Political Evolution in the Kingdom of Benin and the Account of David van Nyendael

Oct 2012
3,308
Des Moines, Iowa
#1
When David van Nyendael, a merchant of the Dutch West India Company, visited the Kingdom of Benin in 1701, he found a state that was past its prime. The present condition of Agatton (also spelled Ughoton), the main trading village of Benin, was quite miserable due to the deleterious effects of warfare, and was much more prosperous in the past. The capital of Benin itself, according to Nyendael, was “little more than a village”, due to a civil war which resulted in three-quarters of its inhabitants leaving the city. What was once a very densely-populated settlement, and probably the most populous city in tropical West Africa, was now largely desolate. Houses that once clustered together along busy market streets were now built widely distant from each other, separated by stretches of wasteland. The military of Benin had become dysfunctional, incapable of performing effectively on campaigns. Yet this picture of apparent decline (indeed, near-collapse if one looks only at the city itself) of the Benin kingdom is seemingly contradicted by Nyendael himself, in his own account. Despite a catastrophic war that resulted in Benin City losing much of its population, the king of Benin is described as possessing a “very rich income” that was beyond calculation, and very large territories that were full of administrators, levying taxes in an organized, bureaucratic fashion. How do we make sense of this apparent paradox? A close examination of Benin’s history, using a variety of different sources, may enable us to better understand the historical forces in play at the time of Nyendael’s visit, and reconcile the seemingly contradictory descriptions found in his account.

Benin, throughout much of the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth century, was depicted in contemporary accounts as a highly centralized and wealthy kingdom. The most obvious manifestation of this centralization could seen in the majestic splendor of Benin City, the capital of the Benin kingdom and the residence of the Oba (King). Europeans of this time period compared Benin favorably to the leading cities of Europe, including Amsterdam, Antwerp, Madrid, Lisbon, and Florence. Another sign of centralization was in the strict control exercised over matters of trade and physical human movement. The Oba maintained a royal monopoly on many goods, including ivory, gum, pepper, and slaves; the kingdom of Benin was somewhat unusual in that its elites were able to strictly curtail the export of male slaves despite the desire of Europeans to purchase them, and a prohibition on the sale of male slaves was in effect when Nyendael visited Benin. The kingdom also constantly supervised European merchants while they were in Benin, dispatching a special guard to watch over them, and decided where they could actually travel. This control of movement possibly extended to the citizens of Benin themselves, and it has been theorized that the famous earthwork walls of Benin were not intended solely or even primarily for defense, but for the compartmentalization of the Benin populace into easily controllable and taxable units. If the history of much of West Africa was characterized by the great mobility of its people, as described by Iliffe, then Benin is a notable exception. Here, we have a state that achieved a degree of control and power that was matched by few other states in Africa, and underwent a path of political development that more closely resembled that taken by the absolutist empires of contemporary Europe.

Over the course of the seventeenth century, however, a steady decline in the strength and the power of the Benin monarchy is perceptible, and this path of political development would change. In the 1640s, the Benin kingdom suffered a major setback when the Itsekiri people to the southeast, longtime subordinates of the Oba, broke away and established their own independent kingdom. In art history, there are few works that can be definitely dated to the seventeenth century, possibly indicating a decline in royal patronage. The royal oral traditions, while not explicitly dealing with the subject of the decline of the Benin monarchy (for they were likely composed with a royalist bias), also hint that all was not well in the seventeenth century. Between the end of the reign of Oba Ehengbuda (the last of the so-called “great warrior-kings” of Benin) around 1606 and the beginning of the reign of Oba Ewuakpe around 1690, the royal traditions record many Obas who had short reigns and had to face multiple rebellions, with one Oba (Ahenkpaye) actually being deposed. John Thornton and Paula Girshick Ben-Amos, in their excellent article on the political transformation of Benin during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, identify three major factors behind this weakening of the central government: (1) a crisis in royal succession, (2) a growth in the power and independence of bureaucratic officials, and (3) a change in the prevailing patterns of trade. These factors were interrelated with one another, as we will see.

To understand the roots of Benin’s decline, one must go back to the reign of Oba Ehengbuda, who according to the Benin chronicler Jacob Egharevba reigned from about 1578-1606. Ehengbuda and his predecessors, in stark contrast to the subsequent Obas of the seventeenth century, enjoyed relatively long and stable reigns. There were only three Obas (Esigie, Orhogbua, and Ehengbuda) who reigned in the sixteenth century, in comparison to the seven (Ohuan, Ohenzae, Akenzae, Akengboi, Ahenkpaye, Akengbedo, and Oreoghenen) who reigned in the seventeenth century. It was during the reign of Ehengbuda, however, that two major dilutions of the Oba’s power took place, and the first cracks in the edifice of the Benin state would appear.

First, Ehengbuda passed a law declaring that the Uwangue, one of the three leading administrators of Benin, could not be executed under any circumstance. This was a serious reversal of the Oba’s traditional right to execute anyone he pleased, which is what gave him such absolute political power, and set him apart from the rest of the Benin elite. The royal tradition describes one Uwangue Osokhiripka as being extremely rich and a “great magician”, and for this reason was feared and honored by all. One day, however, he committed adultery with the Oba’s wives, and was sentenced to be executed. However, the Uwangue Osokhiripka magically disappeared and was never seen again. Apparently fearing this to be some sort of black magic, it was forbidden to ever again condemn an Uwangue to death. In my view, this story represents a royal attempt to hide the fact that the Uwangue had amassed enough power and wealth to directly challenge the Oba, and then escape unscathed. This fact, if widely known, might reduce the legitimacy of the monarch, and the respect it held in the eyes of its other subordinates.

The second of the major dilutions of the Oba’s power under Ehengbuda, and possibly the more significant of the two, was a law that prohibited the Oba from personally leading military expeditions; instead, this task was entrusted to the Iyase (the leader of the Oba’s executive council), who was henceforth forbidden to reside in the royal quarters of Benin City, or even return to the city at all after a successful military operation. Once again, the Benin royal traditions have an explanation for this rather odd law. The Iyase of Benin under Ehengbuda was Ekpennede, whose only son committed adultery with the Oba’s wives and was accordingly executed. Ekpennede, enraged by the death of his son, ordered a wholesale massacre of Benin City’s population, and afterwards committed suicide by hanging. As with the story of the Uwangue, it seems to me that this is a royalist version of events intended to hide the shortcomings of the Benin monarchy. It seems more likely to me that Ekpennede, like Osokhiripka, had amassed enough power and influence to force the Oba Ehengbuda to devolve some of the royal powers to him, in particular the prerogative of waging war and leading troops in battle. To prevent a complete usurpation of the Benin kingdom by the Iyase, the Oba probably included the stipulation that the Iyase and his troops could not reside in the royal quarters or return to Benin City following a successful military campaign. In later years, the Iyase and the Oba’s former executives under him (the Eghaevba n’Ore) would continue to form a major opposition group to the monarchy, and serve to limit its powers.

This increase in the powers of leading government officials in relation to the Oba, which had its roots in the late sixteenth century as shown above, was further exacerbated in the seventeenth century. Ehengbuda was succeeded by his only son Ohuan (c.1606-1641), who was the only Oba of the seventeenth century that had a reign of considerable length and stability; it was during Ohuan’s reign that many Europeans who visited Benin were left with favorable impressions of the city and kingdom. However, Ohuan’s kingdom inherited the cracks in the political administration that first appeared under his father’s reign. Ohuan was faced with a major rebellion by the Iyase, Ogina, as soon as he ascended the throne. Ohuan was forced to temporarily flee Benin for several months, until he gathered enough supporters to defeat Ogina and retake his kingdom. The rest of his reign seems to have been peaceful and prosperous, and he is credited in oral traditions with founding many new towns and villages, and ruling with wisdom and justice. However, there was one major defect in Ohuan’s reign; he was childless, and there was no close male relative to succeed him at the time of his death. It is possible that Ohuan was a homosexual, for the oral traditions describe him as being strongly feminine in his demeanor and appearance, so much so that his father had to strip Ohuan naked and have him walk across the kingdom in order to convince the people of Benin that he was, indeed, a male. Whatever the reason for his lack of children, this proved a major problem for the kingdom, and sparked a royal succession crisis at the time of his death. Different collateral branches of the royal family, with equally obscure claims to the throne, fought each other for the control of Benin. It was probably due to this internecine warfare that the reigns of Obas after Ohuan were quite short, seldom lasting longer than a few years.

The period beginning in the 1640s, following the death of Oba Ohuan, can be described as the true beginning of Benin’s decline. As mentioned previously, it was during this decade that the territorial integrity of the Benin kingdom was seriously compromised, when the Itsekiri in the south established an independent kingdom. It was also around this time that a major shift in trading patterns took place. Previously, much of Benin’s exports were in goods that fell under the royal monopoly of the Oba, such as ivory and pepper. By the 1640s, however, Benin’s main export good had become cloth. The significance of this shift is that cloth, unlike more specialized goods like ivory and pepper, was widely produced throughout the whole kingdom by various social classes, and was beyond the scope of the central government to regulate. As such, the rise of the trade in cloth meant an increase in the wealth (and power) of many lower officials in the Benin kingdom, as they could trade in cloth without having to worry about intervention by the monarchy. At the same time, the decline in the trade of centrally-managed goods like ivory and pepper corresponded to a decline in the wealth and power of the Oba; not only in objective terms, but also, more significantly for the purposes of our discussion, in relation to his subordinates. Thus, the consequence of the mid-seventeenth century changes in trade patterns was a major reconfiguration of the power balance between the monarchy and the bureaucracy in favor of the latter, further enhancing the trend that we observe since the time of Oba Ehengbuda.

Having described the major historical processes of the seventeenth century, we can now return to the account of Nyendael at the end of the century. Towards the end of his account of Benin, Nyendael gives a brief description of the reasons behind the pitiful condition of the present city and kingdom. He says that the king of Benin had ordered the execution of two lower administrators (the so-called “Street Kings”) on the basis that they were plotting to kill and overthrow the king. The general public, however, did not believe this version of events, and instead was convinced that the king merely felt jealous of the wealth and power accumulated by these administrators. Later, the king stood against a third official of similar standing, but this official was universally loved by the people of Benin, and they warned the official beforehand of the king’s intention to have him executed. This official accordingly fled the city, and apparently on account of his great popularity, was accompanied by three-fourths of Benin City’s inhabitants. The king of Benin assembled an army and marched against this rebellious official, but the royal army was twice defeated and had to withdraw. This official then launched his own attack on Benin and ravaged the city, sparing only the Oba’s palace. According to Nyendael, this official continued to plunder Benin intermittently for ten years, until the Portuguese mediated a peace treaty between the king and the rebels, shortly before his own visit. The king then requested the official and his people to return to Benin, but despite promises of promotion to high positions in the Benin court, the official and most of his people refused. They instead set up a rival state some 2-3 days’ journey from Benin, and Nyendael says that the people of this state were “very well contented where they are”, and unlikely to ever return to Benin.

It is difficult to establish a firm chronology of this civil war. Nyendael mentions that the rebel official continued to plunder Benin for ten years, indicating that the war began perhaps around 1690 (if we keep in mind that Nyendael’s visit was in 1701). A major civil war is also mentioned by the Italian Capuchin friar Francesco de Monteleone, whose account of Benin in 1696 indicates the war was already going on for some time. However, the account of the Portuguese captain Lourenco Pinto in 1693/94 describes Benin as a prosperous and peaceful city, so the devastation and depopulation of Benin City seems to have taken place after that date. Thus, the outbreak of intense warfare within the Benin kingdom seems to have commenced from c.1695 onward, which is the date intermediate between the observations of Lourenco Pinto and Francesco de Monteleone, though conflict of a lower intensity may have been continuing for several years prior.

It is possible to match what we know about this civil war from European documentary sources, with what we know from the native historical tradition of Benin. The Benin royal chronicles describe a massive popular rebellion that took place during the reign of Oba Ewuakpe (c.1690-1712), and involved the current Iyase, named Ode. It is possible that this Iyase Ode is the unnamed rebellious official described in Nyendael’s account. Although Ewuakpe was unable to decisively quash the Iyase’s rebellion, he was able to implement a very important law, namely that of succession by primogeniture (only the eldest son of the Oba, and no one else, may succeed to the throne of Benin). Thus, he consolidated the position of the monarchy, prevented takeovers of Benin by collateral branches of the royal family, and is said to have died a peaceful death. If the death of Ohuan in the 1640s marked the beginning of the decline of Benin, then the period following Ewuakpe’s death in the 1710s would mark the period of Benin’s steady resurgence in the eighteenth century, and an end to its political crisis.

This resurgence, however, would not be visible to Nyendael. He found a kingdom in the trough of its political history, when the Benin monarchy was weaker than it had ever been. Yet what is most interesting about Nyendael’s description, in my view, is the paradox described in the beginning of this paper; despite the obvious weakness of the monarchy and the desolate condition of Benin City, the bureaucratic apparatus and the economy of Benin still functioned much as before. This is because, in my view, the “decline” of Benin in the seventeenth century was not so much the decline of Benin as a country, as the decline of the powers of the central government and monarchy. A decentralization of power and wealth should not be confused with a decline in power and wealth. Rather than this power and wealth being monopolized and utilized by a single powerful ruler, as it was before, it was now in the hands of a much wider class of administrators. Although the inevitable consequence of this decentralization was a decline in Benin City’s splendor, we concurrently see the emergence of new urban centers (like Warri in the south) to fill its place, and there is little evidence to indicate that overall trade and economic activity in the region greatly declined in parallel with the decline of Benin. Indeed, it was precisely an expansion of trade in common commodities like cloth, as described above, which established the economic foundation for political decentralization in the first place. And despite the weakness of the monarchy, the bureaucracy continued to enforce the traditional prohibition against exporting male slaves, thus potentially saving Benin from the same level of deleterious demographic effects that befell less fortunate regions like Angola and Kongo.

In conclusion, what we see in Benin over the course of the seventeenth century is a fundamental transformation of political and economic structure. Due to a variety of factors including the rise of the wealth and power of bureaucratic subordinates, a crisis in royal succession, and changes in trade patterns, Benin underwent a transformation from a highly centralized, absolute monarchy with a mercantilist, monopolistic economy, to a more decentralized state with a more dispersed economy that involved a greater proportion of its population in global trade. What is remarkable about Benin is that, unlike other centralized states that saw a breakdown in administrative structures alongside a decline of the central government, Benin retained a strong administration even when the central government (embodied by the monarchy) was greatly reduced in power. David van Nyendael wrote his account when the disparity of power between the central monarchy and its erstwhile bureaucratic subordinates was quite great, with the powerful Iyase (assuming that the identification of Ode with the rival official in Nyendael’s account is correct) being able to siphon off a large portion of the monarchy’s subjects. However, despite this weakness of the monarchy, Nyendael’s own testimony indicates that the country as a whole was still well-governed and prosperous; a strong administration was still in place, albeit one that often acted against the direct interests of the central government. Because it paints such a vivid and detailed picture of Benin’s political environment, Nyendael’s account is extremely valuable in helping us to understand the political history of this part of Africa, and sheds much light on this unique African kingdom that even foreigners rightfully called “Great Benin.”





Works Cited

Bosman, Willem. A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea, Divided into the Gold, the Slave, and the Ivory Coasts. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967.

Bradbury, R. E. "The Benin Kingdom and the Edo-Speaking Peoples of South-Western Nigeria." Ethnographic Survey of Africa: Western Africa. London: International African Institute, 1957.

Egharevba, Jacob U. A Short History of Benin. Ibadan: Ibadan UP, 1968.

Girshick, Paula Ben-Amos, and John Thornton. "Civil War in the Kingdom of Benin, 1689–1721: Continuity or Political Change?" The Journal of African History 42.03 (2001): 353-76.

Iliffe, John. Africans: The History of a Continent. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Kessel, Ineke Van. "David Van Nyendael." Merchants, Missionaries & Migrants: 300 Years of Dutch-Ghanaian Relations. Amsterdam: KIT, 2002. 41-49.

Roese, Peter M., and D. M. Bondarenko. A Popular History of Benin: The Rise and Fall of a Mighty Forest Kingdom. Frankfurt Am Main: P. Lang, 2003. Print.

Ryder, Alan Frederick Charles. Benin and the Europeans 1485-1897. London: Longmans, 1969.
 
Last edited:
Jul 2013
85
Canada
#3
Very informative!! Thanks for sharing this, Benin is one of my favorite civilizations. Info like this is much needed, so more people are aware of Africa's lesser-discussed civilizations. I'll try to comment to your info a bit later.

Out of curiosity, what's your opinion on the book "Benin and the Europeans" you cited? Informative? I'm familiar with most of the others on your list, but I'm always on the hunt for more books on Benin.

Another good book is "Great Benin- its customs, art and horrors" by Henry Ling Roth. Written in 1903 it has some Eurocentric biases, but it has plenty of useful info and pictures on Benin once you look past that. (It's available for free on the internet since it's so old.)
 
Last edited:
Oct 2012
3,308
Des Moines, Iowa
#4
Very informative!! Thanks for sharing this, Benin is one of my favorite civilizations. Info like this is much needed, so more people are aware of Africa's lesser-discussed civilizations. I'll try to comment to your info a bit later.

Out of curiosity, what's your opinion on the book "Benin and the Europeans" you cited? Informative? I'm familiar with most of the others on your list, but I'm always on the hunt for more books on Benin.

Another good book is "Great Benin- its customs, art and horrors" by Henry Ling Roth. Written in 1903 it has some Eurocentric biases, but it has plenty of useful info and pictures on Benin once you look past that. (It's available for free on the internet since it's so old.)
Thanks for reading my article and replying. Ryder's book Benin and the Europeans is extremely informative, and is probably the most comprehensive work ever written on contacts (diplomatic, religious, commercial, military, etc.) between the Kingdom of Benin and various European nations. It is indispensable for anyone with a serious interest in Benin history.

I am aware of Roth's work, though for my particular topic (Benin political history from the late 16th to early 18th centuries) his book wasn't too relevant, which is why I did not use it. I found other books to be more useful.
 
Jul 2013
85
Canada
#6
While I have a question that's not specifically related to political evolution, it is concerning the Kingdom of Benin. So I thought I'd post it here, and at the same time bump this excellent thread.....


When it comes to the old Kingdom of Benin, there is much description and details on the capital, Benin City.

However, I'm curious to know what were the other settlements like? Was there much urbanization, so that ordinary citizens also lived in large towns/cities? Or was it mostly small-scale villages? I've been reading the book "A Popular History of Benin: The Rise and Fall of a Mighty Forest Kingdom" by Dmitri M. Bondarenko and Peter M. Roese, where they mention that the kingdom was largely agricultural and not many large towns existed within the core Edo region (though Yoruba areas under Benin hegemony contained larger settlements). It's a topic I had never thought about before, for some reason.

Does anyone know much about the size/population of other settlements in the Kingdom of Benin besides Benin City?