The Benin Empire

The Benin Empire or Edo Empire (1440-1897) was a large African state located in the modern-day country of Nigeria.

Historians don’t know much about how the Benin Empire began – but it’s clear to us that it began in a city occupied almost solely by the “Edo” people, who naturally came together under one ruler to form an Empire.

The leader of the Benin Empire was called an Oba (or king.) The first Oba was Eweka 1, who died in 1246, which gives us a rough idea of when the Empire began.

Despite how old this position is, there’s even an Oba of the Edo people today! Though this Oba does not hold much governmental power, it’s interesting that the job of the Oba has lasted as long as it has.

Along with the other traditional rulers in Nigeria, the Oba of Benin is a member of the House of Chiefs and serves an advisory role in government (meaning, he gives advice to politicians.) The Oba, to this day, is the leader of the Edo community, which now consists of about 5,000,000 people.
The extent of Benin in 1625

The most famous Oba of the Benin Empire was Ewuare the Great. He reigned from 1440-1480, and is described in texts from the time as a “great warrior and magician.” The Oba was a mystical figure in Africa and was believed to hold great power because of his role.

Ewuare introduced the concept of hereditary succession to the Benin Empire – meaning that a ruler’s bloodline would continue to rule after the ruler’s own death.

This had a huge impact on the way the country was run, as Ewuare’s bloodline remained in power for years to come as a result.

Ewuare is also credited with the rebuilding of the Benin Empire’s capital, adding great walls and moats around the outside so that it would be easier to protect.

Under Euware’s reign, the oba became the single, supreme leader of the Edo people, and he and his ancestors were eventually worshipped as gods by cults who used human sacrifice in their religious observances.

Under Ewuare’s hereditary line of obas, Benin became a very wealthy and well-organized state. Its craftsmen were organized into societies called “guilds,” and the kingdom became famous for its ivory and wood carvers.

The state developed a hugely artistic culture, especially for its pieces made using bronze and iron. These include bronze wall plaques and models made of the skulls of the Obas of Benin.
An unidentified West African flag allegedly brought to Britain by Admiral F. W. Kennedy after the expedition.

The most common artifact is a mask based on the likeness Queen Idia, now called the FESTAC mask. Most artworks was commissioned by or created for the palace, often for ceremonial use.

The Benin Empire’s smiths and artists excelled at making bronze heads, bas-reliefs, and other sculptures.

The economy of the Benin Empire also boomed during the Euware line’s rule; all the way up to the 18th century, the Benin carried on a great amount of trade in ivory, palm oil, and pepper with European traders.

It also profited a huge amount from the purchase and resale of slaves.However, the Empire began to weaken during the 18th and early 19th centuries, as members of the royal dynasty began to fight amongst themselves for power.

The weakest obas hid away in their palaces, which left a vacuum of power (absence of any strong ruler) that led to a decline in the power of the government.

Despite this decline, though, the Benin Empire was one of the most developed states of West Africa until it was colonized by the British Empire in 1897.

Great Britain ended the political role of the Empire in the late nineteenth century, as they did to so many other African countries at the time.

However, the Oba at the time did not accept this. He opposed the colonialists and got his capital burnt as a result.

However, after the exile of the 35th Oba (kicked out of the country because of his resistance to colonization,) they allowed the 36th to return to Nigeria.

The Benin Empire, understandably, collapsed after being colonized by Britain – and although the office of the Oba still exists today, its political power is far less than what it was in the 1700s.

More than likely, it will never regain such power again.

Facts about the Benin Empire:

  • The Benin Empireor Edo Empire (1440-1897) was a large African state located in the modern-day country of Nigeria.
  • It began sometime around the beginning of the 13th
  • The ruler of the Benin Empire was called an “oba.”
  • The office of the “oba” still exists today, though only in an advisory role to the government.
  • The most famous Oba of the Benin Empire was Ewuare the Great. He reigned from 1440-1480.
  • Euware introduced the idea of hereditary succession (or the practice of having a ruling bloodline) to the Benin Empire and is also credited with the reconstruction of the Benin capital (Edo) during his time in power.
  • The state developed a hugely artistic culture under Euware’s bloodline, especially for its pieces made using bronzeand iron. The most famous piece of Benin art, the FESTAC mask, is still around today.
  • Though the Benin Empire declined in the 18thand 19th centuries, it remained one of the most important empires in Africa until it was colonized by Great Britain in 1897.


  1. What modern-day country was the Benin Empire located in?

– Nigeria.

  1. Around what century did the Benin Empire begin?

– Around the start of the 13th.

  1. What was the title given to the Benin Empire’s ruler?

– The “oba.”

  1. Why was Ewuare the Great so important to the Benin Empire?

– Introduced the concept of hereditary succession to the Benin Empire, and rebuilt the capital to strengthen its defenses.

  1. What year did the Benin Empire come to an end, and to what country did it meet its end?

– 1897, due to colonization by Great Britain.