The Industrious Kingdom of Benin, its Economy, Zenith and Eventual Decline

By Isaac Samuel

OF the few well-known kingdoms in Africa, the history of Benin has certainly not been understated, from the close to a thousand intricately designed brass plaques at the British Museum, possibly the second largest single corpus of African art at a western museum; after Boston museum’s nubia collection – to the Guinness world book recognition of the Benin city walls; a series of ramparts, ditches, moats and standing walls covering 6500 sqkm – four times longer than the great walls of china, some 60ft high from trough to crest with several gates restricting entrance to the city built between the 9th and 15th centuries but less of note was Benin’s status as one of the major trading nations of the premodern era.

In 1440, Oba Ewuare consolidated the power of the Oba, introduced several political reforms and united a number of neighbouring kingdoms to Benin, marking the beginning of its two-centuries long imperial era. It was during the end of his reign, in 1472 that the first Europeans visited the region; Ruy de Sequeira noted Benin’s spice trade reporting it to the Portuguese crown who in 1486 established formal diplomatic and trade contact. It was from these traders that details of Benin’s economic history are obtained with regards to its exports.

Pepper Trade

Before the opening of the ocean route to India at the turn of the 16th century, west-African pepper predominated grocery trade at Lisbon. In 1480, traders discovered Bini pepper fetched a high price in the Flanders spice market. Supply of pepper was greatly controlled by the Oba who insisted on payment in brass, glass, coral and fine linen. The pepper was dried and compressed in barrels complete with the stalks with traders typically warned to check each barrel before negotiating. An inland factory was established and supervised by Benin officials but the Europeans’ high mortality made it expensive to run themselves leaving most of the operations to the Edo. The Portuguese would soon restrict trade in Benin pepper to reduce its competition from Indian pepper.

Trade in pepper was then taken over by the English starting in 1553 such that in 1591, it was the primary item on English ships with one buying over 589 sacks of it (along with 150 tusks, 32 barrels of palm oil in exchange for copper bars, linens and spirits) with the Oba at-times offering it to them on credit, a custom that was noted by the first traders.

Cloth Trade

Cotton textile production in southern Nigeria dates back to the first millennium – as early as the textiles at Igbo Ukwu could be preserved – and Benin was heavily involved in its interior trade within the region centuries before Europeans arrival. Initially mostly imported from the Nupe in exchange for salt, brass, iron items particularly, a type of blue-and-white four-strip cloth called ikerin later referred to as Benin cloth, an became the primary export during the next three centuries.

In 1487, the Portuguese set up a factory (mentioned above) largely for purposes of buying this Benin cloth that they re-exported to the gold coast. The trade was lucrative enough to attract competition from the Dutch and other Europeans the former of which were -alone- in 1633 importing over 12,641 pieces of it to the gold coast and another 16,000 pieces in 1644 (for context, the East India company was importing 174,000 pieces in 1661 for a population tens of times larger). The trade was so extensive that demand quickly outstripped production, reversing the previous credit line extension from the Europeans receiving it. 

However, as some of its neighbours began importing Indian cloth in the 18th century as part of the trans-atlantic trade, Benin cloth was gradually replaced by foreign textiles, especially as the industrial revolution drove prices of English cloth lower, limiting the Benin cloth trade to within the Kingdom.

Much of the cloth was used locally with typical Benin fashion varying with levels of wealth; generally consisting of brightly coloured and patterned four or two overlapping garments for both men and women even though the former went bare-chested, save for a number of coral ornaments. The cloth was washed with locally manufactured soap made of a palm-oil product mixed with a type of wood, which English trader James Welch in 1588 said “smelled like violets, washes well leaving the clothes very clean”. 

Benin women in Nigeria around 1900

Ivory Trade

Ivory, a luxury item, was purchased along the west-African coast between the 16th and 19th centuries. An estimated 5 million pounds of ivory came from the west-African coast during the early 18th century.  Although detailed figures from individual states are difficult to estimate due to competition from various European traders, the Dutch alone would import close to 100,000 tonnes every year from the west-African coast and a lot of it was split between Benin and the gold coast. As early as 1514, a single Portuguese ship  (of which several arrived annually) imported as much as 10,520 pounds of ivory in the form of 385 tusks. 

Other pieces of ivory were carved before sale, both locally and internationally, typically by the Owo craftsmen – a neighbouring kingdom that was within Benin’s sphere of influence. The artists produced several ceremonial pieces including armlets, anklets, masks, spoons, cups, ceremonial swords, carved tusks and carved salt-cellars for export. 

Ivory was – along with the famous brass plaques – a favourite item of decoration at the Benin court. The ivory trade continued to be important even as the Kingdom declined, such that by the time of the British expedition, one of the Oba Ovonramwen’s ivory stashes was worth as much as £2m pounds (almost £250m today) making him one of the wealthiest people at the time. 

16/17th Century ivory carved salt-cellar depicting Portuguese missionaries at the Oba’s court – British museum

Zenith and Decline

Benin remained the predominant trade and military power in the coastal region until around the end of the 17th century after which it went into a slow decline, reducing what was formerly an empire that extended from the Niger delta to modern Ghana, to a kingdom confined to south-western Nigeria. The reasons for this were many including the increasing power of Uzama council and military commanders that had been reduced by Oba, the first of the so-called warrior-kings. Benin had since his reign in the 15th century set in place a complete political and military system whose size was partly why it banned slave exports after 1516. This, including the high demand for labour in its various industries and craft guilds, they controlled entry to a craft, methods of production and standards of workmanship plus prices, especially necessary for blacksmiths and iron-smiths for war needs, bronze casters and carvers at the court, guilds of doctors, leather workers, etc, plus the textiles industry where every visitor during the period between the 16th and the 19th century reported that most houses had a loom or several necessary to maintain supply for the highly prized Benin cloth. 

The industrial revolution brought a new economic paradigm which contributed to Benin’s decline. The Oba’s command-controlled economy, which was efficient in maintaining Benin’s economic primacy during the era of mercantilism (where textiles, ivory and pepper prices were more or less fixed and slave prices were raised to a point where Europeans were discouraged from buying any) could not make the commercial transition of free trade brought about by the industrial revolution, especially in oil palm production and sale – its biggest export at the time. The threat of wealth outside royal control forced the Oba into a protectionist policy threatening British commercial interests in the region and giving them a pretext to invade. 

The army of Benin was – like most African armies at the time – reliant on European guns that were at the time outdated. The breech-loading rifles and muzzle-loading guns, for example, remained largely unchanged since they were first bought in the 15th century. The Bini had attempted to imitate them with varying success (there are several canons made after Portuguese models, one is at the British museum) and were obsolete in the face of the newly manufactured maxims plus the devastating gun-export ban by the Europeans and their coordinated foreign policy after the Berlin conference. Benin could no longer pit foreign powers against each other.  Faced with the revolts of various chiefdoms at the end of the century, Benin fell to the British in 1897. The latter looted the city, burnt the palace and most houses to the ground and took hundreds of millions worth of ivory, bronze works and other items. The thousand-year old kingdom ended after a two-year guerilla war that ended in 1899, setting the stage for Nigeria’s colonisation.


A popular history of Benin: the rise and fall of a mighty forest kingdom
Peter M. Roese, D. M. Bondarenko
The military system of Benin Kingdom, c. 1440 – 1897
Osarhieme Osadolor

Great Benin Henry Ling Roth

How India Clothed the World: The World of South Asian Textiles, 1500-1850
edited by Giorgio Riello, Tirthankar Roy

Cloth in West African History
By Colleen E. Kriger

Benin and the Europeans : 1485-1897
Alan Frederick Charles Ryder

Africans and Europeans in West Africa
Harvey M. Feinberg


Further reading

Berlin Conference https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Conference

Show More

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button
%d bloggers like this: