On 9 February 1897, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson led the Benin Punitive Expedition. Field commanders were instructed to burn down towns, villages and upon capture to hang the Benin king. Monuments, and the palaces of many high-ranking chiefs were looted and destroyed along with the king’s palace, which was set ablaze. 2500 [official figures] religious artefacts, visual history, mnemonics and artworks were taken to England. Sir Ralph Moore KCMG, Counsel General of the Niger Coast Protectorate took one of two near identical Queen Idia masks to Britain. Reportedly, in 1909, Professor Seligman bought the mask from a relative of Sir Ralph Moore, to whom it passed on his death. Today, the Queen Idia mask remains an artefact in the British Museum collection. The image is sold by the British Museum & has prompted the discussion on the sale of artefacts stolen by colonialists who derive money from the sale without sharing with the countries from which these artefacts were stolen.
Iyoba Idia popularly known as “Idia ne Iye Esigie” was renowned warrior-queen, skilled administrator and the first Iyoba (Queen Mother) of the Kingdom of Bini (Benin) in the present-day Nigeria. Iyoba Idia’s visage is the most widely known face of an African royal woman after the Egyptian Queen, Ahmose-Nefertari or Nefertiti. Her face has gazed on us from countless museum pedestals the world over. It has been widely reproduced on commemorative trays, cups and plates, jewelry, ebony and brass plaques, and on textiles, specifically george materials of the Intorica and Indian Madras labels, wax design cotton prints, and tee-shirts. Idia was first an olori (royal wife) of Oba Ozolua as well a military strategist cum mystical warrior before becoming an Iyoba as well as the mother of Oba Esigie (1504-1550 CE), who was the first King of Benin to ascend the throne with the title Esigie in about 1504 and was the first Leader in the West-African Sub-Region to establish diplomatic relationship with a European Country.
She played a very significant role in the rise and reign of her son. She was a strong warrior who fought relentlessly before and during her son’s reign as the Oba (king) of the Edo people. His son Esigie controlled Benin City while another son, Arhuaran, was based in the equally important city of Udo about twenty miles away. The ensuing civil war severely compromised Benin’s status as a regional power and undermined Benin City’s place at the political and cultural center of the kingdom. Exploiting this weakness, the neighboring Igala peoples sent warriors across the Benue River to wrest control of Benin’s northern territories. Esigie ultimately defeated his brother and conquered the Igala, reestablishing the unity and military strength of the kingdom. His mother Idia received much of the credit for these victories as her political counsel, together with her mystical powers and medicinal knowledge, were viewed as critical elements of Esigie’s success on the battlefield. To reward and honor her, Esigie created a new position within the court called the iyoba, or “Queen Mother,” which gave her significant political privileges, including a separate residence with its own staff.Queen Mothers were viewed as instrumental to the protection and well-being of the oba and, by extension, the kingdom.
Idia’s face was immortalized in the sixteenth century ivory mask presently in the British Museum. It became famous when the Nigerian military government chose it as the emblem for the Second Black Festival of Arts and Culture, known as FESTAC ’77, that Nigerian hosted in 1977. The visibility of the mask increased when the British Museum refused to release it on loan to Nigeria even after demanding two million pounds, which the Nigerian government put up. The late Oba Akenzua II, then reigning Oba of Benin, broke the impasse by commissioning the Igbesamwan (ivory carvers guild) to produce two replicas of the Idia mask that had been looted by British soldiers of the 1897 punitive expeditionary force. The fine workmanship of the replicas established that modern Benin ivory carvers are consummate artists as were their forebears, and like the latter, responded with pride and reverence to the royal commission.
The exact date of birth and death of the great Iyoba Idia, the mother of Esigie, the Oba who reigned from 1504-1550 is not known. However, she was alive during the Idah war in which her army and war general secured a resounding victory for Benin (Oronsaye 1995, 61; Ebohon 1979, 60; Egharevba 1968, 28). She was a proper Edo woman from Bini (Benin) Kingdom. She was born in Ugieghudu, in the Eguae area of Isi (Oronsaye 35, 61 Egharevba 28).
The young Idia, we do know that she was “a beautiful and strong willed woman”(Oronsaye 1995, 61) whose biographical sketch reveals that she had been medicinally fortified before her marriage to the constantly warring and constantly absent Oba Ozolua. She was very clever lady who possessed skills which few people had. She matured very quickly just like other girls in that historical period were prepared early in life for their future role as wives.
Idia entered the royal household after she caught the fancy of Oba Ozolua during a dance performance in the capital (Oronsaye 61). Once the Oba initiated the marriage process, her parents knew she would become an Oba’s wife and eventually took the precaution of medicinally seasoning and “cooking” their daughter for her future life. This preparation strengthened her to cope with whatever vicissitudes palace life would throw at her. The “strong willed” Idia and her parents would have surmised that life as an Oba’s wife may be tumultuous, but was indeed an excellent route to power and wealth. It would have made sense for them to take advantage of all the excellent opportunities it offered to advance their Ugieghudu family and Idia’s own personal line.
As an oloi (royal wife) of the Oba, Idia became very powerful at the court in her early marriage. Constant references to her occult powers in oral accounts suggest, not that she was being used by male palace chiefs, but that by virtue of these powers, she was reasonably well connected with all the key players and powerful figures in Oba Ozolua’s erie (royal wives residence). It is not inconceivable that she may have had excellent relations with the Uwangue and Osodin, and other palace officials some of whom or their mothers’ may have come from her Ise district.
According to an article on http://www.edoworld.net entitled “Iyoba Idia: The Hidden Oba of Benin restoring agency to a sixteenth-century oloi, royal wife, is crucial since it enables us to reevaluate contemporary rationalizations that are used to portray women, and such a woman in particular as passive objects of exchange. One of such rationalizations is the explanation offered about the marks on Idia’s forehead. What today is being described as a failed attempt to prevent her marriage to the Oba masks the sixteenth-century social scheme in which the Oba was the most powerful figure in that universe; and in which it makes no sense for any girl or her parents to rebuff his marital overtures. Second, this concealment of the social scheme enables twentieth-century chroniclers to hide that Idia’s supernatural powers and medicinal knowledge were enhanced through initiation; hence ensuring that this act of Idia was not emulated by contemporary oloi. Thirdly, the fact of initiation establishes why we should not hastily write off Idia as an ignorant slip of a girl who was politically clueless and unprepared for palace intrigues. The initiation reveals a family’s politically ambitious response to the Oba’s interest in marriage, and to a daughter schooled in the science of esoteric laws. Yes, Idia’s family would have been thankful that their daughter’s ehi (guardian spirit or destiny) dealt her a good hand but it was up to them to ensure that she stood out from the countless other iloi amassed in the erie (royal wives’ residence).”
Article first published here: https://kwekudee-tripdownmemorylane.blogspot.co.za/2014/02/iyoba-idia-popularly-known-as-idia-ne.html