Oba Ewuare, also known as Oba Ewuare I or Ewuare the Great, ruled the ancient Benin Kingdom from 1440 to 1473. He became the Oba of Benin after violently overthrowing his brother Uwaifiokun. The coup left much of Benin City in ruins, but he was able to rebuild the city and turn it into what would later become one of the largest and best-known empires in West Africa.
During Ewuare’s reign, Benin’s capital city was well organized and catered for a huge population. It is said that he constructed nine gateways to Benin and oversaw the building of many roads. Oral tradition describes the king as a wise magician, doctor and warrior.
The expansion of Benin arts remains one of Oba Ewuare’s key legacies. He invited handicraftsmen to the city and encouraged the production of quality pieces of art. In addition, he introduced the creation of bronze heads to honor deceased Benin kings. They remain highly cherished historical works in museums in Nigeria and around the world. Ewuare’s promotion of arts led to the establishment of a successful arts industry notable for the production of ivory, wood and bronze works that exist to date.
Oba Ewuare is also noted for promoting Benin cultural activities. He introduced the Igue festival which remains one of the most important cultural events of the people in Benin. Also, Oba Ewuare introduced colorful coral beads in Benin which are today important aspects of royal decoration and Benin cultural dressing. Today, the use of coral beads is not limited to Benin. It is widespread in several parts of Southern Nigeria – thanks to Oba Ewuare.
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Ewuare the Great is often referred to as the first Oba of Benin not because he was the first to rule the Benin Kingdom but because he was the first Oba to transform its fortunes. He inherited a small kingdom but expanded it tremendously to include numerous towns and villages. The administrative measures he initiated to ensure a peaceful transition of power in the kingdom remain a legacy to date. By introducing the rule of primogeniture – meaning the succession from father to first son, he ended the power struggles of the mighty king makers of previous times.
Scientific advice on this article was provided by historians Professor Doulaye Konaté, Professor Lily Mafela and Professor Christopher Ogbogbo. African Roots is supported by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.