The Royal house of the ancient Benin Empire has always been a thrilling example of a great ancient African dynasty. There have been thousands of kings and kingdoms in Africa. Empires have risen and fallen, and each one has come with its unique characteristics, but all through the ages, one could agree that the Benin Empire stood out from the rest. As at the time the Europeans first came in contact with the Benin empire, and its astonishing walls, even these early racists agreed to the facts that the Benin empire was beyond anything they’d ever seen. But why did they reach this conclusion? What was the ancient Benin City like? what made them great? And what can African leaders today learn from the royal family of the Benin empire? This article will give answers to these questions and introduce you to pieces of information about this fascinating and majestic kingdom, that will utterly blow your mind away. But to accomplish that, I have to take you back in time, to the infant years of Africa. We will be traveling back to the 1400s, to the first contact of the Europeans with the Great Benin Empire.

It was in the year 1485, that the Portuguese under the command of explorer João Afonso first came in contact with the Benin people. At that time Prince Okpame the third son of Ewuare later known as Ozolua n’Ibaromi (Ozolua the Conqueror) was the king. He was known for his military might and prowess, but most especially he was known for the shared love between him and his people. At the time the Europeans came, they described the walled City of Benin as a beautiful and peaceful place without poverty sickness, and hunger. The town was filled with love that even households were without doors. How true was this? Well, that takes us to our first question.

What was the ancient Benin city like?

According to scholars, ancient Benin city was a majestic city with the largest earthwork ever undertaken by man. This earthwork made the second-largest wall ever made by human hands, consuming over a hundred times more materials than the pyramid of Giza. These walls were the first thing the European explorers must have seen as they trailed into the city. This ring of walls made of rammed earth, extended up to 16.000km or 9,941 miles in a series of over 500 interconnected small settlement boundaries that cover over 4000 Square miles. The city’s inner workings and architecture were even more thrilling than the walls itself. At that early age, the city had a working underground drainage system to easily channel storm waters, it had an outstanding working in every house that channels rainwater, stored it, and also used it as a source of light and air since the houses had no windows. This was achieved through the architecture called an impluvium and compluvium. And to add to that, every compound in that ancient city had its freshwater well. At night time, the city of Benin was a marvel to behold. Every street had an array of street lamps that were powered by oil, to facilitate trade after dark, and to keep the city illuminated. The intricate details added to the planning of this great city showed just how much the royal house of the great Benin Empire loved its subject. They were given the luxury that citizens from other civilizations only dreamed of.

What made the Benin Empire great? 

The Benin Empire was large in its military prowess. Under Ozolua, the military might of the Benin people was seen. It is believed that the Oba won over 200 wars during his rule, which gave him the title, Ozolua n’Ibaromi meaning Ozolua the Conqueror. Apart from the military might of the Benin people, the success of the empire was due to its trade, which through Ozolua, was made on a grand scale. The king’s diplomatic relationship with the rest of the world made him famous for trade. The world sought after the empire’s artwork, gold, ivory, pepper, and sadly, slaves. This made the Benin empire feared by its neighbors and also respected by the rest of the world. At one time, the king sent an ambassador to Lisbon to secure a deal that would help them buy firearms from the Portuguese, but they were denied this. Scholars believe that the king might have seen the imminent invasion to come. As a king, and a warrior, he knew that soon the external powers would come for his people, and he was getting himself and his military ready to resist the external powers. But even this wise king couldn’t foresee what would happen next.

The fall of the Benin Empire

The Benin Empire continued to grow in size, wealth, and recognition. The kingship continued to advance, and the kingdom continued to soar. For instance, the Benin Empire fought against the invaders from the Igala people in the 16th century and won them. Not only that, it extended its boundaries, gaining strength and ascendancy over much of what is now mid-western Nigeria. But as new kings came and went, the empire began to grow weaker. After the death of the last warrior king, Oba Ehengbuda in the late 16th century, the empire shrunk in size and power. It stopped being a divine rule, by a mighty Oba that is seen as a god, to being a mere political office. This caused a temporary decline of the empire in the 17th Century, followed by a Civil war that almost ruined the empire. The empire fought and later attained its glory, but at the time it did, it had a bigger threat to deal with. The British wanted its resources, its lands, oil, ivory, and brass sculptures, and in 1897, the worse came.

The Benin invasion of 1897

After trying numerous times to coerce the empire to sign a treaty as one of the British colonies, the British soldiers tried once more to get Benin. Before the British ambassadors came, they were warned by the Oba, Oba Ovonramwen of Benin to postpone his visit, due to a festival that was ongoing in the city. The ambassadors refused and went to Benin anyway. Earlier the Oba had signed a document to prevent war. However, the British wanted absolute control over Benin City. The soldiers at the gate refused entry to these men, and when they proved aggressive, their aggression was met with a stronger one from the Benin soldiers. This led to the death of some ambassadors that were with Acting Consul General James Phillips, of the Niger Coast Protectorate. This facilitated the massacre that followed by the British. They came to Benin with their guns and firearms, under the command of Sir Harry Rawson and they took the city by force killing any they could. They set the city on fire, and burned the great city to the ground, killing many more. It was a genocide of unimaginable proportions. After the incident, they declared Benin City a property of the Queen of England.

 

What can African leaders today learn from the royal family of the Benin empire?

African leaders today can glean valuable lessons from the historical governance of the Benin Empire’s royal family. Firstly, the Benin royal family prioritized strong leadership and succession planning. African leaders can learn the importance of establishing clear lines of succession to ensure a smooth transition of power, fostering stability, and preventing power struggles such as the likes of the last presidential election in Nigeria.

Secondly, the Benin Empire placed a high value on the well-being of its citizens. The royal family provided for their citizens, architectural developments and planning that protected them, and looked after their needs. There was peace and no hunger, and people respected and loved each other and their government because they saw from its actions that the empire looked after their needs and interests. Leaders today can draw inspiration from the empire’s well-organized architectural system, and how it instilled fairness and love for their empire on the citizens. If the interests of the citizens are the priorities of the leaders, then the government will truly be for the people, and love and peace will overflow.

Thirdly, the Benin royal family actively supported the preservation of culture and traditions. They continued to delve into their history and conserve them by using artworks, like the sculpted mask of Queen Idia. African leaders can recognize the significance of embracing and promoting their countries’ rich cultural heritage. This not only fosters a sense of national identity but also contributes to global diversity.

Additionally, the Benin Kingdom had diplomatic and trade relations with neighboring regions, showcasing the importance of international cooperation for mutual benefit. African leaders want to learn from this by fostering positive relationships with other nations, especially its sister countries, promoting economic growth among its African countries, and addressing shared challenges.

 

The story of the Walled City of Benin and its royal family is indeed a story to be told. Many today believe that if the African continent had no contact with European countries we would remain primitive, but the city of Benin proves that theory wrong. From an early age, these people have grown in architecture and science, using maths and calculations that at that time were not invented for the whites, they had grown in art and entertainment, sculpting and making the very best ornaments. If they’ve accomplished all this and more at that early stage of life, imagine what they could have advanced to now if they had not been brutally taken over. But till today, we still celebrate that city and its royal family. The Benin Empire’s royal family provides a historical model for effective leadership to which modern African leaders can learn and adapt their principles to navigate the complexities of governance. And maybe someday this continent of Africa will attain its former glory and will stand majestically again like the walled city of Benin.

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