Map 1. World Exploration, 1271-1611. (Sayre, 2013)
In this discussion we turn our attention to the indigenous people of West Africa. Since the Portuguese were more interested in fostering trade prospects with Africa a large percentage of their encounters with Non-Western people were in West Africa. Many explores, such as Bartholomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama, and Pedro Cabral, ventured into the uncharted lands to the south searching for not only people to trade with but also new territories to claim. Two primary indigenous cultures were discovered, the Ife and Benin. However, it did not take both European and African traders long to extend their trading practices into human exploitation to Europe and the Americas
It shocked Portuguese explores when they arrived on the coast of West Africa to find indigenous people already living in these areas. To their amazement the region contained several large kingdoms, in particular the Yoruba state of Ife and the kingdom of Benin, both are located in modern day Nigeria.
Map 2. Sub-Saharan West Africa, 1200-1700. (Sayre, 2013)
Sometime around the 8th century the Ife culture developed on the bank of the Niger River in West Africa. It did not take long for the Ife to start creating “highly naturalistic, sculptural, commemorative portraits in clay and stone, probably depicting its rulers, and not long after, elegant brass sculptures as well.” (Sayre, 2013, p.281) Ife brass sculptures possess unique characteristics of their oni, or king. The Ife artifact Head of a King showcases some of these characteristics.
Fig. Head of an Oni or King. Ife culture, Nigeria, ca. 13th century (Sayre, 2013)
The head shows decorative feature of scarification and also includes a number of holes on the neck and head regions. The holes on the neck are used for placing the head on a wood mannequin, and then an Ife court robe would be attached to the mannequin. This was either used to represent a dead leader or a leader who was unable to attend the gathering. The smaller holes on the head were perhaps used for some sort of veiling purpose. The veil may be a “symbol of the king’s capacity to organize the world and to prosper”. However, the Ife left no written record of their cultural beliefs and we can only begin to understand their traditions by observing the descendants of the Ife, such as the Yoruba.
The Yoruba people are a cultural tribe living today who trace their ancestral linage to the people of Ife. The Yoruba culture revolves around the king because he serves as a linkage to the two cosmic worlds the Yoruba believe exist. These cosmic worlds contain the world of the living and a realm of the gods, with the realm of the gods comprising of two groups – the primordial deities and ancestral heroes. It is for this reason that the king’s head is considered sacred.
Fig. 2 Ade, or beaded crown, Yoruba culture, Nigeria, late 12th century. (Sayre, 2013)
The stylization of the Yoruba crown is highly symbolic. The king’s crown “rising high above his head, symbolizes his majesty and authority” is accompanied with “rows of beads” falling “over his face to shield the viewers from the power of his gaze.”
Another culture known as the Benin thrived some 150 miles south of Ife known as the Kingdom of Benin. The kingdom was founded around 1170 when the Ife oni sent Prince Oranmiyan at the request of the people living in the region. The Benin would create head images similar to those found in Ife.
Fig. 3 head of an Oba, Nigeria; Edo , Court of Benin. ca. 1550. (Sayre, 2013)
By the 20th century Chief Jacob Eghaverba, the Benin court historian, realized the cultural traditions were in jeopardy of being lost to history since the stories were passed down from generation to generation orally. Chief Eghaverba began recording the historical narratives of the Benin people in a book he titled Short History of Benin. In one section he describes the beginnings of brass-casting:
“Oba Oguola [r.1274-87] wished to introduce brass casting into Benin so as to produce works of art similar to those sent to him from Ife. He therefore sent to the Oni of Ife for a brass-smith and lguegha was sent to him. Iguegha was very clever and left many designs to his successors, and was in consequence deified, and is worshipped to this day by brass-smith. The practice of making brass-casting for the preservation of the records of events was originated during the reign of Oguola.” (Sayre, 2013)
Much of the first encounters of West Africa with the Portuguese were harmonious and the Benin culture remained intact. The first goods to be traded were “gold, ivory, rubber, and other forest products for beads and brass.” (Sayre, 2013) Figure 4 depicts a Portuguese trader surrounded by 5 horse-shoe shaped copper/brass manila, a form of payment or object traded.
Fig. 4 Portuguese Warrior Surrounded by Manillas, Court of Benin, Nigeria. 16th century (Sayre, 2013)
Eventually the Portuguese and West African trade turned to human exports, or slave trade. Many African tribes had been selling those they captured in war to Muslim traders for quite some time. However, under later trade agreements the Portuguese will greatly expand this practice. In the latter part of the 15th century there were around 150,000 African slaves in Europe but by the mid-16th century the Portuguese turned their efforts to shipping hundreds of thousands of salves to Brazil. The demand for slave labor ultimately outnumbered the amount captured during wars. Forcing the Portuguese to simply capture and ship anyone they found to the Americas.
Map 3. The salve triangle known as the Middle Passage. (Sayre, 2010)
Additionally the Portuguese “treated these slaves much more harshly than the Muslims had.” (Sayre, 2013) In order to insure the captive did not escape “they chained them, branded them and often literally worked them to death.” (Sayre, 2013) In the end, the Portuguese initiated “a practice of cultural hegemony (cultural domination) that set the stage for the racist exploitation that has haunted the Western world ever since.” (Sayre, 2013)
Since the Portuguese were more interested in fostering trade prospects with Africa a large percentage of their encounters with Non-Western people were in West Africa. Many explores, such as Bartholomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama, and Pedro Cabral, ventured into the uncharted lands to the south searching for not only people to trade with but also new territories to claim. Two main indigenous cultures were discovered, the Ife and Benin. However, it did not take both European and African trades long to extend their trading practices into human exploitation to Europe and the Americas.
Sayre, H. M. (2010). Discovering the Humanities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Pearson
——, H. M. (2013). Discovering the Humanities. 2nd. ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Pearson.