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The Participation of Benin in the Atlantic Slave Trade

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North of the Benin River–hidden through the gloomy mangrove trees–sits the oldest and most developed state in West Africa, Benin City. Founded by the Edo people, Benin conducts with a megastructure never seen anywhere else in the world. This assembled structure expanded the territories of the kingdom while fostering the arts and festivals that they are known for today. Archaeological evidence has found that the walls built around the palace and city were made of significant constructions that took many years for them to complete. As well as the beautiful and sophisticated art that is captivating to all who lays eyes on the pieces. In the 13th century, the city of Benin in Africa turned a city into a great kingdom with their socio-political system, great art made with bronze, and their participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Benin used a non-traditional system to govern the city by placing powerful decisions through kin-based relationships. Those relationships were developed in multiple communities that created their own rules; therefore, not using a traditional professional bureaucratic administration to govern as other countries do. Dmitri Bondarenko argues that kin-based tiers created Benin into the type of community that he called mega communities. Dmitri claims Benin didn’t operate the way ordinary states do with their political ways but operated based on the elder male in the family to rule.

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Dmitri also states that each community in Benin is ruled by the eldest male person in the family because they are the closest to the ancestors that Binis believed to be still active in their lives. The elder was the mediator that relayed messages between the living Binis and their dead ancestors on what should take place in the community. Certain responsibilities were appointed by the elders to other males in the community according to their age. Community leaders and councils roles would be issued out to the senior citizens of each community. Dividing community land, ancestral cult rituals, and diffusing conflict were some of the responsibilities of the senior leader. As the communities grew, it required more of a social organization to control several communities with a Chiefdom. Not a relative, the chiefdom provided assistance to the elders to smoothly conduct their communities everyday affairs. Then there came iron that was newly resources that brought more people and more conflict. Those disagreements that led to many discords was beyond the chiefdom and elders capabilities. This created the Oba (King) to be over all of the individual communities throughout the Benin city, turning it into a Kingdom. The Oba leadership wasn’t based on being a relative but he was appointed by God. A war wouldn’t take place by Benin soldiers until the Oba suggests it. There are many tiers that involve the make-up of the social-political system based on kinship and not bureaucratic.

After the invasion, the British looted valuable artifacts that tell the history of the Benin people, as early as the 13th century. During that era, the Benin people didn’t write; however, they developed another form of how to record history, which was through their art. The art is primarily figurines, heads, and plagues made with bronze, ivory or wood. Therefore, there is a bronze head made in the 16th century that shows a perfect replica of the Oba’s mother. She has a soft oval face, heavy eyelids, full lips, and tribal tattoos above her eyebrows. On top of her head is a tall crown that leans forward like a bird’s peak, made of coral beadwork that symbolizes her power. A perfect picture of how the queen-mother looked at that time. Likewise, there is a wooden figure that is telling a story of victory an Oba had over a rebellious Chief. This Chief caused a civil war throughout the Kingdom, and the Oba had to put a stop to it. The imagery of the Oba with his many coral red rings on his neck, standing on top of the elephant that represented the rebellious Chief. This wooden figure showed conquest and victory for the Oba. Also, there are art plaques that show the relationship Benin’s had with the Portuguese. Dressed in a pleated skirt with a gun in his hand, a sword on his side, and his hunting dog at his feet to go hunting for leopards. This is some of the things the Portuguese soldiers enjoyed doing when they visited Benin. Those artifacts mentioned, and many more tell stories of important events in Benin history. Stories of certain wars, powers of the nobles, special ceremonies, and even visual images of the Benin’s faces. The artifacts are beautifully crafted historical events in Benin History.

The Atlantic Slave Trade was an economic success for the Portuguese and catastrophic for the city of Benin. In the beginning, trade was based on resources the Benin people had for exchange for resources the Portuguese had. Benin was trading their ivory, gum, pepper, and cotton cloth for the Portuguese copper, brass, and other metals. Wanting more territory for the city, the Oba decided to get involved in the Atlantic Slave Trade. He knew the Portuguese were interested in slaves to do labor for their plantations and would trade them with guns. This interest the Oba because having the guns would give him more power in war battles to seize other territories to expand the Kingdom. So the Oba begin to provide the slaves he caught during war battles for territories. Dominating many territories in his path to gain ownership and making Benin even more powerful than before. The demands from the Portuguese extended what he was getting from war prisoners, so now the Oba begin to capture his people from the Kingdom. Not thinking of the consequences this would eventually do to the Kingdom and the people who succeded on kin-based values. People of Benin feared being captured into slavery, which led them to run away from the Kingdom in unknown lands for safety. Abandoning crops and harvest that contributed to the Kingdoms economy Now seeing themselves as refugees who had believed in the Oba as their savior is now their enemy. All around the city is now ravaged land that was once occupied with clean highways with homes of many communities.

Once a thriving Kingdom with skillful craftsmen, farmers, and nobles are now deserted without any life. Meanwhile, the outcome of the trade is a lot different for the Portuguese. They took those skillful contributors from the Benin people sold as slaves and used their skills on their plantations. Therefore, creating an expansion of more plantations that allowed trade of goods in North America, South America, and Europe. Taking over most of the business flow between continents in the Atlantic Ocean. The Portuguese made massive profits from their cotton, sugar, rum, coffee, and tobacco plantations. Buying a slave for a flat fee was a bargain when compared to hiring a person for labor and paying wages. According to Mann, ‘A single slave brought in a profit of 300 to 800 percent'(Mann 56). Slave used for industry labor by the Portuguese was a model system also adapted by Christopher Columbus to build America. Needless to say, these enormous profits and little lost contributed to the Portuguese to continue to gain more plantations that grew their empire into the Industrial Revolution. Sadly, this wasn’t the case for the Benin Kingdom. Once a glorious Kingdom is now destroyed from the slave raids. The Oba decision to get involved in the slave trade led to the Kingdom downfall but extended the Portuguese plantation empire.

To summarize, Benin is one of the most unique cities with a long rich history in West Africa. Evidence from archaeologist, anthropologist, and historians have demonstrated that this Kingdom was advanced on a level before their time. Not to mention their dextrous artifacts and strategic constructions made it obvious the Binis are talented people. People who distributed leadership among family members to govern their communities instead of politicians was unheard of by other states. But that is how they govern and it worked for them. However, participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade was a decision that caused them to lose it all.

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