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  • The Benin Kingdom in British Imperial Historiography
  • Osarhieme Benson Osadolor and Leo Enahoro Otoide


The body of knowledge that constituted British imperial writing, and the expression that interacted with it were attempts to engage European readership on the imperial adventure in Africa in the age of the new imperialism. This study is an attempt to address the complex issues involved in the production of historical knowledge about precolonial Benin to justify British colonial rule. The argument advanced in this paper is that, since imperial discourse set out to deal with history in terms of civilization, British imperial writing was a struggle to articulate certain ideas about Benin into a position of dominance before the British public. As Mary Louise Pratt explains, “depicting the civilizing mission as an aesthetic project is a strategy the west has often used for defining others as available for and in need of its benign and beautifying intervention.”1 British imperial discourse will form the basis of the discussion in this paper.

Imperial discourse and its subjectivity raises questions about issues of power and privilege of those writers who were determined to sustain their voices in the debate on European imperialism in Africa. Their approach to the constitution of knowledge about Benin was one of many ways that opened the frontiers of knowledge about African states and societies to redefine civilization, albeit for the purposes of understanding various meanings [End Page 401] and implications in this intellectual assault. This provides a vital entry point for examining the European colonial approach to the construction of the image of Africa. The aim is to demonstrate how this process suggests a connection from imperial expansionism to forms of knowledge and expression that reaffirmed metropolitan authority in the context of colonial subjugation. Such imperial writings undermined rules of research and methodology in European scholarship, particularly in the “reconstruction of an accurate record of human activities and at achieving a more profound understanding of them.”2 In view of this, we aim to demonstrate the inadequacies of British imperial historiography in the understanding of Benin, and its consciousness of power and authority in the conquest and domination of other peoples.

The context of representation of Benin in British imperial historiography was a particular model of agency, with voice and authority, which sought to construct a place for imperialists to speak with intellectual and moral authority. Imperial historiography reconstructed the conditions that enabled the concept of imperialism to triumph, while avoiding any attempt to recover the history of Benin. In this context we trace the concerns in British imperial writings about the horrors and barbarities of Benin, the denial of their history and civilization, and the debate on how to reconcile the precious works of art with its barbarity.


Imperial writings by British authors about Benin before the emergence of Nigerian academic history writing in the 1950s serve as the basis for discussion in this paper. This discussion has been explicitly situated in time and space in order to illuminate the colonial forms of writing, and to understand and interpret the context of its production. Such contextualization involves understanding the meaning of imperialism and the ideological context in which the arguments of civilization were constructed. The aim is to demonstrate how it sought to validate the interpretation of Benin history.

British imperial historiography catered to British interests, and turned out primarily as a weapon of propaganda either against already colonized peoples or their targets for further colonization. This factor shaped the perspectives of their writers, and in particular, the representation of historical knowledge about Benin. To understand Benin in British imperial discourse, it is necessary to bear in mind the imperial agenda that governed the production or constitution of knowledge of African peoples in European thought. [End Page 402] Europeans established for themselves the historical identity of the idea of “White” as “civilized” and “Black” as “uncivilized” within the framework of the profound philosophical arguments of Hegel, Darwin, and others in the nineteenth century.3 This paper is not necessarily intended to attack British imperial writers, but rather to examine the extent to which the imperial agenda influenced their representation of the historical knowledge of Benin.

The study proceeds with...


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pp. 401-418
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