Benin Kingdom people, Nigeria, mask
Credit: The University of Iowa Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection (572).
Anyone who lived in the West African kingdom of Benin during its existence from the 12th or 13th century until its conquest by the British in 1897 was left in no doubt about one thing: the power of the king of Benin. In this lesson, students will learn how royal power was communicated in a society without written records—through brass plaques. Craftspeople from Benin created these works of art to speak to the people about the powers of their divine king.
This lesson plan consists of two sets of learning activities that build upon one another and should, therefore, be used sequentially. The first set of activities provide background and context for the second set. It should take about three class periods to complete all activities.
Review the suggested activities, then download and duplicate any online materials you will need. If desired, you can bookmark specific web pages so that students can access relevant online materials directly; print out required pages and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. (See Selected EDSITEment Websites for a guide to locating online materials.)
Students will examine brass plaques from the African kingdom of Benin. Some plaques depict Portuguese traders and soldiers, reflecting the influence of contact with the first Europeans. For the most part, these plaques have not been referenced in this lesson. Instead, the plaques chosen indicate aspects of life in Benin during the "pre-contact" period. (Having said that, the plaques are not entirely free from outside influence; their shape may well mimic the dimensions of books brought to Benin by the Portuguese.)
Artifacts from the Smithsonian are either:
Begin by arranging for students to locate the site of the kingdom of Benin on a map of Africa.
Have them go to the EDSITEment-reviewed resource National Geographic Society Xpeditions, and click on the map site. On the world map, click on Africa, then click on the modern-day country of Nigeria in the west of the continent. Locate Benin City, in south-central Nigeria, east of Lagos.
Or you may have students go to the EDSITEment-reviewed Odyssey Online website and click on the word Nigeria. Note to students that, despite its name, the kingdom of Benin was located in southern Nigeria, not in the neighboring country of Benin.
Background on Benin
Provide the students with background on this African kingdom, which flourished in the late 1400s, and on the king of Benin, known as the oba. You can find an overview at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, a link available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Art and Life in Africa Online, and at EDSITEment's Detroit Institute of Art.
Plaques in the Palace
Explain that the oba—the king of Benin—adorned his palace with hundreds of metal plaques, or decorated pieces of metal. It was an act of amazing extravagance, a bit like hanging all the gold of Fort Knox on the walls of the White House.
But there was a point to all this extravagance. For the scenes on the plaques showed what the oba of Benin wanted his people to think about him—that he was powerful and that he was divine.
Point out that the plaques were quite small (about a foot and a half tall) and were made of brass—because brass showed something of the power of the oba. How could a metal do that? Because brass is hard and long lasting, the people of Benin associated it with the enduring power of the oba.
The king controlled the manufacture of brass plaques in Benin. Craftspeople could make brass for no one but the oba. If they did, they could be put to death. That's how serious a business this was to the king of Benin.
Have the students look at the plaque of the oba on horseback at the State Museum of Berlin, a link available from the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Goethe Institute. (Click on the magnifier to make the image bigger.)
Ask the students to describe what they see. Two attendants use their shields to shade the king, who rides sidesaddle on his horse, a manner of riding reserved exclusively for the king. Smaller figures bearing swords hold up his outstretched hands. This showed that the king ruled with their support.
And how about the size of the figures? Their relative sizes reflect their status in the court hierarchy.
Draw the students' attention to the hole above the oba's head. What do they think this was for? Explain that holes like this allowed the plaques to be nailed to the palace walls.
Now have them look at this Smithsonian plaque. Again, they should remark on the relative size of the figures. Note, too, the pair of nail holes. (You can see another plaque at the Smithsonian site; search by "Nigeria" and "Edo peoples," then click on "Full Record" for the third plaque of the oba and his attendants.)
Animals in the Art
Benin plaques didn't just feature people, but animals as well. These animal plaques still had the job of telling the people about their king.
Explain to the students that the oba liked to associate himself with certain animals—animals that exuded strength or certain special powers.
One was the mudfish. Have the students look at the figure of a mudfish on the Smithsonian site (again, search by "Nigeria" and "Edo" peoples, then scroll through to the mudfish, which is the eighth artifact listed).
What could a mudfish tell the people about their oba? It wasn't ferocious, like a shark, or powerful, like a whale.
But the mudfish had other abilities. It was a creature that could move across land as well as water. Did this special prowess reflect the oba's ability to swim as well as walk? No, it symbolized his ability to transfer between two realms—the earthly and the spiritual, between life and death. The mudfish became a symbol of the king's divinity.
The kings of Benin went farther than just creating images of the mudfish. So great was the power of this fish that obas had themselves depicted with mudfish legs. Look at this plaque from the Detroit Institute of Art. (Click on the "Explanation of Symbols," then on the "Larger Version.")
The oba has a human torso, but his legs are formed by mudfish.
The plaque shows an elephant's trunk that ends in a human hand. What might this tell us about the powers of the oba? The plaque also features a frog, which, like the crocodile, was a symbol of the king of Benin. Why were these good symbols? What could these creatures do that the mudfish could do?
The leopard was another symbol of the oba of Benin. Why did the king associate himself with the leopard? What qualities does a leopard have that the king of Benin would like people to think he had? Strength, cunning, speed, daring.
Project Your Own Power—on Paper!
Ask each student to create a wall plaque on a sheet of letter-size paper—oriented lengthwise, like most of the Benin plaques. The plaques should symbolize power and authority. They can include people, costumes, and animals, but not (because Benin had no written language) words.
Display some of the finished products in class. Have the students guess at the meaning of the symbolism used in the "plaques."
A short narrative may help to reinforce the main points of the lesson, such as this incident from the life of oba Esigie, a 16th-century ruler of Benin.
"Whoever wants to succeed in life should not heed the bird that cries disaster." So declared Esigie when an ibis bird is said to have predicted the oba's defeat in a war with a neighboring people. His advisers agreed that the war should be called off. But Esigie refused. This kind of omen might scare ordinary men and women, but not the oba of Benin. He killed the bird and went on to win a great victory, thereby declaring his power not only over his mortal enemies but over fate itself.
Ask the students what the oba demonstrated by killing the bird. What might the people have thought if he had then lost the war?
Esigie wanted to remind everyone of his daring. He commemorated his victory by depicting an ibis bird in some of his plaques and on objects like this carved ivory spoon. (You can also see the spoon and accompanying information at the searchable Smithsonian site.)
3 class periods