The Benin Empire was a pre-colonial African kingdom that ruled in Nigeria from 1440-1897. Not to be confused with the present-day country of Benin, this empire dissolved into what is today the Edo State of Nigeria, marked by the capital, Benin City. At its height, the empire developed an advanced artistic culture and produced beautiful artifacts of bronze, iron and ivory.
The rise of kingdoms in the West African coastal region produced architecture, which drew heavily on indigenous traditions. The famed Benin City, formerly of the Kingdom of Benin, was a large complex of homes in coursed mud, with roofs of shingles or palm leaves. The Palace of the City had a sequence of ceremonial rooms and was decorated with brass plaques (Figure 2).
Perhaps most famous are the Walls of Benin City, considered to be the largest man-made structure in the world. Built between 800 and 1400 AD, the walls were over 16,000 km in length and enclosed 6,500 km² of community lands. Construction consisted of a ditch and dike structure, with a combination of ramparts and moats that was used as a defense in times of war. In 1897, the British ravaged the Benin Walls during what has come to be called the Punitive Expedition. Scattered pieces of the structure remain in Edo today.
Art of Benin
The Benin Empire was known for its many works of art, including religious objects, ceremonial weapons, masks, animal heads, figurines, busts and plaques. Typically made from bronze, brass, clay, ivory, terracotta or wood, most art was produced at the court of the Oba (king) and was used to illustrate achievements of the empire or to narrate mythical stories. Iconic imagery depicted religious, social and cultural issues that were central to their beliefs, and many bronze plaques featured representations of the Oba.
Because of Benin's military strength, Portuguese missionaries were unable to enslave its people upon their arrival in the 15th century. Instead, a trade network was established in which the Benin Empire traded beautiful works of art for luxury items from Portugal, such as beads, cloth, and brass manillas for casting. The wealth of Benin's art was credited with preventing the Benin Empire from becoming economically dependent on the Portuguese.
As trade flourished, Benin art began to depict European influence through technique, imagery, and themes. Bronze work reached its height during this era, and today the Benin Bronzes are regarded as some of the finest works of that time. These depict a variety of scenes including animals, scenes of court life, Portuguese sailors, and relationships between the Benin Empire and the Portuguese. Much of this work was either destroyed or confiscated during the Punitive Expedition of 1897 (Figure 1).