Diversifying history at KS3: The Kingdom of Benin

One of the unexpected benefits of the first lockdown in March 2020 was that many academic or professional development lectures and seminars that would once have been held in person, were instead delivered online – making them much more accessible for teachers across the country. In early 2020 I had been aware of the need to inject greater diversity into our KS3 curriculum, and this awareness was sharpened by events including the murder of George Floyd and the toppling of the Edward Colston statue, both of which prompted discussion of the ways in which schools could support the Black Lives Matter movement. However, it was the ‘West African History before the 1600s’ seminar series organised by Toby Green, Trevor Getz and Nick Dennis that crystallised my thinking, and pointed me towards resources that helped me plan my year 8 scheme of work on the Kingdom of Benin.  

A recurring theme in the 5-part series was the value of using ‘alternative’ sources to explore aspects of precolonial African history: historian Toby Green explained, for example, how gold weights, Kente cloth and even proverbs might help to exemplify themes like power, warfare and the growth of the state in the Asante Empire.  

The first enquiry of my scheme of work was therefore titled ‘How can we find out about the history of the Kingdom of Benin?’, and it focused on using visual and artistic sources to help students reach an understanding of life in Benin in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  

Students were first asked to make inferences from a series of plaques depicting life in Benin: many of these plaques were seized from Benin City in the late nineteenth century, and are now on display (controversially) at the British Museum. Students delved into the artworks’ possible meanings, decoding the symbolic value of features like mudfish, kola nuts and leopards. Having developed their understanding of the wider context in which the artworks were produced, students were finally able to draw tentative conclusions about life in the Kingdom of Benin.  

The image depicts a symbolism information sheet detailing features of Benin art with description of the meaning.

The information sheet that helped students ‘decode’ artworks from the Kingdom of Benin.  

Later enquiries explored the ‘golden age’ of Benin under Oba Ewuare, and authority in the Kingdom of Benin, as well as the roles assigned to powerful women like Queen Idia. It was only at this point that I felt comfortable introducing the slave trade: I wanted to arm students with plenty of evidence to challenge Hugh Trevor-Roper’s fictitious claims about Africa’s ahistoricity (‘There is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness…’). Finally, students were asked to explain how Africa was ‘invented’ by slave-traders, travel writers and pseudo-scientists, and to ‘re-write’ the history of Benin using their new understanding of the kingdom’s complex and dynamic past.  

The image depicts two images of Africa and Africans. It asks "how did ideas about Africa change between the 14th and 19th centuries"

As part of their investigation into how Africa was ‘invented’, students looked at differing depictions of ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’ throughout history.  

I really enjoyed delivering the scheme of work for the first time in 2021. For many of our year 8 students, it was their first ‘encounter’ with African history, and I am so pleased that this encounter was one that celebrated the cultural and political vitality of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Benin. Students found the opportunity to explore Benin’s history through alternative sources particularly engaging. Some were initially confused by the lack of written clues (showing how much work I still have to do in broadening their understanding of how ‘real’ historians work!) – but eventually they felt empowered to make inferences based on different kinds of sources, including artworks, architectural features, proverbs and clothing.  

Of course, we do need to teach students about the incursions of the early traders, the horrors of the Middle Passage and the links between imperial domination and industrial revolution, but it makes much more sense to do this once students have a secure understanding of, for example, Benin’s power, artistic heritage and interconnectedness – all of which were thriving long before the Europeans arrived.  

As well as continuing to diversify our KS3 curriculum, I am keen to give A Level students the opportunity to focus on the African kingdoms in their coursework. Whilst OCR is currently the only exam board to offer precolonial African history as an A Level option, students might explore the kingdoms of Benin, Asante or Songhai in their NEA component, analysing the growth, development and decline of one of these kingdoms in the period prior to the Europeans’ arrival. This would help to expand A Level students’ experiences of ‘history’, encouraging them to look beyond the rather Western/Eurocentric focus of many of the GCSE and A Level options currently available.  

Elena Stevens is a History teacher at a school in West Sussex. She is part of Oxford’s Edexcel GCSE History author team. Previously, she completed a PhD at the University of Southampton, and she is keen to build her research interests into planning at KS3, KS4 and KS5.