1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Benin

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BENIN, the name of a country, city and river of British West Africa, west of the main channel of the Niger, forming part of the protectorate of Southern Nigeria. The name was formerly applied to the coast from the Volta, in 0° 40′ E., to the Rio del Rey, in 8° 40′ E., and included the Slave Coast, the whole delta of the Niger and a small portion of the country to the eastward. Some trace of this earlier application remains in the name “Bight of Benin,” still given to that part of the sea which washes the Slave Coast, whilst up to 1894 “Benin” was used to designate the French possessions on the coast now included in Dahomey.

In its restricted sense Benin is the country formerly ruled by the king of Benin city. This area, at one time very extensive, gradually contracted as subject tribes and towns acquired independence. It may be described as bounded W. by Lagos, S. by the territory of the Jakri and other tribes of the Niger delta, E. by the Niger river, and N. by Yorubaland. The coast-line held by Benin had passed out of its sovereignty by the middle of the 19th century. In physical characteristics, climate, flora and fauna, Benin in no way differs from the rest of the southern portion of Nigeria (q.v.). The coast is low, intersected by creeks, and forms one huge mangrove swamp; on the rising ground inland are dense forests in which the cotton and mahogany trees are conspicuous. Benin river (known also as the Jakri outlet), though linked to the Niger system by a network of creeks, is an independent stream. It is formed by the junction of two rivers, the Ethiope and the Jamieson, which rise (north of 6° N,) on the western side of the hills which slope east to the Niger river. They unite about 50 m. above the sea. The general course of the Benin is westerly. It enters the Atlantic in about 5° 46′ N., 5° 3′ E., and at its mouth is 2 m. wide. It is here obstructed by a sand-bar over which there is 12-14 ft. of water at high tide. The river is navigable by small steamers up to Sapele, a town on the south bank immediately below the junction of the head streams. The Ologi and Gwato creeks enter the Benin on the right or north bank, and on the same side (8 m. above the mouth of the river) a channel, the Lagos creek, 170 m. long, branches off to the north-west, affording a waterway to Lagos. From the south or left bank of the Benin the Forcados mouth of the Niger can be reached by the Nana creek.

The Beni are a pure negro tribe, speaking a distinct language, but having many characteristics common to those of the Yoruba- and Ewe-speaking tribes. Like the Ashanti and Dahomeyans the Beni had a well-organized and powerful government and possessed a culture rare among negro races (see below, History).

Benin city is situated in a clearing of the forest, about 25 m. from the river-port of Gwato, on Gwato creek. The principal building is the British residency, which is constructed of brick and timber. A primary school, supported by the native chiefs, was opened in 1901, and a meteorological station was established in 1902. In 1904 the town was placed in telegraphic communication with the rest of the protectorate and with Europe. Of the ancient city, whose buildings excited the admiration of travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries, scarcely a trace remains. The houses are neatly built of clay, coloured with red ochre, and frequently ornamented with rudely carved pillars. The port of Gwato, which lies about 30 m. north-north-east of the mouth of the Benin river, has a special interest as the place where Giovanni Belzoni, the explorer of Egyptian antiquities, died in 1823 when starting on an expedition to Timbuktu. No trace of his grave can now be found. Wari (formerly known also as Owari, Oywheré, &c.) is a much-frequented port on a branch of the Niger of the same name reached from the Forcados mouth, and is 55 m. south of Benin city.

Since the abolition of the slave trade the chief export of the country is palm-oil. Other trade products were from time to time—with the desire to preserve the isolation and independence of the country—placed under fetish, i.e. their export was forbidden, so that in 1897 the only article in which trade was allowed by the king was palm-oil. After the British occupation, an extensive trade developed in oil, kernels, timber, ivory, rubber, &c. In the rubber and timber industries great strides have been made. The chiefs and people have shown considerable aptitude in adapting themselves to the new order of things. Among the articles prized by the Beni is coral, of which the chiefs wear great quantities as ornaments.

History.—Benin was discovered by the Portuguese about the year 1485, and they carried on a brisk trade in slaves, who were taken to Elmina and sold to the natives of the Gold Coast. At that time and for more than two centuries afterwards, Benin seems to have been one of the most powerful states of West Africa. It was known to Europeans in the 17th century as the Great Benin. The towns of Lagos and Badagry were both founded by Benin colonists. Benin city was the seat of a theocracy of priests, in whose hands the oba or king, nominally supreme, appears to have often been a puppet. He was revered by his subjects as a species of divinity, and seldom left the enclosure surrounding the royal palace. The religion and mythology of the Beni, like those of the Yorubas, are based on spirit- and ancestor-worship (see Negro and Africa: Ethnology); the chief spirit or juju was worshipped with human sacrifices to an appalling extent, the Benin fetish being considered the most powerful in all West Africa. The usual form of sacrifice was crucifixion. Many chiefs, in no way politically dependent on Benin, used to send annual presents to the juju. The Benin people do not appear to have indulged in wanton cruelty, and it is stated that they usually stupefied the victims before putting them to death. The people were skilled in brass work; their carving and design were alike excellent. Carved ivory objects abound, and there are many evidences of the skill attained by native artists, who perhaps owed something to their contact with the Portuguese. The weaving of cloth was also carried on. The Beni remained politically and socially almost unaffected by European influence until the occupation of their country by the British in 1897, their connexion with the white men having previously been almost confined to matters of trade. The Portuguese withdrew from the coast in the 18th century, but one of the most striking proofs of their commercial influence is the fact that a corrupt Lusitanian dialect was spoken by the older natives up to the last quarter of the 19th century. The first English expedition to Benin was in 1553; after that time a considerable trade grew up between England and that country, ivory, palm-oil and pepper being the chief commodities exported from Benin. The Dutch afterwards established factories and maintained them for a considerable time, chiefly with a view to the slave trade. In 1788 Captain Landolphe founded a factory called Barodo, near the native village of Obobi for the French Compagnie d’Oywheré; and it lasted till 1792, when it was destroyed by the English. In 1863 Sir Richard Burton, then British consul at Fernando Po, went to Benin to try and put a stop to human sacrifices, an attempt in which he did not succeed. At that time the decline in power of the kingdom of Benin was obvious, and the city was in a decaying condition. In 1885 the coast-line of Benin was placed under British protection, and steps were taken to enter into friendly relations with the king. Consul G. F. N. B. Annesley[1] saw the king in 1890, with the hope of making a treaty, but failed in his object. In March 1892 Captain H. L. Gallwey, British vice-consul, succeeded in concluding a treaty with the king Overami. The treaty, however, proved of no avail, and the king kept as aloof as of old from any outside interference. In January 1897 J. R. Phillips, acting consul-general, and eight Europeans were brutally massacred on the road from Gwato to Benin city, whilst on a mission to the king. Phillips had persisted in starting for Benin despite the repeated request of the king that he should delay his visit until he (the king) had finished the celebration of the annual “customs.” Two Europeans, Captain Alan Boisragon and R. F. Locke, alone escaped. A punitive expedition was organized under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, the success of which was a remarkable example of good organization hastily improvised. The news of the massacre of Phillips’s party reached Rear-Admiral Rawson, the commander-in-chief on the Cape station, on the 4th of January 1897. The flagship was at Simons Town. The small craft were dispersed. Two ships at Malta had been ordered to join the Cape command. A transport was chartered in the Thames for the purposes of the expedition. In twenty-nine days a force of 1200 men, coming from three places between 3000 and 4500 m. from the Benin river, was landed, organized, equipped and provided with transport. Five days later the city of Benin was taken, and in twelve days more the men were re-embarked, and the ships coaled and ready for any further service. On the 17th of February Benin was occupied after considerable fighting. The town, which was found to be reeking of human sacrifices, was partly burned, and on the 22nd the expedition started on its return. The king and chiefs responsible for the massacre were placed on their trial by Sir Ralph Moor, high commissioner for Southern Nigeria; the king was deposed and deported to Calabar, and the chiefs, six in all, were executed. The chief offender was not brought to justice until a second punitive expedition in 1899 completed the pacification of the country. After the removal of the king in September 1897 a council of chiefs was appointed. This council carries on the government of the whole Beni country, and is presided over by a British resident.

Authorities.—H. L. Roth, Great Benin, its Customs, Art and Horrors (Halifax, 1903), a comprehensive and profusely illustrated work, with an annotated bibliography; C. H. Read and O. M. Dalton, Antiquities from Benin ... in the British Museum (1899); Pitt Rivers, Works of Art from Benin (1900); R. E. Dennett, At the Back of the Black Man’s Mind (London, 1906); Sir R. Burton, Wanderings in West Africa (London, 1863); H. L. Gallwey, “Journeys in the Benin Country,” Geog. Jnl., vol. i., London, 1893; A. Boisragon, The Benin Massacre (London, 1897); R. H. Bacon, Benin, the City of Blood (London, 1898), by a member of the punitive expedition of 1897; the annual Reports on Southern Nigeria, issued by the Colonial Office, London.


  1. Mr Annesley (b. 1851), after having served in the Prussian army, and in the Turkish army during the war of 1877, was in the British consular service from 1879 to 1892. In 1888 he became consul to the Congo Free State.