Women And The Economy Of Pre-Colonial

Project and Seminar Material for History

Women And The Economy Of Pre-Colonial


Benin is one of the most developed countries in the world. It is a country with a rich history of colonial history. The history of Benin has been a long time in the history of the country. However, there is no study on the status of women in precolonial Benin. This paper is aimed at examining the status and the economic development of women and economy in Benin in the pre-colonial period. The main purpose of this paper is to give an overview of the history, geography, and peoples of the Benin region. This work is an introductory study of the geography, peoples, and economic development in pre-Colonial period, focusing on the geography and people of the region. It will be concluded that the women in the region were supported by stable economy and also, they supported the economy through every trading opportunities known to them. The Benin women impacted a lot on the economy of the area, it could be said that behind the success of the economy in the postcolonial era was the relentless effort of the women.

Chapter One


The Geography and People of Benin

This work is on women and economy of precolonial Benin. This chapter is an introductory study of the geography and people of Benin. Benin was one of the states known for its remarkable civilization and development in the Guinea Forest. Benin was one of the most famous kingdom in the forest region of West Africa and that includes her political system. Scholars and writers alike have shown interest in the history of Benin particularly its participation to the world civilization. It is quite fascinating to known that the Benin history of all the pre-colonial African States, in the most mentioned in contemporary European literature and arts. This chapter centers on the geography and the peoples of Benin.

Geographically, pre-colonial Benin kingdom was located in the forest region of what is now modern Nigeria in West Africa sub-region. This kingdom was not a single administration unit, and its boundaries cannot be precisely drawn.1 The term territory of Benin Kingdom is with the present Orodo, Ovia North-East, Ovia South-West, Uhunmwonde, Orhionmwon and Ikpoba Okha Local Govenrent Areas of Edo State. At the height of its power, the influence of Benin was recorded to have extended westward along the coast of Eko which is present day Lagos and beyond, westwards to Ekiti and beyond which marked the boundary between Benin and Oyo Empire, eastwards to the River Niger as well as the Igbo speaking areas and beyond, and southward to the Atlantic Ocean. The area of pre-colonial Benin had a continuous expansion and that was because Benin was involved with lot of warfare. Warfare and conquering of kingdoms are part of the key answers to empire building. The area does not correspond with what was left of the empire since the European conquest of the kingdom in 1897.2

Evidence have proved that for upwards of three millennium, people speaking varieties of Edo languages (Benin) have occupied an area, some thirty one thousand square kilometer (31,000sqkm) and that is about twelve thousand square miles (12,000skm). It extends to the west of the River Niger in present day Southern Nigeria. From the people, the Kingdom of Benin was established. Still on the linguistics and cultural evidence was the fact that Benin was called differently by her surrounding immediate neighbours. Their Yoruba neighbours called them ‘Ado’, while the Igbo’s to the east called them ‘Idu’, among their southern neighbours, the Urhobo’s called them ‘Aka’ while the Ijaw called them ‘Ado’ and the Itsekiri call them ‘Ubini’.

It is quite unreasonable to suppose that the Edo’s living in the Benin area in pre-dynastic times were organized socially and politically in a manner that has remained typical of that people.

Cosmologically, the Binis believe in the most high God who they call ‘Osanobua’ or Osanoghodua. They were engaged in atonement of sins and lifting of curses as well as the worship of other smaller gods or deities.

The Binis refer to themselves as Owie-Edo which in English means “Born of Edo”. They also refer to Edo-Newbo-Ahiris meaning Edo, the city of love, drawing reference from an event that a man named Edo rescued a Bini prince the certainty and truth of which can be ascertained in the history of Benin during the rivalry period.

However, some writers, academia and non academia have tried to explain how the Portuguese came to identify the area as Benin. Dr. Ekhayuosa Aisien, a medical doctor and a surgeon who serves as one of the resource persons in the history of Benin and culture, has argued that the Itsekiri’s passed the name Ubini to the Portuguese and that Benin is the Portuguualization of Ubini. Professor A.F.C Ryder disagrees with Dr. Aisien’s view. His disagreement came without any explanation.4 That is to say, although he disagreed, he has not been able to give a tangible explanation. However, what is important here is that the name Benin/Ubini was given by the Europeans. Ubini was a name of territory which had several villages, speaking the same Benin/Edo language. As early as the 15th century, Benin has had contact with the Europeans. This was basically because of Benin’s wealth and fame which included his art and bronze work. The Portuguese were the first to have contact with Benin. They referred to them as ‘Beny’. The Europeans were so amazed at the level of achievement and influence, that they described Benin as the city of bronze.

The origin of Benin have for years had difficulties in reconstructing. This is because of lack of documentation. Since the pre-colonial Benin was mostly reconstructed by oral tradition. This occurrence, has created lots of version as regards to the origin of Benin. In discussing the origin of Benin, there are four interpretation, it can also be called the conflicting interpretation. There are:

  1. The Hermitic Hypothesis
  2. The tradition of migration
  3. The tradition of original settlers
  4. The snail shell hypothesis

The first account on the origin of Benin is the Hermitic Hypothesis. This theory was propounded by Charles C. Seligman in his book, “The Races of Africa”. This was published in the year 1930. He attempt to explain in his book that African initiative and contribution to human or world civilization was the handiwork of Hermites who are believed to be of the Caucasian race.6 This hypothesis through describes or offers an explanation for the conquest of Benin by some foreign invaders who imposed their idea of states formation. These invaders are claimed in historiography to have migrated in waves after waves from the North and over ran the original settlers to establish a new state and society. A study of the dynasty will help to bebunk the hamitic hypothesis as far as pre colonial Benin history was concerned. The point here is that the Ogiso dynasty was a product of autonomous Benin people and not, the Hamites as supported by the Hamitic Hypothesis. It is recorded that the dynasty has flourished centuries before the Europeans had contact with them. Still on the line of over-ruling this Hamitic Hypothesis, it should be noted that the Ogiso dynasty was not just a dynasty, but was all about state formation and civilization of the Benin. Based on these facts, the authenticity of this theory is indeed a questionable one.

The second account of the origin of Benin is the Tradition of Origin. It is closely related to the Hamitic Hypothesis. This theory has three explanations which can also be regarded as the three waves of migration.

The first wave of migration was said to be from Nupe in the Middle Belt of present day Nigeria. The migration was southwards which led to the establishment of the settlement now called Benin. This theory has been without a concrete date.

The second wave of migration was from Sudan through Nupe in about 7th century A.D to form the present day location of Benin.

The third was of migration claimed to have started from Egypt through the Sudan to the Sahara to Ile-Ife, as a place of brief sojourn before moving to present abode Benin. This third wave of migration was greatly supported by a local historian Chief J.U. Egharevba. According to him,

Many years ago, the Binis came all the way from Egypt to found a more secure shelter in this part of the world after a short stay in the Sudan and at Ile-Ife, which the Benin called Uhe.7

The claim has caused a lot of arguments, Egharevba’s trace of the origin of Benin to Egypt cannot stand the “acid test” of historical scrutiny and analysis. For one thing Egharevba’s proposition gives credence to the Hamitic Hypothesis which has it that everything of significance that took place in Africa South of the Sahara was brought about by the Hamites (Whites). This ascribes Africa’s pre-colonial achievement to the handiwork of white skinned invaders who was supposedly of the Caucasian stock. This however, means that the Benin civilization must have come from Egypt. For another thing the people of Benin do not have any theory of tradition of migration from Egypt. In addition to these facts is that Benin had been in existence for a long time before the establishments of Ile-Ife by Ododuwa and what this point implied is that the founder of Benin whom Egharevba claims migrated from Egypt could not have sojourned in Ile-Ife an his way to Benin. Moreover, the Egyptian culture is significantly absent from the Benin culture, in terms of social and political culture. An example is the Egyptian writing culture known as the hieroglyphics writing. It is purely absent that of Benin. Although there is evidence that the people who moved into the forest region from the northern fringes of west Africa as a result of the desertification of the Sahara. With this, there is a possibility that some of these people may have found their way to Benin.8 Egharevba’s view still habours some uncertainties.

The third account is the theory of evolution. The Benin people in this theory claim that they are the original settlers. According to their belief, they hard occupied the territory from the beginning of the world. They regard themselves as the children of the soil. In most cases, they trace the location to an area in Benin called “Ivbiotor”. Some other areas located at Upper Sakponba and one of such is known as “Igodomigodo” very close to Ugbekun.

The fourth account is anchored on the Benin myth. It is known as the snail shell hypothesis. According to this theory, the Benin mythology has it that Benin was founded by the youngest son of “Osanobua” (the High God) with his elder brothers. It holds that the High God sent his sons to the world, for the journey’s sake, each was allowed to take something with him. While some chose wealth, material things and magical skills and implements, the youngest son was left with nothing to choose from. At the corner was a snail shell which a mystic voice asked him to take. On reaching the earth, they found out it was covered with water, so they could not settle. As they hovered around, a mystical bird instructed the youngest son to upturn the snail shell and when he did so, sand came out from it to form a land. For this reason, the youngest son of ‘Osanobua’ became the owner of the land in the world and became the first king of Benin.9 His elder brothers had to barter their possessions in return for a place to settle. Hence, though he was the youngest, he became the wealthiest and most powerful. It is believed that the first semi-mythical ruler of pre-colonial Benin during the first dynasty which was known as the Ogiso dynasty (meaning king from the sky) was the youngest son of Osanobua. Prince Eweka claimed in one of his lectures that Benin is the cradle of the world. Meaning “Edo orisiagbon”. It is believed that all other people started on Edo land for the Oba owns the land. This version of origin of Benin is supported by the present Omon n’oba Erediauwa in his lecture on Evolution of the Traditional Rulers in Nigeria given under the auspices of the University of Ibadan Institute of African Studies.10

Although a firm conclusion on the origin of Benin can not be stated, it is believed that all the four traditions of origins has proved questionable at some point. However, I will draw my conclusion by stating that based on the beliefs, customs and traditions from the Oba to his subjects, it is quite clear that the snail shell theory holds all the answers to the way the Oba is regarded and why he is believed to have come from the sky, and also based on their belief that the Oba owns the land, (Obayanto).

Chapter Four


The economic activities of women in pre-colonial Benin no doubt helped in boosting the economy of pre-colonial Benin. Women through their various plans and strategies in the agricultural sector was noticeable. It could be said that although women were not heard in the pre-colonial period due to the norms and culture of Benin, the works can not be denied not seen by the society. The agricultural sector was given a new look through the planting of series of crops. These crops were planted by the women and was known as subsidiaries. These subsidiaries not only created a means of revenue to support the family, it was also for household consumption. The separate garden they had where vegetables was planted also made the native dish a balance diet. It was indeed a balance diet as women were also involved in the gathering of snails and mushroom. These activities helped in maintaining good health and growth in the Benin Society.

Through the making of soap, women have helped in promoting hygiene and healthy environment, soap was used for washing. A local historian has argued “that women in pre-colonial period were great technologist”1 He further explained that women found a means to ensure cleanliness , preservation and processing. The Benin women impacted a lot on the economy of Benin, it could be said that behind the success of Benin Economy in the pre-colonial period was the relentless effort of the women. The act of preserving ensured that at every point in time, items were always enough for families to eat. The emergence of substitute to yam which was cassava was another credit to the women. Women took over the responsibility of ensuring that cassava/fufu was prepared and transformed to a meal.

In the local industry, they also made impacts, the making of cosmetic cream added value to the body of individuals of the society. The women made everything in palm produce important. From the palm seed down to the bunch was used to produce something essential and vital. Oil palm seeds/nuts, soap, cream and fuel ingredients were all derived from palm produce. Another area was the spinning of cotton into threads which was used in the making of cloths, the Benin women at that time, A Journal Jarikh described that”

“One important feature of manufacturing in pre-colonial Africa is that it depended essentially on local raw materials”.2

The women in pre-colonial Benin was deeply involved in it. This activity helped in providing cloths for the people.
The exchange of goods and services was a major means of creating revenue. It also made the society to have what they could not produce, it also provided a channel for relating with neighbours which promoted friendship and marriage. The role of women in all these can not be over emphasized. The women in pre-colonial Benin were involved in trading which they carried out to support the family.

Women for a long period of time were participants and not beneficiaries when it comes to recognition. Nevertheless, they were actively involved in agriculture, trade and industry and made an impact in the economy. History is replete with figures of outstanding women like Emotan, Queen Idia who made impact on this kingdom and commanded vast resources.3 In all, women from all angle of the economy ensured steady flow of food and revenue to support their family and to boost the economy.

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