Civilizations in Africa

The Forest Kingdoms

   In the forestlands of western Africa south of the Sahelian states (the Sahel is the area immediately south of the Sahara), Africans lived in small villages that were tribal and ruled over by chiefs. Sometime between 1000 and 1500 AD, many of these villages began to consolidate into larger units and eventually formed powerful and centralized states; the largest and longest lasting of these centralized states was Benin.

   The reasons for this development are lost to history since the forest kingdoms of western Africa left no writing in their early history. Part of the reason for the development of centralized states may have been an influx of grassland-dwelling people from the Sudan, driven south by the increasingly harsh climactic conditions. They brought with them new forms of government, including hereditary monarchy, and the villages of the Ibo, Asante, and Yoruba speaking peoples gradually fused into small city-states. The Yoruba were the first to expand the power of these city-states over other territories: the Ile Ife Yoruba began a series of military incursions in order to set up tribute monarchies throughout the Niger area. Among these tribute monarchies were Oyo and Benin.

   Benin in southern Nigeria was an area occupied by a people speaking Edo, and in their account of history, the Edo say that they have occupied this area for several thousand years. The Edo had always been surrounded by larger populations to the north and west (the Yoruba) and to the east (the Ibo).

   Edo society is founded on the village which is kinship-organized. Village authority is based on groups of males according to their age. Around 1300, the Ile Ife sent a member of the Ife ruling family to rule the Benin area, but basic social and political organization did not change profoundly. For this foreign king, or oba, was strictly controlled by the Edo chiefs, called the uzama. The Edo loose village system, however, was profoundly changed by Eware (1440-1473), called Eware the Great. Eware transformed the village system into a hereditary and centralized monarchy that ruled through a royal council. This council was made up of the members of the uzama , and each member of the council had specific administrative duties. Through strategic military expansion, Benin expanded into an all-out empire in the Nigerian region.

   Eware based his kingdom in the capital city of Benin City. Early on in its history, people within the cities formed a rudimentary class system with the growth of craft and art guilds. Benin is particularly known for the explosion of artistic creativity following its formation and throughout its entire history. Benin art centered around sculpture, either terra cotta, ivory, or brass. In its early forms, Benin sculpture is primarily historical, recounting important events, such as the arrival of the Portugese, in magnificently detailed brass plaques and statuary. The Benin sculptors developed two unique features in the art: high realism and a high stylization of detail and ornament. Benin art became one of the most influential art traditions in west Africa, spreading throughout the cultures west and north of the Niger River.

   Between 1500 and 1800, the forest kingdoms were gradually incorporated into European mercantile and capitalist activities. Those forest kingdoms that occupied the coastline of western Africa, such as Benin, the Oyo empire (Yoruba), and the Manikongo kingdom in the Congo, eagerly welcomed the Portugese traders and benefitted greatly. The period of initial contact in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries began an amazing process which, if it had been followed, African and European history would be entirely different than it is now. For the Europeans regarded the Africans as an exotic but nonetheless dignified and equal partner in civilization. The Africans for their part treated the Europeans as an exotic but equal partner in civilization. Both the Portugese and the Africans speculated about what they could learn from each other. The kingdoms of Benin, Oyo, and the Manikongo sent ambassadors, intellectuals, and students to Lisbon and to Rome to study European ways and to represent their civilizations to the Europeans. This beginning of African and European contact, which was so promising and would have produced a far different world, was cut short by the discovery of America. It became evident that the agricultural exploitation of America would require immense amounts of cheap labor. At first, the Spanish and the Portugese enslaved Native Americans, but they died under the burden or escaped and easily disappeared among other Native Americans. The Europeans tried to use other Europeans (for quite a long time, in fact), but when Europeans escaped, they also blended in easily among the European populations. So the Europeans turned to Africa to the south, and by the seventeenth century, the traffic in human slaves from Africa became a flood.

   Several African states took an active part in the European slave trade when it began in the early sixteenth century. West Africa, in particular, was one of the principal routes for this commerce in human lives. Several forest kingdoms, such as the Oyo empire (Yoruba) and the kingdom of Dahomey, derived immense wealth from the slave trade. Oyo itself only became an empire through the expansion of the slave trade in the eighteenth century. This slave trade, however, had a double edge. It meant that the kingdoms and city-states which derived commercial gain also had to fight more wars in order to obtain captives for the slave trade. The result was a high degree of political instability for these forest kingdoms; not only did the slave trade produce the largest single displacement of human peoples in human history, it also fragmented the African civilizations that participated in this commerce.

   Benin, which was one of the most powerful and extensive of the forest kingdoms, opted out of the slave trade completely. It did, however, suffer in the wars of predation that the slave trade precipitated. Nonetheless, Benin was one of the longest lasting civilizations in western Africa. It was still a powerful and imposing state when European powers began zealously seizing colonial territory in Africa in the nineteenth century. Of all the peoples the Europeans tried to subdue, the Benin were the most difficult, but the British finally invaded and dismantled the Benin state in 1897.
Contents






























Civilizations in Africa

Egypt: A Learning Module

Kush

Axum

The Iron Age South of the Sahara

Ghana

The Islamic Invasions

The Almoravids

Mali

Songhay

The Hausa Kingdoms

Kanem-Bornu

The Forest Kingdoms

The Swahili Kingdoms

Great Zimbabwe / The Mwenemutapa Empire

Internet Resources on Africa

About "Civilizations in Africa"

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 11-15-96