Benin’s status as a regional powerhouse coalesced in the 15th century under the leadership of Oba Ewuare (enthroned c. 1440). Ewuare is credited with many innovations that defined and gave structure to Benin kingship, including improvements to the royal capital, Benin City, the establishment of the three associations of palace chiefs, and the creation of an annual cycle of royal rituals to protect and renew the kingdom.
The Portuguese arrived late in Ewuare’s reign, and he is the first oba to be linked with wealth and power derived from coastal trade. In Edo oral history, Ewuare is credited with obtaining the royal garments of coral (ivie ebo) and red flannel cloth (ododo) that were among the new luxury goods imported to Benin. According to legend, Ewuare traveled to the palace of Olokun, the god of the waters and prosperity, and stole the deity’s spiritually charged coral garments.
The Portuguese also added crossbows and firearms to Benin’s arsenal; however, the use of these weapons was limited to the oba and his commanders. In Benin’s visual arts, the Portuguese are strongly associated with Olokun and frequently appear alongside mudfish, crocodiles, snakes, and other beings that traverse between water and land, a trait shared by Portuguese seafaring merchants.
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Oba’s Fly Whisk (Ugbudian Ivie), 18th/19th century. Edo; Benin Kingdom, Nigeria. The Trustees of the British Museum, London, Af1898.0630.3.