Ancient Benin People: Origin, Pre-History, Architecture and Colonialism

Depiction of Benin City by a Dutch illustrator in 1668. The wall-like structure in the centre probably represents the walls of Benin.

The History of the Ancient Benin People


The ancient Benin People created the Benin Empire, or the Edo Kingdom, or the Kingdom of Benin in the tropical rainforest in the southern flank of what is now the modern-day Federal Republic of Nigeria. The ancient Benin people established their capital at Edo, now called Benin City in Edo State. The ancient Benin Kingdom is one of the oldest and most enduring monarchies globally. It was created around the 11th century AD and remained in existence until the British forces’ annexation in 1897.

Origins of the Ancient Benin People 

The founders and original native people of Benin Kingdom were known as the Edo people, and they were first ruled by the Kings of the Sky (Called the Ogiso), and the name they gave to their land was Igodomigodo. Ogiso Igodo was the first Ogiso and made history as one of the greatest kings. His son, Ere, took over the crown when he died. 

By the 1600s, the Benin Empire had significantly expanded into a prosperous city-state. Oba Ewuare the Great was the 12th king and reigned from 1440 to 1473, and he was instrumental in the massive expansion of the empire and neighboring areas. It would not be until the 15th century, during the time of Oba Ewuare the Great, that the capital took on Benin City’s name as ascribed by the Portuguese. Those in the neighboring Urhobo and Itsekiri kingdoms continued to refer to the city as Ubini right up to the end of the 19th century. 

Early History of the Ancient Benin People 

Agriculture dominated much of the Benin Kingdom in the 1st century BC. It emerged as a proper agrarian economy by 500AD even if gathering and hunting activity was vital to the economy. Iron was also in predominant use by the people of Benin by 500AD. Edo itself is believed to have sprung up by 1000 deep inside a forest in the tropics. 

The thick vegetation alongside the narrow paths ensured that it was challenging to attack the city. The forest also offered vast resources like animals, fish, plants, wood, ivory, and leaves to develop the kingdom. However, the domesticated animals were not able to survive as a result of the sleeping sickness disease spread by the tsetse flies. The Benin people’s kingdom’s formaer name was Igodomigodo, and they had around 36 Ogisos (kings or Rulers of the Sky) by the time the state incarnated. 

The Architecture of the Ancient Benin People 

One of the most outstanding architectural works in the world was done by the ancient Benin people, and it is called the Walls of Benin. This vast project is a collection of earthworks composed of ditches and banks and remains in existence till today. It is estimated to cover an area of 16,000 kilometers all over rural Benin. 


The Europeans are believed to have known about the Benin City Walls since the 16th century when a Portuguese explorer named Duarte Pacheco Pereira described the walls. The walls are so imposing that it is estimated that the construction commenced in the first millennium and lasted till the middle of the 15th century. 

Colonialism and the Benin Expedition of 1897

After the Portuguese’s contact, the British eventually took over not just the Benin Empire but all of Nigeria as a colonial state. The ancient Benin people resisted the British, and everything came to a devastating military clash in 1897 when British troops under Admiral Sir Harry Rawson’s leadership invaded and burned Benin City to the ground. They also carted away thousands of artifacts, many of which are now sitting in the British Museum. 

The Benin People Today

The Benin Kingdom still exists today and is one of the country’s most respected monarchies. Its head, the Oba of Benin, remains one of Africa’s most influential royal figures. The present king is a former diplomat, Oba Ewuare II, who was crowned as the Oba of Benin on the 20th of October, 2016. 

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