Nigeria’s Forgotten Empire – the Walls of Benin

Ancient Civilization Benin
The ancient civilization of Benin

AFRICANGLOBE – Collectors may be interested in artefacts from the era, but the legacy of the Walls of Benin has largely been forgotten.

Man-made wonders of the world such as the Taj Mahal in India, the Cairo Citadel in Egypt and the rock hewn churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia attract millions of visitors each year and lay claim to represent the architectural brilliance of our past.

But the Benin Moat, also known as the Walls of Benin, lays fallow, crumbling away in Nigeria, a pale imitation of its resplendent former self. At stake is not just the structure itself, but the memory of a once-great empire and a site of colonial resistance.

A Benign Development?

The Benin Empire (1440-1897) was a pre-colonial African state, which at its height stretched from the western Igbo tribes on the shores of the Niger River, through parts of the south-west including present day Ondo State, and the isolated islands of Lagos.

The empire was famed for nurturing of artistic creativity and using advanced techniques in its bronze and ivory sculptures (especially its life-sized bronze heads) that predate similar works in the Western world.

Construction started on the Walls of Benin in 800 AD, now situated in modern day Benin City, capital of Edo State, and continued into the mid-1400s. Stretching seemingly endlessly across the land, the Benin Moat the world’s second longest man-made construction, falling short of only the Great Wall of China.

The Walls of Benin, built as a city fortification against neighbouring rivals such as the Oyo Kingdom to the south and the Sokoto Caliphate in the north, is estimated to be 10,000 miles in length and 2,000 square miles in area.

Excavations by British archaeologist Graham Connah in 1960 uncovered a rural network of earthen walls that, he estimated, if spread out over five dry seasons, would have required a workforce of 1,000 labourers working ten hours a day, for seven days a week to construct – a rough total of 150 million man hours.

The Rise and Fall of Benin

Benin African Civilisation
Thousands of Benin artifacts were plundered by the British and Europeans

The Walls once protected a proud state, but this civilisation’s fate began to change in the face of foreign savagery. Towards the end of the 19th century, the British Empire began to try and forge a closer relationship with the Kingdom of Benin. Yet all overtures were rebuffed by a cautious King Ovonramwen Nogbaisi.

A series of delegations were sent to Benin in what can only be described as a strong-armed attempt to further Britain’s burgeoning commercial interest in West Africa.

The culmination of these ‘diplomatic measures’ was the signing of the 1892 Gallwey Treaty. Terms were heavily skewed in favour of British interests, affording them, amongst other benefits, complete control over Benin’s foreign policy and total authority over civil and criminal matters involving British subjects and property within the territory.

King Ovonramwen initially denied ever signing the treaty. However, after the murder of eight visiting British representatives by palace guards, there was no longer a need for diplomacy.

The British launched a punitive expedition in 1897, using superior armoury and ammunition to overpower the Benin army. Benin was razed to the ground, with much of the wall destroyed in the process. Treasured art was looted and sold to collectors abroad.

Many of these artefacts still adorn museums around the world today, including the Boston Museum of Fine Art and the British Museum. The invasion and eventual annexation of the Benin Empire by the British Colonial forces in 1897 led to the destruction of long stretches of the wall.

Part Two