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Nigeria: The Edo of Benin

April 2000
By Osamuyimen Stewart, Ph.D.

--This posting is a collection of oral tradition passed down to me, my critical evaluation of folklore, and ideas from a variety of written sources (Egharevba 1934, Bradbury 1957, Crowder 1962, Basil Davidson et al 1965, Akenzua 1979, Igbafe 1979, Erhagbe (class notes) 1983).


Although Nigeria was the creation of European ambitions and rivalries in West Africa, it would be an error to assume that its peoples had little history before its final boundaries were negotiated by Britain, France and Germany at the turn of the twentieth century. According to Crowder, this newly created country had a number of great kingdoms that had evolved complex systems of government prior to contact with Europeans. Within its frontiers was the kingdom of the Edo, whose art had become recognized as amongst the most accomplished in the world.

The twin kingdoms of Edo and Oyo (Yorubaland) remained two of the most powerful kingdoms on the west coast of Africa up until the establishment of the British Protectorate at the end of the nineteenth century. Though very little is known for certain about the early history of Edo and Oyo, there have fortunately survived from these ancient kingdoms some remarkable and very beautiful bronzes and terra cottas, some of which rank among the masterpieces of world sculpture.


Benin City is called Edo by its inhabitants and in certain contexts individuals from all parts of the kingdom will refer to themselves as ovbiedo (child of Edo ). Except when speaking English, no Edo person ever refers to himself as "Benin" or "Bini". These are non-Edo words of doubtful origin used by Europeans as an adjective and for the dominant people of the Edo kingdom and their language. Perhaps, this can be linked to the pre-colonial practice of naming areas after major geographic landmarks, in this case the Bight of Benin. It is on record that in 1472, the Portuguese captain Ruy de Siqueira brought a sailing ship as far as the Bight of Benin under the reign of Oba Ewuare. Egharevba provides further confirmation that Europeans named areas after major geographic landmarks. According to him, the label Lagos (the popular capital City of Nigeria) can be traced to the Portuguese because of its proximity to the lagoon.

It has been suggested that "Benin" or "Bini" derive from the Yoruba phrase Ile-ibinu (land of vexation) which was purportedly uttered by Prince Oronmiyan declaring the fundamental fact that "only an Edo prince can rule over Edo land." This Yoruba-based etymology of "Benin" or "Bini" is doubtful since there is evidence indicating that these words already occur in Portuguese writings about Edo dating back to the fifteenth century. According to Crowder, "unfortunately little is known about the early history of Oyo, for there was no written language, unlike Benin which was first visited by Europeans at the end of the fifteenth century." Not until the end of the seventeenth century are there any definite dates for the history of Oyo which is no doubt linked to the later contact with the Europeans. The different close neighbors refer to the Edos by different names. For example, the Urhobos call the Edos ikhuorAka (the people of Aka), the Ikas (Agbor) use the label ndi-Iduu (the people of Iduu). Along this line of reasoning, the Yoruba phrase Ile-ibinu, later corrupted to Ubinu, may be Yoruba's label for the Edos in light of the constant warfare against the Oyo empire by different Edo kings. This explanation is particularly striking because the Yorubas (for example, the Ekitis) refer to the Edo as Ado and not Ubinu.

However, according to Egharevba it was Oba Ewuare Ne ogidigan (The great), about 1440 A.D to 1473 A.D, who changed the name of the country to Edo after his deified (servant) friend. Prior to this, the land had been called the land of Igodomigodo. Thus, the City has been known afterwards as Edo ne ebvo ahirre (Edo the City of love) because through love Edo (the servant friend) was able to save Ewuare from a sudden death.

The Wider Edo-speaking Area (Edo-Okpa-ima-khin)

The term "Edo-speaking peoples" appears to have been first used by N.W. Thomas who carried out ethnographic investigations in Nigeria in the early years of 20th century. According to Bradbury, it is derived from the vernacular name of Benin city, Edo , and is applied to those who speak either Edo proper--the language of Benin City and kingdom--or closely related dialects spoken within the old Edo Empire, as a first language: Ishan, Ora, Urhobo, Agbor, Igbanke, etc.


According to Basil Davidson the roots of the empire of Edo, like those of the Yoruba states, lie deep in the forgotten past. It seems that the first rulers of Benin, a trading settlement and afterwards a city of the Niger Delta, acquired their power soon after the forming of the first Yoruba states, or perhaps at about the same period.

The Edos have several traditions about how their people began life. According to the Edo mythology as recorded by Bradbury, the Edo kingdom was founded by the youngest of the children of Osanobua (the high God). With his senior brothers, who included the first kings of Ife and other Yoruba kingdoms and the first king of "the Europeans," he was sent to live in the world (agbon ). Each was allowed to take something with him. Some chose wealth, material and magical skills or implements but, on the instructions of a bird, the youngest chose a snail shell. When they arrived in the world they found it covered with water. The youngest son was told by the bird to upturn the snail shell and when he did so sand fell from it and spread out to form the land. So the first Oba of the Edos became the owner of the land and his senior "brothers" had to come and barter their possessions in return for a place to settle. Hence, though he was the youngest son, he became the wealthiest and most powerful ruler.

According to Crowder, the Yoruba version of the myth of origin recorded by Samuel Johnson tells that Oduduwa was an eastern prince driven out of his kingdom. After long wanderings he conquered the local inhabitants of Ife where he settled. He had seven children who were the ancestors of the Oba of Edo and the six crowned rulers of Yorubaland, namely the Olowu of Owu, the Onisabe of Sabe, the Olupopo of Popo, the Orangun of Ila, the Alaketu of Ketu, and the Alafin of Oyo. In this story the non-Yoruba kingdom of Edo is included in the very beginning of Yorubaland, and both Edo and Yoruba traditions agree on the circumstances. Bradbury has suggested that the rise of Benin and Oyo coincided with the decline of Ife 'as an effective political empire, though it has retained its primacy as a religious metropolis to the present.'

The Basis of the Edo Empire

The expansion of the Edo Empire dates back to a period long before the first European written reports were made in the second half of the fifteenth century, and was no doubt linked to Benin's strong trading position on the Niger Delta. Tradition suggests that the political system and customs of Edo were already well established by the fourteenth century. By the fifteenth century, Edo had become an important power in the land.

Basil Davidson reports that the artists of Edo, like those of Ife, were called on to celebrate the power of their rulers. In doing so, they developed a specifically royal style of sculpture, in brass and ivory, which differed stylistically from the popular genres of wood carving. As well as producing many fine heads and figures, the royal artists also designed and made many hundred brass plaques, or large rectangular pictures in metal, which were used to decorate the Oba's palace. Many of these fine sculptures, whether in the royal style or in other styles, have survived and become famous throughout the world. Here, we come across an interesting point. The sculpture of the Edos was mainly in brass. Yet, brass cannot be made without copper, and there is no copper in southern Nigeria. So the copper must have come from somewhere else, and it must have come in exchange for goods produced or sold by the Edo. Benin, in other words, was deeply concerned with foreign trade. This trade seems to have consisted in buying copper and other goods from the Western Sudan in exchange for Edo cotton stuff and other goods.

Spheres of Influence

In the opinion of Bradbury, it is impossible at the present time to determine the extent of the Edo Empire at any particular period in the past. The history of Edo is one of alternating periods of territorial expansion and contraction in accordance with the degree of power and authority at the centre. According to several written sources, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were apparently the period of greatest expansion and stability of political administration. It was during this time that the great warrior kings, Ewuare, Ozolua, Esigie, Orhogbua, and Ehengbuda reigned.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, perhaps earlier, the Oba of Benin ruled over an area which spread from the region of modern Lagos to the Igbo-speaking communities of the present Delta State. Bradbury argues that it is clear that sentimental attachment to Benin and recognition of the Oba's temporal and spiritual authority did not necessarily depend on his ability to subdue a vassal by force of arms. Thus, for example, Lagos continued to pay tribute after it became a British Colony in 1861, and in the reign of Eweka I (the first Oba of the second period)--1914-1933--chiefs in the Ondo Province of Yorubaland appealed for the Oba's ruling in disputes over land and succession.

On the west, Edo rule undoubtedly extended, at least from the 16th century, to Lagos, Badagry, and Wydah. According to Edo traditions, Lagos itself was founded by the Edo influence in this area dates back to the late 16th century. It is said that in the reign of Oba Ehengbuda the armies of the Oba of Edo and the Alafin of Oyo planted trees at Otun in the Yoruba country of Ekiti to demarcate the respective spheres of influence of the two empires.

To the east, the Niger appears to have been the ultimate effective boundary of Edo rule though the early Portuguese maps extend the frontier as far as Bonny. Edo influence also extended as far as Idah (near Nupe country). As reported by Bradbury and Nzimiro, the Igbo city-state of Onitsha on the eastern bank of the River Niger has Edo titles and a ruling family which claims Benin origins and the same is true of Aboh in the extreme south. Edo traditions date the first conquest of the Igbo-speaking communities on the west side of the Niger River to the reign of Oba Ewuare (mid 15th century). According to Egharevba, the following expressions were used to describe Oba Ewuare. The Ekitis had the Yoruba saying "Oba Ado ngbogun lodo ile, Ogbomudu ngbe li ®run " (The Oba of Edo wages war on earth below and Ogbomudu (or the monster Osogan ) wages war in heaven)." The Igbo spoke of "Iduu, ala Eze ike (Edo, land of the powerful Oba). The ruling dynasties of most of the Igbo states between Agbor and Onitsha claim Edo origins, and most of their palace chieftancy titles are Edo terms.

Benin City itself is surrounded by a series of concentric earthwork moats (iya). Similar moats are found on a large area to the north and west of the City; added together, according to the archaeologist Patrick Darling, the Edo moats are longer than the Great Wall of China.

Contact with Europeans

Basil Davidson writes that when the Portuguese first came in touch with Benin in 1485, they were impressed by the large size of the Empire and the strong power of its ruler. According to Bradbury, in 1668 Dapper gave an interesting account of Benin City which he described as having 30 straight streets about 120 feet broad with intersecting streets at right angles to them. He reported that the Oba of the day could bring 20,000 warriors to the field in a day and 80,000 to 100,000 if necessary. Between the 15th and 16th centuries, Edokingdom became the largest of the political systems of Guinea. It traded far and wide. It received ambassadors from Portugal and sent ambassadors to Europe.

The Portuguese

In the days when Portugal was glad to find friends among the strong rulers of Africa writes Basil Davidson, the Portuguese ambassador, D'Aveiro, who visited Benin City in 1485, returned to Portugal with the chief of Ughoton (Gwatto which later became the port of Benin) as the ambassador of Benin. Of this visit it has been reported "The ambassador was a man of good speech and natural wisdom. Great feasts were held in Portugal in his honor. He was shown many of the good things of Portugal. He returned to his own land [as he had come] in a Portuguese ship. When he left, the king of Portugal made him a gift of rich clothes for himself and his wife, and also sent a rich present to the king of Benin....."

Catholic missions were established by the Portuguese early in the 16th century. Firearms were introduced about the same time and seem to have led to an increase in warfare. Oba Esigie, in about 1515, was accompanied by Portuguese missionaries in a campaign which drove the marauders from Idah to the north back across the Niger.

Churches were built by the Portuguese in Benin City. From the Portuguese, we gather that in 1516 "in the month of August, the king ordered his son and two of his greatest noblemen to become Christians and built a church in Benin and they learnt how to read and did it very well." To this day, there exists a church along Akpakpava street that is patterned after this first church and called 'Holy Aruosa ' (place of eye of the high God).

The Portuguese remained the most influential power in the area until the second half of the 17th century though English and Dutch traders had begun to visit Ughoton and Benin City long before this. The Portuguese trading posts and missions were probably abandoned in the 1660s.

The British

The British gradually replaced the Dutch as the main trading power in the western half of the Niger Delta. According to Basil Davidson, the first Englishmen to reach the powerful Edo Empire arrived at Gwato, the port of Benin, in 1553 during the reign of Oba Orhogbua. A Portuguese who was with them wrote afterwards that the Oba (like Oba Esigie before him) could speak, read and write Portuguese. The British, unlike the Portuguese, had hidden imperialistic agenda which culminated in the infamous punitive expedition against the Edo Empire in 1897. Issues relating to the lopsided war, the wanton looting of the Oba's palace of Benin works of art (which now adorn the British museum), the travesty of justice disguised as a trial, and the subsequent deportation of the reigning Oba of Benin, Oba Ovonramwen ne Ogbaisi on September 13, 1897 to Calabar, need to be addressed separately.

The Edo Kings (Oba)

The Oba was the focus of both the political and religious life of the Empire, participating in an incredible number of elaborate rituals, considering that he also had to govern an increasingly more powerful Empire.

In a nutshell, here is Crowder's description of the features of the Obaship. Checks to the Oba's power came from two groups, the Uzama, or hereditary kingmakers, and the nonhereditary or "town" chiefs. The Uzama were either descendants of the original chiefs who invited Oronmiyan to become king, or those followers who came with him. The Town chiefs were led by the Iyase, who acted as the Oba's chief adviser. There was frequent friction between the Oba on the one hand and the Town chiefs and the Uzama on the other. It appears that the Palace chiefs were created as a counterbalancing force that would remain dependent on the Oba, though they did not often attend council.

There have been several attempts to assign dates to the kings whose names are remembered in Benin. According to Egharevba, there are three discernible kingship periods although the first documented date is 1485, the year in which the Portuguese, J.A. d'Aveiro visited Benin City.

The First Period

According to Egharevba it is said that thirty-one Ogiso's (ogie --ruler, king; iso --sky) reigned during the first period. The names of a number of them, some of them women, are remembered, as are some of the titles of chiefs of their court. Though it is impossible to know the precise date of their foundation, some of the important villages which already existed in the first period may throw some light on the issue (pending archaeological finds and the like). Among such villages are the following: Ihinmwinrin, Avbiama, Oka, Idogbo, Utesi, Ogua, Urhoho, Ute, Eyaen, Aho, Irighon, Azagba, Igo, Egbaton, Ughoton, Udo, Esi, Okha, Umoghunmwun, Orogho, Uhen, Okenuhen (Okeluse), Okhunmwun, Ikoha, Use, Ego, Ekho, Ebue, Irokhin, Udeni, Erua, Ugha, Orhua, Urhuekpên, Amagba, Ugbeu, Evbuekoi, Ekhua, Ogan, Isua, Uhi, Ekae, Uzeghudu, Iyowa, Omin, Ikoka, Iyekeze, Ogba, Ogbokhirima, Okuo, Owe, Ominara, Unuame, Ugolo, Ikpako, Uhogua, Ayen, Orio, Uwan, Egbaen, Idunmwonwina, Ohovbe, Ogheghe, Uvbe, Ite, Iguogbe and Izikhiri. The original site of the palace of the Ogiso's which was begun by Ogiso Ere was the site vacated by the Western Boys High School, off the East Circular Road. It stretched from the school to the cemetery being about half a mile in length and a quarter of a mile wide, and divided into sections. It occupied a suitably elevated position and its spacious front looked out over the valley of the Ikpoba river to the Aroken®gbanmwan or Oregbêni hill beyond. (Archeological research may one day allow us to know more about the Ogiso period than is possible at present).

The Second Period

The name of the first Oba of the second period is well-known, but the story surrounding his ascension to the throne is interlaced with events that underscore the Edo-Ife (Yoruba) relationship, and this has gone on for several centuries. It can be safely assumed, however, that Ife which the Edos call Uhe existed before the Edo and Oyo empires. Uhe has retained its constitutional and spiritual importance for the Yorubaland, and to a lesser extent for Edo (cf. Oghene ne Uhe ) 'Lord of Uhe'. Despite the different versions of the lineage of this first Oba, one thing is clear from all accounts and this is that only an Edo prince ( a child born, trained and educated in the arts and mysteries of the Edoland) and not a foreigner could reign over the Edo people. The first such prince who became king was Eweka I (about 1200 A.D). The present Oba, Erediauwa, is the 38th Oba of Benin continuing the line begun in the 12th century by Oba Eweka I. The fifteenth Oba in the generally accepted list is said to have been reigning when the Portuguese first visited Benin in 1485.

Oba Ewuare, empire-builder (about 1440-1473)

According to Chief Jacob Egharevba, the royal traditions of Edo speak vividly of its great Obas. One of the most famous Obas during the time of expansion of the great Edo Empire was Ewuare, who came to the throne in about 1440. He is said to have traveled widely in Guinea and to have visited the Congo.

Ewuare was 'powerful, courageous and wise', say the traditions. He fought against and captured 201 towns and villages in Ekiti, Ikare, Kukuruku, Eka, and Ibo country. He took their rulers captive, and he caused the people to pay tribute to him.

Egharevba records the fact that 'He made good roads in Benin City......In fact the town rose to importance and gained the name of city during his reign....It was he who had the innermost and greatest of the walls and ditches made around the city, and he also made powerful charms and had them buried at each of the nine gateways of the city, so as to ward against any evil charms which might be brought by people of other countries in order to injure his subjects.'

Ewuare is remembered as an outstanding ruler not only for his conquests and breadth of contact with the wide world. He also presided over important political developments. For it was under Ewuare, according to tradition, that the State Council of Benin was formed, together with other new political institutions; and it was from this time that the imperial system of Benin acquired not only a central ruler but also a central government, with officials and departments and regular means of administering the empire.

Oba Esigie (about 1504-1550): new links with Europe

Changes were carried further under Esigie who came to power in about 1504 and added Idah, a state lying between Benin and the Benue, to the Empire. Basil Davidson reports that Esigie is especially remembered for having taken several important steps in transforming political power in Benin from the bases of ascription to that of achievement: from men who wielded power, that is, simply because they were members of noble families to 'commoners' who were appointed to positions of power by reason of their services to the king.

According to Egharevba, Esigie had his mother Idia made Queen and sent her to reside at Lower Uselu. Ever since, every Oba of Edo has given his mother the same title, Iyoba of Uselu. It is note worthy that Queen Idia's commemorative plaque was used for the first world black festival of arts and culture (FESTAC) which took place in Lagos, Nigeria, in the 1970s.

Esigie is also remembered as the Oba who entered into good relations with Portuguese envoys who were now arriving more frequently on his coasts. Missionaries also came from Portugal and were well received. One of them, Duarte Pires, wrote to the Portuguese king in 1516, telling how generously the Oba had shown them hospitality, and how he had 'sat them at table to dine with his son.' In fact, according to Egharevba the missionaries went with Esigie to the Idah war which took place in 1515-1516. According to Edo tradition, it was during this war that Queen Idia, the Oba's mother, sent men from Uselu who fought very bravely and killed the General of the Idah army. This war initiative by the Queen Mother, Idia, is consistent with a common saying amongst the Edo today Okhuo i yo okuo, sokpan Idia ne iye Esigie (Women do not go to war, except for Idia the mother of Esigie). The Ekasa dance which forms part of the Royal funeral ceremonies was invented by Idia, the Queen mother, and Esigie. The native fast, Ague , was also invented by Esigie who in 1540 made a crucifix in brass and had it sent to the king of Portugal as a present.

Oba Esigie is remembered as a man of learning, and as having practiced astrology (Iwe-Uki), a forerunner of the science of astronomy, the study of the stars. Several Portuguese sources confirm that he could speak and read Portuguese. He is said to have reigned for nearly half a century. Benin itself was now a city of great size, wealth and distinction. Edo tradition says that it was during the reign of Oba Esigie that Onitsha (the commercial heartland of Igbo land) was founded by people who migrated from Benin.

Oba Ovonramwen (1888-1914)

His reign coincided with the invention of the pneumatic rubber and the so-called industrial revolution in Europe. This was to set in motion a crazy incursion of Europeans into the interior and the sad result of affairs involving the deceitful overthrow of the existing political structure in order to gain access to the economic wealth of the land. In the Edo case, a highly spurious treaty was alleged to have been signed by the Oba agreeing to surrender the rein of power over the historic kingdom of his ancestors, and become a Protectorate of the British Empire. Once the Oba disputed this forgery, a confrontation with the British ensued leading to the war of 1897. Oba Ovonramwen was subsequently deported to Calabar on September 13, 1897 where he lived until 1914.

The Third Period

Eweka II (1914-1933)

This third period begins a new era in Edo history. The Edo Empire is now part of the British Protectorate which is a larger political structure involving different "weakened" nation states and a new power structure (cf. Igbafe 1979). The first Oba of this era was Eweka II who built the present palace. The old one which was burnt down by the British during the war of 1897, had fallen into ruins. Eweka II was an expert carver in ivory and wood and also a clever blacksmith. He was nicknamed Ovbi-Udu (Lion-hearted) by the Edos on account of his courage in using diplomatic tact and his education to convince the British monarchy to restore that of the Edo which he argued, convincingly, were both on a par.

Oba Erediauwa (1979-date)

Oba Erediauwa, the reigning Oba of Benin is a leader with a charming personality and background. The six-footer Oba was born in 1923, and he graduated with a B.A. (Tripos) in law at Kings College, Cambridge, England. Prior to his ascension to the throne, he served in several top Federal (national) public service positions in different parts of Nigeria such as Lagos, Enugu, and Ahoada. During the Nigerian civil war, the Oba in his capacity as Permanent Secretary (Political) participated in the "Aburi" talks which was aimed at resolving the crisis. More recently, the Oba has served as the Chancellor of the University of Ibadan. His immensely diverse background has helped him to "fight" modern forms of warfare which include: conflicts between modernity and tradition, demands of the ever-so-fluid political climate of an independent Nigeria, rise of a "new" wealthy class, urbanization, diasporic migrations, and globalization.

Oba Erediauwa's era has witnessed tremendous intellectual, cultural, social, and economic growth. Dynamism is one of his chief asset because he has succeeded in maintaining and improving the role of the Edo monarchy in the face of massive modernization onslaughts from varied sources. His mother Iyoba ne ovbi Erua is alive and dwells in her palace at Lower Uselu.

Closing Thoughts

According to Crowder, what is remarkable about the Edo kingdom is that this is purely an African state whose growth was stimulated neither by contact with Islam nor Europe, rather this is a kingdom that had mastered the intricacies of "international" trade by carrying on considerable trading with its immediate neighbors (Oyo and the states of Western Sudan) and foreign partners in Europe.

"So, we appeal to Edo hia (all Edo) to heed to our warnings; learn to subordinate the interest of self to that of the whole community; see yourself first as ovbiedo (child of Edo) before a member of this party or that Society. It is only by so doing that the strength in you will come out and be sustained..." An excerpt from the speech read by Oba Erediauwa on his coronation day Friday, March 23 1979.

Some Recent Research Projects on Edo:

Title: Audible effects of sentence structure in Edo and Yoruba (Niger-Congo)
Social Science and Humanities Research Council Grant (2000-3) (University of British Columbia)
Principal Investigator: Dr. Rose-Marie Déchaine
Co-investigator: Professor Douglas Pulleyblank

Research Assistant: Oladiipo Ajiboye

Title: The Serial Verb Construction Parameter
Osamuyimen T. Stewart (Ph.D. dissertation, McGill University, 1998)

Title: Towards a cross-linguistically valid theory of lexical categories
Social Science and Humanities Research Council Grant (1994-1998) (McGill University)
Principal Investigator: Professor Mark C. Baker
Research Assistant: Osamuyimen T. Stewart

Title: First International Conference on Benin Studies: The Centenary Celebration (1897-1997)
Place: University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria (March 23-25, 1992)

This web page is under continuous development. So, please send comments and questions to:

Dr. Osamuyimen Thompson Stewart
Department of Linguistics
University of British Columbia
E270-1866 Main Mall
Vancouver, B.C. Canada V6T 1Z1
Phone: 604-822-5417 (or 604-822-4256)
Fax: 604-822-9687

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