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African Kingdoms

West Africa


Benin Empire / Edo Empire
AD 1400 - 1960

Benin is one of the southern Nigerian states which claim to have obtained kingship from the Yoruba city of Ife. However, archaeological research at Benin has shown that important developments preceded the foundation of the empire. In the countryside around Benin City lies an extraordinary complex of walls, nine metres high in places and stretching perhaps 15,000 kilometres in length. Because they are older than the walls of the city which became the capital of the Benin empire, historians believe that the region was the home of a large population before the emergence of a centralised state.

The empire was located largely in what is now south-western Nigeria, to the east of Yorubaland and west of the River Niger, but also with areas which now lay in eastern Benin. The region was populated by speakers of a group of closely related languages called Edo. The Benin kingdom was originally founded around AD 900 as a small city state, possibly the same kingdom of Oyo which was responsible for founding Ibinu (Benin City) around AD 1170 or 1180. Known in its early years as the kingdom of Igodomigodo (although precisely when is unclear), it began to expand into the thirteenth century. It was unified with the territory of surrounding tribes around 1300. The Benin empire was born, although it may have been better known by its own citizens as the Edo empire.

Information on the empire is extremely sketchy, with many gaps. Even the story of the empire's founding is debatable. It was ruled by a regent called the oba. The modern oba of Edo (now within Nigeria) is still highly respected, although his powers are largely ceremonial.

(Additional information from the John De Cleene Archive, from Troubled Treasures, Andrew Curry (National Geographic Society, National Geographic, March 2023), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and History of the Newly Elected / Appointed Oba of Benin (Daily Mail, dead link), and Genealogical Gleanings (dead link), and MFA receives rare West African art pieces, Geoff Edgers (Boston Globe, 29 June 2012, accessed 14 March 2023).)

c.800 BC

The Jos Plateau is settled by the Nok people, a Neolithic and Iron Age civilisation.

Jos Plateau in Nigeria
The Jos Plateau (formerly known as the Bauchi Plateau) in central Nigeria covers nearly 9,000 square kilometres and provides a cool, rainy climate which provides a source for several rivers


The city of Ibinu (later called Benin City) is founded by Eweka, ruler of Oyo. According to traditional accounts, the original people of the Benin area, the Bini, are initially ruled by the ogisos ('Kings of the Sky'). About thirty-six ogisos rule the kingdom of Igodomigodo, although the available information in this regard is sometimes contradictory and poorly explained. Now as first oba of Benin, Eweka begins the kingdom's expansion.

fl c.1170/80

Eweka I

Ruler of Oyo. First oba of Benin. Grandson of the previous osigo.


Second oba of Benin. Name unknown.

fl c.1200s?


Third oba of Benin. Name unknown.


Fourth oba of Benin. Name unknown.


Fifth oba of Benin. Name unknown.


Sixth oba of Benin. Name unknown.


Seventh oba of Benin. Name unknown.

fl c.1340s?


Eighth oba of Benin. Name unknown.


Ninth oba of Benin. Name unknown.


Tenth oba of Benin. Name unknown.


11th oba of Benin. Name unknown.


12th oba of Benin. Name unknown.

1440 - 1473

Ewuare I / Ewuare 'the Great'

13th oba of Benin/Edo.

1440 - c.1470

Under Oba Ewuare, the kingdom, now known as Benin, becomes an empire through conquests which range from Idah to the north, and from Owo and Akure to Igboland, west of the Niger. The oba give Benin a strong central government which weakens opposing political factions. In 1470 the state is renamed from Benin to Edo.

1473 - 1483


Name unknown.

1483 - 1504


15th oba of Edo.

1504 - 1550


Spread Christianity throughout the kingdom.

According to some English visitors, the oba can field twenty thousand warriors in one day, and up to 100,000 men if necessary. Oba Esigie, in an effort to spread Christianity throughout his realm sends Ohen Okun, the olokun priest at Ughoton, as an ambassador to the king of Portugal to ask him to send priests to Benin to teach him and his people about the Christian Faith. He also allows churches to be built in the city at Ogbelaka, Idumwerie and Akpakpava. The oba and the king of Portugal exchanged valuable gifts and a Portuguese ambassador is accredited to Benin (or Edo, as it has been renamed).

1550 - ?



Name unknown.


Name unknown.


Name unknown.

? - 1669


Name unknown.

16th - 17th cent.

The empire becomes rich by selling slaves from enemy states to the burgeoning slave trade with Europe, where they are carried to the Americas in Dutch and Portuguese ships. The Bight of Benin's shore soon comes to be known as the 'Slave Coast'.

1669 - ?


22nd oba of Edo.


Name unknown.


Name unknown.

1689 - 1700


25th oba of Edo.

1700 - 1712


1712 - 1713


1713 - 1735

Akenzua I / Nisonorho

1735 - 1750


1750 - 1804


Son. 30th oba of Edo.

1804 - 1814

Since the thirtieth oba, Akengbuda ends his reign in 1804 and the thirty-first begins his reign in 1814, there seems to be an interregnum in the kingdom in this period. The circumstances are unknown, but could it be related to the founding in 1809 of a single Islamic state, the Sokoto caliphate, to the immediate north of the empire? The caliphate claims territory which roughly covers all of northern modern Nigeria.

1814 - 1816


31st oba of Edo.



Son. Ruled for 8 months.

1816 - 1851

Erediauwa Osemwede


1830s - 1886

Civil wars plague Yorubaland in the south.

1851 - 1888

Odinovba Adolor



Britain establishes a presence around Lagos and from 1861 governs what it calls the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria by indirect rule through local leaders.

1888 - 1897

Idugbowa Ovonramwen

Son. Deposed in 1897 by the British. Died in exile at Calabar, 1914.

1897 - 1914

The monarchy is suppressed on 9 September 1897 by Britain as direct colonial rule is instigated. The British attack is a response to the earlier ambush of a British expedition. Along their route and even in the king's palace compound, the British observe multiple slave sacrifices, possibly war offerings.

The oba (king), Ovonramwen Nogbaisi is exiled, but British troops loot over five thousand objects which become known as the 'Benin Bronzes'. The loot is distributed to museums and private collections around the world (later to be claimed by Nigeria). Edo (Benin) becomes part of the 'Niger Coast Protectorate'.

Only on 24 July 1914 is the monarchy restored while the state is known as the 'Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria'.

During that time, in 1901-1902 the Northern Nigeria Protectorate is formed out of the territory of the Sokoto caliphate from 1900 and areas of the defeated Bornu empire formerly under the command of the Zobeir dynasty from 1902. The Southern Nigeria Protectorate is itself a merger between the Niger Coast Protectorate and territories which had been under the control of the Royal Niger Company. The Lagos Colony is added to this in 1906. The two protectorates are amalgamated in 1914 to form a single administrative body, largely due to financial necessity.

Benin Bronzes
This relief plaque which depicts a battle scene is one of those pieces which have been donated to the Museum of Fine Arts by New York collectorm Robert Owen Lehman

1914 - 1933

Aiguobasimwin Eweka II

Son. Died 2 Feb.


Part of the former German colony of Kamerun is added to Nigeria under a League of Nations mandate.

1933 - 1960

Akenzua II

Son. Born 1899. Remained titular oba after independence.

1954 - 1955

The 'Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria' becomes the 'Federation of Nigeria' in 1954. James Wilson Robertson is appointed governor-general of the federation until 1960 to oversee much of the transition process as independence draws near.


Nigeria achieves independence from Britain as the 'Federation of Nigeria'. The titular title of oba continues to be used, although the holders of the post have no political power in the new state.

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