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Queen Iden and the Benin Kingdom

By

Ebuka-Onuoha Pat Iziengbe  

Department of History and International Studies

University of Benin,

Benin, Nigeria.

TEL: +2348034144262

Email: iziengbe.omoregie@uniben.edu  izwithchrist@yahoo.co.uk

Abstract

The ancient Benin kingdom exemplified a sophisticated socio-political culture and a peculiar system of government with an intimidating aura of monarchy, coupled with a distinct artistic triumph. The Benin Kingdom according R.E Bradbury was the largest and longest lived kingdom among the West African forest states. Its institution of monarchy had been sustained for several centuries because of its peculiar rule of primogeniture. The role of women in the sustainace and maintenance of Benin’s unique political system cannot be overemphasized. Queen Iden is arguably the most remarkable woman in the remembered history of Benin City. She represents love and loyalty. Her personality could be described as, courageous, selflessness, humble and patient. The paper, therefore, seeks to examine the life of Iden, her prowess, personality, strength and the unusual sacrifice she made to keep the Benin nation together. It tries to give Iden her rightful place in the history of Benin kingdom by focusing on her roles in saving the nation from collapse and in the establishment of the system of primogeniture. The paper concludes that present day Nigerian women, especially those in politics and wives of political leaders should take a cue from the contributions and sacrifices of Iden to the Benin Kingdom. It contends that Nigeria will be a better nation if wives of political leaders can forget their selfish interests and be ready to make significant sacrifices for the nation like Iden did in her era. The nation has continued to suffer from the excesses of greedy women in politics who have become a source of shame to womanhood and the entire nation. 

 

Introduction

African history has been silent for many decades over the roles of women in the continent. However, the rise of feminist study in the twenty-first century has pushed many historians into the study of African women who have made indelible mark in their generations. The African women like their European counterparts are seeking for place of relevant in the emerging democratic dispensation in their countries. They also strive to play key roles in both political and economic development in their nations. Be that as it may, most of their motives are based on selfish interest. This is as a result of the way and manners many of them have misuse public position and funds for their own selfish and personal gain. This is quite a contrast with the lives of several heroines in African history who voluntarily gave their lives, made usual sacrifice and fought for their national pride. The likes of Idia, Moremi, Nzinga, Amina, Iden and many other women played significant roles in the development and formation of the political institutions in their states. They set their priority right; the interest of the state and family was put first before any personal interest. This informed their choices and actions in handling national challenges.

Queen Iden of great Benin Empire is a perfect example of pre-colonial heroines who played significant roles in the development of socio-political culture in pre-colonial Benin. The impact of her actions is still very much evident in the present day Benin. Her unusual love and sacrifice for the kingdom cannot be forgotten in a hurry. She is today referred to as a perfect example for Nigerian women in politics. This paper, however, seeks to interrogate the life of Queen Iden, her prowess and actions in relation to the development of a unique socio-political culture in pre-colonial Benin. It also relates the life of Iden with the contemporary women in Nigerian politics and wives of political office holders. For proper analysis, the paper is therefore divided into the following sections: Introduction; The Ancient Benin Kingdom; Queen Iden: Her Life and the Unusual Sacrifice  and the Conclusion.

 

The Ancient Benin Kingdom

Ancient Benin Kingdom is a land of warrior kings whose tales of powerful adventure and expansion have continued to linger on in Africa and Nigerian History. It is a kingdom which developed a complex socio- political system which many historians have continued to study.

The ancient city of Benin which was one of the earliest formed state in Africa south of the Sahara is located in 60 12’North latitude and 50 45East longitude, about seventy three mile Inland from the mouth of the foremost of Benin rivers, which extended into the Gulf of Guinea. The capital city of the ancient kingdom lies in Western part of Nigeria on a low-lying plain which is drained by small stream and rivers flowing southern to the flank of the Niger Delta. The Kingdom is of high tropical forest with tidal swamps penetrating deeply into the riverine swampland to the South and West. It is instructive to note that the present day Benin City, is the capital of Edo state which is located in the South-South geo-political zone of Nigeria.  According to Bradbury, by the 16th century, its frontier had reached out West ward along the coast beyond Lagos, North West through the country of Ekiti Yoruba to Otun. Thus, it embraced a considerable population of Eastern Yoruba and western Nigeria. However, Read and Dalton claims there are a tradition that the Kings once extended their sway over the whole Guinea Coast as far as Gambia. However, Edo opines that the territorial and ethnic composition of the kingdom varied overtime, consequently it is quite difficult to be definitive about its boundaries Thus, the extent of the Kingdom may be defined as the area within which the Oba is recognized as the sole arbiter of life and death.

According to A.C. Ryder, the inhabitants of the heartland of the old Benin kingdom are some people who call themselves, their capital city and their language Edo. The people considered themselves evien-Oba, that is, slaves of the oba, these are free subject of the throne. They wore body mark and regarded themselves as superior to their neighbour. It is worth noting to understand that the Edo speaking people do not necessarily speak the same dialect or language though they are all under the authority of the same Monarch. The people settled in both Benin City and several outline villages and provinces.  

Benin City was also one of the leading centres of   arts, crafts and culture in Nigeria. are culturally alert, the people are known all over the world for its famous arts treasures most of which are still object of study by many Europeans and Africanists. Well known are bronze casting of Benin (plaques, bust, naste, royal figure and animals), some of a considerable number of carving and antique mud-sculpture have been preserved in Benin City by some antiquarians and ethnographers.

The Benin kingdom and empire exemplified a centralized political system which had several political institutions like the Oba (king or monarch), the Uzama Nihron headed by Oliha , the Eghaevbo title holders which is sub divided into the Eghaevbo N’ Ogbe headed by Uwangue (palace chief), Eghaevbo N’ Ore headed by Iyase ( Town chief  ). These institutions, however, functioned together in the day to day administration of the state. The Oba had his own divinity and was credited with all kinds of mystical power; he performed both executive and judicial functions. With this kind of personality of the Oba, it will be difficult to believe that women who had no place in the state could have influence on him. It is pertinent to note at this point that the Obas were highly influenced by their Mother and wives. They were very much manipulated and influenced by their favorite wife or mother   

 

Queen Iden: Her Life, Prowess and the Unusual Sacrifice

Love they say is blind, for the love of a woman to sustain the unity of a whole nation is not an issue to be pushed aside. Very few women in our contemporary period could lay down their lives for the unity and peace of their nation. Iden was a woman of great beauty and special qualities. Due to her selfless nature and sacrificial life, she can never be forgotten in the history of the Benin kingdom. To me, she is supposed to have been recognised as the most honoured woman in Benin kingdom. Queen Iden is arguably the most remarkable woman in the remembered history of Benin City. She represent love and loyalty, her personality could be described with some few words such as, courageous, selflessness, humility and loyalty.

Iden Nokpokhuo (Iden the great woman) was the royal bride and beauty Queen of Oba Ewuakpe. She lived in the first decade of the eighteen century`(c 1700 A.D). She was said to have hailed from Oka village, now part of the present day Upper Sokponba in Ikpoba Okha local government. Born from a humble background, later became one of the dearest wives of Oba Ewauakpe. Her life depicts loyalty, commitment and dedication to the Kingdom and her husband. She became relevant and honoured in Benin Kingdom due to the sacrifice she made for her husband and the empire.

Oba Ewuakpe was the twenty-seventh Oba of Benin, According to Asien, when Ewuakpe became Oba, he was saddled with two major disadvantages which made him unable to handle and manage absolute power to his own advantage and that of his subjects. He was young and lacked patience that goes with age; some scholars describe him as a very hot tempered man. Secondly, he was not born an Oba. He was thrust into the office by his father, Akennuzama, who declined to be Oba when he was offered the crown, by selection. This was because he was already very old. Oba Ore-Oghene died without a child and the Ihogbe decided that Akennuzama his cousin would be next Oba. Akennuzama on the other hand passed the responsibility and honour to his son, Idova, who was hurriedly re-named Enennegha. During the reign of Oba Ewuare, he prophesied that when an Oba named Idova becomes Oba, he will make some drastic change in the kingdom either for good or bad in the people. As a Ehennegha he was presented by the Ihogbe to the Uzama and crowned the Oba of Benin with the titular name Ewuakpe.

At the beginning of his reign, for the first time, an Oba of Benin had a living father. As soon as Ewuakpe began to reign he started to manifest highhandedness and making anti-people laws.  His mother constantly warned him to reduce his hardness toward his subject so that they would not rebel against his authority and command. She also made him understand that there was something about his destiny that was not too good and that was why they had to change his name before he was made Oba in order to avert his ill fate.  He did not listen to his mother’s plea and warnings. 

The whole saga that brought Iden to limelight began when Oba Ewuakpe lost his mother, Ewebonoza. The death of the Queen mother at Uselu brought so much sorrow to Ewuakpe who had very deep love and commitment to her. She was actually his guide against misrule and the misfortune that would have long befalling him. Queen Ewebonoza was from Ikoka village in Ugolo quarters and her people truly mourned her for seven days due to her contribution to the development of Ikoka. No soothing word could calm the Oba. It is said that at her funeral, he made great number of human sacrifices to escort the soul of his mother home. This notorious history of human sacrifice in Benin can be traced to Oba Ewuare, who is said to have introduced it. He introduced the sacrifice of twelve human beings at the annual propitiation of the Oba’s ancestor. This disdainful and extravagant expenditure of resources of such priceless worth as human being was calculated by him, to further enhance the awe in which the palace was held by the people.

In Oba Ewuakpe’s case, he did not only sacrifice slaves with his mother, he also murdered titled chiefs who came to mourn with him during his mother’s burial. He claimed that they were spotted on white while coming to the palace to mourn his dearly beloved mother. To him, they should have worn black to show they were really mourning. During the massacre, some chiefs, however, escaped for their lives and told the others the situation at the palace. Ewuakpe did not stop there, some emissaries were sent to him from Ikoka, his mother’s village to mourn with him and represent Ikoka at the final burial of his mother. Oba Ewuakpe asked his guides to slaughter them because they were on white instead of black, which was the official colour for mourning the dead in Benin. He forgot that there was a law that prohibits people from entering the palace on black. Tradition has it that he left one of the emissaries sent from Ikoka with half leg to return to Ikoka and tell the sad story to his people. These unfortunate incidents resulted to anger and bitterness towards the Oba from Benin and Ikoka.

In Benin, this unfortunate incident culminated into outright rebellion of the people toward the Oba. The leader of the rebellion was chief Iyase, and some other principal chiefs like the  Esogban and Uwangue who were lucky to survive the massacre at the palace. They called all other senior and low class chiefs into a meeting where they all took oath, and sworn that they will never pay homage to the palace again. They also instigated the people into total rejection of the authority of the Oba. The people who were already tired of Ewuakpe’s tyranny, gladly accepted and became loyal to the Iyase in rejection of the Oba.

During the rebellion, Ewuapke was on a journey to Uselu to perform some sacrifice at his mother’s shrine, before he returned from Uselu disaster was awaiting him at the palace. The Iyase and other member of his cabinet went with both young and old to the palace and drove away all the remaining loyal servants of the monarch. His numerous wives and children were also given the freedom to leave the palace. They all gladly left due to the already sad situation at the palace as the people had rejected the Oba. Only Queen Iden remained at the palace, though she was persuaded by the Iyase to leave as the others had done, she refused saying that once one is married to the Oba, she never returns home.

According to the story told by Peddie Okao, The Iyase was actually in love with Iden before she became one of the wives of Ewuakpe. Iden asked him to go and pay her bride price and he continued to delay it and when he was now ready to pay, the Oba had already seen Iden and he immediately married her. This incident that took place many years earlier, led to inbuilt bitterness in the Iyase toward Ewuakpe. He vowed to make sure Oba Ewuakpe pay for the way he took Iden from him. This is the reason he gladly used the rebellion of the people as an opportunity to pay Ewuakpe back for taking his beloved Iden.

At the return of Ewuakpe, he met an empty palace with only Iden waiting for him. She welcomed him and narrated the atrocity committed by the Iyase and his cohort against the monarch. This was the beginning of Ewuakpe’s suffering and agony. The Oba became a mere man as the people that made him king had total rejected his lordship. They refused him food, clothing, homage and labour. He suffered from so much humiliation and rejection. He then asked Queen Iden to also join the other women and leave him to die alone in the palace since he ca no longer provide for her, she bluntly refused and rejected the offer as she choose to suffer with the oba and continue to love him forever.  A story was told by Egharevba on how he climbed up one rainy day to put right a place in the roof that was bad. He fell and was injured, though he cried no one came to rescue him. Throughout this period, Queen Iden whose life depicts loyalty and courage remained the only one who stood by Oba Ewuakpe in his trying moments.

Iden remained loyal and continued to encourage the Oba that things will get better; he remained in this condition for so long and when he could no longer bear it he decided to visit Ikoka, his mother’s village to get assistance from the people. This journey was, however, a big mistake, instead of being received with joy he was unkindly treated and rejected. The people told Oba Ewuakpe bluntly that if he needed assistance, he should make himself useful to the town first. This he could achieved by joining the young men in clearing the roads, digging wells and mending roofs. They did this to mock him and humiliate him for the way and manner he murdered some of their kinsmen who came to pay him homage during his mother death. They did not even offer him water or food to eat, his only remaining servant, his omada (sword bearer) was very hungry yet Ikoka did not show mercy. This was due to the way he had treated the emissaries sent from Ikoka to the palace during his mother’s funeral. He got angry at the demands of Ikoka, how could they ask an Oba who had the power of life and death to stoop low and begin to do menial jobs. In range at the humiliating way he was treated by Ikoka, Ewuakpe placed a curse on them. He began to lay curses on the land, he declared that when they cutting grass, the grass will be growing along with them and when they digging well the well will be covering up with them and when they are mending their roof, the roof will going bad along with them. Oba Ewuakpe also declared that no great man will ever come out of Ikoka except for women because of his mother, Ewebonoza, who might come back to life again through Ikoka village. Up till this very day, there is no great man in Ikoka, the women are the wealthy while the men are poor and useless to the society.

He decided to return home. On his way back to Benin, his one and only sword bearer died of starvation. The Oba had to humble himself and carried the state sword on his own. It was in this bitterness that he sealed the curse on Ikoka again by throwing off his spiritual staff of authority to the bush making the curse on Ikoka irrevocable.  Ewuakpe also laid a curse on Benin that the people shall never in their lives work in absolute unity like the one they had that led to his humiliation and rejection at Ikoka (Umagbanedo). When he returned home to the palace in Benin he met his beloved wife Iden still waiting for him. He asked her why she has not left like the others so that she can start a new life knowing that she actually did not even have a child for him. Iden refused to leave; she told her husband that no one was worthy to climb the tree the viper has climbed. For her, she can never give herself to any other man because she was owned by the Oba.

Queen Iden’s life depicts true love and loyalty of a woman to her husband and her nation. Though she was persuaded by her to leave and move on with her life, she refused knowing how miserable the Oba will be without anyone to look unto. Iden took the rapper she had and went to the Oba market and sold them for seven cowries. With the money, she traveled to Ugbor village and brought a diviner to the palace, Ewuakpe asked the oracle what he must do to bring to an end this rejection of his rule by his people, the oracle told Ewuakpe to stage a make-believe scenario which would suggest to the observer that the rejection of his rule by the people has been called off, and that the people already resumed their loyal and obligatory service to the Oba. But what would make the plan work was the sacrifice of a human being. Queen Iden paid the seer and she set out with her husband to procure the necessary sacrificial items as prescribed by the oracle. She went to the Oba market at dusk to collect all pieces of broken calabashes she could get, especially those which were used to bring palm oil to the market for sale. And all cast-away pads, both of leaves and old calico, with which traders had brought their wares to the market and abandoned at the end of the day’s business. She then went to Ugo n-erhie, gatherd a lot of green shrubbery and elaborated a still greater number of these head pads. Ewuakpe also went into the palace and gathered palm tree which dotted the premises.

When these other prescribed sacrificial articles were ready, the couple now turned their attention to the problem at hand, which was where to get human sacrifice. As accounted by Peddie Okao, the diviner and Oba Ewuakpe began to search for human sacrifice; they search for days and could not lay their hands on anyone for the sacrifice. The diviner also gave instructions that if the sacrifice elapses twelve mid nights on that day it will no longer be potent or effective for the Oba. In this situation Ewuakpe was hopeless, it was already close to mid-night, still there was no human sacrifice. Ewuakpe decided to accept his ill fate and pleaded with Queen Iden to return to her parent so that he would find solution to his life alone.

Iden, a woman of courage and love, came up with the human sacrifice, she told her husband not to give up because the gods have provided the human sacrifice he needed. As Ewuakpe demanded for the sacrifice, she told her husband that she would offer herself for the king and the kingdom to work again in unity and harmony. Oba Ewuakpe was amazed at the love and loyalty of this woman. He refused her offer and said he could never be so ungreatful to treat such a kind woman that had stood by him in the time of his need like that. But Queen Iden insisted, she persuaded him that this was her destiny, nothing will ever make her happy than to see the monarch come back again to his full glory and splendor. The unity and peace of the kingdom of her husband and fathers land was worth her life.

Queen Iden talked the Oba into accepting her as the sacrifice in order to save her husband’s high office. One version of the story say she was buried alive by her husband at her present grave side in the Oba market, while the other version claimed she was handed over to the native doctor who used her for the sacrifice at the spot where her grave lies at the Oba market: whether she was buried alive or not is not really important, the cogent point is, she was willing to offer her life as a sacrifice for love and unity. Asien contends that she chose the spot to be buried and before was she used for the sacrifice, she made one request from her husband.

 

Source: Ebohon Cultural Centre

Iden realizing what it meant to be buried in a market place, requested of her husband that  in the event that the purpose of the sacrifice was indeed attained, and the Edo people came back to accept the lordship of the palace and monarch, then she must be protected, in her grave from all insults of the market place. That anyone who steps on her grave must be put to death. This request was fully carried out until 1897 when Benin was taken over by the British.

 

Source: The Reaseacher Took The Photograh Herself In Benin.

This Is Queen Iden Grave; Surrounded By An Iron Fence, The Grave Is Over Three Hundred Years. It Is Located Along Iwebo Street, At The Side Of The Oba Market.

 

This heroic action of Queen Iden was not in vain. By the next day, it was already producing fruits. While Oba Ewuakpe sat down at the palace mourning the death of his dearly beloved wife, Iden, he regretted why he allowed her persuade him to offer her as a sacrifice, now he is all by himself. He did not realise that the sacrifice was already working outside the palace.

It was the Esogban, in his residence at the semi-official site of the Ogbe-Eguanran who, on looking at the Unuogua, first saw the burnt-out torches, the broken calabashes of oil and the head-pads, abandoned as it seemed, by multitude of people. The articles all constituted the tell-tale evidence that the Benin people had resumed their long-abandoned service to their king. He felt betrayed and left in the lurch. The Esogban quarrelling loudly about the perfidy or deceit of the Edo, he went to the store-house of his wealth, both in men and material, and carted an appreciable portion of it across to the palace. There, he pleaded for the forgiveness and endorsement of the palace. The Oba answered Esogban with a lone voice reassuring him from a half closed door that the Esogban was not the ‘Oba’s Enemy’. The chief returned home happy knowing that he has reconciled with the Oba and he is no longer in a disadvantaged position with his peers.

The Iyase got information that his hierarchical subordinate, the Esogban had made peace with the Palace and he was astonished. He blamed himself for his over trusting nature; people were always taking one advantage or the other of him leaving him to carry the can of worm. He too also opened the store-house of his wealth and went to the palace to declare his allegiance; a little apprehensive about whether his declaration would be accepted by the king or not. The slaves who were part of Esogban’s earlier gifts now received the Iyase and his gift of allegiance. It was they who assured him that he was not the ‘Oba’s Enemy’. Words of the happenings at ignored and the weedy palace spread round the whole city, and the other chiefs followed the example of the two senior Eghaevbo-nore Chiefs. Villages came to Benin and retrieved the palace from the creeping jungle it has almost become. The gifts which they brought soon repopulated the palace, the royal harem was re-constituted with choice damsels from all over the kingdom.

This was how Oba Ewuakpe was restored and rehabilitated by a woman’s love, which involved her sacrifice unto death. The sacrifice saved the Obaship, and re-positioned it on a stable keel. And for the last three hundred years there has not occurred similar circumstances when there took place a complete breakdown in relationship between the people and the palace. This is due to the constitutional changes made by Oba Ewuakpe towards the end of his life.

Ewuakpe now understood that there was a need for guidance or coaching before anyone is allowed to handle absolute power. To him learning on the job had its many hazards. These hazards were acceptable when the power is to be wielded was retrained power, or shared powers. But the safe use of absolute power required to be born into it. The temptation to explore the limit of absolute power was usually absent when one is born into it. He introduced the system of primogeniture; he put his ideas on the chiefs that hence forth succession to the throne of Benin would be by first son only.

This principle of primogeniture which has become the most stabilizing factor of the political institution of Benin was introduced as a result of the sacrifice of a woman. This again proves the relevance of women in pre-colonial Benin, the sacrifice of Queen Iden did not only produce unity and peace, it brought stability to the political institution of Benin kingdom. If not for the ultimate sacrifice made by Iden, the Benin Monarchy would have been long forgotten. This is why the activities of Iden must be brought to light; she is a woman who is indeed worthy of honour for her selfless sacrifice to the kingdom of Benin. The Benin monarchy is the pride of its citizens today due to the activities of Iden and many other great women who gave their lives for the development and sustenance of the Monarchy. The principle of primogeniture which is still practiced up till today in Benin was as a result of the sacrifice of one woman. Indeed, the place of women in the evolution and development of socio-political culture in Pre-colonial Benin cannot be overemphasized.

Queen Iden, a woman of great beauty, loyalty, love, courage and honour who made her life nothing for the unity of the Benin Kingdom must not be forgotten in a hurry. Without Iden, there will be no Benin Monarchy today. As rightly asserted by Chief Obazouwa of Benin, “Iden brought peace and tranquility to the Benin Kingdom”

Conclusion 

Looking at Nigeria today, it is obvious that women have continued to play strategic roles in the nation’s politics. There are female ministers, deputy governors, senators, administrator, and more importantly the role of Nigerian first ladies both at the federal and state level cannot be over emphasized. Recently, Nigerian politics was overturned as a result of the roles played by wives of powerful political leaders. From the period of military rule, wives of military administrators were very powerful and played significant roles in the nation’s politics. During the regime of President Ibrahim Banbagida, the position of first lady began to gain prominent place in Nigeria’s political circle even though the position was not constitutional. Moreso, first ladies began to build their own pet projects and were allotted some important function in the state.

In 2010, during the health challenges of President Umara Musa Yaradua, his wife Titi, held the whole country to standstill. She refused to disclose the health situation of her husband and was virtually ruling the country until his death which ushered in a new president. More recently the wife of President Muhammadu Buhari has consistently spoken against the cabals she claimed has taken control of her husband government. Her voice has brought lots of tension in the political space as Nigerians anticipate for 2019. She has been praised in different quarters for boldly standing up to speak against the ill of her husband administration while others see her as a  disloyal wife.

Be that as it may, Queen Iden in pre-colonial Benin reflects the true character of an African woman. She stood by her husband in the darkest moment and was willing to sacrifice her life in order to return back his dignity and the loss unity of the Benin kingdom. African women in the old were loyal, selfless and were willing to give their lives for their families and nation. However, greed and individualistic character which are some of the colonial heritage have almost ruined these great virtues of African women in the contemporary periods. Finally, to Nigerian women in politics and wives of political leaders, “look at Queen Iden” and study “Idenology” she is a perfect example of a nation builder.

 

Endnotes

Published inNumber 1Volume 2