African people have been told so many lies about themselves and their history that it is understandable why no one wants them to return to their past, yet they must return if they are to become whole again. The story of Benin illustrates the tragedy that has befallen Africa since slavery and colonization. Benin as you will see, was a more civilized place in the 11th century than it is today and begs the question, Where would Africa be today if it had not come into contact with Arab and European slaveholders? Reading the descriptions of the city and looking at their art indicates it would certainly have been much further than it is today. Hort
Friday, June 27, 2008
Great Benin, also known as Edo, was an important state that flourished in southern Nigeria. In the 15th century, it was an empire distinguished by the sumptuousness and comfort of its capital, Benin City, and by the refinement of its royal art. Robin Walker takes us through the golden age of Benin City. From the 15th century onwards, West Africa began to face the rigours of the slave trade. The threat initially came from the Portuguese. Later it came from other Europeans. A few states survived this period, though in some of these, the leadership failed to act decisively against the enslavers. A Portuguese ambassador could, however, record that:
"Twenty leagues from the coast, there lives a monarch to whom the subjects show the same reverence as the Catholics do the Pope. When foreign ambassadors come into its presence, they are never afforded a glimpse of the face. A curtain hides him from their sight: he only sticks out his foot that they may kiss at when taking their departure."
Oba (or King) Ewuare the Great, founder of the empire, reigned from c. 1440 to c. 1473. Noted as a brilliant ruler, he is remembered for strong leadership and military prowess. Marching against 201 towns and villages, over the southern Nigeria region, he captured their leaders and compelled the masses to pay tribute. Among the subdued regions were Eka, Ekiti, Ikare, Kukuruku and the Igbo territories west of the Niger River. An able politician, he used religious authority and intimidation as well as constitutional reforms to strengthen his hand. These strategies fortified the Obaship against the power of overambitious ministers.
The early history of Benin was a much more modest period associated with the Ogiso Dynasty. Igodo, first of its 15 rulers, lived around 900 AD and enjoyed a long reign. Ogiso Ere, his son and successor, founded many villages such as Erua and Ego. He was a patron of craftsmen and, more significantly, he founded institutions. The guilds of weavers, carvers and potters date back to this time. These craftsmen worked clay, wood and leather. Moreover, Ere established royal emblems and the ceremonies that accompanied them which continued into later times. These included the throne, the stool, ritual swords, the fan, the anklets, the collars and the crown. Ogiso Orhorho, the 8th ruler, was remembered as an evil queen, who was assassinated in consequence of her tyranny.
Oba Esigie ascended the throne in c1504 and had a long and eventful reign of perhaps 46 years. He introduced a special post in the administration for his mother called the Iyoba, the Queen Mother. A Dutch chronicler would report a century later that the Oba "undertakes nothing of importance without having sought her counsel". The art of the time reflects this reality. Esigie commissioned a highly improved metal art that has since achieved worldwide distinction. One of the best-known pieces are the famous Queen Mother Idia busts.
Prof Felix von Luschan, a former official of the Berlin Museum for Volkerkunde, stated that: "These works from Benin are equal to the very finest examples of European casting technique. Benvenuto Celini could not have cast them better, nor could anyone else before or after him. Technically, these bronzes represent the very highest possible achievement. "
In the 1600s, other envoys from Europe visited Benin. Some of these left eye-catching descriptions of what they saw. Samuel Blomert, a man who lived in Africa for several years, is one such example. In 1668, the Dutch scholar, Dr Olfert Dapper, paraphrased his rich and full account in a famous book entitled Description of Africa. It is so engrossing that we have taken the liberty of reproducing portions from it that describe the splendour of Benin City:
"The town, comprising the queens court, is about five or six miles in circumference. It is protec ted at one side by a wall 10 feet high, made of double stockades of big trees, tied to each other by cross-beams fastened cross-wise, and stuffed up with red clay, solidly put together. This wall only surrounds the town on one side. "The town possesses several gates, eight or nine feet in height and five in width, with doors made from a whole piece of wood, hanging or turning on a peg, like the peasant fences here in this country [Holland]."The king's court is square and stands at the right-hand side when entering the town by the gate of Gotton [ie, Gwato], and is certainly as large as the town of Harlem [in Holland], and entirely surrounded by aspecial wall, like that which encircles the town.
"It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam, but one larger than another, resting on wooden pillar from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, and are kept very clean... The town has 30 very straight and broad streets, every one of them about 120 feet wide... from which branches out many side streets."
This indicates a planned city built on an enormous scale structured on a horizontal vertical grid. In colour, the buildings were terracotta red. Dapper compared the Exchange of Amsterdam with the palaces of the courtiers owing to the fact that it was the largest building in Holland.
"The houses," he wrote, "are built alongside the streets in good order, the one close to the other... adorned with gables and steps, and roofs made of palm or banana leaves, or leaves from other trees; they are usually broad with long galleries inside, especially so in the case of the houses of the nobility, and divided into many rooms which are separated by walls made of red clay, very well erected, and they can make and keep them as shiny and smooth by washing and rubbing as any wall in Holland can be made with chalk, and they are like mirrors. The upper storeys are made of the same sort of clay. Moreover, every house is provided with a well tor the supply of fresh water."
Benin's later history in the 18th and 19th centuries, however, shows stagnation rather than advance. The port of Gwatto silted up, leading to the merchants going elsewhere to trade. Benin's history continued until 1897 when the British army invaded and plundered the country, exiling the Oba. The British stole thousands of priceless artifacts that are still held by London institutions and private collections. Following the outrage, they burned the city. There are, however, descriptions by British writers that are worthy of discussion. Captain Richard Burton visited the Nigeria region in 1862. He was most puzzled by the architecture he witnessed because:
"It is impossible to think that Yoruba [sic] in ancient times derived its architecture through the Romans, whose conquests in Northern Africa were as extensive as in North Europe. We find in every house a Tuscan atrium, with a cavaedium or gangway running round the rectangular impluvium, the tank or piscine which catches the rain and drippings railing through the compluvium or central opening in the roof. Sometimes the atrium is a tetrastyle in which pillars at the four corners of the impluvium support girders or main beams of the roof."
Burton further informs us that the royal palace "is supposed to contain not less that 15,000 souls". This data corroborates both Blomert, who suggested that the palace was the same size as the Dutch city of Harlem. Another traveller, Joshua Utzheimer, writing in 1603, suggested that the royal palace was "about the size of the [German] city of Tubingen".
These days, scholars no longer claim Roman influence on Benin or Yoruba architecture. However, the fact that Benin City was compared to the Roman city of Pompeii does prove that they were comparable. This indicates the high standard of Benin architecture and shows that it is every bit as impressive as its art.
Please visit The Institute for Benin studies' website at http://www.GreatBen in.org
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The Binis of Mid-Western Nigeria
by Ukachukwu Okorie
Thursday, 21 June 2007
Across the Niger with Ukachukwu OkorieAlthough the Edo-speaking people are one of the minority ethnic groups in Nigeria, they are a dominant tribe. In present-day Nigeria, they dictate the scheme of things in Edo state. While a handful of their kith and kin are to be found in Ondo and other neighbouring states, the Edo – or Bini – people are concentrated in the area surrounding Benin City (formerly Ibinu, from where their name may be derived).
Like most African tribes without any written source of history, the origin of the Bini people is still a subject of research. Historians have projected differing, sketchy versions of their origin and migrations. One source said that the Binis are part of the Sudanese people who immigrated together with other migrants from the Middle East in the seventh millennium BC. Another strong account is the Oduduwa ascendancy, which greatly influenced the Edo-Yoruba relationship, especially during pre-colonial times. In this account, it was said that one of Oduduwa’s sons took his household further to the area known today as Benin City.
Culturally, the people of Edo are the richest in the West African sub-region. From big events like the Igue ceremonies to their marriage rites, Westernisation has done little to change their traditions. The Igue festival, which is the equivalent of Christmas to the Bini people, is celebrated every year. Its chief celebrant, the Oba, recognises and confers chieftaincy titles on worthy and illustrious sons of the land.
The Bini people were religious right from the onset, though most of the evils attached to their traditional worship are gradually being eroded, thanks to the post-colonial Obas. Although Christianity and Islam have taken root in Benin City and its environs, a handful have refused to be bamboozled out of their ancestral ways of worship. Some of the popular gods in Edo land include Ebibi, Oromila, Isango and Ogun, while important religious festivals are Akpo and Ogun.
Though there are many religious shrines and deities, they are mere subjects to the Oba, who is regarded more as a god than human. Due to the efficiency and importance of the shrines, they are often used as arbitrators in disputes. For example, when one’s land is forcefully taken from him, the victim could sue his aggressor at Ahosun Oba (king’s shrine) and receive instant justice and reprieve.
Understanding the nature of the monarchy in Benin City involves more than research or visiting as a tourist. Apart from the fact that the throne and its dynasty have existed for centuries before Christ, its influence over the Oba’s immediate subjects is still intact. Prior to recent reformation, many mysteries were attached to the installation and funeral of an Oba of Benin. But the outstanding custom is the ineligibility of the Oba, upon assumption of the throne, to see his heir apparent, for the Oba of Benin hardly travels out of his palace, as custom and his ancestral traditions placed a strong restriction on him.
The famous Benin Empire – which at one time reached as far as Dahomey, parts of Yoruba and the present-day Niger Delta – was administered by the forefathers of Oba Akenzua Erediuwa (Omo n’Oba na Edo), the current king. Unlike their neighbours, the Benin Empire did not fall like a pack of cards at the sight of colonial forerunners; rather, they resisted ferociously.
Though the British-Bini war, in the twilight of the 19th century, put a stop to the influence of the Oba over his vassal states, some of the sacred rites involved in the land were preserved. Though Oba Idugbowa (Ovonramwen) , the great grandfather of the current monarch, was sent to exile in Calabar by the British, he opened a lasting chapter of greatness for his people. It was during that war that the numerous works of art produced by the Bini people – worth millions of pounds sterling – was stolen from the Oba’s palace. Popular among the looted artefacts and carvings was the original Bini ivory mask, which is the symbol of Nigerian arts and culture.
The Bini/Edo language is widely spoken by Edo descendants, both at home and in the diaspora. Binis are very hard-working people, as the political crises and inequality inherent in Nigeria have pushed them to all corners of the earth in search of greener pastures. But even so, they haven’t lost touch with their origins. In fact, the Edo land and its culture, arts and tradition are a real eye-opener for lovers of untainted African art.
Please visit The Institute for Benin studies' websiteat http://www.GreatBen in.org Best viewed with Opera downloadable at http://www.opera. com/download