Art of Africa
- Igbo-Ukwu, an overview
- Benin Plaques
- The Benin “Bronzes”: a story of violence, theft, and artistry
- Benin plaques at the British Museum
- The Kingdom of Benin
- Benin Art: Patrons, Artists and Current Controversies
- The Imagery of Power on Benin Bronze Plaques
- Benin and the Portuguese
- Queen Mother Pendant Mask (Iyoba) (Edo peoples)
- Benin Plaque: Equestrian Oba and Attendants
- Ere Ibeji Figures (Yoruba peoples)
- Yorùbá artist, pair of twin figures (Ère Ìbejì)
- Ibadandun woman’s wrapper, unrecorded Yoruba artist
- Ceremonial robe (agbádá ìlèkè), Yoruba artist
- Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa
- Head of a ruler, Ife
- Ife uncovered
- Ife remembered
- Olowe of Ise, Veranda Post of Enthroned King and Senior Wife
- Olowe of Ise, Veranda Post (Yoruba people)
- Olowe of Ise, veranda post (Yoruba peoples)
- Benin crafts
- Male figure, Ikenga (Igbo Peoples)
- Ikenga (Igbo peoples)
- Uche Okeke
- Yinka Shonibare, The Swing (After Fragonard)
- Shonibare, The Swing
Benin and the Portuguese
By The British Museum
Manilla (bracelet), 19th century C.E., Nigeria, brass (© Trustees of the British Museum)
Trade with the Portuguese probably encouraged the growth of brass casting in Benin at this time. Although West Africans invented the of copper and zinc ores and the casting of brass at least as long ago as the 10th century, they themselves did not produce enough metal to supply the casting industry of Benin city, which gave such splendor to the king’s palace. The Portuguese found a ready market for brass ingots, often made in the form of bracelets called "manillas."
Historic kingdom of Benin
These were made in the Low Countries (modern Holland), traded throughout West Africa as a kind of currency, and melted down by the brass workers of Benin. When the Portuguese arrived in Benin, Nigeria, in the fifteenth century, they quickly started trading brass and copper for pepper, cloth, ivory and slaves. In the 1490s a Portuguese trader wrote that at Benin copper bracelets were more highly prized than brass ones.
The number of manillas in circulation increased dramatically from the sixteenth century when they became one of the standard trade currencies. Millions were made in Europe, along with brass and copper pots and pans, and imported into Africa for trade. Research by British Museum scientists has shown that objects like these were melted down and made into works of art such as the Benin bronze plaques.
Brass figure of a Portuguese soldier holding a musket, 17th century C.E., Benin, Nigeria, brass, 43 x 20 x 18.5 cm (© Trustees of the British Museum)
A Portugese soldier
This is an image of a Portuguese soldier. He wears a typical 16th century European costume, with steel helmet and sword, and he carries a . Guns were new to the people of West Africa when the Portuguese arrived. So Africans traded them from Europeans and learned to make them for themselves, to help them in their wars against other peoples who still only had hand weapons or bows and arrows. Sometimes the king of Benin even employed Portuguese soldiers, like this man, to fight as in his wars. Figures of Europeans such as this Portuguese soldier were kept on royal altars or on the roof of the royal palace in Benin city.
Control of trade
One reason why the rulers of Benin conquered their neighbors was to control the supply of goods which could be traded to the Europeans on the coast. The king himself was in charge of trading slaves, ivory and other important goods, so that all the profit went to support his court and government.
Other merchants could only trade with the king’s permission. The Europeans themselves were seldom allowed to travel inland or visit Benin city, to avoid them trading without the authority of the king.
The British Museum logo
© Trustees of the British Museum
 Thomas Lionel Hodgkin, Nigerian perspectives: An historical anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 121, quoted in Kate Ezra, Royal Art of Benin: The Perls Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992, p. 12. "Duarte Pacheco Pereira, who visited Benin in the 1490s, wrote in his Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis, "The Kingdom of Beny [sic] is about eighty leagues long and forty wide; it is usually at war with its neighbors and takes many captives, whom we buy at twelve or fifteen brass bracelets each, or for copper bracelets which they prize more."
Read a Reframing Art History chapter about Portuguese contacts and exchanges.
Paula Girshick Ben-Amos, The art of Benin (London: The British Museum Press, 1995).
Jonathan Williams (ed.), Money: a history (London: The British Museum Press, 1997).
Kenji Yoshida and John Mack (eds.), Images of other cultures (Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, 1997).
Want to join the conversation?
- "Sometimes the king of Benin even employed Portuguese soldiers, like this man, to fight as mercenaries in his wars."
Can you point out any specific war these mercenaries helped the Benin people in?(5 votes)
- On occasion however, European mercenaries were called on to aid with these sieges. In 1603–04 for example, European cannon helped batter and destroy the gates of a town near present-day Lagos, allowing 10,000 warriors of Benin to enter and conquer it. As payment the Europeans received items, such as palm oil and bundles of pepper. The example of Benin shows the power of indigenous military systems, but also the role outside influences and new technologies brought to bear. This is a normal pattern among many nations and was to be reflected across Africa as the 19th century dawned.
Robert Sydney Smith, Warfare & diplomacy in pre-colonial West Africa, University of Wisconsin Press: 1989, pp. 54–62(3 votes)
- So if brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, was used as the prefered medium for sculpture and metal work, why would the copper manillas be worth more? Am I making an incorrect assumption that brass was the more popular metal for use?
It would seem to me, with Benin's small industry, and assumingly equally small access to zinc, would it not make more sense to acquire the complete alloy, then recast, rather than make it themselves?
Or was it the case, like in actual coin currencies, that the Portuguese were debasing their brass manillas, and either the zinc content was too high or too impure generally?(3 votes)
- Where were the Portuguese when the British invaded Benin in 1897? Did they fight alongside the Benin warriors when the British took Benin?(2 votes)
- excrypt from paragraph 1: The Portuguese found a ready market for brass ingots, often made in the form of bracelets called "manillas"
Did manilla PAPER get it's name from these? Or was it just a coincidence?(2 votes)
- The name for manila paper comes from the fact that it was originally manufactured in the Philippines (Manila is the capital of the Phillippines). This is unrelated to manillas, a word with two l's as opposed to one.(1 vote)
- isn't brass used in instruments ?(1 vote)
- Yes, its very typically used in the brass instruments. This includes such as tuba, trombone, trumpet, and more. However these instruments can also be made from other metals such as silver. I hope this answers you question(3 votes)
- Are there more images of brass figures of Portuguese soldiers that were made in Africa? I would love to see more...they are so beautiful and well made!(3 votes)
- Does Benin and the Portuguese still trade as partners, or are they forced to?(1 vote)
- During the 19th Century. Benin formerly known as Kingdom of Dahomey, was conquered by France. Making french their actual first language. After that specific conquering period, Portuguese stop trading with Benin, as they did before, due to french occupation. Although they still maintain Porto-novo as their capital name, which means "new port" in Portuguese, the french changed the country name to French Dahomey. Finally by 1975, it was renamed to Benin.(1 vote)
- Are the brass castings all one of a kind due to the method in which it was made?
Are you aware of any that had total of 24 warrior noblemen and tradesmen fastened to the outside of vessel with a 25th on the lid . I cant find anything like it and read that the more elaborate pieces have up to 9 ....any insight would be greatly appreciated(1 vote)
- who led the Portuguese voyage in the ancient Benin city(1 vote)