The Royal Bust

The Royal Portrait

The Royal Symbol

The Royal Achievement







Flag over  Benin City on a portolan from 1492.[1]


From about the 14th century there existed in today’s Nigeria the Kingdom of Benin. In European sources this early Benin is indicated on a map from the time of Oba (king) Ozuola who ruled when Bartholomeus Diaz undertook his voyage to the southern cape of Africa (1486-’88). On this map, today in France, a flag is depicted in West Africa flying over a city called OVENI CIVITA MAGNA (Benin city). [2] It is a square cloth, probably blue, with a big yellow five-pointed star.

Of course we do not know if this flag is an invention of the map-maker or if it really existed. In any case, this flag later disappeared completely, only to reappear in the nineteenth century as the flag of Belgian Congo.


Centuries later the ancient kingdom of Benin was liquidated by the British in 1897 when Benin City was conquered and pillaged on a punitive expedition. The last ruling Oba was taken prisoner and banned to Calabar where he died in 1914.


On their punitive expedition in 1897, the British discovered the royal treasuries in the palace compound in Benin City. In one of the houses of the royal palace were found hundreds of bronze plaques, sculptures and carved elephants tusks. These were not very highly valuated because they were not of silver or gold. A part of the treasures was given to soldiers and officers as booty and were sold a few days later in Lagos. The British government  gave many pieces to the British Museum to sell “to meet the costs of the punitive expedition”. It is said that the number of objects counted some 2400. Many of them were sold by auction and were dispersed to many museums.


From the point of view of heraldry the treasures are of interest because they contain items that can be defined as symbols of power of the state of Benin.

It is remarkable that these do not essentially differ from the emblems used in European and other states to symbolize the different institutions of state.

We may observe that in particular the emblems used to symbolize royal power, found in the Benin royal treasury have their remarkable parallels in Europe and elsewhere.


Genrally the king and the royal power are symbolized by the royal bust, the official portrait, the royal emblem and the royal achievement.

In an European context for example the bust of the ruler is found on one side of coins all through the history of coinage.

Also, from ancient times the official portrait of the ruler in the form of a sculpture or painting was exposed on conspicious places like markets and government halls and the like.

From the Middle Ages the emblem of a European ruler consisted of his coat of arms. This same coat of arms became also the centre of the Royal Achievement which symbolizes the royal government.


As for Benin there are the brass royal heads, the brass casted royal official portraits, the sculptures of leopards as royal emblems and, last but not least, the sculptures of the king and his seconds.

It should not be very difficult to accept that the Benin bronze royal heads, official portraits and panthers had the same function as the similar symbols in Europe.


The Royal Bust

The brass heads, found in the royal treasury are almost all of the same kind. The Oba is portrayed with a particular headdres, his neck encircled by a broad band of necklaces, all of red coral.  In these portraits, it is said, not the likeness to the actual ruler is aimed at, but his representation as a ruler, symbolized by his jewelry. The oldest of these royal busts are from the 16th century, the youngest, shown here, from the 19th century.


Head of an Oba, 19th c. Brass cast, H. 45 cm.[3]






Obverse of a one rupee coin, 1877 -1901, showing the bust of Empress and Queen Victoria.


After the fall of the kingdom these bronze cast royal busts were replaced by the busts of the new rulers in former Benin, that is to say the Queens and Kings of Great Britain.


The Official Portrait

The official portrait of the Oba shows him as the principal warrior or supreme commander. Again the Oba has its characteristic headdress and necklaces. In his right hand he swings the ceremonial sword, Ada. An Ada was found on the altar of the ancestors and is was supposed to symbolize their influence on the events.

After 1897 this kind of  imago was replaced by the official portraits of the Queen and Kings of Great Britain.



Oba with ceremonial sword.

Brass cast, 17th C. H. 30 cm.[4]






Official portrait of King George V  (1910-’36)

 showing him as supreme commander.

Oil on canvas


The Royal Symbol

The royal dignity was amongst others symbolized by a leopard. The leopard is the king of the forest and the savannah and is of the same cosmic level as the Oba. The killing of a leopard was a prerogative of the king who maintained a team of leopard hunters. These hunters had special powers preventing them from being killed in the hunt. The killed leopards were only offered to the kings busts.


The annual procession of the king of Benin showing the conducted leopards.

From Olfert Dappers Umbständliche und Eigentliche Beschreibung von Africa, 1668.


As can be seen on the engraving of Olfert Dapper, leopards were also tamed and showed with the annual procession of the Oba in the city. This was to illustrate the power of the king over the king of the jungle.

Teeth and skin of leopards, given by the king to his generals were supposed to give protection in battle and were at the same time the symbol of the royal power of attorney to kill.

Distinctives in the form of a leopard were only given to royal commanders as a reward for their loyalty.

The king himself was called “Son of the Leopard of the House” or praised as “The Leopard, King of the World”. Like the leopard the king has the power to kill and is superior to life. [5]



Leopard, kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, ivory with copper inlay, 47 cm high, late 19th century.

The figure of the leopard is recognized as one of the symbolic representations of the Oba, or king.

Property of Her Majesty the Queen, British Museum, London


In colonial times the leopard of Benin was replaced by the arms of the Queens and Kings of of Great Britain. These consisted of a set of symbols placed on a shield. The arms symbolize in the first place the hereditary claims on England, Scotland and Ireland.



Reverse of a British silver half crown showing the royal arms.


The King and his Seconds, the Royal Achievement

As to the sculptures of the king and his seconds we only should accept that the king can be symbolized by his imago as a supreme commander in full armoury as well as by his coat of arms, to be able to define these sculptures as royal achievements. After all we meet the same idea in Eastern European heraldry where the charge of the Grand-princes coat of arms consisted of the imago of the ruler in full armoury and riding on horseback.

Also, in this arrangement the two seconds act as supporters in the heraldic sense. This too is not very extraordinary when we take into account the savages armed with clubs that support the kings arms of Denmark and Prussia.


Plaque with Oba and warriors. 16th-17th C.

Coll. Metropolitan Museum of Arts.


In this sculptural arrangement the Oba has his ceremonial sword in his right hand and is standing between two warriors equipped with spears (points downwards) and shields. On the second plan dwarfs and children, the personal servants of the king are depicted. This kind of plaque finds its counterparts in plaques in some other European and American museum collections. Some of them have the shields of the warriors exactly the same which may suggest that they were a kind of (royal) arms in the European sense of the word.

Because of the sword, the spears and the shields the arrangement certainly symbolizes the Benin army and in particular its organization which should have been composed of the king himself and his generals. In this arrangement the king is literally supported by his warriors.

The plaque reminds us of some pictures in Carolingian manuscripts which show the emperor seated with his marshal and his constable beside him, bearing his sword and shield. In fact the composition is quite common in the symbolism of the armed forces. A fragment of a helmet for example shows the Lombard King Agilulf (590-616) in almost exactly the same composition. A difference is that when the second of Agilulf  on his right hand has a spear and the one on his left a shield, both the seconds of the Oba bear a spear and a shield.




Agilulf  plate, fragment of a helmet.

Gilt copper, Bargello Museum Florence.

The king with his generals and servants. The legitimation of his kingship is symbolized by the two angels, messengers of heaven.


As we know, the modern European heraldic achievement is of a little more abstract kind in sofar that the parts are exchanged for emblems that symbolize the more restricted idea of the kind we have met in the Benin leopard symbol.


These achievements developed from a symbol for the armed forces only to a symbol that compsises all functions of the state, in the Britsh example to a symbol of the royal government, combining administrative, military and religious powers.


The introduction of the British Royal achievement in former Benin is, taking the Benin royal (quasi-) achievement into account, not such a big revolution. It merely was the continuation of a development originating in early Benin.



British Royal achievement from the time of King Edward VII


Post Colonial Heraldry


An achievement for Benin from the last years of the rule of Oba Akenzua II (1933-1978) could be found, three times repeated, on the throne in the temple of the Benin god Olorun. This achievement, the status of which I do not know, exists of a Benin royal sword (Ada) and a canoe paddle (Ugoko) in saltire, the crest of the Nigerian Federation and a leopard and an elephant as supporters. Below is the motto MY GOD  MY RIGHT on a ribbon.


Chief  Ize Iyamu of Benin sitting on the throne in the Temple of Olorun.

A photo of  Daniel Lainé, about 1990. [6]


Apart of the three achievements the throne is decorated with the headdress of the Oba, two portraits of the “Queen Mothers” all within two elephants tusks. On both sides of this composition are two Benin masks and on the right is a sword and on the left another paddle. [7]

We may suppose that the sword and the paddle are the symbols of armed and administrative power. In that case the symbols in the center should be the symbols of religious power.



Reconstruction of  the achievement as on the throne of the Temple of Olorun.


Mid Western Region

Midwestern Province

Republic of Benin

Midwestern State










The Mid-Western Region was a division of Nigeria from 1963 to 1991, from 1976 being known as the Bendel state. It was formed in June 1963 from Benin and Delta provinces of the Western Region, and its capital was Benin City. It was renamed a province in 1966, and in 1967 when the other provinces were split up into several states, it remained territorially intact, becoming a state.

During the Nigerian Civil War, the Biafran forces invaded the new Mid-Western state, en route to Lagos, in an attempt to force a quick end to the war. While under Biafran occupation, the state was declared as the "Republic of Benin" as Nigerian forces were to retake the region. The republic collapsed a day after the declaration as Nigerian troops overtook Benin City.

In 1976 it lost Ughelli to the new Rivers state and was renamed Bendel. This was subdivided into Delta and Edo in 1991.


”The Mid-Western Region adopted arms by proclamation of the Governor in 1964. The proclamation recites that: “Whereas in divers times and places it has been the custom of Rulers to adopt arms or Ensigns Armorial for the greater honour an distinction of their States,” so in this instance, at the request of the Premier of Mid-Western Nigeria the Governor has thought fit to appoint and declare that the arms of the Governor and State shall be as follows: Per fess vert and or, a Benin Royal Sword (Ada) and a Canoe paddle (Ugoko) in saltire proper. Crest: on a wreath of the colours, a bunch of palm nuts proper. Supporters: dexter, a lion guardant; sinister, a horse, each supporting an elephant’s tusk argent.” Motto: unity and strength. [8]


ð see illustration in the head of this essay (retrieved from




© Hubert de Vries 2009-04-06

[1] The red flag with the crescent at a place called Rio San Felipe (Calabar?).

[2] Anonymous Portolan, 1492. Bibl. Nationale Paris.

[3]  From: Duchâteau, Armand: Benin, Kunst einer afrikanische Königskultur.  München, 1995. Kat. 26.

[4]  Ibid. Kat. 32.

[5]  Ben Amos, Paula:  The Powers of Kings: Symbolism of a Benin Ceremonial Stool. In: Paula Ben Amos & Arnold Rubin: The Art of Power. Los Angeles, 1983. Pp 51-58.

[6]  Lainé, Daniel: African Kings. Toronto 2000, p. 52.

[7]  Lainé, op. cit..

[8]  Pine, L.G.: Heraldry of the World. Fig. 409.