Black History Month 2020: Benin Court Art I

October is Black History Month in the UK, an event that has been celebrated nationwide for over 30 years. Originally founded to recognise the contributions that people of African and Caribbean backgrounds have made to the UK, it has expanded to include the history of Black people in general. Those of you have visited our World Stories gallery will know that we have collections from all over the world. Over the month of October, we are going to take a closer look at some of the objects with hidden black histories that aren’t told within the confines of our gallery. 
Today we are going to look at some of the most important works in our World Stories gallery, a collection of so-called “Benin Bronzes” from the City State of Benin.
Although these works are generally called ‘Benin Bronzes’ they are often made of brass or other alloys. There is a long history of bronze casting in Africa that stretches back to the 9th century AD, but these techniques by the metalworkers of Benin City in the 16th century.We’ve discussed in a previous blog article how Benin City is distinct from the modern Republic of Benin, which takes its name from the Bight of Benin on the West African coast. Benin City, where these bronzes were made, is hundreds of miles inland in Southern Nigeria.  Today it is the capital and largest city in Edo State, centre of the Nigerian rubber industry and home to over 1.5 million people. However, from around 1180 to 1897 Benin City was also the capital of one of the most important kingdoms in West Africa.The History of Benin City

Originally Benin City was known as Igodomigodo, a kingdom ruled by the Ogiso dynasty whose name literally meant “Kings of the Sky”. When the Ogiso dynasty died out in Igodomigodo in the 12th century, an exiled Ogisio prince in the city of Ile-Ife who sent his son Oranmiyan to rule in his place. Oranmiyan’s conquered Igodomigodo and left his son Eweka to rule in his stead.

Eweka established the kingdom of Edo – later to become Benin City – around 1180 and ruled there until his death in 1246. According to tradition he and his father also taught the Benin metalworkers the Ile-Ife art of casting bronze using a technique known as the lost-wax method.

The name of the new city changed several times during its early history and originally the people and the city were named ‘Edo’. In 1440 AD an unpopular Oba or ‘King’ of Edo was overthrown by his brother following a coup and to mark the occasion the new Oba, named Ewuare I or Ewuare the Great renamed the city and its people ‘Ubinu’. The name ‘Ubinu’ was later reinterpreted as ‘Benin’ by Portuguese settlers in the late 15th century although today many modern-day inhabitants of the city refer to themselves as ‘Edo’.

Sculpture of Oba Ewuare the Great (Ebameful CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ewuare the Great (1440-1473) 

Rebuilding his kingdom following the Civil War with his brother, Oba Ewuare the Great commissioned a moat around the city and hundreds of walls dividing the city into 11 distinct areas depending on what kind of craft was practised there. Each division was a smaller copy of the Oba’s palace, comprising a sprawling series of compounds made up of houses, workshops and public buildings. These were connected by innumerable doors and passageways, all richly decorated.

The exterior walls of the courts and compounds were decorated with horizontal ridge designs (agben) and clay carvings of animals, warriors and other symbols of power which created contrasting patterns in the sunlight. Pebbles and pieces of glittering mica were pressed into the wet clay of the walls, whilst the pillars of the palace itself were covered with bronze plaques illustrating the victories and deeds of former Oba and nobles.

These plaques were amongst the finest art produced in Benin. The craftspeople of the city were known for their fine work in ivory, coral and leather but were particularly famed for their metalwork – particularly in bronze and brass. 

The Power of Brass

The people of Benin believed that brass had the power to drive away evil. It was so special that bronzeworkers and brass workers were organized into a guild under royal decree and lived in a special area of the palace under the direct control of the Oba.

The bronzeworkers would make a precisely detailed wax model is formed over a clay core. When the model was complete, they would carefully apply clay over the wax which was then heated, melting the wax, which exited from a narrow channel. Next, the molten metal would be poured into the mould. Once cool, the hardened clay mould was chipped away, leaving behind the image, now cast in brass. These artisans were able to refine their technique over time and by the 16th century they were able to cast bronze plaques around 3 mm thick, something no metalworker in Europe could equal at the time.

City of Walls and Fractals

Benin City itself was planned and designed carefully according to the rules of symmetry, proportionality and repetition. Although the city planners may not have realised it they were actually creating a city that formed perfect fractals – similar shapes were repeated in each room of each house, in the houses themselves and the clusters of houses in the villages in mathematically predictable patterns.

The Oba’s palace stood at the centre of the city with 30 straight wide streets extending out from it, each over 36 metres wide. These main streets, which ran at right angles to each other with intersecting smaller streets, had underground drains made of a series of sunken basin with outlets to carry away the storm water. Turf was laid on the middle of the streets on which animals could feed.

Benin City was also one of the first cities to have street lighting, consisting of tall metal lamps which were placed around the city, especially near the Oba’s palace. Fuelled by palm oil, they were lit at night to provide illumination for traffic to and from the palace.

The fortifications around the city took an estimated 150,000,000 hours of digging to complete and when finished consisted of a series of walls and ditches between 10,000 and 16,000 kilometres long covering 6,500 square kilometres. This makes the fortifications of Benin City either the longest or the second longest man-made structure of all time after the Great Wall of China.

This extensive building programme and military expansion required a lot of money and so Obe Ewuare the opened the borders of Benin to travellers, merchants and settlers from across Europe and Asia. Having thus secured the economy and security of Benin City, Obe Ewuare I ushered in a golden age for the city state that lasted for centuries.

View of Benin in 1897 by H. Ling Roth in ‘Great Benin’ (Barnes and Noble, reprinted 1968).

Although opening up the city up to foreign intrusion would secure its future it also sowed the seeds of Benin’s destruction 5 centuries later and we’ll cover that in our next blog article for Black History Month 2020.

For more information and activities relating to Black History Month visit the Black History website at