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Benin Head

Map of the kingdom of Benin in the 1800s

An oba of Benin in the 1600s, as depicted by a European artist in the 1800s
Giulio Ferrario, An Oba of Benin, 1815-27


key idea
The kingdom of Benin flourished in western Africa for centuries.

The Edo (EE-doh) people live in western Africa, in today’s nation of Nigeria. For nearly six hundred years, beginning in the 1300s, the region was an independent kingdom called Benin. (Don’t confuse this ancient kingdom with the modern country of Benin.) The kingdom was ruled by a line of obas, or kings, thought to be part god.

By the 1500s, the royal court had become very wealthy. The oba demanded tribute payments from neighbors conquered by his warriors. He also profited handsomely from a growing trade with Europeans. The oba spent much of his wealth on impressive ceremonial objects made by Edo craftsmen, who were famous for their metalwork (like this bronze sculpture) and ivory carving.

The kingdom of Benin was conquered by the British in 1897, and the oba was forced into exile. His son returned to Nigeria in 1914 to rebuild the royal court and its ceremonial traditions. The current oba is revered by the Edo people but has little real power.

October 2008