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Bronze Plagues In Benin History

(By AMBROSE .0. EKHOSUEH) (Last Update July 5, 2020)

Bronze plagues is an aid to memorizing oral traditions and a sort of pictorial record of events in Benin history. The plagues also appear to contain cosmological references which are used by Olokun priests in curing rites and the circled cross in one form of the “Aghadaghada” design and the quatrefoil represents river leaves. Both the cross and the leaf are quadrivial, a basic cosmological form in Benin thought; called ede ene (4 days).

The cruciform represents simultaneously the four cardinal directions, the four Edo days - Eken, Orrie, Aho, Okuo, (East, West, South, North) in other words Eken, Ekioba, Ekenaka, Agbado market days and the unfolding of the day -morning, afternoon, evening, night (Owie, Avan, Ota, Ason) at the time of creation.

In the corners of many plagues are designs similarly relating to olokun, crocodiles, fish, European heads, rosettes, which represent the sun, associated with olokun through its daily descent into the sea. The appearance of olokun as background in plagues depicting court rites and court life is a perfect commentary on the period of Oba Esigie’s reign, when the powers of the sea worked behind the Oba to strengthen and expand the kingdom.

There are over Nine Hundred plagues known. They provide a testimony to court life at that time. Although they are generally considered to be a sort of pictorial record of events in Benin history, an aid to memorizing oral traditions and as badge of honour, they in fact convey narratives. Apart from the war plague, majority represent kings, chiefs, courtiers and some envoys, whatever narrative content they may have, had been lost, their content, however can be partially reconstructed through the identification of the costume.

The fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries are significant in Benin history, as well as that of West Africa generally; because they mark the first direct contact with the European world. In the second half of the fifteenth century, Portuguese navigators began to explore the West African coast and appear to: have reached Benin sometimes in 1472 and 1486.

The Europeans found a highly develop kingdom in the process of territorial conquest with whom they were able to establish diplomatic and trade relations.

The Portuguese learnt that the Benin Sovereignty was sanctioned by a ruler living far East-owen owie, in the interior who sent the Oba a bronze cross, among the other objects which confirmed his authority. Missionaries were dispatched to Benin, because for the Portuguese the cross means Christianity, but in the end Portuguese hoped for converts in Benin.

The arrival of the Portuguese coincided with a period of great political and artistic development, and their coming probably acted as a catalyst. Their impact was many sided-military, economic, cultural, artistic and even linguistic.

Portuguese defenders provided Benin support against its enemies, while traders supplied the important luxury items Benin so desired, coral beads and cloths for ceremonial attire and great quantities of brass manillas which could be melted down for casting. The Iwebo, one of the palace associations, was appointed to conduct affairs with the Portuguese and to this day Iwebo members speak confidential language that is derived from Portuguese.

In return for the Portuguese goods, Benin provided the Portuguese a crucifix made in brass and sent it to the king of Portugal as a present, among others. Bronze plagues depicting Portuguese were made. According to Iwoki guild traditions, their founders were two Portuguese, Uti and Ava, who arrived during the reign of Oba Esigie. Iwoki guild is a group concerned with un-usual celestial phenomena like eclipses, moon phases and comets. At the annual iron ceremony, the Iwoki stand on either side of the Oba holding guns as his defenders. (Catholic knights).

Portuguese soldiers and traders are depicted in Benin art wearing costumes and holding weapons dating mainly to the sixteenth century. Also, European counterparts have clothing worn by both Portuguese and Edo in the art (in the British Museum) ..•.

Plagues depicting Benin Warriors in battle against their enemies are also in Leipzig museum; but the Portuguese also had an impact on the traditional art of Benin, coming from far across the sea, bringing with them wealth and luxury items. The Portuguese travellers were readily incorporated into the complex of ideas associated with the god olokun. (Neptune, Poseidon) ruler of the seas and provider of earthly wealth.

Carved or cast images of the Portuguese sailors in the sixteenth century attires appear in a wide variety of contexts: on bracelets, plagues, bells, pendants, masks/tusks, and so on. Generally, they are accompanied by the denizens of Olokun’s world, and a multitude of chiefs, retainers and royal figures of the Benin Court, thus the image of the Portuguese became an integral of a visual vocabulary of power and wealth.

This can be seen most vividly in one art form - the brass plague. In oral traditions, the earliest reference to the making of plagues is in the reign of Oba Esigie and his son Orhogbua.

In 1897, a British official was told that a caster named “Ahammangiwa” accompanied the Portuguese to Benin, making brassworks and plagues. It does indicate that plagues production was flourishing in the period of Portuguese contact. It is possible that the Portuguese introduced the notion by showing Benin casters small books of pictures. Indeed, some of the background designs on the plagues, such as the quatrefoil, or rosette may have European origins. An envoy spoke of the Oba regalia, that almost everything he wears is shown on the ancient bronzes of Obas; the coral headdress, necklaces and shirt and the ivory ornaments at his waist and on his wrist. An ivory waist mask made for an oba during the sixteenth century. The Portuguese were probably still frequent visitors at the palace hence the carvings of Portuguese heads around the top of the mask.

Visitors to Benin mounted bronze figures, possibly representing envoys from the Muslim trading states north of the Sahara dates from about 1600 and late seventeeth century and one that represents a nobleman, possibly a messenger. He wears on his breast a cross like the one which so puzzled the Portuguese when the Portuguese first saw it in Benin.

A Bronze plagues about 17 in high depicted Benin soldier with elaborate head-dress, basket-work, shield; leopard skin and spear, prepared for war. He is attended by two Portuguese soldiers and two musicians. One of the musicians blows a horn, another a gourd rattles.

Truly speaking and from the aforementioned, Benin plagues is an aid to memorizing oral traditions of past events, such as the bronze statue of Portuguese soldiers and the plague made to commenmorate the campaign against the Ata of Idah, and the ivory salt cellar ordered from a Benin craftsman by a wealthy Portuguese in the sixteenth century.

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