The Fascinating Kingdom of Benin Illustration

Ancient African
Kingdom of Benin

The ancient West African Kingdom of Benin was tucked into the forest region of Africa (what is now Southern Nigeria.) It began in BCE times and was not conquered until the 1800s by the British. That's a long time! The people developed some unique things as their civilization developed.

Benin Art: One of those unique things was their art. They wove cotton fabrics with stripes of color. Their carved wood masks are still world famous today. Their art was playful and fun. Art and fabric made by Benin artists were in high demand by other civilizations and tribes.

Benin Trading and Handling Robbers: Trading was a highly respected profession in ancient Benin. But Benin did not allow foreign traders to visit their villages. Instead, Benin traders would meet with foreign traders at an appointed spot. They negotiated, sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months! If foreign traders stole from them, the Benin traders refused to trade with anyone, from any country, until the robbers apologized and made things right with a return of goods (or goods of equal value.) Sometimes people from other kingdoms (and countries) helped Benin track down bandits to speed up the process of returning to normal trading, or at least normal by Benin's system.

The people of Benin treated their own people with the same graciousness. If you were found guilty of stealing from someone in your village or another village, you could apologize and make things right by returning the goods or replacing them, and you would not be punished.

Specialized Professions: Farming was perceived as a specialized profession. Many people in Benin were farmers. Other specialized professions included artists, musicians, traders, weavers, builders, magicians, warriors, witchdoctors, blacksmiths, fishermen, government advisers, and storytellers! Some people had more than one specialized profession. They might be a farmer and a musician. The farmers grew pepper, another product used for trade. They grew beans, rice, onions, sorghum, millet, papaya, gourds, cotton, and peanuts. They tended cattle, sheep, and goats. What they grew was traded for other goods within the kingdom.

Slavery: Benin did have slaves, but slaves were treated very well. You could earn your way out of slavery.

The Benin Army: Although everyone in Benin was taught how to fight, Benin had professional warriors that made up their very capable army.

Benin Education: They did not have a written language. Kids did not go to school. Instead, in the evening, the people in each village would collect around the evening campfire. That's when the storytellers would weave their tales. There was no formal schooling, but a great deal of education occurred during storytelling time.

Benin Inventions: The people of Benin were very clever. They invented many things including a thumb piano. A thumb piano is a musical instrument that produced beautiful sounds. It was made with metal strips fastened to a wooden box. The box had holes on top and on the sides. You could cover various holes to make different sounds when plucking the metal strips. The boxes came in many sizes to produce many sounds. Like much in Benin, a thumb piano was playful.

Government: The people of Benin were ruled by a king. The king was supported by advisors. The advisors were not elected positions. Advisors were invited by the king to join his council. Advisors were men drawn from many villages and many specialized professions including the craftsmen, the army, the farmers, and the nobles. The king wanted to know what was going on, and what new laws should be made to protect all the people. The nobles had more wealth than the common folk in ancient Benin. But all people were comfortable. The people were happy.

Religion: The people believed in many gods and goddesses. They believed their witchdoctors could talk to their gods, and had the power to cure and heal.

There were many festivals held to honor their gods. Everything came to a halt during a festival, including any trading going on. The king always attended the festival held in the capital city, and wore a sword to show his position. But people also stopped working several days each month. The people of Benin believed it was important to balance work and play, and that both honored their gods.

Homes: The capital city and the kingdom were both called Benin. Benin, the city, was laid out in long, straight streets. Houses were built in Benin. They lined the long streets. They had covered porches. Some had many rooms. The palace was the most splendid home in the city. It was the only home open to visits by special Dutch and Portuguese traders, and even then, traders were not invited until the 1600s.

CHALLENGE: Ancient Benin Art: Try to find the men, mudfish, and crocodiles in this ancient Benin armlet (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

What was art like in the ancient Kingdom of Benin? (lots of pictures, BBC)

Ancient Benin hip masks

The Kingdom of Benin (if the short videos do not work, click on video to see the transcript with lots of information!)

The Benin Empire - Kingdom of Benin (School Run, homework help)

West African Kingdom of Benin (British Museum)

The Kingdom of Benin map (Horniman)

History of Benin PowerPoint (free resource from twinkl)

Other Ancient Kingdoms (Donn)