The history of the great Benin Empire as a nation is the record of a state that was established 2300yrs before any contact was made with European inferior nation. The great Benin Empire made remarkable achievements in those pre-European years, in art, science, administration, technology, political organization, architectures, astronomy, town-planning e.t.c.
When the great Benin empire reached the zeniths of its power, it extended its boundaries and exercised power over all the west African lands bordering the entire stretch of the bight of Benin, from the mouth of the river Volta in the west and eastward to the present day Congo and to the delta of river Niger in the east e.g. Ghana, Republic of Benin, both across the borders of modern Nigeria. Onitsha on the Niger and many other cities such as Asaba, Agbor, Isele-Uku, Warri, Idah e.t.c. Many of these states and other cities owe their corporate existence to the ancient Benin Empire. The influence of the great Benin Empire was said to have even extended to the present day Sierra Leone in the west.
The legendary fame of the Great Benin empire was such that the name Benin had many meanings, e.g. there was Benin-city and Benin empire, Benin river close to the new Benin (Warri) and there is the bight of Benin and the Benin district comprising of Sapele and Warri. Beyond the Gulf of Benin, the great Benin Empire’s legendary fame was indeed wide spread. Several European states heard about the empires might and civilized attitudes, many sought for it.
That a vast stretch of the West African coastline bears the name ” BIGHT OF BENIN” is no accident of history. Even until these day, it quite evident and amazing how the cultural influence of the ancient Benin empire remains strong till today. An independent republic of former Dahomey in 1975 decided to change its name to the republic of Benin as a way of reconnecting its roots to Africa’s once glorious kingdom. The republic of Togo on the other hand named some of her prestigious institutions after the great Benin empire e.g. Universite du Benin, Togo hotel du Benin e.t.c. President Gnassingbe Eyadema during his 1974 visit to Benin City openly stated that the Togolese people originated from the ancient Benin Empire. His open declaration was cardinal in the sense that it ended the historical dilemma that clouded the ancient Benin and present day Benin speakingYoruba influence on many West African nations. Today, the people of Onitsha across the Niger, the Isekiris, Urobos, Isian and Ijaws just to mention but a few all proudly trace their venerated royal lineages to the ancient Benin empire.
Lourenco Pinto, who captained a Portuguese ship that brought the so-called missionaries to Warri the ancient port of Benin in 1619, sent the below deposition to the Sacra Congregazione the instance of father Montelcone. ” All the city of this African Empire are organized, large and harmonious. The streets run straight and as far as the eyes can see. The houses are large; especially those of the king, which is richly decorated and has, fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious.”
Before that period, the great Benin Empire had built a unique defensive wall around its principal cities. The magnitude and complexity of this great wall has qualified it to be entered in the Guinness Book of Records as the greatest earth moving work ever constructed by man. With an estimated total length in excess of 20.000km, the great Benin wall is the longest running military defensive network ever built by man.
Isn’t it ironic that the people that once made up this ancient prestigious kingdom are now grouped along minority lines in the modern day Nigeria. No thanks to the British dubious invasion and subsequent amalgamation of over 200 ethnic nationalities that now make up one Nigeria.
Isn’ t it sad that the name of this over 3000yrs old empire does not even appear on Nigeria map these days, instead towns like Ogbomosho and Lagos originally named Eko which was founded by Benin military leaders now represent the glory of Nigeria’s ancient cities.
The marginalization and the dubious miss-interpretation of the great Benin Empire’s history have to end. It is time for African scholars and historians to engage in the challenging and vital task of re-constructing Africa’s unifying history. During this process, every element of all ancient African empires should be given due respect and honor, without exhibiting the contemporary tribalist and colonial mentality/education that is tearing African apart.
Fellow Africans, let us not forget that Africa is the past, the present and certainly the future.
Ise-lo gbe! happy Kwanza!
By: Nosakhare & AGHAZE Both are African historians/scholars at the University of Benin.