Political Space

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Benin Kingdom artist, Nigeria. Palace of the King. Engraving by Olfert Dapper.

While ancestral power in many African kingdoms is vested in the king, the power of the kingship as a whole is spatially located in the royal palace. All over Africa, kings' and chiefs' residences embody the ethos of a people and form a microcosmic model of the universe. Luba, Pende, Akan, Mangbetu, and Benin rulers all had and often continue to possess significant architectural complexes that mark relationships, delineate roles, and create boundaries of insiders and outsiders. Olfert Dapper depicted the palace of Benin in the seventeenth century, and his image matches works found in bronze and other materials in Benin in the late nineteenth century when the palace was ransacked prior to burning by a British punitive expedition that came to punish the Oba for an attack on a British trading party. The engraving showed the palace with high turrets surmounted by large cast brass birds with outstretched wings.