Before the colonial era and the start of British rule, the area now known as Nigeria, was divided into many Kingdoms. Some of these kingdoms were famous around the world. Many grew to be very successful. In many cases the kingdoms were attacked and they ended or they merged with surrounding kingdoms and the larger area was known as an empire.
Colonisation led to the introduction of new systems of government and a reduction or removal of the political power held in the Kingdoms and Empires. Some famous examples of the Empires found in the area that became known as Nigeria are the Oyo Kingdom, Benin Kingdom and Sokoto Caliphate.
The Benin kingdom was a fascinating place ruled by a powerful king - the oba, who the people loved and respected. The capital of the kingdom and the oba's palace were in benin city.
Imagine walking across a deep and wide moat, looking up at a great wall designed and built to keep intruders away. The Benin walls are the world's second largest man made structure - second only to the great walls of China. The Benin kingdom got its name from the Bini people, a powerful kingdom that conquered and absorbed many kingdoms around it, at its peak the Benin kingdom extended all the way from Onitsha in the east to Benin Republic on the west of modern day Nigeria.
The Benin built a powerful and organised military. They established links with the Portuguese as early as the 15th century who are believed to have gone to war alongside them in some of their battles against neighbouring kingdoms. The Benin paid the Portuguese for this support through the supply of goods. The benin kingdom was powerful and wealthy. Trade was at the centre of life in Benin. The Benin built a rich trade in palm oil, ivory and slaves - with surrounding kingdoms and by the 1400s (the 15th century) with Europeans, particularly the Portuguese.
Slaves were people who were not free, but instead were oppressed with violence and other means to work for free for others. Many African and European kingdoms wrongly traded and kept slaves. Human beings should never be bought or sold and it is sad that so many people were hurt or killed when the world traded in slaves. The Benin conquered many neighbouring kingdoms and are believed to have taken people from these kingdoms as slaves, in some cases after their defeat leaders of defeated kingdoms would send some of their people as slaves to the oba as a tribute or a sign of respect.
The benin also excelled in agriculture and Fishing. Eurpoean traders visiting Benin in the 14th century reported back on a city as organised and well structured as any in Europe with a coordinated approach to foreign trade.
The Benin kingdom was famous for talented artists and was particularly famous for bronze works and bronze statues. When the Benin Kingdom was attacked and almost wiped out by the British in 1897 a lot of these art works were stolen and taken back to Britain. Many of these art works were sold and they can still be found in European Museums like the British museum today.
Over nine hundred of the stolen benin plaques are known to exist in museums and private collections around the world:
You can find out more about Benin art on the British Museum website here:
The Oyo kingdom was a Yoruba Empire in what is known as the western and north central Nigeria today. It came into existence in the 15th century, it grew and became one of the largest west African kingdoms.
Its capital city was Oyo-ile or old oyo, and its king was known as the Aalafin. The Aalafin was supported by a group of elders consisting 7 people known as the Oyomesi and led by a Bashorun. These elders were a check to the Aalafin's power, making sure it was never misused. The Oyomesi were very powerful and they were able to remove an existing king from the throne if it was in the interest of the kingdom to do so.
The location of Oyo kingdom helped greatly in its power and wealth growth. It was located in the savannah region which had forests to the south and the Sahel region to the north, it was also a very fertile region, which allowed them to keep horses which assisted them in battles against neighbouring kingdoms. The Oyo took advantage of this location to become very powerful and wealthy. Like the benin they also traded widely, including trading in/and keeping slaves. They also traded in goods such as Kolanuts and salt.
The Oyo kingdom remained wealthy and powerful until misunderstandings and a fight arose between an Aalafin and the Oyomesi in the 18th century. Parts of the kingdom began to break away and neighbouring kingdoms used the opportunity to attack oyo. During this time the kingdom was exposed and vulnerable and began to lose power. In 1835, the capital city was attacked by Fulani warriors and burned to the ground.