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The territories which make up the present sovereign Nigeria were originally heterogeneous societies made up of empires, aboriginal kingdoms, city states, acephalous societies and migrant peoples seeking new vistas of livelihoods including environmental survivals, agricultural lands, commercial, religious and imperial expansions.

Apart from oral histories and folklores, the earliest written records of human existence in Nigeria’s pre-colonial territories were made by European explorers as far back as the 15th century when Portuguese explorers Ruy de Sequeira and Alberto D’Aviero visited the Benin Empire in the southernmost part of today’s Nigeria in the year 1472 and later.

One such archival record describes Benin in today’s Edo State, Nigeria:

In this year [1486] the land of Benin beyond Mina in the Rios dos Escravos was first discovered by Joham Affom da Aveiro, who died there. The first Guinee pepper came to Europe from that land, where it grows in great abundance.

In this year [1486] the land of Benin beyond Mina in the Rios dos Escravos was first discovered by Joham Affom da Aveiro, who died there. The first Guinee pepper came to Europe from that land, where it grows in great abundance.

Samples of it were sent to Flanders and other places, and it was soon popular and selling for a high price.

The king of Benin sent as ambassador to King João one of his captains, a negro from a seaport town called Gwato, because he desired to learn more about Europe, whose people were regarded there as an unusual novelty. This ambassador was a man of good speech and natural wisdom. Great feasts were
held in his honour, and he was shown many of the fine things of Europe. He returned to his land in one of the King’s ships, who gave him on departing a gift of rich clothes for himself and his wife. Through him he also sent to the king of Benin a rich present of such things he knew the king would like very much. He also sent through the ambassador some holy and Catholic words of advice, with a praiseworthy appeal to embrace the Faith, rebuking him sternly for the heresies and gross idolatrous and fetish practices which are so common among the negroes of that land.’’

(1486 Ruy de Pina: Discovery of Benin – Tr. from J.W. Blake, Europeans in West Africa (London, 1942), 2 vols.; this part is from vol. 1, 78-9)

Brass figure of a Portuguese soldier holding a musket, 17th century C.E., Benin, Nigeria © Trustees of the British Museum

Late 16th century, Anonymous Portuguese sea captain: The situation in Benin:

‘To understand the negro traffic, one must know that over all the African
coast facing west there are various countries and provinces, such as
Guinea, the coast of Malageta, the kingdom of Benin, the kingdom of
Manicongo, six degrees from the equator and towards the south pole. In
the hinterland there are many tribes and negro kings here and also
communities which are partly Muslim and partly idolaters. These are
constantly making war among themselves. The kings are worshiped by
their subjects, who believe that they come from heaven, and speak of
them always with great reverence, at a distance and on bended knees.
Great ceremony surrounds them, and many of these kings never allow
themselves to be seen eating, so as not to destroy the belief of their
subjects that they can live without food. They worship the sun, and believe
that spirits are immortal, and that after death they go to the sun.
The negros of Guinea and Benin are very irregular in their eating, because
they never eat at fixed hours and eat four or five times a day. Their drink is
water or palm wine.

Map showing Benin Empire Areas of Influence in the 15th Century as recorded by Europeans                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         They have no hair, but only some tufts on their heads which do not grow.

The rest of their bodies has no hair at all.

They live long, even to 100 years, always in good shape and except at
certain times of the year, when they feel ill, as when they have fever. Then
they have themselves bled and they get well, since blood is the major
factor in their treatment.

In the interior there are some superstitious Negros who worship the first
thing they see in the day. There grows on this coast a spice called malagueta, very much like Italian millet, but with a strong taste like pepper. Another species of very strong pepper grows there, twice as strong as that of Calcutta which we Portuguese are familiar with. That is because it has a seed that can be preserved when dry; we call it cauda pepper; it is much like the cúbebas in appearance, but its taste is so strong that one ounce of it has the same effect as a pound of ordinary pepper. Although its export from the coast is forbidden under the most severe penalties, it is smuggled out and sold in England at double the price of ordinary pepper.

This prohibition stems from the fear of the King our Lord that this plant might displace the large quantity of pepper coming every year from Calcutta; so he decided to take some step to regulate the trade. There is another tree that produces long pods like those of beans, with some seeds inside, which have no taste, but when chewed they have a delicate taste like that of ginger. The negroes call it unias, and they use it as seasoning, together with the said pepper, when they eat fish, which they are so very fond of.

Likewise the king has forbidden making soap from ash and palm oil. That
product is strong in making the hands white; it likewise makes linen cloth
twice as white as ordinary soap.”

“Bini Christians also established a few churches in Benin City at Ogbelaka, Idumwerie, and Akpakpava. The last church became the Holy Cross Cathedral. Christianity, however, remained distinctly a minority religion largely restricted to a few members of the court. It seems that the indigenous religion was just too well organised to be undermined by this foreign threat.

The original Uzama mocked the new one to no end for breaking with
tradition by living with the monarch in inner Benin. The new Uzama tried to gloss over the inconsistencies with ineffective symbolic projects and gestures until the conflict escalated into war between the two Uzama
groups. Oba´s army took side with their Uzama, of course, and they
eventually defeated the original Uzama nobles. The battle is
commemorated at the palace yearly as the Igie Iron.

The original Uzama, led by Oliha, decided that a change of Oba was
necessary, and recruited the Atta of Igalla for the job. According to  SamuelAjayi Crowther´s River Niger Exploratory report 1854, “The first Atta of Idah was an Ado (Edo) man, a tribe which the Aboh people call Idu. He was a hunter who settled on Idah in Igarra. A quarrel arose and he drove Igarra king of Idah away and became the king of the place.

Oyingbo, who was the Atta during Esigie´s time, assured of fifth
columnists´ support inside Benin, welcomed the opportunity to invade and subdue the almighty Benin. He left his capital, Idah, with a large army and after crossing the River Niger, began merciless pillaging of communities on his way to Benin and meeting with no resistance of any sort on the way. At Ahor town with a large population and ten Dukedoms, on the opposite side of Ikpoba River, which he had to cross to enter Benin City, Atta sacked and destroyed nine of the principalities. The one that miraculously escaped his archers and swordsmen is the Abor community, and the only one in existence today.

After Ehor, he swept furiously through Oregbeni village to begin his descend of Ikpoba hill still meeting with no resistance so far in his campaign, trailed with a great deal of wreckage and deaths. As he prepared to ascend Ikpoba slope to enter Benin City, guns concealed in the lush forest around the valley, manned by Portuguese missionaries and traders, opened fire on Atta´s army from all sides. Such fire power was strange at the time to the Igallas and the Edo people. In the twinkling of an eye, hundreds of the invading army had fallen, what was left of them fled back up the valley, pursued by Benin army, all the way to Idah, across the River Niger.

The defeated Atta then became a vassal of Benin.

Encouraged by the victory, Oba Esigie turned his full attention and energy on promoting Christianity. He built a Cathedral on the Aruosa site at Akpakpava Road and a chapel each, perhaps intended to serve as schools, at Erie, Ugbague and Ogbelaka quarters. Christian rituals, including morning mass, were introduced into palace usage, and Christian motifs, such as the cross of four equal arms, which was the form of cross the Portuguese first introduced to Benin, were reproduced on the Ada, Eben, and the regalia of the Oba and his chiefs. Oba Esigie´s first son and Oba-in-waiting, Edaiken Prince Orhogbua, was given to the Portuguese to train as a Catholic priest. He became the most highly educated in western education, of the Benin princes until Oba Akenzua II in 1933 CE. The Portuguese appeared to have first trained Orhogbua at the Bishopric of Sao Tome before transferring him to Lisbon to continue his education. When his father died in 1550 CE, he was still overseas. He was seen by Edo people as a Portuguese, and of course, he spoke perfect Portuguese.

European slave trade in West Africa started with the acquisition of domestic servants in 1522, and warrior kingdoms like Benin had plenty of them captured as war booties, but would not sell them. The slave trade was very unpopular with the Edo people. They thought it was silly to sell fellow human beings. Their Obas and nobles were vehemently opposed to the business of slave trade and to the export of the productive fighting male. The Edo, of course, could not control the day to day happenings of the slave merchants, who apparently largely acted under cover at first in the vast territories under Edo hegemony. However, it was forbidden to sell or take a native Bini into slavery and so elaborate identification marks on faces and chests were eventually contrived. The Bini, therefore, were hardly ever captured by Arabs or Europeans into slavery.

Alan Ryder, writing on this in his book: Benin and the European, narrated the experience of the Portuguese merchant, Machin Fernandes in Benin as early as 1522: That was during the reign of Oba Esigie..

“Of the whole cargo of 83 slaves bought by Machin Fernandes, only two were males – and it is quite possible that these were acquired outside the Oba´s territory – despite a whole month (at Ughoton) spent in vain attempts to have a market opened for male slaves. The 81 females, mostly between ten and twenty years of age, were purchased in Benin City between 25 June and 8 August at the rate of one, two or three a day.”
None of the 83 slaves was an Edo person, according to Ryder, and no Edo person could have been involved in the sales. It was taboo in Edo culture. Edo Empire was vast, with a great concentration of people from different ethnic backgrounds, Yoruba, Ibo, Itsekiri, Ijaw, Urhobo, Igalla etc., making a living in the lucrative Ughoton route that was the main centre of commercial activities in the southern area at the time, of what later became Nigeria.

Alan Ryder, recording the experiences of yet another European merchant, the French trader and Captain called Landolphe, in Benin in February 1778, said,

“the Ezomo was the richest man in Benin, owning more than
10,000 slaves, none of whom was ever sold.” The author then
commented: “His (the Ezomo´s) refusal to sell any of his slaves is also noteworthy for the light it sheds upon the attitude of powerful Edo chiefs towards the slave trade: however numerous they might be, a great man did not sell his slaves.” Says Edo people: “vbo ghi da Oba no na mu ovionren khien?” Meaning, “what need does the Oba want to satisfy by
putting out his slave for sale?”

Oba Esigie contrived his own death as an atonement or sacrifice for his spiritual shortcomings. He allowed himself to be mistakenly killed by his own security guards while feigning to be an intruder into the palace grounds, with his head covered with calico hood, and thrusting it through a hole he made in the security fence. The intruder had played the trick two times earlier and was third time unlucky. It all happened within a couple of days and security guards where at full alert and prepared for the intruder that third time, almost severing the head off, only to discover they had killed their king.


To be continued…

Adapted off Nigeria: From Genesis to Revelation. An Anthology of Colonial Records and Historical Accounts About Nigeria by Henry Omoregie

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