Commissioned by Royal Warrant of Appointment to His Royal Majesty Oba Ewuare II, Oba of Benin, this book is divided into three parts, consisting of a total of eighteen chapters, authored by twenty-four essayists cum contributors including historians, artists and other professionals. Contributions were also made by other traditional palace and sundry non-palace sources. Bound in a striking red, the work is huge in both size and weight, and crammed with images of ancient, medieval and contemporary Benin art forms as well as impressive commemorative photos. It is, in fact, an art gallery in book form.
The Benin Monarchy: An Anthology of Benin History, is, ultimately, a compendium of the historical and cultural evolution of the people and institutions of Benin Kingdom, especially their monarchy, from the earliest times to the present. The book is structured around the reigns of the different Obas, considered in chronological order, and addresses a wide range of themes, from socio-political through economic to cultural, particularly through its glorious illustrations. The six chapters of Part One detail the Benin people from the earliest monarchy through the interregnum (the end of the first dynasty) to the British conquest of Benin in 1897. Several hypotheses and theories of the origin of the Benin people are discussed, leaving it open to the reader to decide which is the most plausible explanation.
Part One underscores three major points about the ancient Kingdom of Benin and its monarchy. First, the monarchy evolved from basic family administrative units, through village gerontocracies to the kingship system. With the eventual emergence of kings and the establishment of the first dynasty, the contents of the Benin monarchical system were then deliberately and incrementally increased and developed by successive kings. Therefore, it would seem that the monarchy as it eventually emerged was shaped by the realities of the environments and times under which each Oba existed, evolving to become the “…emblem of state authority and power, the symbol of Benin society and its culture”.
Secondly, the new monarchical era, which began in about AD 1170 and continues in the person of the present Oba, came under serious threat – and physical attack in 1897 – with the British conquest of the independent Kingdom of Benin and the consequent expulsion of its king to Calabar. The British attempt to end the Benin monarchy engendered a long conflict between tradition and modernity which was eventually resolved in favour of tradition – of which monarchy was an essential part – in 1914. This development clearly showed the resilience of the Benin monarchy, as well as the deep-rooted reverence of the citizens for the institution.
The third and final point is that the people and monarchs of Benin were an inseparable and integrated whole during the evolution, growth and developmental strides of the kingdom and, apparently, deliberately embraced and entrenched its norms, values and cultural practices in several distinct areas. In the spheres of religion, arts, sculpture, symbol and dress, the Kingdom of Benin continually expressed its uniqueness. Ironically, the British attack on the monarchy in 1897 had the unintended impact of further internationalizing Benin civilization.
The seven chapters of Part Two contain didactic materials, apparently designed to illuminate issues relating to administration and governance in pre-colonial Benin. The kingdom’s political structure, chieftaincy titles and their significances, socio-economic institutions and religious and cultural practices are described. Interestingly, and contrary to the common belief about most pre-colonial African states and societies, the women in the Kingdom of Benin played prominent roles. Apart from the visible place of the Queen Mother in the affairs of the kingdom, there were a number of celebrated heroines, some with spiritual and even military attributes.
Perhaps the most intriguing element in this part is the detailed exposition of the technical procedures behind royal ceremonial and ritual arts, artefacts and sculpture, on the one hand, and the guild system of Benin. The beautifully illustrated description of about forty such guilds and their relationships to both ‘town’ and palace underscores the high level of sophistication displayed by the governance of the pre-colonial kingdom .
Part Three, which comprises of the last five chapters, is an incisive survey of the attributes and contributions of Benin monarchs since the kingdom’s subjugation to external political authorities, whether colonialism or the modern Nigerian state. Benin’s traditions and cultures survived the 1897 assault and have continued to be lived and expressed through the 20th and into the 21st century. The five kings since 1914 (Oba Ovonramwen (1888 – 1914) to Oba Ewuare II (2017 –)) have each made their own stamp on the kingdom and the institution, which remains visible and respected worldwide.
The aim of the book was not to present a final history of the Kingdom of Benin and its monarchy, nor to resolve all the existing controversies surrounding aspects of its past and present. It was, perhaps, undertaken with the idea and desire to lay bare, in unprecedented detail and supported by compelling oral, artistic, ceremonial, ritual and other primary proofs, the salient ingredients and intimidating features and character of Benin civilization since ancient times. To this end, the book eclectically and effectively demonstrates the infinitely elastic possibilities for further study and research into the complex history and culture of the Kingdom of Benin.
Hence, what may be lacking in this compendium, especially as regards the critical analysis of certain contentious issues, may neither be omission nor commission after all. While not conforming to any existing genre of works about the history of Benin (J.U. Egharevbas’ A Short History of Benin notwithstanding) the book successfully navigates the slippery terrain in which originality and objectivity are sacrificed to patriotism and nationalism. Given the book’s ability to be simultaneously chronological, descriptive, topical and ultimately analytical, it can certainly be regarded as a collector’s item. Its illustrations alone are worthy of a mass audience, while the writings will interest and attract scholars and researchers from many disciplines, including history, archaeology and anthropology.