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Yoruba Kingdoms - Benin and Ife

In 1975 the Republic of Dahomey changed its name to the Republic of Benin, after the Bight of Benin ["Where few come out but many go in”], which in turn was named after the Benin Empire, a powerful entity that existed from 1440 to 1897 in what is today Nigeria. "Benin" is a Portuguese corruption of "Ubinu," the administrative center of the Empire, which is today called Benin City, capital of Edo State. Dahomey's rechristening in 1975 caused no end of confusion ever since, so to clarify things: Benin City (the historical Benin Empire) is approximately 250 miles east of Porto Novo, capital of the present-day Republic of Benin. The two entities have no historical connection whatsoever.

The Yoruba kingdoms of Benin and Ife sprang up between the 11th and 12th centuries. The present-day Benin monarch declared his ancestry from Oranmiyan through Ekaladerhan and direct to the Ogiso dynasty. The statement made by the Ooni of Ife debunked the Oba of Benin's declaration of the ancestry of Benin Kings, insisting that Benin was one of the kingdoms founded by Oduduwa who descended from heaven to Ile-Ife with four hundred deities.

The Ooni of Ife, Adeyeye Ogunwusi, on 10 February 2016 said Benin Kingdom in Edo State remained part of the expansive Yoruba people, a pronouncement that may spark fresh rivalry and altercation between people of the two ancient kingdoms. The monarch made the comment in reaction to a statement credited to the palace of the Oba of Benin challenging the claim by the Alake of Egbaland, Adedotun Gbadebo, that the Ooni of Ife remained the pre-eminent spiritual leader in Yorubaland and environs. Oba Gbadebo said Oba Ogunwusi was number one of the five principal Obas in Yorubaland, followed by the Alaafin of Oyo, then by the Oba of Benin (in third position), the Alake of Egbaland (fourth) and the Awujale of Ijebuland (fifth). But in a swift reaction, the Esogban of Benin and Odionwere of the Kingdom, David Edebiri, rejected the ranking, saying the Ooni of Ife was a son of the Oba of Benin and that the Oba of Benin stool had no relationship with the Yoruba people.

As far as historical memory extends, the Yoruba have been the dominant group on the west bank of the Niger. Of mixed origin, they were the product of the assimilation of periodic waves of migrants who evolved a common language and culture. The Yoruba were organized in patrilineal descent groups that occupied village communities and subsisted on agriculture, but from about the eleventh century A.D., adjacent village compounds, called He, began to coalesce into a number of territorial city-states in which loyalties to the clan became subordinate to allegiance to a dynastic chieftain. This transition produced an urbanized political and social environment that was accompanied by a high level of artistic achievement, particularly in terra-cotta and ivory sculpture and in the sophisticated metal casting produced at Ife. The brass and bronze used by Yoruba artisans was a significant item of trade, made from copper, tin, and zinc imported either from North Africa or from mines in the Sahara and northern Nigeria.

The Yoruba placated a pantheon headed by an impersonal deity, Olorun, and included lesser deities, some of them formerly mortal, who performed a variety of cosmic and practical tasks. One of them, Oduduwa, was regarded as the creator of the earth and the ancestor of the Yoruba kings. According to a creation myth, Oduduwa founded the city of Ife and dispatched his sons to establish other cities, where they reigned as priest-kings and presided over cult rituals. Formal traditions of this sort have been interpreted as poetic illustrations of the historical process by which Ife's ruling dynasty extended its authority over Yorubaland. The stories were attempts to legitimize the Yoruba monarchies—after they had supplanted clan loyalties—by claiming divine origin.

Ife was the center of as many as 400 religious cults whose traditions were manipulated to political advantage by the oni (king) in the days of the kingdom's greatness. Ife also lay at the center of a trading network with the north. The oni supported his court with tolls levied on trade, tribute exacted from dependencies, and tithes due him as a religious leader. One of Ife's greatest legacies to modern Nigeria is its beautiful sculpture associated with this tradition.

The oni was chosen on a rotating basis from one of several branches of the ruling dynasty, which was composed of a clan with several thousand members. Once elected, he went into seclusion in the palace compound and was not seen again by his people. Below the oni in the state hierarchy were palace officials, town chiefs, and the rulers of outlying dependencies. The palace officials were spokesmen for the oni and the rulers of dependencies who had their own subordinate officials. All offices, even that of the oni, were elective and depended on broad support within the community. Each official was chosen from among the eligible clan members who had hereditary right to the office. Members of the royal dynasty often were assigned to govern dependencies, while the sons of palace officials assumed lesser roles as functionaries, bodyguards to the oni, and judges.

During the fifteenth century, Oyo and Benin surpassed Ife as political and economic powers, although Ife preserved its status as a religious center even after its decline. Respect for the priestly functions of the oni of Ife and recognition of the common tradition of origin were crucial factors in the evolution of Yoruba ethnicity. The oni of Ife was recognized as the senior political official not only among the Yoruba but also at Benin, and he invested Benin's rulers with the symbols of temporal power.

The Ife model of government was adapted at Oyo, where a member of its ruling dynasty consolidated several smaller city-states under his control. A council of state, the Oyo Mesi, eventually assumed responsibility for naming the alafin (king) from candidates proposed from the ruling dynasty and acted as a check on his authority. Oyo developed as a constitutional monarchy; actual government was in the hands of the basorun (prime minister), who presided over the Oyo Mesi. The city was situated 170 kilometers north of Ife and about 100 kilometers north of present-day Oyo.

Unlike the forest-bound Yoruba kingdoms, Oyo was in the savanna and drew its military strength from its cavalry forces, which established hegemony over the adjacent Nupe and the Borgu kingdoms and thereby developed trade routes farther to the north.

Benin was already a well-established agricultural community in the Edo-speaking area, east of Ife, when it became a dependency of Ife at the beginning of the fourteenth century. By the fifteenth century, it took an independent course and became a major trading power in its own right, blocking Ife's access to the coastal ports as Oyo had cut off the mother city from the savanna. Political power and religious authority resided in the oba (king), who according to tradition was descended from the Ife dynasty. The oba was advised by a council of six hereditary chiefs, who also nominated his successor.

The city of Benin, which may have housed 100,000 inhabitants at its height, spread over twenty-five square kilometers that were enclosed by three concentric rings of earthworks. Responsibility for administering the urban complex lay with sixty trade guilds, each with its own quarter, whose membership cut across clan affiliations and owed its loyalty directly to the oba. At his wooden, steepled palace, the oba presided over a large court richly adorned with brass, bronze, and ivory objects. Like Ife and the other Yoruba states, Benin, too, is famous for its sculpture.

Unlike the Yoruba kingdoms, however, Benin developed a centralized regime to oversee the administration of its expanding territories. By the late fifteenth century, Benin was in contact with Portugal. At its apogee in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Benin even encompassed parts of southeastern Yorubaland and the small Igbo area on the western bank of the Niger. Dependencies were governed by members of the royal family, who were assigned several towns or villages scattered throughout the realm rather than a block of territory that could be used as a base for revolt against the oba.

Yorubaland about the year 1700 was under one King, or Alafin, who resided at Old Oyo1 or Katunga. That this kingdom when united was a very powerful one is shown from the fact that until the year 1818 the Dahomi paid tribute to the Alafin of Oyo. It is only from this date (1700), when the decadence of the Yoruba Kingdom had set in, that the native chroniclers can give any definite knowledge of the Yoruba history.

Lagos became a great slaving port about the year 1815 when the King of Benin and a few other chiefs refused to allow slaves to be exported from their territories. The original inhabitants of Lagos were a mixture of Bini and Yoruba people. When it became a port of export for slaves, such slaves as became residents as labourers and servants of the slave dealers and merchants added their quota to the population; and when after 1861 it became a British colony many freed slaves from Sierra Leone and other parts, more especially Brazil, made their homes there.

Between 1833 and 1835 the Mohammedans captured and destroyed the old town of Old Oyo, and the Yoruba were obliged to found a new capital where Oyo now stands. It was about this time also that the Egba declared their independence. They were finally driven out of the country that they, as a section of the Yoruba people, occupied, and in 1838 they founded their capital, Abeokuta. By the year 1840 the seeds of dissension sown by Afonja had spread so rapidly that the proud Kingdom of the Yoruba people split up into a number of so-called independent states. Illorin had been lost to the Alafin, and was inhabited by a mixture of Hausa, Fulah, and Yoruba .

Ibadan, a semi-independent state, still recognises the Alafin and paid tribute yearly. The Egba, agriculturists, declared that they were quite independent, as also do the Ijebu, Ilesha, Ife, and Iketu (then in French territory). From 1840 to 1886, when the British Government intervened as peace-maker, wars between these parts of the Yoruba people were constant. From that date until 1892 the peace-maker had to punish the Ijebu and Egba for closing their trade roads. In August 1861 Docemo ceded Lagos to the British. In 1863 Kosoko ceded Palma and Lekki, much to the disgust of the chief of Epe, who refused to cede his rights and was punished for it. And in the same year the chiefs of Badagry ceded their territory to the British.

Benin City moat / Benin Iya

Unlike stone-based constructions, mud-based features soon become obliterated. Benin is known world-wide for its massive City Moat or Iya. There are at least two major ruined earthworks in southern Nigeria, and sometimes it is difficult to discern which one is being discussed. The walls of Benin City is a cluster of community earthworks, with city walls, moats, and ditches that surrounded the city. Further west from the Benin City complex, around Ijebu-Ode, is the 15 meters deep, 150 kilometres Sungbo's Eredo earthwork, apparently an extension of the same technique depicting a later stage of socio-political development in an adjacent culture.

A six thousand five hundred kilometers square cluster of community earthworks run for about sixteen thousand kilometers in the Benin rainforest zone. The core of this cluster consists of tightly packed small settlement enclosures with narrow cordons sanitaires (no-man's-lands), and date back to about the 8th Century AD. On the periphery, the earthworks have larger, wider-spaced primary enclosures (including that of Benin itself), much broader cordons sanitaires and date up to about the 15th Century AD.

Benin City was the first inland settlement to be visited by the Europeans, despite not being near the sea or having a river port, but the reputation of the Benin civilisation motivated the Portuguese in the 15th century to seek it out. By the early 16th century, Benin Kingdom had sent an ambassador to Lisbon and in return, the King of Portugal had sent missionaries to Benin. Portuguese was to remain the foreign language for the Benin aristocracy for centuries and elements of the language have continued to survive in palace circles even today. Early trade items included cowries, ivory, pepper, and palm products. Although some slaves were exchanged for goods, Benin was not a slave-dealing nation, preferring to use its manpower and prisoners of war as construction workers, to build and maintain the royal palace, the expansive residencies of the aristocracy, and the city walls, moats, and ditches that surrounded the city.

At the height of the Benin Kingdom, great walls were built between 1450 and 1550, and the city was split up into the Oba’s Palace and 40 wards, and the network of walls, stretched from the city and enclosed the surrounding villages in a radius of over 100km. There could have perhaps been over 5,000km of wall. These walls enclosed over 500 compounds and were 9m tall at their highest. The palace is said to have been flanked by an enormous gate of two towers, each surmounted by a bronze python some 15m long. The walls were made of red mud but the inside was thought to be very ornate and full of ivory, brass, and iron figures and bronze busts. In each of the city’s wards were communities of artisans who made items to decorate the palace. Benin is known predominantly for its 15th - century wax bronzes, which are considered to be some of the finest African ancient art.

Part of the world's largest and most ancient earthwork, a complex system of moats and ramparts spread over some 6,500 square kilometers--the Benin City Walls consist of a set of inner and outer interlocking rings originally built to delineate the royal precinct of the Oba, or king, from the surrounding area. Built to an original height of more than 18 meters, and a length of 1,200 kilometers, the Iya was constructed in three stages. It was finalised around 1460, at that time being the world's largest earthwork. The earthworks attest the development of urbanization and rise of state societies in subsaharan Africa, a process that began in the seventh century AD and culminated in the founding of the Benin Kingdom of Bronze and Ivosry in the fourteenth century.

Edo, the people of Igodomigodo famously known for almost a millennium as Benin, had built a moat complex to protect themselves in the wars they fought. Oral history still credits the military strategy to Oba Oguola (about 1280 AD). Some two hundred years later, his descendant Oba Ewuare the Great, a warrior king, revived the moat idea and extended what Oguola built to cover more grounds around the City.

The Benin City Walls were ravaged by the British in 1897. Since then, portions of the walls have gradually vanished in the wake of modernization--large segments cannibalized. However, significant stretches of the walls remain, enclosing innumerable red earth shrines and vernacular elite architecture with red-fluted walls.

It has been claimed that the wall was as broad as it was high. When a chief of Benin died his wives and family and slaves and the wives and family and slaves of his successor congregated upon the top of the wall where the ghastly funeral rites were performed, after which the wives and slaves of the deceased who had been sacrificed as a tribute to the dead were hurled with their late master into the reeking trench that encircled the city upon the outside of the wall. And that was all the burial they received.

The Walls of Benin, built as a city fortification against neighboring rivals such as the Oyo Kingdom to the south and the Sokoto Caliphate in the north, is estimated by some to be 2,000 square miles in area. Excavations by British archaeologist Graham Connah in 1960 uncovered a rural network of earthen walls that, he estimated, if spread out over five dry seasons, would have required a workforce of 1,000 laborers working ten hours a day, for seven days a week to construct – a rough total of 150 million man hours.

Sungbo's Eredo / Benin Moat / Walls of Benin / Edoid embankments

Further west from the Benin Moat, around Ijebu-Ode, is a 15 meters deep, 150 kilometers earthwork, is apparently an extension of the same technique depicting an earlier stage of socio-political development in an adjacent culture.

The polity that made Sungbo's Eredo may be the predecessor of the Ijebu kingdom. The King of Ijebu became rich as a result of the coastal trade. The British eventually conquered the Kingdom as they resented the taxes the Ijebu levied on trade passing through their kingdom. In the early 1500’s the region directly north of Lagos was dominated by the Ijebu kingdom which participated in the Atlantic trade with Portuguese traders. Slaves, cloth, ivory and brass items were the main trade goods. In 1558 the European traders realized the extent of the lagoon system and its connection between Ijebu and Benin. Benin began to dominate the trade which consequently faltered with Ijebu though the trade there did not completely die out.

In the 1700’s European accounts claim the power and influence of Benin along the coast began to crumble. The Ijebu kingdom moved in to claim the territory between Lagos and Benin, the Warri seized the lower Benin River. Benin’s most westerly settlements were destroyed by the rising Dahomey.

Sungbo's Eredo is a rampart or system of walls and ditches that surrounds the Yoruba town of Ijebu-Ode in Ogun state southwest Nigeria (6°49'N, 3°56'E). It is reputed to be the largest single pre-colonial monument in Africa. The Benin Moat, also known as the Walls of Benin, lays fallow, crumbling away in Nigeria, a pale reflection of its former resplendent self. Construction started on the Walls of Benin in 800 AD, now situated in modern day Benin City, capital of Edo State, and continued into the mid-1400s. Stretching seemingly endlessly across the land, the Benin Moat is said to be the world’s second longest man-made construction, falling short of only the Great Wall of China.

The Guinness Book of Records (1974 edition) described the walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom as the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era. According to estimates by the New Scientist’s Fred Pearce, Benin City’s walls were at one point “four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops”.

Traditional lore links the construction of this impressive boundary to the legendary Sungbo, a wealthy childless widow, giantess, priestess / goddess, devil woman or even erstwhile Queen of Sheba, to whose grove and magically bare grave flock many long-distance pilgrims. This and the links with the present Awujale dynasty and its Odo settlements require more study.

This massive, 20 meters high [from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the rampart], thousand year old kingdom boundary rampart snakes through 160 kilometers of thick rainforest undergrowth and freshwater swamp forest around Ijebu-Ode in southwest Nigeria. A 20 m thick section near the Epe roads has near vertical ditch sides with a slight overhang. Since later deepening would have been an impossibility on this section, this overhang must have survived since the eredo's original construction. The growth and local protection of forest along the eredo must have been an important factor in preserving the earthwork more or less as originally dug.

It lies close to Lagos, Ibadan and Ife, centers of learning, where many of Nigeria's leading professional archaeologists have worked. Yet, apart from two cross-profiles measured near Itele, an inordinate delay of nearly forty years elapsed between the first sketch of this enormous feature and its main survey.

Along the gently sloping interfluves, the Eredo was deliberately engineered with ditch baulks to retain seasonal ralnwater as shallow moats. This feature arose from perceptions which significantly qualify previous interpretations of swampland salients on the Eredo and Benin earthworks and very forcibly, of the main Benin City moat.

Dr. Patrick J. Darling (1945-2016), archaeologist, educator, and heritage manager, was a staunch advocate for the preservation of Africa’s cultural heritage. The network of earthworks in the Edoid region of southwest Nigeria is the subject of his dissertation. His voluminous dissertation was published in 1984 as Archaeology and History in Southern Nigeria: The Ancient Linear Earthworks of Benin and Ishan (Parts 1 and 2) in the Cambridge Monographs in African Archaeology and the BAR International Series. He recognized that the much celebrated Benin earthworks which Graham Connah (1975) and others had documented are only part of a larger and regional networks of embankments that stretched hundreds of kilometers across the rainforest of southwest Nigeria. Darling’s path-breaking archaeological survey in the Edo-Esan area of southwestern Nigeria has uncovered over 16,000 km of concentric earthworks forming boundaries around more than 500 interconnected settlements, enclosing a total area of 6,500 km².

The New Scientist heavily relied on Patrick Darling’s assessment when it describes the Edoid embankments as “four times longer than the Great Wall of China”, consuming “a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops”, and forming “perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet” (Pearce 1999). Dr. Patrick J. Darling (1945-2016) implied that the construction of some of these earthworks began about 300-500 AD. His verdict was that Sungbo's Eredo was “set to push back our understanding of state formation in the African rainforest by half a millennium or more”.

He used his publicist skills so well in order to push the Sungbo Eredo rampart-ditch complex story to both the new and old media including the New York Times and the BBC News. The later quoted him thus: "In terms of sheer size it's (Sungbo Eredo) the largest single monument in Africa - larger than any of the Egyptian pyramids…” It’s a comparison with shock factor but it’s not inaccurate.

Darling wrote "The earthworks enclosed settlements and their farmlands ab initio – possibly as defence against the African Forest Elephant ( Loxodonta cyclotis), but also serving as de facto territorial boundaries; and their active use ensured that many of them were actively maintained by later deepening. In the mid-C15th AD, Oba Ewuare’s deepening of the massive City moat and burying of aban (charm pots) at the gates may be coincident with the rural earthwork features also becoming perceived as demarcating the real world (agbon) from the spirit world (ehimwin)...

"Egharevba’s city-centred perception of three concentric city walls (Egharevba 1934:80) was radically re-interpreted in the light of Conn ah's survey of the Benin City Walls (Connah 1975:102) and Darling’s later surveys over a much wider area (Darling 1984) – both of which produced data at odds with current local interpretations of these features as resulting from a powerful centralized polity. By itself, the sheer size of these features would be challenging enough..."

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Page last modified: 22-02-2017 16:29:05 ZULU