have stated them in comparison to
other instances of royal history in the ancient world.
But we must now move beyond statements of historical
facts to the more demanding task of explaining them.
We must ask difficult questions of those facts in the
attempt to understand why and how Benin history
evolved along its own special way.  Stating what
happened in Benin history is important and even
challenging. However, we are liable to exaggerate or
mystify historical developments if we are not guided
by the desire to understand and explain the facts of
history as events that have their own boundaries of
probabilities within the limits of human achievements.


I offer two key principles as avenues for
understanding the nature of Benin history and culture.
The first may be stated as follows: The Kingdoms of
the Ogisos and of the Obas of Benin were established
by the people of these lands on the theory that
monarchy would best protect their interests. The
people who lived under the Ogisos and the people of
Benin who have lived under the Obas of the House of
Eweka were never conquered by any of their kings,
although they expected their kings to conquer other
lands. Whereas most other kingdoms in the ancient
world were presided over by dynasties that claimed
their right to rule from their conquest of the lands
of the people, the ancestors of the Benin people, whom
the Ogisos and the Obas ruled, could rightly claim
that they and their culture willed and then designed
the Kingdoms over which these enduring dynasties
governed the affairs of the people.
Permit me to elaborate on the essence of this first
principle of Benin history, which accounts for a great
deal of the special features of Benin history and
culture. The men and women who lived through various
segments of at least a millennium and a half of Benin
royal history took active part in the design and
construction of Benin monarchy. In a vital sense, they
believed that they owned the social institutions that
housed their kingdom. Having collectively invested so
much in the building of their state, they have acted
as its owners. They rewarded those kings who advanced
the fortunes of the state with adulation and high
praise -- rarely matched anywhere else in the ancient
African world. But they were also known to have meted
out severe punishment to those of their Kings who
degraded their state and threatened the people=s
welfare. Benin kings were powerful people within their
domain and outside of it. But their power was a result
of their paying close attention to the affairs of the
state and their unmatched ability to listen to the
complaints of even the littlest man and woman in the
kingdom. Kings who failed in these respects have
occasionally suffered disgrace from actions of the

That was how the first dynasty of the Royal House of
Ogiso was terminated. The following epigrammatic
passage from Jacob Egharevba's A Short History of
Benin tells us at once the role of the people in the
dissolution of the old Ogiso dynasty; in the rejection
of attempts by a non-royal aristocrat to be their
king; and in the creation of a new dynasty by way of
the deliberate invitation by the people to a
neighboring kingdom for a royal prince to help out
with their crisis of governance:
It was some years after Evian's victory over Osogan
[the monster] that Owodo was banished for misrule by
the angry people, who then appointed Evian as an
administrator of the government of the country because
of his past services to the people. When Evian was
stricken by old age he nominated his eldest son,
Ogiemwen as his successor, but the people refused him.
They said he was not the Ogiso and they could not
accept his son as his successor, because as he himself
knew, it had been arranged to set up a republican form
of government. This he was now selfishly trying to

While this was still in dispute the people indignantly
sent an ambassador to the Ooni Oduduwa, the great and
wisest ruler of Ife, asking him to send one of his
sons to be their ruler, for things were getting from
bad to worse and the people saw that there was need
for a capable ruler. (Italics added.)

Putting aside for now the historical nuances in the
reasons for the invitation to Ife, there can be no
doubt whatsoever of the people's role in terminating
the Ogiso dynasty and in launching, by their election,
of a new dynasty that began with Eweka I, the royal
reward of the people=s efforts to govern their affairs

There is an important corollary of this first
principle of Benin history. It is that the people,
during Ogiso times and under the succeeding ruling
House of Eweka, fought strenuously to protect the
monarchy whenever it was threatened by hostile forces.
Just compare from our recent history in Nigeria the
reaction to the British imperial invasion of Benin and
of the Fulani Empire of Sokoto, the two leading states
in our region of West Africa in the nineteenth
century. The Benin fought with determination until
they fell, earning the respect of history for their
loyalty to their king and to their state. In the
Sokoto Caliphate, the British, having anticipated much
opposition, surprisingly rode into the once mighty
Fulani state with ease. The Hausa, whose kingdoms the
Fulani had liquidated a century earlier, were pleased
to see the new conquerors.  Conquered subjects of
kingdoms, such as the Hausa in the Sokoto Caliphate of
the 19th century, could never fight for the survival
of their kingdom and their King with the same amount
of resolve as the Benin displayed in February 1897.
The Benin were fighting to protect their kingdom, a
state which their ancestors had helped to build.

Let me now turn to the second principle of Benin
history which, I claim, has made Benin history and
culture what they are. It may be stated as follows:
Dynastic struggle between the Ruling House of Eweka
and the defeated House of Ogiso has had the intended
and unintended consequences of consolidating and
greatly expanding the small state that the House of
Ogiso experimented with and built in the course of
many centuries. In exploring this region of Benin
history, we are approaching a line behind which it is
not historically responsible to talk about
authoritatively. Indeed, our knowledge of the era of
the Ogisos is murky for two principal reasons. First,
dynastic struggles in world history include a
determination by the succeeding dynasties to diminish
and control the knowledge of the events of the
dynasties that are being overtaken. This has been the
case in Benin history. Second, the historical events
of the Ogiso era occurred in relative isolation, at a
time when the people of these lands did not have much
contact with outsiders. One reason why historians have
been able to talk with privileged authority about the
later dates of Benin history, under the dynasty of the
Obas, is that its events can be measured in time
against outside incidents including the activities of
Europeans whose arrival in our region, in the later
half of the fifteenth century, had opened up the
historically pristine political territories of what
historians have labelled the forest states of West
Africa (see Connah 1987 [2001 edition: 144-180]).

Dynastic struggles are by their nature ideological.
They are waged against departing royal ruling houses,
which no longer exist, by new ruling houses, which
seek to establish their own legitimacy. Dynastic
struggles are intrinsically double-handed. On the one
hand, a major tool of dynastic struggle is the
diminution in the stature and achievements of the
failed dynasty. Sometimes, the extinct dynasty was so
powerful that the succeeding dynasty rules under its
predecessor=s shadows. That was what happened in
English history to the Scottish Stuarts whose
achievements were always unfavourably compared to the
grounded achievements of the pragmatic Tudors. In the
Benin case, the native Ogisos were disgraced and
hounded out of their reign by the people. Their
diminution rituals, during the successful dynasty of
the Obas of the House of Eweka, continued under
various guises. On the other hand, dynastic struggles
involve efforts by the new ruling houses to glean and
claim the successes of the extinct dynasties and then
to build on them. Here, in the Benin case, we have an
example of one of the most successful instances of
achievements, by the House of Eweka, that were built
from the history and culture of the previous dynasty
of the House of Ogiso.

Having stated these two principles of Benin history in
more or less general terms, let me now move on to
discuss each of them in the context of the events of
Benin history. I will handle them in reverse order.


The earlier portions of the reign of the Ogisos
constitute what historians like to call prehistory.
Historical scholarship can shed some light on a great
deal of the events of the prehistoric era from various
sources, provided we are modest enough to admit that
we are reconstructing probable events from a period
about which there are no clear records. Unfortunately,
two fallacies have beclouded the studies of
prehistoric portions of our existence in Nigerian
history. In order to render a responsible and truly
probable interpretation of the Ogisos and their times,
it is necessary to comment on, and then correct, these
two fallacies in Nigerian scholarship.

First, Nigerian historiography is infested with what I
would like to label as the fallacy of the regal
origins of societies and cultures. It is the false
assumption that societies and cultures have grown from
kingdoms that were built by immigrant princes. This
habitude and preoccupation with kingdoms as sources of
cultures and societies probably began with the
Reverend Samuel Johnson=s tortured acceptance of the
view that Oduduwa, the progenitor of the Yoruba, was a
fugitive prince who fled religious persecution from
Muslim devotees in Arabia. In his famous The History
of the Yorubas, Johnson initially rejected any
suggestion that the Yoruba were Arabians in their
The Yoruba are certainly not of the Arabian family,
and could not have come from Mecca -- that is to say
the Mecca universally known in history, and no such
accounts . . . are to be found in the records of
Arabian writers or any kings of Mecca; an event of
such importance could hardly have passed unnoticed by
their historians (Johnson 1921: 5)

Having so wisely denounced this thesis of Arabian
origins of Yoruba, Johnson was nonetheless swayed by
the "only written record . . .on this subject" from
the much learned Sultan Bello of Sokoto who sought to
link the origins of the Yoruba to the Biblical story
of Noah=s curse on the children of his youngest son,
Ham. According to Sultan Bello, the Yoruba Aoriginated
from the remnant of the children of Canaan, who were
of the tribe of Nimrod [Ham=s descendant]. The cause
of their establishment in the West of Africa was, as
it is stated, in consequence of their being driven by
Yar-rooba, out of Arabia." That is to say, the Yoruba
mysteriously adopted the name of their persecutor,
Yar-rooba. The Reverend Johnson creatively adds that
Nimrod was probably the same ancestor of the Yoruba
whose name had been corrupted from Nimrod to Lamurudu
{Namurudu).  (See Johnson 1921: 5-6). The late
Professor Saburi O. Biobaku (1979) added the weight of
his scholarship to these claims of Yoruba migration,
suggesting "that the Yoruba were probably the last
Sudanic people to migrate to their present territory."
(cited in Otite 1978: 20). 

While we all must be intrigued and amazed at the
fertile intellectual imagination that enabled
brilliant scholars to reach such fanciful conclusions,
it is much more bewildering that modern academics
should endorse these self-deprecating stories as
appropriate material to be taught in Nigerian schools.
The result has been imitation of migration stories in
other areas of Nigeria, ignoring traditions of origins
of our people that do not incorporate migrations from
elsewhere. For example, Robin Law, the British
historian who is an authority on Oyo, has noted the
existence of other traditions of Yoruba origins, which
have apparently been ignored: "there exist among the
Yoruba numerous origin legends which, while agreeing
in tracing descent from Oduduwa and Ile-Ife, do not
refer to a migration from elsewhere" (Law, 1973: 30).
There should be little doubt that the original
intention of these fabulous migration stories was to
establish the specious point that all Nigerians were
after all migrants, as the Fulani overlords of the
Sokoto Caliphate undeniably were, and that rival
groups like the Yoruba and the Edo had no superior
indigenous claims to their own lands.

When compared to the age of human existence on the
African continent, Mecca and Islam, and indeed
Christianity, are late instances of human history.
Such knowledge does not seem to hinder this type of
improbable mythology dressed up as respectable
prehistory. Mohammed was born in 580 C. E., by which
time African states like Ghana and Ethiopia were
already well established. He died in 632 C. E. Seven
years later, in 639 C. E., Arabs began to pour into
Africa, on a mission of converting Christian Africa
and Christian Europe to Islam. Since then, there are
clear records of the movements of Arabs in Africa.
None contains any mention of this fantastic connection
between Yorubaland and Arabia. This distortion is a
troubling aspect of our scholarship because it insults
our claim to be some of the oldest humans on earth. 
The fallacy of the regal origins of societies and
cultures seems to have influenced some students of
Benin history to assume that the Ogisos founded the
societies which they then ruled. Such land has
retrospectively been named after the first Ogiso as
Igodomigodo (see Oronsaye 1995, Bradbury 1957: 19;
Otite 1978: 19)). However, it is much more probable
that the Ogiso dynasty arose from clan and village
societies that were already in existence for thousands
of years. That would not make their accomplishments
smaller. Bringing various clans and villages under the
control of a ruling family must have been a major
challenge for the Ogisos, a challenge that they seemed
to have met magnificently until the mismanagement of
their own successes overthrew their long era of
dominance.  Our region of humankind is not young,
certainly not as young as the last two millennia
within which the House of Ogiso built their kingdom.
We must acknowledge the contribution of these village
and clan communities in the evolution of what
eventually became the Kingdom of Benin. It is to their
credit that out of the numerous indigenous communities
that existed for tens of thousands of years in our
corner of humanity, it was their culture that began
the process of state building which mushroomed into a
powerful kingdom many centuries later.

A second troubling fallacy in Nigerian historiography,
which affects our appreciation of the Ogisos and their
times, is what Professor Reinhard Bendix from the
University of California, Berkeley, many years ago
labelled as the fallacy of retrospective determinism.
It surfaces in the assumption that the themes and
features that characterize our modern societies and
history also applied in ancient times. In effect, this
fallacy is the process of falsely levelling our
history backwards into antiquity. I will give an
example from within our subject matter. One of the
great achievements of the kings in the House of Eweka
is the founding of the City of Benin, which then
nurtured an urban ethos among the Benin. Some
historians of Benin seem to imply that the Ogisos did
the same thing. Actually, not all dynasties build
cities and there is no evidence that the Ogisos built
one. Certainly, their contemporaries did not seem to
be as urban as modern Benins have become.

Aware of the dangers in these two fallacies, let us
now explore the Ogisos and their times. What type of
kings were the Ogisos and what type of societies did
they preside over? Here our exploration must take the
route of discovering the distant past from their
reconstructed refractions in our own existence. But
understanding that the Ogisos, like the Stuarts of
English history, have sometimes been maligned in Benin
folkways, we will need the help of other fragments of
the culture that the Ogisos influenced in their times.
Just consider the appearances of the Ogisos in Benin
and Urhobo folktales. In Isidore Okpewho's (1998)
comprehensive and scholarly study of Benin folklore,
there is a Benin folktale concerning the Ogiso, which
ends as follows:
"Ogiso goes back on his word. Whereupon heaven and
earth threaten to convulse the nation, forcing the
Ogiso to capitulate. >[His rival] became the Oba, and
the Ogiso became his sword-bearer." (p. 67)

This kind of degradation ritual is quite common in
dynastic struggles.  But such treatment of Ogisos in
Benin folktales would be thoroughly baffling, probably
annoying, to the Urhobo. In Urhobo folktales, the
Ogiso has a different imagery. The Urhobo, even modern
educated Urhobo, have not studied Benin monarchy in
the way that it has understandably occupied the Benin.
But the Ogiso was the King whom the Urhobo know and
understand thoroughly. The Ogisos were ruling when
many communities left these lands, which later became
known as Benin, to sojourn southeastwards to establish
new communities or else to join indigenous people who
were already established in the western Niger Delta.
In doing so, they took away fragments of the culture
that was in existence at the time of the Ogisos. It is
difficult to estimate what centuries these were. But
it was most probable that these migrations were
serial. Rather than taking place in one fell swoop,
they probably covered a course of several centuries in
the first millennium of the Christian calendar.

Urhobo understanding of kingship was shaped by the
political culture that was in existence at the time of
the Ogisos. It included a complex imagery of the
Ogisos in Urhobo folklore. That composite picture was
of a king who was most argumentative. He had a
troublesome first wife, Inarhe, who would not brook
much from the demands of the Ogiso. Ogiso could be
harsh in his ways, but he clearly attended to the
needs of ordinary people, including the proverbial
yaws-infested man, okpufi, whose needs could not be
neglected in the society in which Ogiso was king.

Urhobo language yields clues to the profile of the
society and culture which the Ogisos ruled. To begin
with, the Urhobo know this king by his straightforward
name, Ogiso, without any other titles. He was their
king. On the other hand, the Urhobo know the kings of
the House of Eweka more distantly as Oba r= Aka, the
King of Benin. Of course, Urhobo language does not
contain the word Benin. Nor does it have Edo. Benin
and Edo were names that were introduced by Ogiso's
powerful successors into the culture that the Ogiso
once ruled. By the time these words of Benin and Edo,
by which the culture is now known, were introduced in
the 14th and 15th centuries, the Urhobo had left these

If any of the Ogisos were to be called back from the
Great Beyond to our modern world, they would be
baffled by these new names. They were not there in
their times. The reawakened Ogisos would probably
understand the Urhobo word for Benin, namely Aka, and
might well understand the word Uhobo by which modern
Benins know the Urhobo. But the resurrected Ogisos
would not be aware that the lands they once ruled are
now known by the names Benin and Edo. They might be
lost in complex Oredo, the City of Benin, which was
built long after they left the scene. According to
Urhobo folklore, Udo would be the town that the Ogisos
would know well. There is little doubt that the shades
of the Ogisos would be much more comfortable among the
modern Urhobo than with the modern Benin. There
certainly would be greater mutual respect and
understanding between the Urhobo and the shades of the
Ogisos than anything the Ogisos could expect from
modern Benin.

Any of the Ogisos might also have difficulties
understanding modern Benin language. A language
changes over time, especially when a new powerful
dynasty emerges in its society. Just consider the vast
changes from the English of Chaucer's era in the 14th
century to the English language spoken nowadays -- a
bare separation of some seven centuries, certainly
less than what separates us from the Ogiso times.
There is always a temptation to assume that any
language has remained constant over centuries. But
languages do change. Let me illustrate this aspect of
probable changes in the language spoken at the time of
the Ogisos and modern Benin. It is well known that
Urhobo shares a host of words with Benin, because the
two cultures were joined by their common experiences
of the culture over which the Ogisos presided. But it
would be a mistake to assume that the meanings of all
of these common words have come from the times of the
Ogisos. Take the word ohwo (plural ihwo). It is common
to Urhobo and Benin as well as Ishan. But what does
ohwo mean in these languages?

In Benin and Ishan, ohwo means woman. In Urhobo, ohwo
means human being. Obviously, the two usages are
related. Which of these was in use in Ogiso's times? I
rather suspect that the Ogiso usage of this word would
be closer to its Urhobo meaning. I say so because
there is a pattern in cultural migrations that favours
immobilities in fragments of a master culture that
have undergone migration to other climes, while
changes tend to be much more profound in its original
habitat. As Louis Hartz (1964) put it somewhere else,
modern French is spoken in Paris, but in Canada=s
Quebec an 18th century version of the French language
is spoken.

By far the more manifest refractions of Ogiso times in
modern Urhobo is in its organization of society and
culture. Despite the geographical and cultural
proximity between Benin and Urhobo, there are
deep-seated differences in the cultural organization
of these fragments of what has been called Edoid
complex of cultures.  Urhobo exemplifies a
segmentation in its cultural ensembles that has
sometimes been called clan organization. Urhobo is
certainly segmented into smaller cultural groupings
that are all linked together into the Urhobo cultural
whole. Each of these constitutive cultural groupings
is organically linked to the wholeness of Urhobo
culture. None of them would feel complete without
their linkage to the whole of Urhobo culture. But none
of them would feel whole without their singular
distinction in the wider framework of Urhobo culture.

By contrast, clan identities are minuscule in Benin
culture. If there is one area in cultural organization
where modern Benin can claim a uniqueness, it is in
the fact that kinship organizations are weak in Benin
culture and society as compared to its significant
neighbours, Urhobo and Yoruba. With respect to a
comparison between Yoruba and Benin, the British
anthropologist R. E. Bradbury has noted the "absence
of large lineages with continuing rights in offices"
in Benin culture, in contrast to the Yoruba where they
are abundant (Bradbury 1973: 15).

We may therefore ask the following question: Was the
political organization of these lands during Ogiso
times more like those in Urhobo land or were they
closer to the centralized political system, which is
relatively free of strong subcultural loyalties, that
has come to distinguish Benin political organization?
I would suggest that the Ogiso political system was
closer to the Urhobo pattern. The Urhobo, in all
probability, took away with them the pattern of clan
organization in place under the Ogisos, while the
Benin experienced important transformations under the
succeeding dynasty of the House of Eweka.


The prominence and power of the Obas of the House of
Eweka were derived from the transformations that they
wrought in the post-Ogiso era. In the cultural sphere,
the elementary society of villages and clans that
existed under the Ogisos were transformed into a
city-centered culture. There is need to characterize
what this means, lest it be confused with the related
urban culture of the neighbouring Yoruba. The
city-centredness in Benin culture was unique because
it was based on the notion that all Benin citizens had
space within the political culture of the City in the
same way as the Greek City-states were run. In one
sense, all Benins were citizens of the City. In other
words, Benin was a City-state.
In another important sense, Oredo, the City of Edo,
which is another name for Benin City, had the same
ritual significance for the Benin as Ile-Ife had for
the Yoruba. But there was an important difference
between the two. While Ile-Ife conveyed a symbolic
significance for the Yoruba, Oredo provided a
substantive meaning in the lives of the Benin because
it was at once the religious and political
headquarters of their existence. The tremendous
authority that the Obas of the House of Eweka wielded
for many centuries in the affairs of Benin derived
from their management of the affairs of the City of
Benin as the centre of Benin culture as well as their
control of the relationships between Benin City and
the rest of the city-state of Benin. In this
transformation from the elementary clan-based state
and society that the Ogisos ruled, Benin culture
achieved a uniformity that is absent from Benin=s
significant neighbours. Consider, for instance, the
variations in language. Each of Yoruba, Igbo, and
Urhobo have far more internal variations within their
languages than what exists in Benin, although
significant pockets of dialectic distinction remain
entrenched in a few areas of Benin. We must assume
that the spread of a common urban Benin language,
which has overridden major dialects in Benin culture,
is a product of the transformation that followed from
the works of the new dynasty of the House of Eweka.

There is a second area where the transition from the
Ogisos to the ruling House of Eweka led to major
changes in the fortunes of Benin. It is in the sphere
of empire-building.  The Ogisos were not
empire-builders. Nor was it clear from the early Obas
that the new dynasty would embark on empire-building.
The change probably came with the famed five Obas of
the middle fifteenth and the whole of the sixteenth
centuries -- Ewuare the Great, Ozolua, Esigie,
Orhogbua, and Ehengbuda -- whose  reigns in close
proximity established Benin as a foremost imperial
power in West Africa. But it is easy to overstate the
achievements of these great Obas relative to earlier
ones. Their achievements became clearer because they
began their reign at a time when European presence in
the Western Niger Delta allowed historical records to
be established. It is entirely probable that the
earlier Obas had laid down the groundwork for the
achievements of Oba Ewuare the Great and his

Whatever the case was, history has rewarded Benin=s
achievements handsomely. It is striking that Benin
built its empire in the same centuries as the
brilliant Songhai who composed, from the little state
networks that they took over from Mali, a huge empire
of several states in what historians, using an Arabic
term, call the Western Sudan. Songhai's empire was
vast, stretching from modern Mauritania to the Hausa
states of modern Northern Nigeria. Yet, today no
single significant land or water mass bears Songhai's
name. The presence of Arab powers nearby, in the
Maghreb and in the Sahara, was Songhai's nemesis and
misfortune. Benin=s good fortune is the absence of
Arab or even European imperial powers at the time it
was expanding. Today, judging by the number of
institutions, lands, and waters that are named after
Benin, we all must acknowledge that out of the ancient
states of West Africa and the Nile Valley history has
been most kind to Benin. Togo=s national university is
named as the University of Benin. In the 1970s,
following disputes among its ethnic groups, some of
which objected to the name Dahomey as being too local
and parochial, the country to the west of Nigeria
changed its name from Dahomey to the Republic of
Benin. European cartographers joined in the tribute to
Benin=s influence. An important river in the Western
Niger Delta is named as Benin River. Then, consider
the significance of that huge section of the Atlantic
Ocean bordering West Africa that is called the Bight
of Benin -- especially in view of the fact that the
Atlantic coastline is some distance from Benin itself.
All of these namesakes must be seen as tributes to Oba
Ewuare the Great and his successors.

However, I believe that the Ogiso era deserves a share
of Benin=s recognition for preparing the groundwork
for these achievements. This is so for two significant
reasons. First, it has been claimed by many that the
stability and eminence of Benin=s rulership owes a
great deal to the institution of primogeniture (see,
e.g., Ekeh 1976), which is the principle that
authorizes succession by the first male child. Despite
the contention by Jacob Egharevba that this principle
dates back to only about the seventeenth century, it
must be clear that the tradition of primogeniture was
already strong during the era of the Ogisos. That
principle is probably as
strong among the Urhobo as among the Benin -- a clear
indication that it dates back to Ogiso times.

Primogeniture of course existed in the histories of
many other monarchical traditions, across the
continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe -- especially
in antiquity. But the Benin case was special in its
practice. I can see no other instances in history in
which was practiced the ritual separation between the
King and the heir apparent in the manner in which
primogeniture in royal succession was historically
enforced in Benin culture. This ritual separation
occurred at birth, following the performance of rites
that established the succession rights of the infant
heir apparent. The severity of this custom was
unmatched anywhere else. Where did it come from?
Clearly, it was a cultural imposition on the Kings,
not their choice. We must search into Benin history
and culture for the origins of this uncommon cultural
practice that portended to safeguard the monarchy
--even when it was enforced at the cost of denying the
King the right to interact freely with his first male

What was the purpose of this custom of the ritual
separation of King and his infant heir apparent?
Actually, no meaningful answer usually emerges in
response to questions about the purpose of customs.
But we can search into Benin history for clues. The
end of the Ogiso dynasty came as a result of arbitrary
behaviour of the last Ogiso, Owodo, towards his first
-- and, as it turned out, his only B son. He banished
him and then wanted to recall him, leading to much
bloodshed. That was a harsh lesson in Benin history. I
suggest to you that Benin culture responded to such
royal behaviour by taking over from the King the sole
authority to decide on the fate of his successor. The
ritual separation between the King and his infant heir
apparent allowed Benin culture to protect both the
infant heir apparent and the line of succession
designed by Benin culture against any royal whims that
could resemble Owodo's behaviour. In other words, it
is my contention that Benin culture instituted a
principle of socialization for Benin kingship that
embodied lessons learnt from the era of the Ogisos.

There is a second leftover from the Ogiso era that
informed subsequent developments in Benin history. At
its height, what is popularly known as the Benin
Empire had three portions. There was the eastern Igbo
Province, essentially made up of what is today Western
Igbo. This was an area that was won by way of warfare,
the most important wars being those with Agbor (1577)
and Ubulu-Ukwu (1750). Benin imperialism met with
considerable resistance, resentment, and bloodshed in
Igboland (see Ohadike 1994 and Okpewho 1998). Then
there was Benin=s Yoruba Province that was won on the
platform of military action, but with much less
resentment and acrimony than the Igbo case. Towards
the end of the nineteenth century this area was being
harassed by aggressive Fulani expansionism from its
Sokoto Caliphate base.

The rest of what was called the Benin Empire was
hardly won by war and its lands experienced far less
military control from Benin. These were areas where
Benin enjoyed cultural ties with surrounding
communities. The oldest of these communities were
Isoko and Urhobo  that were partially peopled by those
who migrated from Ogiso's lands and therefore had
cultural and linguistic ties with Benin. The expansion
of Benin influences in Isoko and Urhobo countries were
the harvest from Ogiso's era. These territories had
more people than Western Igbo. If the Benin had to
fight any imperial wars in these areas, as they did in
Igbo country, the Empire would have been sapped of
much of its energy. The influence of the Obas of Benin
in those areas was important, but it was based on
mutual needs. That this was so could be seen from the
fact that the relations between Benin and Urhobo
continued on a voluntary basis even after British
imperialism severed the ties between Benin and the
lands where Benin Obas once exercised influence,
whereas the Igbo relationships were hurriedly and
permanently ended. There were other Edoid areas whose
communities were peopled by groups that migrated from
Benin lands when the Eweka dynasty was already in
place. Such more recent emigrants as the Ishan, who
left Benin under the  Obas of the House of Eweka, were
much closer to the rule and control of Benin City than
the older communities in Isoko and Urhobo countries in
the Niger Delta whose cultural ties with modern Benin
were more indirect, because they were rooted in their
common experiences during Ogiso times.


Of the two propositions that I enunciated at the
beginning of this lecture as key principles of Benin
history, namely, the dominant role of the people in
the making and design of Benin kingdom and the
dynastic struggle of the House of Eweka against the
defunct House of Ogiso, I may appear to have paid more
attention to the latter than to the role of the
people. In fact, however, the people's presence and
influence were present, in implicit ways, in the
affairs of Benin, as much in the second dynasty as
they were robust in Ogiso's era. In coming to the
conclusions of this lecture, I must now turn to an
explicit examination of the role of the people in the
design of Benin kingdom and in its nurture.

In doing so, we need not go much further than Jacob
Egharevba's brilliant A Short History of Benin. If
that book deserved another title, it would be: The
People of Benin and Their Kings. For it was a
narration of how the interests and needs of Benin
people were well promoted and protected by their kings
and their institutions. The Benin were people whose
needs could not be ignored. Great kings, like Oba
Ewuare, listened to their voices.

I will illustrate this thesis on the relationship
between the people and the kings of Benin by examining
two puzzles in Benin history. The first of these
puzzles concerns the deep trenches, also called moats,
that surrounded old Benin City. They are unparalleled
in tropical Africa. Like
the Great Zimbabwes of southern Africa, these moats
represent something of a puzzle. Historically,
ramparts, such as the Benin moats, are built for
protection against perceived foreign enemies.  Adiele
Afigbo, the influential Nigerian historian, is
reported as having quipped on one occasion as to why
the Benin needed a deep moat. At the time these
trenches were constructed, in the thirteenth and
fifteenth centuries, Benin was under no threat from
its neighbours. There was no power of Benin's size
whose attack Benin kingdom feared. Why spend so much
labour and time building terrifically deep trenches
from Benin's hard and red soil?

Egharevba provides us with intriguing answers to those
questions, which attest to Benin's complex history. In
The City of Benin, Egharevba (1952) offers two
explanations for the building of the moats. The first
reason for undertaking the horrendous task of building
these gigantic ramparts was to protect the City of
Benin from its internal Benin enemies, clearly
indicating that the notion of Benin City was not
universally popular at the beginning and that it had
to be defended, not against foreigners, but against
its internal Benin detractors. Egharevba writes, thus:
"There are three main moats or ditches surrounding the
City. The first and the second were [sic] dug by Oba
Oguola about 1280 and 1290 A. D. as barriers to keep
off the invaders in the time of war. Especially
against Akpanigiakon, the Duke of Udo, who was then
harassing the City" (Egharevba 1952: 11).

The explanation for the building of the third portion
of the moat reverses the logic of the first two
sections. Having built earlier regions of the moats to
keep some troublesome Benins from the City, two
centuries later, there was an urgent need to keep
Benins inside the City, barring them from fleeing from
the onerous duties of empire building. Egharevba tells
us that Oba Ewuare's vindictive policies enforcing a
prolonged mourning period for the loss of his two
favorite sons were the final push factor, the final
straw as it were, that led to renewed emigration from
Benin. Egharevba (152: 11) writes:
The people therefore cried out in a melancholy mood,,
Ewuare, o! gi Edo gha bun, meaning Ewuare let the City
of Benin be increased. The Oba then hysterically [sic]
dug the third moat to prevent his few remaining
subjects from further desertion. He [sic] began to
tattoo their bodies so that they might be known and
identified amongst the people of other tribes. This
was the origin of the Benin tribal mark.

Sensitivity about the loss of population in the Benin
of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was, in all
probability, a distant playback to Ogiso's times. The
Ogiso dynasty suffered considerable hemorrhage from
migrations from its realm in ways that do not now
appear obvious to us, modern people. But it must have
been clear to ancient Benins of those distant
centuries that there was danger of repeating the Ogiso
debacle of earlier centuries if citizens left Benin
City in large numbers. Their Kings listened to them.
The extraordinary extent to which they went in order
to ensure that there were enough people to perform the
functions of the state and to manage its economy, as
well as engage in an expensive enterprise of empire
building, is the result we see in the Benin moats. We
are not told what other reforms were undertaken in
order to make the affairs of the state attractive to
its citizens. But we must assume that there were such
measures. Clearly, the value of people for the ancient
Benin Kingdom is the clue to solving that first puzzle
of moats and ramparts that were not built for fending
off foreign enemies but rather in response to
exigencies of internal Benin policies and pressures.

The second puzzle of Benin history is no less
intriguing. It concerns Benin's role in the Atlantic
Slave Trade. That evil trade, spanning several
centuries, devastated the Western African region.
Unlike the Arab Slave Trade from eastern and central
Africa, in which Arabs undertook the slave raids
directly, the West African Atlantic Slave Trade by
European traders relied on African states and African
slave raiders for their human victims. Throughout the
region, many states embroiled themselves in the slave
trade. Asante, Oyo, Dahomey, the Rivers states of
eastern Nigeria, were all involved in the evil trade.
In the nineteenth century, the Sokoto Caliphate joined
this train of West African states that traded on
fellow Africans, causing the depopulation of the Benue
Valley in this instance (see Dike 1956: 27).

What about Benin and its empire? Clearly, Benin had
important trade connections and political ties
throughout the region that would have put it in a
place of considerable advantage in the competition of
the slave trade. How much did Benin press its
advantages in pursuit of the Slave Trade? The puzzle
is that Benin did not press its advantages to engage
in the Slave Trade. Indeed, Benin's role in the Slave
Trade was minor. It seems fair to say that Ryder=s
(1969:198) conclusion on this score has been well
accepted by historians. He says: "There is no evidence
that Benin ever organized a great slave trading
network similar to that which supplied the ports of
the eastern delta, or that it ever undertook
systematic slave raiding . . . Benin either could not
or would not become a slave-trading state on a grand
scale" (also see Davidson 1971:65). Don Ohadike, the
Anioma historian whose region of western Igbo would
have been grievously impacted if Benin had played a
large role in the slave trade, concurs with Ryder:
Slavery was neither an economic necessity nor a vital
component of the entire political and social life of
[Benin] society  . . . even after the rise of Benin as
a large kingdom, its involvement in slavery was
limited. Ryder has demonstrated that Benin's
participation in the Atlantic slave trade or the
European trade generally was minimal. Ryder's thesis
is confirmed by the fact that the Edo political
structures were not particularly affected by the
European trade as was the case with Dahomey and the
Gold Coast (Ohadike 1994: 42; also compare Igbafe
1979: 27).

Benin's policies forbidding any large commitment to
the slave trade is a puzzle for two main reasons.
First, it makes Benin the sole exception among West
African states in their full-scale participation in
the European Slave Trade. Second, Benin had a strong
institution of slavery in its culture and internal
social organization. Benin's abstinence from the evil
trade could not fairly be attributed to some
humanitarian inhibition on its part. How then does one
explain this rare phenomena in African history?

The Caribbean scholar Walter Rodney offers one good
clue that will help us to solve this puzzle of Benin
history. Rodney argued that many African states craved
to refrain from the slave trade but were afraid to do
so. They were so weak that the European traders could
imperil their power and survival if they failed to
participate in the slave trade (see Rodney 1972:
80-82). The reverse logic in Rodney's postulate was
that only strong African states could make deliberate
decisions to participate in the evil trade or else to
refrain from it. Benin was a strong state that could
say no to European powers and not be threatened with
punishment that would destroy it. Apparently, from the
outcome of history, Benin took the calculated decision
not to involve itself in the slave trade in the manner
of other states and not to encourage slave raids such
as those for which the Aro were notorious in the Igbo
hinterland in eastern Niger Delta.

But why did the Benin decide not to involve the
resources of its kingdom in slave raids and slave
trade, as so many other African states did? This is
where to bemoan the absence of literacy in the
civilizations of Benin and the other areas of tropical
Africa. How one wished there were written records to
reveal the arguments that were advanced for and
against Benin's involvement in the slave trade, with
menacing pressures from European traders and rival
state organizations all across West Africa to cope
with. But no such records exist. However, from its
history, we can offer two speculative strands of
reasoning for Benin's abstinence in the Slave Trade.
First, it was entirely possible that policy makers saw
the futility of the slave trade. The payback to the
participating African states was miserable. But its
disruption in their social structures was horrendous.
Such was the fate of Oyo that destroyed its state
institutions and civilization from the slave trade and
a catastrophic civil war that the slave trade
instigated in Oyo. A second reason is that Benin
needed growth in its population for the management of
its state affairs and for its external imperial
engagements during the centuries of the Atlantic Slave
Trade. There is always the temptation to believe that
a large Empire, such as the one that the Benin
managed, was being run by a huge population. But that
was not the case. Benin was a nation with a small
population who ran a big empire -- just as a small
Songhai nation sustained a huge empire in the Western
Sudan. Involvement in the slave trade would not help
in the battle against population decrease that various
Obas of the House of Eweka fought to reverse. The
policy of abstinence that resulted on this score of
the slave trade accords with the imperatives of Benin
history of that time.

Whether these explanations for the absence of Benin
from large-scale participation in the slave trade are
correct or not, the policy forbidding such involvement
paid handsome dividends for Benin. Its social
structure and political system did not suffer from the
destruction which the slave trade wrought for Dahomey,
Asante, Oyo, and a host of other African states in the
centuries of the slave trade. Moreover, out of the
total area of  the West African Atlantic coast
impacted by the slave trade, the region of the western
lower Niger Delta, in which the Benin Empire held
sway, was the least disrupted.


In concluding this lecture, let me reflect slightly on
the nature of history that we inherited from colonial
times. I went to colonial schools for my elementary
and secondary school education. I am from a cohort of
Nigerians who were fed from what was then labelled as
History of the British Empire. It was a brand of
history in which British imperialists could do no
wrong and in which their enemies could do no right.
History of the British Empire was severe on enemies of
British imperialism, whether they be Americans
victorious from their revolt against the British in
1776 or the Benin in West Africa defeated by the
British in a vicious campaign of 1897. Nigerian
historiography has fought back by seeking out fresh
spots in our historical actors of the nineteenth
century as being praiseworthy for their "resistance"
to British imperialism. Unfortunately, Nigerian
historiography will continue to be hopelessly indebted
to the methodology of British imperial historiography
for as long as it concentrates its attention on the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries in which Europeans
set the agenda of historical events in the region.

The nineteenth century was cursed in African history.
It was a century of which the Benin cannot be proud.
One major value of Jacob Egharevba's historical
scholarship is that he strongly scolded the behaviour
of Benin policy makers in the nineteenth century (see
Egharevba 1952: 14-15). Indeed, if we were to limit
Benin history to the events of the nineteenth century
the harsh judgement that British propaganda and
arrogant imperial history have handed over to
generations of Nigerians might have some degree of
validity. But Benin history is much more than the
nineteenth century. When the historian goes back to
earlier centuries and then fairly assesses the
achievements that elevated a small population to such
great heights, then I am convinced that the historical
judgement of Benin and its empire is liable to be

In this lecture, I have gone behind the nineteenth
century, which was dominated by the British and other
Europeans in West Africa, to earlier centuries. What
we have is a history of a people in West Africa that
husbanded its cultural resources carefully, enabling
them to value their culture internally and to gain
strength therefrom for embarking on the risky business
of empire-building. It is my conclusion that, on
balance, the resulting empire did more good than harm
to its region of impact in the western lower Niger. I
have gone back to Ogiso times because the complex of
cultures that resulted from dispersals in those
distant centuries is historically significant, in the
annals of the ancient world and in the surviving
cultural and social ties that those dispersals

These are conclusions that would be impossible to
arrive at if we concentrated on the nineteenth
century. I dearly hope that the result of this
preliminary exploration of the history of what has
been labeled as Edoid complex of cultures will
encourage others to move behind the European presence
in West Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries to more distant centuries of our history and

I thank you all for your kind attention.
(editor's note: see a rejoinder to lecture this by Hilary Evbayiro )


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The Royal English Monarchy.

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