The Benin Empire (1440–1897) was a pre-colonial empire, with its capital Benin City now located in Edo state in what is now Nigeria. It should not be confused with the modern-day country called Benin, formerly called Dahomey.
The original people and founders of the Benin Empire, the Edo people, were initially ruled by the Ogiso (Kings of the Sky) dynasty who called their land Igodomigodo. The rulers or kings were commonly known as Ogiso. Igodo, the first Ogiso, wielded much influence and gained popularity as a good ruler. He died after a long reign and was succeeded by Ere, his eldest son. In the 12th century, a great palace intrigue and battle for power erupted between the warrior crown prince Ekaladerhan son of the last Ogiso and his young paternal uncle. In anger over an oracle, Prince Ekaladerhan left the royal court with his warriors. When his old father the Ogiso died, the Ogiso dynasty was ended as the people and royal kingmakers preferred their king's son as natural next in line to rule.
The exiled Prince Ekaladerhan who was not known in Ile-Ife, somehow earned the title of Ooni (Oghene) at Ile-Ife and refused to return, then sent his son Oranmiyan to become king. Prince Oranmiyan took up his abode in the palace built for him at Usama by the elders (now a coronation shrine). Soon after his arrival he married a beautiful lady, Erinmwinde, daughter of Osa-nego, was the ninth Enogie (Duke) of Ego, by whom he had a son. After some years residence here he called a meeting of the people and renounced his office, remarking that the country was a land of vexation, Ile-Ibinu (by which name the country was afterward known) and that only a child born, trained and educated in the arts and mysteries of the land could reign over the people. He caused his son born to him by Erinmwinde to be made King in his place, and returned to his native land, Ile-Ife. After some years in Ife, he left for Oyo, where he also left a son behind on leaving the place, and his son Ajaka ultimately became the first Alafin of Oyo of the present line, while Oranmiyan himself was reigning as Oni of Ife. Therefore, Oranmiyan of Ife, the father of Eweka I, the Oba of Benin, was also the father of Ajaka, the first Alafin of Oyo.
By the 15th century, Edo as a system of protected settlements expanded into a thriving city-state. In the 15th century, the twelfth Oba in line, Oba Ewuare the Great (1440–1473) would expand the city-state to an empire.
It was not until the 15th century during the reign of Oba Ewuare the Great that the kingdom's administrative centre, the city Ubinu, began to be known as Benin City by the Portuguese, and would later be adopted by the locals as well. Before then, due to the pronounced ethnic diversity at the kingdom's headquarters during the 15th century from the successes of Oba Ewuare, the earlier name ('Ubinu') by a tribe of the Edos was colloquially spoken as "Bini" by the mix of Itsekhiri, Edo, Urhobo living together in the royal administrative centre of the kingdom. The Portuguese would write this down as Benin City. Though, farther Edo clans, such as the Itsekiris and the Urhobos still referred to the city as Ubini up till the late 19th century, as evidence implies.
Aside from Benin City, the system of rule of the Oba in his kingdom, even through the golden age of the kingdom, was still loosely based after the Ogiso dynasty, which was military and royal protection in exchange of use of resources and implementation of taxes paid to the royal administrative centre. Language and culture was not enforced but remained heterogeneous and localized according to each group within the kingdom, though a local "Enogie" (duke) was often appointed by the Oba for specified ethnic areas.
Nearly 36 known Ogiso are accounted for as rulers of the empire. According to the Edo oral tradition, during the reign of the last Ogiso, his son and heir apparent, Ekaladerhan, was banished from Igodomigodo (modern day "Benin Empire 1180-1897") as a result of one of the Queens having deliberately changed an oracle message to the Ogiso. Prince Ekaladerhan was a powerful warrior and well loved. On leaving Benin he travelled in a westerly direction to the land of the Yoruba where he became king and renamed himself Oduduwa.
Bronze plaque of Benin Warriors with ceremonial swords. 16th–18th centuries, Nigeria.
On the death of his father, the last Ogiso, a group of Benin Chiefs led by Chief Oliha came to Ife, pleading with Oduduwa (the Ooni) to return to Igodomigodo (later known as Benin City in the 15th century during Oba Ewuare) to ascend the throne. Oduduwa's reply was that a ruler cannot leave his domain but he had seven sons and would ask one of them to go back to become the next king there.
Eweka I was the first 'Oba' or king of the new dynasty after the end of the era of Ogiso. He changed the ancient name of Igodomigodo to Edo.
Centuries later, in 1440, Oba Ewuare, also known as Ewuare the Great, came to power and turned the city-state into an empire. It was only at this time that the administrative centre of the kingdom began to be referred to as Ubinu after the Itsekhiri word and corrupted to Bini by the Itsekhiri, Edo, Urhobo living together in the royal administrative centre of the kingdom. The Portuguese who arrived in 1485 would refer to it as Benin and the centre would become known as Benin City and its empire Benin Empire.
The Ancient Benin Empire, as with the Oyo Empire which eventually gained political ascendancy over even Ile-Ife, gained political strength and ascendancy over much of what is now Mid-Western and Western Nigeria, with the Oyo Empire bordering it on the west, the Niger river on the east, and the northerly lands succumbing to Fulani Muslim invasion in the North. Interestingly, much of what is now known as Western Iboland and even Yorubaland was conquered by the Benin Kingdom in the late 19th century - Agbor (Ika), Akure, Owo and even the present day Lagos Island, which was named "Eko" meaning "War Camp" by the Bini.
The present day Monarchy of Lagos Island did not come directly from Ile-Ife, but from Benin, and this can be seen up till in the attire of the Oba and High Chiefs of Lagos, and in the street and area names of Lagos Island which are Yoruba corruptions of Benin names (Idumagbo, Idumota, Igbosere etc.). Other parts of the present day Lagos State were under Ijebu (fiercely resisting domination by the Oyo Empire) and Egun (tossed between the Dahomey Kingdom, with its seat in present day Republic of Benin, and the Oyo Kingdom).