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IALS Fellow’s Seminar - Foreign Relations in Precolonial Africa: A Case Study of Portuguese-Benin Kingdom Diplomatic Interactions

This seminar focuses on the diplomatic interactions of ‘precolonial’ Benin which is in now in present day Nigeria. Benin Kingdom was one of the most important states in the forest region of West Africa in the pre-colonial era. Benin was a recurring topic in contemporary Western or European writing (Osadolor 2001; Ojo and Ekhator 2021). According to Osadolor (2001, 4) some of Benin’s attributes included “organised form of decision-making and governance; sovereign or supreme authority; clearly defined boundaries; clearly defined population; and security for the society.”
Benin Kingdom had ambassadors posted to Portugal in the precolonial era (Ryder 1977; Aisien 2012). According to David Olusoga (2016, 49), “it was Benin, of all African Kingdoms with which the Europeans traded in the sixteenth century, that the traders found most impressive.” Due to the trade with its neighbours and foreign (distant) states/empires, precolonial Benin became a very rich and powerful Empire in the 15th - 17th century. Portugal had a massive influence on the culture, economy and trade, religion, and language of pre-colonial Benin amongst other influences, some of which are still in existence to date in present day Benin City. Benin Kingdom had an effective legal system in the pre-colonial era, and this was also exemplified by the diplomatic interactions between precolonial Benin and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries (Ojo and Ekhator).

While outstanding successes were observed in varied aspects of culture such as law, art, administration, medicine, and architecture, the system was open to influences from nearby kingdoms or groups as well as external influences from the Portuguese and other foreign empires and states. Thus, the Benin Kingdom was one of the most successful and developed ‘states’ in pre-colonial Africa.

This presentation is part of a larger project that focuses on African International Legal History. African international legal history is a recent development in historiography on Africa. There are significant gaps in the academic materials on African legal history. This relates in a large part to the unwritten or undocumented nature of laws in pre-colonial Africa. According to Richard Oppong (2007, 687) “African legal history is still virgin academic territory.” Hence, this study aims to contribute to the academic field of African legal history by critically analysing diplomatic interactions between Portugal and Benin kingdom in the 15th and 16th centuries. This fits within my research interests of African international legal history. African international legal history focuses on the contribution of pre-colonial African states to the development and evolution of international law and the continuing relevance of these contributions in the modern era. 
Further, this research has implications for the decolonisation of teaching international law or international law-related modules in UK universities. Thus, the teaching of international law in UK universities should be 'decolonised and disrupted (Nwankwo and Ekhator 2021). This aligns with the views expressed by Sabaratnam (2017), who suggests that decolonising the curriculum is incumbent on scholars and academics to "engage, examine, retrieve and cultivate other ways of thinking about and being in the world that calls for alternative points of departure to the hegemonic knowledge of the empire." Consequently, teaching international law-related modules in UK universities should be expanded to explicitly include the contributions of non-western societies to the development of international law and allied research fields. 

Speaker: Dr Eghosa O. Ekhator, Senior Lecturer in Law University of Derby, IALS Visiting Research Fellow

Chair: Professor Susan Breau, Interim Director of Research Students and IALS Senior Associate Research Fellow