On behalf of the Institute for Benin Studies and Tayo Akpata Foundation, it is my immense pleasure to welcome you all to this historic conference. In a way, one feels elated but humbled by the response that has greeted this earth-breaking conference. By the fifteenth century, Benin had made its debut on the then World Stage. Nevertheless, very rarely in this country, has a private body like our Foundation and the Institute, sponsored an academic or scholarly gathering of this nature. Let me commend The Institute for Benin Studies, who in spite of its modest facilities and resources, has since its inception succeeded annually in attracting the participation of specialist individuals on various aspects of Edo history and culture.
As pointed out in our letters of invitation, the first European, Ruy de Sequeira, Portuguese, visited Benin City in 1472. Starting from that time, for a period spanning almost a century, during the reigns of Oba Ozolua, Esigie, Orhogbua and Ehengbuda; Europeans, viz: English, French, Dutch and Italians, were falling on themselves in Benin, in order to establish trade links with the Empire. Benin court exchanged Ambassadors with Portugal as evidenced by the correspondence of de Barros and De Pina during the reigns of Dom Joao II. Darte Pires too wrote on behalf of Dom Emmanuel. These Portuguese Ambassadors are quoted in Bradbury and Alan Ryder in their books on Benin.
The Benin royalty embraced Roman Catholic religion as introduced by Dom Joao II, the Portuguese King at the time. He believed as an article of faith that Kingship constituted the ‘fountain head of authority’; by this policy, the king believed that, evangelism will spread “efficaciously” among the people. Thus, Oba Esigie, was Christianized and became more or less a religious zealot. He read and spoke Portuguese. His son, Oba Orhogbua, the founder of (Eko) Lagos, was educated in Portugal. He too, read and spoke the language lucidly. This was the age of Renaissance in Europe. It appeared that at least the effects were enacting themselves beneficially in the Benin Empire. We can go on talking and writing about the glory and splendor that was once of the Benin Empire. The transcendental allurement that the history; valour and tradition of the Empire held out, were universally proclaimed. Equally the inimitable fame of Benin artifact(s) remains ever green since the present Benin dynasty. Where else do we find this type of continuous devotion to works of art in present day Nigeria? Obviously, the phenomenal situation in Benin affords the type of continuities observable by social scientists in their quest for “conceptual models”. The autarchy of the Benin system of government in spite of modernizing blitz remains as firm as an Iroko tree, while occasionally responding to contemporary times in good measures.
Since history began, Edos tend to take deserved pride in their civilization, understandably so. We recall that as late as the nineteenth century, some Nigerian Christians suffered persecution on account of their faith. It is noteworthy that Benin kingdom, even in contemporary time, has been free from religious persecution and intolerance. Roman Catholic Churches and Schools were built in Benin City; priests were trained while intense prosylitization ensued unhampered.
Between the sixteenth century and the colonial era in Nigeria, apart from the writings of Chief Jacob Egharevba not much is known to have been written about Benin. Egharevba’s writings were based essentially on oral tradition. Still, the writings afforded historians, social anthropologists and other fairly informed writers, veritable sources of academic researches. Egharevba, a lifelong devotee of Benin history, was a member of the erstwhile Benin History Project based at the University of College, Ibadan (as it then was), under the eminent Chairmanship of Professor Kenneth Onwuka D***, Principal and Vice Chancellor, University of Ibadan, 1960 – 1966. Dr. S.O. Biobaku, Scholar / Administrator, also paid his dues on the project. Both D*** and Biobaku have since answered their home calls. Basically, beside these efforts, in the main, there was not much written by Nigerians about Benin History, until the later half of the last century.
How be it, we need to learn from an eminent body of scholars and men as are gathered here today answers to a few questions pertaining to the rich treasure of Benin history. Bishop Ajayi Crowther translated the Bible to Yoruba in Oyo dialect. Admittedly that Yoruba Bible became the standard Yoruba spoken and written amongst Yorubas to date, whilst individual communities’ or principalities retain their dialects. After the titanic efforts of Bishop Crowther, it remained for Dr. Johnson and his brother, Reverend Samuel Johnson, to unleash another work, The History of the Yoruba, on Nigeria. As far back as 1939, Nathaniel Fadipe, first Yoruba Ph.D, London holder, wrote The Sociology of the Yoruba. Needles to bore you with the unending list of Yoruba first class academics of recent times such as S.O. Biobaku, GBA Coker, Teslim Elias, Jacob Ade-Ajayi and others, who have written and taught Yoruba History, Law and Customs. Probably, a list of that nature will run into tombs of writing papers. It suffices to say that consciously or otherwise, all Yorubas within Nigeria and outside it were thus unified linguistically irrespective of dialects by the language ‘coup’ of Bishop Crowther. Other non-Oyo sub-linguistic groups now fall in line with speaking and writing in Oyo Yoruba. For example, during the days gone by in the Benin Empire, neither the Edos in the metropolis, Edo N’Oba ye, nor those outside it, as well as outside Nigeria, spoke the common Edo language. Our Church liturgies, language of government and commerce have been in our respective dialects. Many regret the fact that inhabitants of the Empire did not adopt Edo language except the stragglers in diaspora. Even then they occasionally reduce the language to unintelligent mumble jumble, when they attempt to speak the languge.
However, amongst the early European visitors to the Benin Empire, Ruy de Sequeira’s appearance in 1471 could be regarded as one of reconnaissance, whilst that of Joao d’Afonso Aiveiro in 1485, started with the twin Portuguese obsession and strategy of penetration into Tropical Africa with Trade as the hand maiden of religion. The stage at which the scramble for trade and religion in the Benin Empire started is relevant to the position of other world powers at that time. In parenthesis, at the time America was yet to be ‘discovered’ by Columbus in 1492, talk less of the American war of Independence. Quite clearly, much of our history speaks of our exploits, far and wide, particularly along the West African Coast, and the hinterland. Are there research finds of exceptional historical or archaeological importance already amassed by scholars on this position? Were there Portuguese writings translated into Edo before the British struck in1897? There are Ijebu (Uzebu) quarters in Owo, as well as in Benin City. What do we know of the origins or connections of these places? Igala is said to enjoy the benefit of a Benin Prince on its throne, even before the Idia war. Does the existing dynasty still owe any link with Benin, if any? Was Ijebu Ode ever brought under Benin suzerainty during the reign of Oba Ozolua? Apart from Eko (Lagos) and present day Edo State; where else are there Benin dynasties, in West Africa? Because of the assumed prestige or the importance of a community, it is common for individuals to assume association with such famous and prestigious communities, rightly or otherwise.
In pursuit of excellence in knowledge, there is no concept that is sacrosanct. Every concept is challengeable; hence, there has been progress in the world. For example, we now know that the origin of man on this planet is Chad in Africa according to Professor Michael Brunet, Pontiers University, France. The archeological breakthrough in discovering human mandibles aged three million years old was breathtaking and monumental. In present day Nigeria, there has also been the daring archeological find, which attributes the first h*** sapien to be found in that part of Nigeria to Iwo Eleru near Akure. What then is the status of the origin of the other claims in the areas?
In the foregoing circ***tances, The Omo N’Oba Erediauwa’s book, “I remain Sir, Your Obedient Servant”, presented in Lagos in 2004 was useful. It is hoped that new facts exposed on the relationship between Benin and Ife within the parameters, social sciences, “Logic and Scientific method, will be deployed to extract the verifiable hypotheses contained in the book. Even though academic literature on Benin History and culture, are burgeoning in Europe, America and elsewhere, yet noticeably missing are fairly researched accounts of the origin of Benin and its history before the fifteenth century. When European scramble for the Benin Empire started. Hence, what is yet to be found out and written about the defunct Benin Empire seems immense.
How be it, we implore the academic world to take the history and culture of Benin seriously as if it were an academic Jihad. If Oba Ewuare, who was “purposeful, courageous and sagacious”, did so much in his time for history, how can we complain? I am sure that this subject is your passion as it is ours too. Hence, we are all on the present yeoman’s task, which is of immense relevance to us and the generations yet to come. The conference will also be of benefit to Africa and humanity, hopefully. On our part, within our resources, we will continue to cooperate at all times, with all those, who share in this passion of ours. Accordingly, we earnestly call on Nigerian Universities to institute departments of Benin Studies within their faculties, as serious academic disciplines. Indeed we urge on Universities within ECOWAS jurisdiction to consider similar steps.
Without abusing my presence amongst you here today, let me draw your attention to the present rising clamour, almost reaching a deafening crescendo for the return of Benin artifacts looted from Omo N’Oba Ovonranmwen’s Palace and other nobilities, in Benin City, during the British brutal war attrition in 1897. In 1938, Benin had cause to hope that in the succeeding years, the British will do that which is honest, dutiful, civilized and as fair minded persons to return all the artifacts taken away from Benin to us. In that year, at a gala at the King’s Square in Benin City, the British returned to The Omo N’Oba Akenzua II, the coral regalia of The Omo N’Oba Ovonranmwen Nogbaisi. Since then, our hope has remained mere hope! However, recently, the British returned to Greece, The Elgin marble which they took away in 1806. Will this also be next way forward for the British in Nigeria? One last point is for us, as progressive Nigerians, with a sense of duty to our society and future generations to request that Nigerian governments restore the study of History par se, in the curricular of educational institutions at all levels: namely; Primary, Secondary and Tertiary. In this connection, the decision to delist History from the educational curricula was most ill-advised. We need citizens schooled, in the history of their beloved country. This gives them a certain amount of self confidence, identity and pride.
Let me hasten to point out that, the queries raised in this address have ended to be in the hallowed mode of David Hume, a Scott, who in his book “A Treatise of Human Nature”, written in 1739, celebrated, “Pregnant Hints” in Political Thoughts. I believe that what this address envisages is answers to “Pregnant Hints” in the history of Benin Empire. All in all, one’s fervent hope and confidence is that, the outcome of this conference may perhaps, handsomely reward your worthy endeavours. You may also draw solace from the fact that, our work may in no small measure, contribute to a greater amity and oneness, amongst teaming Nigerian ma****. And of course, contribute to our quota to the quest of African Personality, in World politics and history as strenuously advocated, in the lifetimes of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dr. Leopold Senghor and Osagiefo, the President Kwame Nkrumah and others, who have since received their home calls.
It is now left for me to thank everyone here present. I wish our guests fruitful discussions and interactions.
Chief ‘Tayo Akpata
(Ima of Benin)