The distorted view of our history is among the most significant losses suffered by Africans as a result of colonization. The majority of African history writers, predominantly Europeans, will have you think that our ancestors were an undeveloped race with no trace of civilization in the very fabric of their societies. However, the rediscovery of the history of the magnificent ancient city of Benin dispells their faulty narrative. Although the ancient city of Benin isn’t often spoken about when discussing early civilisation, history has revealed that the ancient city didn’t lack any of the markers of civilisation.
Benin was the salient city of the Edo kingdom. It flourished between the 13th and 19th centuries before it was destroyed in 1897 by the British. The Portuguese were the first foreigners recorded to have come across the city in 1485 and they marveled at its magnificence, referring to it as the ‘Great City of Benin’. At the time, there was barely any other place in Africa that the Europeans acknowledged as a city. They were surprised to find such a huge kingdom with hundreds of cities and villages in the middle of ‘nowhere’.
Lourenco Pinto, a Portuguese ship captain remarked, “Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.”
The ancient city had several remarkable features that existed nowhere else at the time, the most magnificent being the famous ‘Walls of Benin’. According to the 1974 Guinness Book of Records, the walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom are the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era. It is estimated that the walls were four times longer than the Great Wall of China and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops.
New Scientist Fred Pearce wrote in awe, “These walls extended for up to 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They covered 6,500sqkm and were all dug by the Edo people. They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet”.
Benin city’s architectural design was done using “Fractal Design” (Fractals are infinitely complex, self-similar patterns across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop). The city and its surrounding villages were laid out in perfect fractals with similar shapes repeated in each house’s rooms, the house itself, and the clusters of houses in the village in mathematically predictable patterns. The fractal design was initially considered by the Europeans to be very disorganized and primitive. It turns out that what was employed as a form of mathematics that they hadn’t discovered yet.
Benin city was also one of the first places where streetlights existed. The people of Benin built huge lamps in the streets that were fueled by palm oil. These lamps burned at night and lit up the wide, long streets of the city, illuminating the way for traffic flowing to and from the palace. Imagine the level of ingenuity required to birthing such innovation in a pre-colonial African town!
Their architecture was not the only testament to the rich artistry of the people of Benin. In the 12th century, the kings and nobles of the kingdom patronized craftsmen who created depictions of them in intricate bronze sculptures. Professor Felix von Luschan, formerly of the Berlin Ethnological Museum, wrote, “These works from Benin are equal to the very finest examples of European casting technique. Benvenuto Celini could not have cast them better, nor could anyone else before or after him. Technically, these bronzes represent the very highest possible achievement”.
The Europeans were quickly motivated to begin international trade with the people of the Benin kingdom. They imported ivory, palm oil, and pepper, and exported guns. Famous among the commodities that the Benin people traded was the non-perishable Esan cloth, woven from locally grown cotton plants. In 1897, the British pillaged Benin city and took many of its famous bronzes, ivory, and other valuables. They left the city devastated and her great walls in ruins.
The people of ancient Benin city were no doubt very innovative and despite the ravaging of the city in the 19th century, museums, books, and recent research continue to attest to the brilliance of the Benin people. How they built walls with mud and palm oil to make them crack-resistant, how they had elaborate dispute management systems, their thriving economy, how they became a tourist attraction soon after the Portuguese encountered them, how they recorded their history as artistic masterpieces in wood, bronze and ivory, their architecture and engineering.
Centuries after, we still see a lot of brilliance and innovation displayed by Nigerians. Due to dire situations though, the general perspective through which we view ourselves as a nation has been greatly clouded. Now, more than ever, we need to be reminded of the remarkable talent and resources we possess as a people and the huge possibilities of achievements possible for us. Our faith in our ability needs to be restored to create a society conducive to development.