Benin and the Portuguese role in the Slave trade.
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Written By Leo Oronsaye (Last Update June 16, 2023)

When writing or relating history, we we should be careful to avoid the pitfalls of sentiments that can prevent one from writing or saying it as it is!
Someone averred in a write-up that the Benins never participated in the Slave trade, supporting his assertions with Ryder's postulation on that regards! Well I pointed out to him, that such assertions insinuates that the Benin had no control whatsoever over what transpired, especially with regards to international trade, along her coastline as an empire and that the European slavers just came in at will, with their caravels and remove hundreds of thousands human cargo from a place, that they, the Europeans themselves designated as the Bight of Benin, not Bight of Oyo or Bight of Ife or Ondo, but the Bight of Benin, without the Benins having a hand in it? I reminded him of the historical fact that, the Benins was feared by her neighbours during this period and that it was at pain of death for individual, group of people or tribes or nationalities to engage in trade, licit or illicit with foreigners without a franchise from the Oba of Benin, whom the Europeans dubbed the "Lord of the Guinea " along the entire Bight!

When the Portuguese arrived iirst in about 1472 or thereabouts, the coastal people in the Bight area, refused to trade with them until they get clearance from their Overlord who they told the Portuguese, resides in the great city of Ubini in the hinterland, thereby prompting the Portuguese seafarers to travel inland to seek the face of Oba! With this franchise, they had a complete monopoly of trade, that included the purchase of slaves, with the Benin Empire . And one of the rivers that greatly facilitated the movement of slaves from the interior to the coast, situated along the Benin region coastline, they named, 'Rio Escarvos' meaning'Slave River' in English , known today as Escarvos River in the Niger Delta region!

The Portuguese cartographers segregated the West Africa subregion according to the businesses they transacted at different regional locations namely , Ivory Coast, Gold Coast and the Slave Coast which fell under the suzerainty of the Oba of Benin from modern day Lagos State to Bonny in modern day River State? But people should not get me wrong, what I'm pointing out is that there was no deal legal or illegal that did not get to the ear of great Monarch at the capital city! The Obas of Benin as this period were warrior Kings that had an elaborate intelligence network of, call it, spying, espionage or informants, that covered the entire length and breadth of the Bight And as the Benins say " ikp'ekhae n'otor na ere ri'emwen gi'Oba vb'Eguae" meaning " the very sand particles of the earth, are the Oba informants"! The coming of the Portuguese coincided with the very period of the commencement of the Benin Obas policy of territorial expansion, starting with Oba Ewuare' ogidigan through the reign of Ozolua, Esigie, Orhogbua and a host of others and there was a large and steady influx of POWs from these territorial wars which of course instigated this illicit trade! Remember it was over a hundred years of continuous conquering wars and the Portuguese cashed in on these to do business, buying and shipping these hapless prisoners of war to sell off as domestic helps in mainland Europe and later to the their possessions, the Islands of Sao Tome and the Principe and Brazil in the Americas! History has it too, that Lagos in Portugal was the biggest Slave market in Europe for well over a 100years before the commencement of TransAtlantic Slave Trade to North America!

Incidentally, the first Black slaves that set foot in mainland United State in August 1619 were gotten from the plunder by English pirate ship, of a Portuguese caravel that set sail from the Bight of Benin enroute Lagos in Portugal, the biggest Slave market in Europe as at that period

This period too, witnessed a lot of illegal or renegade Slave dealers, just like you have illegal bunkerers in the Crude Oil trade today in the Niger Delta. Incidentally it was the commencement of North American slave trade that attracted a lot of these renegade slaver raiders, leading to sanctions being imposed by the Benin Monarchs as a way of curbing this illegality, in fact, the progenitor of the paternal side of my family was involved in this nefarious business during the period and he would have paid with his head but for the magnanimity of the Oba, about that same period.

The Obas never banned the sale of slaves, what they did was bar the trading of indigenes of the the Kingdom as these were regarded as evien'Oba meaning Freemen and also males of the greater empire outside the Kingdom proper As at the period the Portuguese had monopoly of the slave trade before the commencement of the Transatlantic chapter, they did the business with the knowledge of the Benins monarchs, that's from Ozolua to the reign of Ehengbuda! And the coming to the empire's throne as Oba by Ehengbuda, incidentally triggered a crisis in the Benin/ Portuguese bilateral relationship, as the new emperor had issues with Portuguese whom he accused of precipitating the crisis that led to his mother's suicide while he was yet a crown Prince! He never forgave the Portuguese, harbouring a resentment, thus resulting in the interruption of trade with the Portuguese, prompting them to relocate to places like Warri and Island of Sao Tome, with the Dutch moving in fill the gap, thus, breaking the monopoly!

He became an apostate reverting back to the traditional worship, which Portuguese regarded as of Vodoo or sorcery practices, that characterised the period of his great grandparents, the Oba Ozolua and the Obas before him, thus earning him the appellation 'Ehengbuda n'Obo'! And one of the myths that mystified the potency of his famed sorcery was that he transitioned his first daughter, Ohuan to a male, for the want of a heir!
The altercation with the Portuguese only eased up, when he joined his ancestors, with ascendance of Ohuan, his son to the throne! But things would never be the same again in the kingdom for the Portuguese as they had lost forever the privileged status they had enjoyed before the reign of Oba Ehengbuda! And what further compounded the woes of the Portuguese was the outbreak of Dutch war of independence from the Spanish rule and in the course of their insurrections anything Spanish were targeted on land and sea! And unfortunately for Portugal, this was the period their country was under the rule of the Spanish crown and naturally they too became targets for Spain's enemies! The war was at its peak and the Dutch extended their attacks to Portugal's overseas possessions in West Africa, Asia and the Americas! Elmina with its castle, an over a 100years old major Portuguese possession in the Gold Coast, was captured, thus disrupting the monopoly the Portuguese enjoyed in the region!

The Portuguese fortunes in the Gulf of Guinea and the Bight of Benin in particular, continued on a steady decline as the fury of the Dutch onslaught on their possessions intensified, they lost the strategic Island of SaoTome, they lost Luango they lost Angola farther down in Southern Africa, they lost northern Brazil in the Americas and they lost Malacca in the Southeast Asia! And all these aforementioned misfortunes, coupled with the cold shoulder they received in every part, where the Benin influence held sway, especially in the strategic port of Lagos, dealt a terrible blow to their commercial interests, thus precipitating their relocation to nearby kingdom of Ardra in modern day Benin Republic, where they established business relationship with the kingdom's ruler and built a new port, Porto Novo as the name implies in their language!

The Slave trade entered a period of proliferation precipitated by the huge demand for slave labour for the running of the burgeoning plantations and the factories of North America and in the Bight , the victorious Dutch had free rein in the Lagos slave market and established a Trading posts at Ughoton to facilitate commercial activities with the Empire! The trade in Slaves continued, throughout the long reign of Oba Ohuan, 1602- 1656 until the period at which most of the Empire's boundaries became established especially in the Northwest area of our modern day, Ekiti State, with the crushing of an Oyo cavalry army at the decisive and famous battle of Otun, putting the Benin in a virtual control of that entire axis, that comprises of our modern day Yoruba states of Ekiti Ogun, Ondo and Lagos!

The sunset of Ohuan's rule after a long reign of about 54 years, saw the Empire's seat of power, besought by a vacuum, with a threat to the ancient law of primogeniture staring starkly at the Uzama N'Ihionron, the ancient tried and true body of kingmakers of the Empire, as Oba Ohuan had no heir!

Faced with the uncertainties that had characterised that unfortunate historic interregnum witnessed in the Ogiso era, that gave room to the emergence and the rise to prominence of the vile and disreputable Ogiamien family, resurfacing, the Uzama, for the want of a king, a second time in the history of the kingdom's existence, once again, looked outside the shores of the ancient city, this time not to Ekalederan/ Izoduwa's Ife but to Eko, that Island citadel of a 100years before established by the great Oba Orhogbua, famous for his maritime military exploits that saw Benin power fully established at the coastal areas of the Bight! The Benins knew that at one time, this famous Sailor king of yore, sired some offsprings during the long 8 year period, that he spent in his camp Eko in the Lagos Island, while carrying out his subjugation campaign of the area, they knew too that one of them ended up as a commander of the garrison he established, who was later installed as the Ol'Eko of Eko, when Orhogbua returned to reestablish his presence at his empire's seat of power, following the disturbing incident of the alleged crowning of his son Ehengbuda as an Oba, during his long absence from the capital! And now a 100 years after, Orhogbua's grandson, Ashipa called Ashipavbevbore by the Benins because the famous statement he made, when he was being called upon to take possession of the vacant throne of his ancestors in Benin city, declined the invitation and volunteered his son, later crowned Ohenzae, to rule the empire in his place! Ohenzae unfortunately was not fluent in the Benin language, but amongst his retainers that accompanied him to Benin was his uncle, his father's younger brother, who spoke some smattering Benin! This period saw the Awori language being spoken in the palace because every verbal communication had to be translated to the new Oba!

This was the period of 'Pax Benin' and the commerce with the Dutch was now focused mainly, on other commodities like the 'Benin Cloth', Ivory, Pepper and red dyewood! And now with the virtual absence of territorial wars, there was a decline in the influx of war prisoners and selling of slaves reduced to a trickle! This was the period that saw some unscrupulous persons within the Empire posing as dealers in slave supply to defraud unsuspecting Dutch traders! There was notable incident that saw an enraged Dutch trader,who after he lost a substantial amount of money in a scam, perpertrated by some fraudulent persons of the kingdom, he had paid for slaves which kept in Barracoon only to discover the next morning an empty Barracoon! Forlorn about this development, the Dutchman sought an audience with the Oba to lay his grievances and on getting at close quarters, he whipped out a concealed pistol in his person and fired point blank at the Oba because he suspected that his scammers were in league with the palace, and to his utter amazement, the bullet fell harmlessly leaving the Oba unhurt! He was quickly overpowered by the Oba's retainers, they had him disarmed and promptly fettered! He was later finished off after a bout of an excruciating torture! This malicious incident and some other unwholesome acts of impropriety by scammers, precipitated the Dutch withdrawal from their Ughoton trade post, to their more profitable business location at the Gold Coast! With these development, their European neighbours, the Danes from Denmark who had a colony at the Gold Coast sauntered in, to fill the vacuum created by the Dutch exit! And one of the notable legacy of their presence in the Empire was the introduction of the Dane gun

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