Art and Rule in the Benin Kingdom

by Barbara W. Blackmun
Professor Emeritus, San Diego Mesa College

Chief David Omoregie, Ineh of the Igbesanmwan. Royal Ivory Carvers’ Guild, Benin City, Nigeria, October, 1981. Photo by Barbara W. Blackmun.


When Benin was the dominant kingdom on the southern Guinea coast, Edo possession of elephant ivory was strictly controlled by the Oba.  Until firearms were introduced in the eighteenth century, hunting these animals with poisoned arrows was difficult and dangerous, and elephant hunters were organized into a separate guild.  One tusk of each elephant killed belonged to the Oba, and he had the right to purchase the other if he wished. In the present day, most of the ivory carved by the Oba’s Igbesanmwan comes from areas far to the northeast of Benin, and tusks are often presented to the Oba by communities, as gifts.