Ovonramwen was the last king of an independent Benin empire, he succeeded his father, Oba Adolo as the Oba of Benin in 1888. He was born in Benin as a young prince named Idugbowa.
Ovonramwen's era started with the usual palace intrigues and ended in turbulence, he was involved in succession battles with his brother Orokhorho and some prominent Benin Chiefs. Later in his kingship, a British expeditionary force was breathing on his neck. He ousted his brother in a succession battle to be king but unlike his father, he could not contain the European influence from the coast from dominating Benin.
Ovonramwen established control of his subordinates by maintaining court in the tradition of a Benin King, and purging the city of elements opposed to his rule during his early years. By 1896, before an official British visit, he was on a verge of war with Agbor, a rebellious peripheral town within the Benin empire.
Prior to sending a punitive expedition against Benin, the British were interested in seeking concessionary trade agreements with the palace of Ovonramwen and controlling the trade along the lower Niger. By 1896, they had outmaneuvered Nana, a leading palm oil trader who was influential in Benin's trade with the coast, the result left Benin as the remaining hindrance to full control. Also, the city was being accused of humanitarian cruelties which may have been enhanced by various rituals predating the accession of Ovonranwem and during his move to consolidate power. In 1897, during a local festival called Ague in which the Oba was forbidden in receiving visitors, an acting British consul, and some British officials and more than 200 hundred African porters approached Benin city for a visit, however, Benin warlords were waiting for the visitors, the result was a skirmish between local warlords and the visiting foreigners leading to the death of most of the visitors with only two foreigners surviving and a few African porters. Press in London carried stories of a massacre immediately prompting the announcement of a punitive expedition to attack Benin, the expedition was placed on hold for a few weeks waiting for reinforcement. The expedition attacked the city five weeks after the British officials and their African carriers were killed, the result was the pillaging the city and enthroning colonial rule. Ovonramwen initially left the city and was later captured, he was tried in August, 1897 along with three of his chiefs. Two of the chiefs were executed and the third committed suicide. Ovonramwen was deported to Calabar where he died in 1914.
During his reign Ovonramwen commissioned various carved tusks to be placed in new shrines he was constructing. One of the shrines was dedicated to the honour of Oba Adolo, his father. Some of the carved tusks ranged from about 35 cm to 185 cm in length. (1)
Included among art works suppliers was one Egharevba, a scion of a brass casting family.
- Philip A. Igbafe. The Fall of Benin: A Reassessment, The Journal of African History > Vol. 11, No. 3 (1970)
(1)Blackmun, Barbara Winston. 'Continuity and change: The ivories of Ovonramwen and Eweka II', African Arts 30:3, Summer 1997.