Thursday, October 11, 2007

Amazing Benin

In 1602 the Dutch merchant Pieter de Marees described the city of Edo (now Benin City), capital of the Benin Empire, this way: "The walled city of Benin is composed by a system of huge straight streets. These streets, although not paved, are very wide and well maintained [...]. Fine and big wooden houses are based along the streets, provided with covered porchs [...]. The king's court is very big, with galleries as large as the largest in Amsterdam, constantly watched, and supported by wooden pillars encased with copper on which engravings with past battles were depicted. I went so deep inside this building that, wherever I looked around, I could see gate after gate that finished in other places" [de Marees, 1602].

In his work "Description of Guinea", where he compiled information about uses and habitudes of indigenous people of the Benin Coast, de Marees mainly described the people as "bellicose, promiscuous, savage and thiefs". However, he managed to capture many aspects of the advanced Bini culture.

Amazing Benin

In effect, Europeans there found an Empire with a complex administrative system. The king, the Oba, exercised a great religious power (in fact the country never converted to Christianism) and also political, although the latter was supervised by two councils, an hereditary one (the Uzama) and an elected one, composed by territory chiefs, and lot of influence over the Oba's decisions. Most of the kings in the nearby territories also had a non hereditary title elected by the people.

The Benin Empire culture was, contrary to the one of European colonizers, very social. As long as in Europe the land was seen as a property and an investment, in Africa it was a common property, in which each individual possessed the right to work parts of it, but never over the land itself, as it belonged to the clan or the community. The same way, the name of new born children was decided as common agreement of the people.


A tricky Golden Age

The arrival of the Portuguese meant a deep social change. The Bini did not have the habitude of making trade exchanges aiming luxury, but the behaviour of land possession eagerness, characteristic of Europeans, was finally imitated by the indigenous. "As time passed by, they earned so much knowledge about their products that they almost surpassed us" [de Marees, 1602]. In effect, after a time of trade agreements, Africans understood that Europeans did not have the gold from Benin neither the copper from Sahara, so they had the power of rising prices as there were more and more clients and it was an increasingly valuable business, to the extent that "they became so proud and anxious as greedy rich men. After realising it was good merchandise, they tried by all means to falsify gold itself, transforming 100 grams in 150 and this way cheating foreigners".

Benin people had a deep alcohol culture, as they constantly used it in celebrations of births, offerings, worship to the land and lots of social rites. They distilled it from honey, plants and millet, and produced a kind of low graduation rum, so that when they tried the strong liquor Europeans brought, alcoholism became a common illnes. De Marees said that "they were naturally great drinkers" and, because of the lack of habit to this drink, became easily aggressive. This circumstance was very used by Europeans, together with traffic of firearms, in order to promote tribal wars that became a source to start slave trade.

This way, the Benin Empire complemented gold trade with ivory, pepper, furs, and specially slaves obtained in wars. Along the 16th and 17th centuries, it became the richest and most powerful Empire in West Africa, and a trade class appeared with a desire for luxury comparable to the Western one. British explorers realised the Oba was able to rise an army of twenty thousand men in one single day, and up to one hundred thousand men if necessary.
The end of the Empire came with the abolishment of slavery, of which its wealth had become totally dependent, and Benin entered a period of decadence that meant a lowering of richness, territorial losses and migration. This way, in 1897, the British occupied and pillaged the city of Edo. The kingdom became the protectorate of Nigeria, and the magnificent Bini artworks are now kept in a room in the British Museum.

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