The history of the Kingdom of Benin goes back well over 1000 years. From the 9th to the 11th century, its stories were passed down by professional palace chroniclers in oral narratives and songs.
In addition to the oral traditions, the Benin artworks, with the historical details inscribed in them, represent rich sources on the centuries-long historiography of the kingdom. Their exact content has hardly been tapped by museums where they are kept today.
Influenced by the memories of the Obas (kings) of the various eras up to the 21st century, these traditional sources paint a picture of an expanding, politically and economically influential empire, one of the oldest and largest on the African continent.
According to tradition, present-day Benin City was founded in the 13th century under the Ogiso rulers, the first royal dynasty of Benin. Ogiso means “king from heaven”, which expresses the attribution of the dynasty’s divine origin. This gives rise to the theory of the divine right of kings and gives them absolute power to this day.
As early as the Ogiso reign, the guild system was established for the production of royal regalia such as the ceremonial sword, cap, shirt, and necklace made of red coral beads, as well as wood, ivory and metal sculptures.
In Edo memorial culture, the kingdom reached its zenith in the mid-15th century under Oba Ewuares. Despite the intensifying European influence, he had managed to stabilize the kingdom territorially and even expand it. He is also considered a great promoter of the art guilds from which the so-called Benin bronzes, scattered around the world today, originate. The Oba was the sole client of these special royal treasures in pre-colonial times. His power is manifested in the centuries-old Benin works and is expressed, among other things, in his animal image, the leopard.
The memorial head of a queen mother, the Iyoba, the Oba‘s birth mother, is also on display in the I MISS YOU exhibition. Queen mothers held a prominent political position in the Kingdom of Benin. As for the kings, ancestral altars with memorial heads were erected in their honor after their death.
Subsequently, the kingdom established numerous trade contacts with Portugal, Great Britain, the Netherlands, France and also with German trading houses. Europeans traded iron/copper ingots, glass beads and cotton fabrics for pepper, ivory and slaves. From the 19th century, palm oil and rubber were added.
In the European travelogues of the colonial era, the Kingdom of Benin was mentioned more and more often, but its long history, political and cultural background remain unknown. In the 19th century, the Kingdom was considered to be a part of the hinterland of the British “Niger Coast Protectorate.”
The growing British presence on the west coast of Africa increasingly became a threat to the Edo. In
1892, five years before the Benin massacre perpetrated by British soldiers in 1897, the British diplomat
Henry Gallwey succeeded in persuading the Oba -Ovonramwen N’Ogbaisi (1888-1897) to sign a so-called protection treaty under questionable conditions. This treaty deprived the Oba of its sovereignty and placed the kingdom under the British colonial power. The Oba did not agree and continuously resisted the British colonial power. As a result, violent clashes ensued, which were instrumentalized by the British media to justify the destruction and plunder of the kingdom in 1897.