The Bini/Edo People


The Bini/Edo belong to the Kwa group of the Benue-Kwa family of the Niger-Congo phylum of languages. The language is usually called Bini, and they numbered 3.8 mil-lionattheturnofthe21stcentury.Theyare found mainly in the Edo State in southern Nigeria and claim direct descent from the Edo, who founded the state of Benin in the 14th century.

The Bini/Edo emerged sometime around 1000 in the rain forest of Nigeria. The Bini/Edo moved from the savanna into the forest, building large sites and excavating around them to reduce the problems of disease. They built large and densely populated set-tlements; often larger ones grew into and incorporated smaller ones. They developed a highly centralized business elite with far-reaching trade links to the Hausa, Songhay, and Yoruba states, and expanded south-ward into regions of less centralized Ijoid peoples.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Benin kingdom, as it was called, became one of the most powerful in the region. The height of the Benin Kingdom lasted from the 14th to the 17th century, and their wealth was due to trade in ivory, pepper, palm oil, and slaves, though the state resisted theideaofsaleofslaves.Benin City had wide, straight streets and was sur-rounded by earthwork walls.

Matrilineal descent patterns helped shape the manage-ment of the smaller villages in the king-dom, and women had a say in the politics of the kingdom through the 17th century. Europeans bought African cloth, which brought not only economic growth, but greatly enhanced the position of women, who were the main producers of cloth. Benin began to decline in the 18th century as many of their main exports were taken over by other producers outside of Africa.

The period of political height was also the height of its artistic production, espe-cially in bronzes and carved ivory. Contact with the Portuguese along the coast start-ing at the end of the 15th century intro-duced other metalworking techniques such as brass gilding. When Benin City fell to the British in 1897, some 3,000 brass, ivory, and wooden objects were taken away to Europe and later sold to pay for the expedition’s costs.

Around 1,000 brass plaques from the palace of the king, or oba, dating from between the 16th and 17th centuries were among the booty taken, and their beauty and sophisti-cation astonished Western art scholars. The vast amount of materials were due partially to the fact that each oba had a state monopoly on ivory, coral, brass, and wooden objects, which were an important part of public displays and ceremonies that were paraded, or were objects for ances-tral altars.

The Edo people are well known for both music and dance, much of it part of official holidays. The Igue festival is still held every December, and the oba welcomes the New Year and gives thanks for the bounty of the outgoing year.

There are 27 other masquer-ades held every year, with different masks representing different natural powers. There are a large number of well-known Edo musicians who play a variety of music, from traditional styles to Nigeria’s interna-tionally known Highlife.

The head of the Benin state was the oba, who had a sacred status. The oba was selected on the principle of primogeniture or to the eldest son, and he held political, economic, and religious power. He had monopolies on items such as ivory, and any-one who killed an ivory-bearing animal, such as an elephant, had to give one-half of the ivory to the oba, who also had first right of purchase to the rest. Matrilineal principles of inheritance were part of village leadership, and villages were usually divided into age sets or age grades that were responsible for different aspects of running the day-to-day affairs of the village.

The modern history of Benin begins with economic collapse in the 18th century. The obas surrounded themselves with the aura of divine kingship, and human sacrifice was introduced. The British used the excuse of what they called large-scale human sacri-fice to justify their invasion and burning of Benin City in 1897. The power structures were more or less left in place, but Benin was incorporated into British Nigeria and eventually became part of independent Nigeria in 1960.

Today, the Bini/Edo live in a region called Edoland, which comprises Edo and the Delta States in modern Nigeria. The Edo and the Yoruba-dominated states did not join with other southerners when in 1967 the Igbo seceded from the Nigerian federation. When Nigeria reorganized the federal states in 1996, the State of Edo was formed, with the ancient capital of Benin named the new state’s capital.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste. The Tribal Arts of Africa: Surveying Africa’s Artistic Geogra-phy. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Collins, Robert O. Africa: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2008.

Falola, Toyin. Culture and Customs of Nigeria. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.