Benin: The ancient kingdom of Benin began way
back in BCE times. They were not conquered until the 1800's in modern
times, so they had quite a run. The people in the forest regions of
Africa were not affected by the Muslim culture or the religious
teachings of Islam. The first Muslim merchants did not push their way
south until the 1600's. By then, their culture had developed
and Music: If there were such a thing
as an artist colony in Africa, that colony would have been Benin. But
people did not come from all over the world to live in Benin to learn
about art and bronze making. Rather, the people of Benin sent their
art out all over the world via trade with other African kingdoms, who
traded the art on to Muslim visitors. Benin produced some of the most wonderful
art in Africa. Their sculpture was playful and fun. Their carved wood
masks are still world famous.
Their musical instruments included sticks, drums,
and thumb pianos. If you have never seen a thumb piano (also called a
finger harp), imagine a small wooden box with a hole on top and on
both sides. Across the top hole, metal strips are fastened loosely
down. To play, press down the tip of a metal strip and slide off
gently. You can make an echo sound by covering the holes on either
side. You can tap the holes on either side or both sides for
additional effects. It's a simple instrument with a beautiful sound.
See this site to Hear
a Thumb Piano, Play a Thumb Piano, and Record Your Music!
The people of Benin believed in many
gods and goddesses, spirits, and magic, and the power of witchdoctors.
Specialized Professions: Witchdoctors,
Warriors, Magicians, Farmers, Weavers, Builders, and
King. Ably assisted by a council
composed of invited representatives from noble families, major artist
guilds (groups), and professions. It was not a representative
government, as people did not vote for someone to represent them. But
the council members did represent the various people in the kingdom.
Kinship: Families stuck together and families
helped other families. There was a unity in purpose and in culture
that kept the kingdom together.
There was a strong army who job was to protect
the people. There were laws that everyone followed - no one was above
the law. Benin could go to war, and was forced to on occasion, but
their warriors were fierce and capable; their leaders were wise; their
people worked together as a team; and thus their normal state was a
Benin traded with other African
kingdoms and with the Dutch and Portuguese traders who came by sea.
Benin offered woven striped garments that were popular on the Gold
Coast, blue fabric, pepper, jasper stones, and leopard skins. In
exchange, Benin wanted red and silver fabrics - cotton, red velvet,
embroidered silk, coarse flannel - candied oranges and lemons,
mirrors, and iron bars. Jewelry was traded on both sides.
Benin traders were very shrew. They had a certain
way of trading. If you didn't trade their way, they wouldn't trade.
They might negotiate for days, or weeks, or even months before they
would trade for goods. It was not easy to trade with Benin, but it was
profitable. The artists of Benin were quite talented, and the demand
for Benin striped fabrics, bronze statues, and carved masks was high.
The people of Benin did not tolerate mistreatment
during trade or at any time, actually. If a trader was rude,
or if something was stolen, all trade came to an abrupt halt. The
boycott would continue for all traders from all nations until
restitution and/or apology was made and accepted.
City (Benin): The kingdom and the
capital city were both called Benin. The city of Benin was laid out in
a system of huge straight streets. These streets were very wide, very
long, and well maintained although they were not paved. You could
travel on foot in a straight line for 15 or 20 minutes and not see the
end of the street. Other streets opened from the main streets. They
were also wide. Houses were built in rows along all of the streets. On
the street front side, houses had covered porches to keep people dry
as they sat outside. The Dutch and Portuguese traders who came to
Benin by sea were not invited into the nobles' or artists homes, so we
do not know how their homes were arranged, or what the back looked
like. But we do know about the palace.