The Benin Monarchy: An Anthology of Benin History is a magnificently illustrated record of the glories of the Kingdom and Kings of Benin. A mighty tome, comprising 590 pages and weighing in at 7 kg, it contains contributions from eighteen scholars and comes to us courtesy of Mr. Oriiz U. Onuwaje, who developed the content and co-produced with Capt. Dr. Idahosa Wells Okunbo.
It has often been said that ‘until the lions learn to tell their own story, only the exploits of hunters will be told’. This superb cross-disciplinary work by Benin scholars brings together old and new knowledge about the history and anthropology of the largest and greatest kingdom to have existed in the rainforest belt of West Africa, the Benin Empire. It was dubbed ‘the Red Book’ in 2018 by Britain’s Prince Charles, who spoke of his fascination with the wealth of information it offers and called on the world to appreciate and honor the historic achievements of the black monarchy of today’s Edo State in Nigeria. Praised by professor of history Obaro Ikime, for containing ‘the most detailed study of the Benin chieftaincy system I have read to date’, it has also been described by Professor Emeritus of History E. J. Alagoa as ‘the first of its kind in the history of any ancient African kingdom’.
There is truly something special about this book. Mr. Onuwaje has, for the first time in Nigerian – indeed, in African – historiography, succeeded in conveying the grandeur of the Benin monarchy from AD 900 to the modern era through documentation, commentary, and illustration, presenting artifacts never before seen in any African-produced book on Benin history within their true context. State-of-the-art anthropological photographic images reveal the history of Benin’s origins, migration, settlement, and resistance to foreign powers as well as the sophistication of its culture, technology, architecture, and political and military power. Fascinating detail is also given of the Oba’s role as representative between the gods, his ancestors, and the living, and his duties as chief priest of the shrines of the kings who ruled before him.
The book’s twenty-four scholarly essays address various areas of historical and anthropological interest: the kingdom’s political hierarchy, the ceremonial regalia of the various chiefs, the military system, traditional religious practices, and inter-state relationships with Benin’s neighbors and the Europeans are all explained, as well as the role of queen mothers, queens, and members of the Obas’ harems. Indeed, the book’s cover, of a deep and striking red, is devoted to a picture of the ivory mask of Queen Idia, wife of Oba Ozuola and mother of Oba Eisgie, one of the most prominent of Benin’s queens, renowned for her beauty, supernatural powers and as the kingdom’s first female warrior. The coronation processes and ceremonies of the Oba, described in detail, show how ancient traditions have been maintained pari pasu with contemporary society, although, given the veneration still accorded the monarchy, no details are given of the secret rituals and ancestral sacrifices that accompany these events. These descriptions are accompanied by a treasure trove of illustrations of the artefacts which are an important part of the monarchy’s symbolic value: hand-crafted artefacts, brass plaques, commemorative ivory heads, rattles, and staffs.
This beautifully produced book fills the lacuna left by previous works on Benin history, taking its readers from the time of the Ogiso through the empire-building of the Warrior Kings and the interregnum to the reign of today’s Oba, who has made his name as a philosopher and diplomat. It explains the forces of change and adaptation and demonstrates the ingenuity which ensured the Kingdom was feared by its neighbors and revered by European missionaries and explorers, even in the face of aggression and modernity. The authors argue that the strength of this West African civilization rested on the strategic leadership of the Obas, guns and ammunitions supplied by Europeans, and the bronze, ivory, and other artworks fashioned by its unique system of craft guilds. Several authors dwell on the looting of the kingdom’s artworks during the British ‘Punitive Expedition’ of 1897 after the ‘Benin Massacre’, and their subsequent removal to museums across Europe and America. Images of some of these legendary artworks are offered to the public for the first time in this book, which may go some way to strengthening the calls for their return.
There is just one caveat to my appreciation of this volume: the writing is quite academic, whereas a work of such importance should be made accessible enough that any Bini schoolchild can read it, which will also facilitate its translation into other languages. However, I found the book quite magical, and was moved by the theme which animates it, namely that ‘the antiquity, the glory, and traditions of the Benin monarchy, revered and preserved by the people’ should be presented with pride, and in all their African beauty, to the world. For history, style, aesthetic value, creativity, in-depth research, design, and uniqueness, The Red Book is my book of the decade and I recommend it to Nigerians, Africans, and the peoples of the world so they can see the Benin Kingdom in its proper perspective. Moreover, I recommend it as a model for the other kingdoms in Africa to document their ancient past and living present so we can put together the jigsaw of Africa’s past in preparation of the greatness of our future.
Dr. Chikere Reginald, Keke, is a historian, editor, author, researcher and publisher. Presently, teaches history, diplomacy and international relations with Admiralty University of Nigeria, Delta State, Nigeria. He is also the Director for Research and Planning Onyoma Research Publication in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria.
The Benin Monarchy: An Anthology of Benin History 2018 is published by Wells-Crimson Limited (ISBN: 978-97854734-1) and is available for sale at www.thebeninredbook.com