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The City And Guilds Of Great Benin Culture

By Ambrose Ekhosuehi (Last Update July 10, 2020)

THE City and guilds of Great Benin Culture came from the early civilization growth of art and technology of the Edo people that had developed vast skills known to the ancient world.

A city, among its definitions, means a large town, corporation representing any of the mediaeval trade guilds, that is, a mediaeval association providing for the masses, maintenance of common interests, mutual support and protection of the middle ages (mediaeval).

The legendary fame of the Great Benin Empire was widespread and peoples of the ancient world heard about it and desired to visit it. It was a story known to the ancient people that Gold was obtained from the Negroes for sales on the European markets, thus, Europeans wanted to gain direct access to the source of supply. Moreso, Portugal and Spain were interested in finding a sea-route to India in order to avoid trading for Indian goods through intermediaries.

These economic motives plus a desire to extend geographical knowledge and possibly to find a Christian king in tropical Africa as an ally in the struggles against infidels, led prince Henry the navigator of Portugal, to launch expeditions to sail beyond the West coast of Africa.

Aided by the papal bulls of the 1450s, which had secured their rights to the African coasts, the Portuguese had by 1472 completed their exploration of the West coast and were able to settle down in Benin for gold, pepper and bronze.

Michael Crowder tells about the second half of the fifteenth century built a factory at Ughoton-Gwatto, the ancient sea-port of Great Benin to handle pepper trade.

The Oba had a royal monopoly on trade and one of the duties of his paramount chiefs like Uwangue and Eribo was to transact such business on his behalf. Other items traded; included Leopard skins, ivory, Benin cloths, carved woods, brass works, and in the exchange, Portuguese brought goods like firearms, dresses, glasses, beads umbrellas etc.

The Introduction of fire arms increased Benin military strength and played a remarkable role in its imperial expansion in the sixteenth century.

The Europeans were surprised to meet a community with advanced technological knowledge and ingenuity. The Edo women manufactured soap perhaps basic chemistry, handloom; cloths weaving, fermented drinks-palm wine and gin.

The Blacksmiths produced cutlasses, machetes, hoes, knives, spears and in agriculture, shifting cultivation was practiced. Agronomical practices for seeds selections and storage propagation were quite advanced. Others were cattle rearers, (iriemila) drum makers (ikpema) while each quarters was a specialist for a kind of trade.

In defence, a number of cantonments were built, moats or trenches of about fifty feet deep were constructed that are still surrounding the city. All the important towns and villages in the Benin copied the model and dug similar moats or ditches round their own domain. These moats remain the greatest man made earth work and were appraised worldwide.

Much of the Benin art and technology was developed and practiced in, family locations. This appropriate technology was compatible with Edo cultural and economic conditions using Local resources and raw materials, likewise in preservatives, medicines, charms, and healthcare.

These types of Local art and technology were mostly in metal works, wood carving, ivory and bone carving, fibre weaving - Ewa, Ebo, Leather works- Isohian, clay, mud, beads, akpolo, ivie, pottery, stone and cowries art works. These skills took roots in individual family and with times, the skills became a feature of the community and family heritage.

It became a pride of the Benin kingdom. The Oba harnessed the resources through the guilds system by bringing the artisans, craftsmen and specialists together, into a central trade-based pool or workshops in the city. This indigenous technology permeated the lives of the people in diverse areas as in civil engineering, building, transport, communication, Agriculture and warfare.

The Europeans brought their own art and technologies, and put their guilds in advance training stage. Trade centres, technical schools and colleges were built to fully rely on the importation of Europeans technologies, rather than adopting our indigenous technologies, to give productive results. Thus we have embraced transfer of technology from the European nations and put an end to the expansion of indigenous technology, so all efforts to develop indigenous technology nowadays are still ineffective.

The city and guilds of Great Benin culture are family heritage which should have been harnessed with modern art and technology. Intact most modern industries in the world started from the family circle, that are today known all over the world. A particular engineering heritage started in 1901 which marked the end of an era and the start of the modern industrial age. They recognized the new world of opportunity and started the engineering production that still bears the name more than a century now.

A century of trading has seen the survival and prosperity, despite two world wars, economic depression, an era of boom and bust. More than one hundred years on and the company is under the control of the third generation of the family, yet it continues trading from its ancestral base.

The Benin guilds of bronze caster, brass and iron casters, the blacksmiths have been in existence since the Ogiso era, so also the wood carvers and other guilds, as well as the oven burnt bricks introduced in the advent of colonialism. All these yell for modern technologies; to move the third world from the receiving end of alien guilds and put us in technological development and improvements if we start now to applying the resources of modern culture into the city and guilds of ancient Great Benin culture.

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