In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Yoruba States, Benin, and Dahomey

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
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African Studies Yoruba States, Benin, and Dahomey
Babatunde Lawal
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0169


The Yoruba states, Benin, and Dahomey of West Africa attracted international attention between the 16th and 19th centuries not only because of their high level of cultural development, but also because of the large numbers of slaves Europeans purchased from their region during the Atlantic slave trade. It is worth mentioning here that the term “Yarriba” (now Yoruba) originally referred to the Òyó the most powerful of a group of different but culturally and linguistically related states in present-day southwestern Nigeria. It was not until the 19th century that Christian missionaries used the term to categorize cognate groups that previously identified themselves as Àkókó, Ànàgó, Àwóriì Ègbá, Ègbádò, Èkìtì, Ìbàràpá, Ifè, Ìgbómìnà, Ìjèbú, Ìjèsà, Kétu, Òndó, Òwò, Rémo, and Sábèé, among others (See Smith 1988, cited under Precolonial Period and Apter 2013, under Society and Cultures). Secondly, the kingdom now identified as Benin was originally called “Igodomigodo” and founded by the Edo people, the eastern neighbors of the Yoruba (see Eweka 1991, cited under Primary Sources: Oral Tradition). Thirdly, the Dahomey kingdom, to the west of the Yoruba, was founded by the Fon (see Argyle 1966, cited under Precolonial Period). Notwithstanding their frequent raids into one another’s territories during the transatlantic slave trade, the Yoruba states, Benin, and Dahomey have dynastic ties. It suffices to say that by the early 18th century, Òyó had become the most powerful of the Yoruba states, with an empire extending from the area around the middle Niger River southwestward to include many Yoruba and non-Yoruba groups. About the same time, Benin City, the capital of the Edo kingdom, emerged as the epicenter of an empire stretching from the confluence of the Niger-Benue Rivers in the northeast and the Niger Delta in the southeast to include some Yoruba kingdoms in the west and northwest. Although Dahomey did not establish an empire, the kingdom was still a force to be reckoned with. For it successfully raided many Yoruba states for slaves. By and large, the imperial authority of these regional powers ended in the late 19th century when they were colonized by the British and French. After subjugating the Yoruba and Benin kingdoms, the British made them part of what is now the Republic of Nigeria, which gained political independence in 1960. Though the French retained the name “Dahomey,” the Fon kingdom became part of a larger colony including non-Fon ethnic groups, all of whom were granted independence in 1960. However, in 1990, Dahomey changed its name to the Republic of Benin (Republique du Benin) in memory of pre-19th century greatness of Ancient Benin of Nigeria. Thus, to avoid confusing the new Republic with the latter, the phrase “formerly Dahomey” would be added in parenthesis where necessary. While tradition has not been static, recent developments are unprecedented, due to the dynamics of modern technology and globalization. For more information on this phenomenon, consult the separate Oxford Bibliographies article on Popular Culture and the Study of Africa.

General Overviews

Like those of other African cultures, the beginnings of the Yoruba states, Benin, and Dahomey are shrouded in the mists of prehistory. For some time now, scholars from different disciplines have been tracking them in the hope that much would soon be recovered to enable the present generation make sense of its past. Continental surveys on early state formation by Connah 2001, major historical events by Davidson 1972 and chronological issues by UNESCO 1981–1993 include a lot of materials pertaining to the Yoruba states, Benin, and Dahomey. However, the synopses in Ajayi and Crowder 1985–1986 are more detailed because of their regional focus. The data in Coquery-Vidrovitch 2005 are very useful, being more recent.

  • Ajayi, J. F. Ade, and Michael Crowder, eds. History of West Africa. 3d ed. 2 vols. London: Longman, 1985–1986.

    The two volumes offer a comprehensive overview of West African societies from prehistoric times to the 20th century.

  • Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    A survey of ancient African cultures from the Nile Valley to Great Zimbabwe and beyond with emphasis on their origins, economies and social and political structures.

  • Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine. The History of African Cities South of the Sahara: From the Origins to Colonization. Translated by Mary Baker. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2005.

    Using archival and archaeological evidence (among other sources), the author reconstructs the history of some of the advanced ancient cultures in Africa south of the Sahara, in addition to their contributions to world trade between the 16th and 19th centuries.

  • Davidson, Basil. Africa: History of a Continent. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

    First published in 1962, this is an important overview of historical events in different parts of Africa from early times to the 20th century.

  • UNESCO. General History of Africa. 8 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981–1993.

    Edited by a different scholar, each volume features essays on major topics ranging from methodology, prehistory, trans-Saharan trade, and ancient African civilizations, to the Middle Passage, European colonization, the struggle for decolonization, and the emergence of independent nations.

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