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 queen's court, is about five or six miles in
circumference. It is protected 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