What can explorers accounts tell us of the Kingdom of Benin?

The Kingdom of Benin, located in modern day Nigeria, produced some of the most interesting art in the world from the 1400s. Why did this art develop, and what can we learn about the Kingdom’s close relationship with Portugal?

You can download the worksheet for today’s lesson here. If you are unable to download this, please complete the tasks in the yellow boxes below.

Oba = the King of Benin. Similar to the Mansa of Mali.
Uzama chiefs = the officials who work for the Oba to run the Kingdom
Tribute = voluntary taxes

Watch the video below on modern day Nigeria. Write down three facts that you found most interesting about the country.

TASK ONE: What are the similarities and differences of the Kingdom of Benin to the Empire of Mali?

Read through the information below on the Kingdom of Benin. What similarities and differences to the Empire of Mali can you pick out from the information? Put your answers into a table like the one below. I have provided you with an answer to get you started.

What was the Kingdom of Benin?

The Kingdom of Benin was an African Kingdom based in modern day Nigeria, located in the south-west of the country. It’s capital city was Edo, a city that still exists today (although it is now known as Benin City). The Kingdom began a thousand years ago, but became strong by successful trading with other countries from the 1400s onwards. The Kingdom collapsed after Britain invaded the region in the 1890s.

A map of the Kingdom of Benin (in yellow) placed over a modern-day map of Africa

The Kingdom of Benin had dense forests and relied on many important rivers to navigate and trade on. The most important of these rivers was the Niger River.

Benin was ruled by a king known as the Oba. He acted as a political, religious and spiritual leader for the people in the Kingdom. The Oba lived in a palace in Benin City that was very large and had lots of room for the royal family.

The Oba’s officers, known as the Uzama chiefs, looked after the running of the country. They helped control towns, raised tribute and led the army.

Although the Kingdom no longer exists today, the region is known as Edo state in Nigeria. This region still has an Oba to this day who looks after the rule of his people.

Edo, now known as Benin City, is a modern, bustling city in modern Nigeria today
The Oba still looks after the region known as Edo State in Nigeria, which forms the old territory of the Kingdom of Benin. He is pictured here (centre) surrounded by the Uzama chiefs.

TASK TWO: What can we infer from these objects?

The following objects are bronze caste statues that were produced by people in Benin in the 1400s. The most interesting thing about them is that they are of Portuguese people!

Look at sources A and B. What can you infer from them about the Kingdom of Benin?

HINT: Consider the following questions when you answer the question:
– Why might the people of Benin be making bronze castings of Portuguese people?
– What can you tell about the quality of these art works?
– What might the people of Benin have done with these statues once they made them? Think about how they could make money from them.

SENTENCE STARTER: From sources A and B, I can infer that…

SOURCE A: A bronze casting of a Portuguese sailor and trader. Made in the 1400s in the Kingdom of Benin.

SOURCE B: A bronze casting of a Portuguese soldier. Made in the 1400s in the Kingdom of Benin.

TASK THREE: Why were the Portuguese so important for the Kingdom of Benin?

Click here and watch the video on the Kingdom of Benin and its relationship with Portugal. Answer the following questions:

1) What important people did Benin artwork typically represent?
2) How did the arrival of Portuguese sailors help people in Benin?
3) The video says, ‘at first the Portuguese sought commerce, not conquest’. What might this mean?

TASK FOUR: What did the Portuguese traders think of the Kingdom of Benin?

Read through Source C below. It shows a diary entry from a Portuguese trader who visited Benin City, the capital of the Kingdom of Benin.

What does he think about Benin City, and what does it tell us about the Kingdom of Benin? Look at the parts in the source that I have underlined to help you. Use the sentence starters below. Write down two things you can learn.

The Portuguese trader thinks that Benin City is…
I know this because he says…
This shows that the Kingdom of Benin was…

SOURCE C: Dutch writer Olfert Dapper, describing Benin City in the 1500s.

‘When you go into [the city] you enter a great, broad street… and seems to be seven or eight times greater than Warmoes Street in Amsterdam. This street is straight and… it is thought to be 4 miles long.

At the gate… I saw a very big wall, very thick and made of earth, with a very deep and broad ditch outside it… And outside this gate there is also a big suburb. The houses in this town stand in good order, one close evenly placed with its neighbour, just as the houses in Holland stand.

The King’s court is very great. It is built around many square-shaped yards. I myself went into the court far enough to pass through four great yards like this, and yet wherever I looked I could still see gate after gate which opened into other yards’.

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