The Lowdown Hub

One of Africa's best-kept secrets - its history, alongside The Benin Kingdom of West Africa.

The Kingdom of Benin is home to one of the oldest civilizations in Sub-Saharan Africa, It is home to the Edo people, a people of unparalleled creativity and ingenuity. It’s a place that has witnessed the birth of some of the greatest monarchs to ever walked the area called Nigeria.

The kingdom of Benin began in the 900s when the Edo people settled in the rainforests of West Africa. By the 1400s they had created a wealthy kingdom with a powerful ruler, known as the Oba. Gradually, the Obas won more land and built up an empire.

By 1300, Benin was heavily involved in trade and the arts, using such mediums as copper, bronze, and brass. The Benin bronzes eventually became some of the most famous art pieces produced in Africa. When European merchant ships began to visit West Africa from the 15th century onwards, Benin came to control the trade between the inland peoples and the Europeans on the coast.

A carved ivory hip pendant in the form of a mask. The kingdom of Benin (13-19th century CE) in West Africa (modern southern Nigeria). With bronze and iron inlays. Possibly depicting Queen Idia. Benin City, 16th century CE. Height: 24.5 cm. (British Museum, London)

Trade with Europe

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries marked the high-point of Benin’s economic and political power. The kings initiated military campaigns that extended the kingdom on all sides. They also began to trade with Europeans, especially the Portuguese who reached Benin City in 1485.

Benin exchanged palm oil, ivory, cloth, pepper, and slaves for metals, salt, cloth, guns, and powder. Although Benin’s earlier power rested with its domination of interior trade routes, commerce with the Europeans required expansion to the ocean since Benin City, the capital, was 50 miles inland. This problem, however, was solved with the creation of a fort and port on the coast.

Benin was desperate to keep trade with the Portuguese who supplied the guns that gave it military superiority over its neighbors especially after its attempt to manufacture guns locally failed. Recognizing his leverage, King Manuel I of Portugal threatened to end the gun trade unless Benin’s rulers adopted Christianity. The attempt failed but the Portuguese continued to supply guns because the slave trade proved too lucrative for either nation to end.

Africa has a rich and complex history but there is widespread ignorance of this heritage. A celebrated British historian once said there was only the history of Europeans in Africa. Zeinab Badawi has been asking what is behind this lack of knowledge and looking at the historical record for an African history series on BBC World News.

The Great Pyramid of Giza in Cairo is rightly considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But travel further south along the River Nile and you will find a thousand pyramids that belonged to the Kingdom of Kush, in what is now Sudan.

Kush was an African superpower and its influence extended to what is now called the Middle East.

The kingdom lasted for many hundreds of years and in the eighth century BC, it conquered Egypt and governed for the best part of a century.

What remains of the kingdom is equally impressive. More than 300 of these pyramids are still intact, almost untouched since they were built nearly 3,000 years ago.

"There has been a way of seeing Africa in terms of poverty and conflict which has become a kind of shorthand for the continent that still persists today."

You can watch History of Africa on BBC World News at the following times:

Saturday 02:10 GMT; 15:10 GMT

Sunday 09:10 GMT; 21:10 GMT

Some of the best examples can be found in Jebel Barkal in northern Sudan, declared a world heritage site by the UN's cultural agency, Unesco.

Here you can find pyramids, tombs, temples and burial chambers complete with painted scenes and writings that Unesco describes as masterpieces "of creative genius demonstrating the artistic, social, political and religious values of a human group for more than 2,000 years".

Some years ago I visited these pyramids. On my return to the UK, I asked my parents what they knew of their country's historic sites. Not much, it turned out.

This was odd since both of them could tell you a lot about Henry VIII and key points in British history.

I wondered given that my parents did not know enough about their own country's history whether this was likely to be true of many other Africans.

And as I talked to people I discovered that this was indeed the case.

A few years later, at Unesco's Paris headquarters, I saw on the bookshelves of Ethiopian-born Deputy Director-General Getachew Engida a collection of volumes - the General History of Africa.

This, it turned out, is one of Unesco's and the continent's best-kept secrets: Africa's history written by African scholars.

The carvings at the pyramids in Sudan give an insight into the life in the Kingdom of Kush

The project was conceived in the early 1960s during the period of rapid decolonisation in Africa. Some of the newly independent African leaders decided that after decolonising their countries they also wanted to decolonise their history.

Western historians had lamented the lack of written records in some African countries and had used this as a reason to legitimise such neglect.

Unesco helped African scholars put together the project, recruiting 350 experts, mostly from across Africa and from a range of disciplines, to compile eight volumes, starting from prehistory and continuing to the modern era.

The eighth volume was completed in 1990 and a ninth is now being worked on.

Unesco took the controversial step of starting the volumes with the origins of humankind, setting out the theory of evolution. By doing so, they risked incurring the wrath of Christian and Muslim communities in some African countries where there was, and still is, a widespread belief in creationism.

There are also paintings inside the pyramids in Sudan

Kenyan paleontologist Richard Leakey, who contributed to volume one, says he still believes that the fact humans originated in Africa is anathema to some Westerners, who would prefer to deny their African origins.

The story of the Kingdom of Kush, a superpower in western Asia as well as Africa, where queens could rule in their own right, is also often overlooked.

This is also true of the Kingdom of Aksum, described as one of the four greatest civilizations of the ancient world.

The Aksumite king's controlled trade in the Red Sea from their base in what is modern-day Eritrea and Ethiopia. They were also the first rulers in Africa to embrace Christianity and make it the kingdom's official religion.

This history is little known, both in Africa and elsewhere, because a lot of academics and teachers in African countries have been a product of colonial education themselves, and so they could not receive a comprehensive and chronological account of their own history.

Ancient Stallea from the old kingdom can be seen in the present-day Ethiopian town of Axum

My own Sudanese parents were fluent in English and highly educated, but by and large, were taught according to a Western curriculum.

Even when they looked at their own history, it would have been from the perspective of Western scholars.

One such view was reflected in the comments by Hugh Trevor-Roper, widely regarded as one of Britain's foremost historians.

He said in 1965: "Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present, there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa.

"The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history."

The fact that very few people know about the volumes compiled under the auspices of Unesco also tells you something. You wonder why leaders did not want to shine more light on it.

I am not suggesting there was a conspiracy, of course. Just that there was not enough emphasis placed on African history by either African or non-African leaders.

This is of particular interest for Africa, though, because it has been infantilised to a degree that we have not seen in any other region of the world.

Challenging the stereotype

This is partly because there has been a way of seeing Africa in terms of poverty and conflict - the coup, the war, the famine, the corruption - which has become a kind of shorthand for the continent that still persists today.