A Rare 16th Century Description of the Advanced Economy of Ancient Benin

A Rare 16th Century Description of the Advanced Economy of Ancient Benin


The Benin Kingdom was one of most developed states in Africa in ancient times until it was annexed by the British Empire in 1897. Founded around 1180 C.E, the people of Benin Kingdom built an advanced society and city so advanced that European historians compared it to Amsterdam in Europe. One of such descriptions:

“When you go into it you enter a great broad street, which is not paved and seems to be seven or eight times greater than Warmoes Street in Amsterdam. This street is straight and does not bend at any point. It is thought to be 4 miles long,”

was published by Olfert Dapper in his book Description of Africa(Naukeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaensche Gewesten or “Accurate Descriptions of the African Regions”) of 1668 from reports of Jesuit missionaries and other (Dutch) explorers who travelled to Benin (as Dapper never travelled to Africa).

This was confirmed by another detailed and extensive description written by David Van Nyendael (who actually visited the Oba (King) of Benin) on September 1st, 1702, in a letter published by Willem Bosman, in a book titled Nauwkeurige beschrijving van de Guinese Goud- Tand- en Slavekust (An accurate description of the Guinean gold-tooth and Slave Coast) in 1704.

The description from Van Nyendael’s letter and those of others who wrote about the kingdom gave an insight into their level of industrialization, commerce, tax system, business structure and business practices of the people.


The Industries

Similar present-day Nigeria, Agriculture was one of the main industry in the kingdom and land was held by the Oba on behalf of the people. In abundance, the people produced both food and cash crops for domestic use and for export. They cultivated palm fruit, cotton, yam, maize and raised cattle and poultry.

Van Nyendael in his letterwrote that,

“There was a prodigious abundant Plenty of yams; which is also their most ready diet. They eat them with all manner of Edibles. Yam was so important that it was carefully planted and gathered in its proper Season.”

He wrote that maize was also farmed in abundance and was cheaper in Benin compared to Europe because maize plants in Benin produced a prodigious quantity of grain and the locals don’t consume it that much. He also wrote that he never saw any rice despite seeing plenty of good swampy lands fit for rice farming.

Unlike in present-day Benin city and environs that made up ancient Benin kingdom, there was an abundance of horses and cows in the kingdom.


Van Nyendael wrote,

“here is no want of tame Beasts, such as Horses, Cows, Sheep, Dogs, Cats, besides Poultry, all which are equally good and cheap. The Cattle here, tho’ very small, are yet very good, especially that part of them that are edible with us, which are of good taste.”

This invalidates the present day notion that only the Fulanis from Northern Nigerian traditionally raised cattle in Nigeria.

However, there were not many fishes in the rivers around Benin city and the fish that were consumed were brought in from the Mouth of the Sea down River Benin.


Agro Processing

After Agriculture, the Agro-processing was the next biggest industry. Before the coming of Europeans, the people of Benin were already processing palm wine, palm oil, palm kernel oil, soap, and lot more from the palm tree. They produced palm kernel oil for hair and other use by roasting kernels of palm nuts. They made the best soaps in the whole of West Africa from palm oil as observed by Van Nyendael:

“The Negroes here make Soap, which is better than any all over Guinea: and by reason, this washes very well, the Negroes cloths are very clean. You know it is made upon the Gold-Coast with palm oil, banana leaves and the ashes of a sort of wood. The manner of making it here differs very little.”

They produced wine from palm trees and women from the town then called Ardra brewed beer from maize.


Textile and Dye Industry

The textile industry in Ancient was huge and advanced with a large part concentrated in Esan (Ishan) towns, a region known for a species of cotton called the “Ishan Cotton” (G. vitifolium). The production of cloth was widespread, and cotton growing and weaving were practised extensively throughout the kingdom.

Weaving was generally done by women in their spare time. Their cloth was not only for personal use but for long-distance trade with other African societies, thousands of such cloths being shipped annually by the middle of the 17th century. This may have given women greater status in Benin society.

Van Nyendael wrote,

“that a prodigious quantity of cotton trees grows here, you may reasonably conjecture, when I tell you, that not only all the Inhabitants are clothed with it, but they annually export thousands of woven cloth to other places”

Samuel Brun, visiting in about 1614, also noted that the kingdom of Benin made “very beautiful clothes, which are exported far and wide and sold”.

The people also made colourful cloths using dyes. As Van Nyendael wrote,

The Inhabitants are very well skilled in making several sorts of Dyes, like Green, Blue, Black, Red and Yellow. The Blew they prepare from Indigo, which grows here abundantly; but the remaining colours are extracted from certain trees by Friction and Decoction.


Bronze Casting Industry

The people of Benin were very skilled in Bronze casting. They used the lost wax process (cire perdue) for bronze production. Beeswax is modelled over a clay core, covered by an outer layer of clay, banded and dried, with muddy clay washes that fill cracks and cover the bands. The wax is melted and replaced by molten metal. Cooled, the outer clay is chipped away and the carbonized core reamed out, with the casting filed and chased.

The bronze and brass goods sold are made into rings, bracelets, pendants. Many of the goods that were made were used in the export economy. The Oba of Benin, however, was the major consumer of Benin Bronze. Bronze is made from copper, a metal scarce enough in the Benin Kingdom to be used as a currency.

Copper used in Benin was imported from far countries in the form of bracelets called ‘Manillas’. These were made in modern Holland, traded throughout West Africa as a kind of currency, and melted down by the brass workers of Benin.

Bronze artwork casting was a secret trade and casting was done within palace walls of the Oba to ensure secrecy. Casters were rewarded with food, land, and maybe even wives plus the metal for casting.

Although West Africans invented the smelting of copper and zinc ores and the casting of brass at least as long ago as the 10th century, they themselves did not produce enough metal to supply the casting industry of Benin city, which was used to decorate the Oba’s palace. Today, more than 2,734 of these artworks are scattered all over the world.


Trade and Taxes

Trade in the kingdom was advanced and the people were great traders. They had a well-established commercial and foreign relations and contacts with the Mediterranean for at least 1,500 years before the Europeans arrived on the coast of West Africa.

Trade with Europe was considerable. For instance, just one Dutch ship, the Olyphant, delivered 88,235 lbs of ivory and 1,337 lbs of pepper from the kingdom of Benin to the Netherlands in 1630.

According to Van Nyendael, Slave trade was not allowed in the city of Benin:

“All Male Slaves here are Foreigners; for the Natives cannot be sold for Slaves, but are all free, and alone bear the name of the King’s slaves. Nor is it allowed to export any Male Slaves that are sold in this country, for they must stay there: But females may be dealt with at everyone’s Pleasure.”

Cowrie shells (Bojis) and other currencies like Manillas were used for trade and these Manillas were part of an international trading relationship.

The Oba made huge revenues from his territories which are paid through the Enogies (Dukes) of Benin Kingdom and the kings of conquered territory. The leaders each knows how many Bags of Bojis he must annually raise to the King.

Annual taxes for the privilege of commerce in the kingdom were paid to the Enogies so also were daily tolls and duties on foreign trades. Europeans were made pay to Customs duties on goods they bring into Benin to the Special merchants. The king takes only a sixth of the annual provincial tax.

The commoners, instead of money, delivered to the King bulls, cows, sheep, chickens, yams, palm oil and cloths. The surplus is sold the money put in the coffers. These taxes, tolls and tributes were one aspect of the economic support for both the local and central government in the kingdom.

Van Nyendael wrote,

“duties or Tolls on imported and exported Wares are not paid here; but everyone pays a certain Sum annually to the Governor of the Place where he lives, for the Liberty of Trading. The Viceroy sends part of it to the King; so that his Revenue being determined and settled, he can easily compute what he hath to expect annually.”


Occupation and Social Welfare

The Oba, the Palace Chiefs, and the Enogies, were responsible for state affairs, ranging legal, political, religious, diplomatic, security, and trade. The Edioweres (Head of Streets) and lesser officeholders appointed by the Oba handled daily bureaucratic and local functions concerning commoners. These elites like in most societies have people who work for them, these include their wives, children and slaves.

Van Nyendael observed that,

“there are several very rich men who live here, and attend continually at Court, not troubling themselves with either trade or agriculture, or anything else, but leaving all their affairs to their wives and slaves, who go to all the circumjacent villages to trade in all sorts of Merchandizes, or otherwise serve for daily wages, and are obliged to bring the greatest part of their gain in trade or hire to their matters.”

There was the eminent class of workers who engage in very skill works. They operated in a guild system and all offered special services to the Oba and the kingdom. In return for their services, each guild was given a monopoly in its particular trade or craft.

“The Handicrafts keep to their Work, without troubling themselves with the court or trade. others employ themselves in Agriculture, or some such thing, in order to get their Living,”

Van Nyendael noted.

There were the carpenters (OwinnaOnwina) wood and ivory carvers (Igbesanmwan), leather workers (Esohian), weavers (OwinnanidoOnwinan’Ido), pottery makers (Emakhe), iron smiths (Uleme) and brass smiths (Igun-eronmwon), etc. Another set of class of workers who gain eminence are the trade brokers who were appointed by the government to carryout trade with Europeans on behalf of the Oba because they spoke Portuguese. However, these merchants trade on borrowed capital.

According to Van Nyendael,

“The ordinary citizens are to loiter about whole days, until they hear of any ships being come into the river, upon which they go thither to trade with what goods they have in store: and if no ships come, they send their slaves to Rio Lagos, or other Places to buy fish, of which they make a very profitable Trade further in-land.”

Women in the kingdom were very industrious and do most of the farming, cotton spinning, cloth making, Palm oil production, soap making. Most of the women were also traders trading cloths, palm oil, soaps and other products they produce mainly in markets places within their towns and those nearby. This may have given women greater status in Benin society.

The welfare system instituted is impressive, the Oba, the Chiefs, Enogies, and all the Edioweres who is but indifferently rich subsist several poor at their place of residence on their charity, employing those who are fit for any work, in order to help them to a maintenance.

Necessities are commonly and frequently distributed to the poor. This policy succeeded so well, that there are were no beggars or many remarkably poor people among them.


Business Culture

The people of Benin were very social, civil, conversable and very diplomatic. They dress very neat and dresses elegantly in white cloths when they appear in public. As Van Nyendael wrote,

“the Inhabitants of Great Benin are generally good-natured and very civil, from whom it is easy to obtain whatever we desire by soft means. If we make them liberal Presents, they will endeavour to recompense them doubly”

“The Habit of the Negroes here is neat, ornamental and much more magnificent than that of the Negroes of the Gold-Coast. The Rich amongst them wear first a white Calico or Cotton Cloth about One-Yard-long, and half so broad, which serves them as Drawers; over that they wear a finer white Cotton dress…there are their clothes in which they appear abroad; but at home they wear only a course Paan instead of Drawers, covered with a great painted Cloth woven here, which they wear like a Cloak.”

They went as far as to learn Portuguese which put them at advantage and helped them control trade with Europe in that region of Africa. As at 1553, Oba Esigie was already able to read and speak Portuguese which he learnt as a child. In those years, an English merchant, Thomas Wyndham, was received by the Oba, who conducted trading negotiations with him in person, a practice common in the 16th century and confirmed by Portuguese reports.


The people of Benin were very good in business and conducted it with integrity, one that amazed European traders that Van Nyendael had to write about it:

“they are very prompt in Business, and will not suffer any of their ancient Customs to be abolished; in which, if we comply with them, they are very easy to deal with, and will not be wanting in anything on their part requisite to a good Agreement.”

“Another inconvenience, which really deserves Complaint, is, that at our Arrival here, we are obliged to trust them with Goods to make Panes or Cloths of; for the Payment of which we frequently stay so long, that by reason of the advancement of the season, the consumption of our provisions, and the sickness or mortality of our men, we are obliged to depart without our Money: but on the other hand, the next time we come hither, we are sure to be honestly paid the Whole.”

It is important that Africans must understand that there were working and advanced systems in Africa before the arrival of the Europeans in the continent, and that these systems still exist and have been carried on as local traditions and cultures. Africans must dig into and understand their past in order to be able to advance the continent along with borrowed western ideologies. This will reduce the level of ideological confusion and lack of self-awareness that has hindered significant socio-political advancement in the continent since colonisation.


Source Of Information : https://scitechafrica.com/2018/12/07/a-rare-16th-century-description-of-the-advanced-economy-of-ancient-benin/

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