The Oba's Coral Crown and Flywhisk


This file appears in: Oba's Palace, Benin City, Nigeria
The Oba's Coral Crown and Flywhisk
©Trustees of the British Museum, Af1898,0630.3 (flywhisk) and Af1898,0630.5 (crown)
Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

On formal occasions, the Oba still dresses in coral garments: mesh shirt, wrapper, crown, collar, necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and even shoes. These two items belonged to Oba Ovoranmwen and were taken to Britain as part of the 1897 invasion's war booty, along with other coral garments. In 1938, the British returned some of Oba Ovoranmwen's coral regalia to Oba Akenzua II, an event met with palace rejoicing.

"Coral" is a gemstone in Benin, whether it is true marine coral imported from the Mediterranean, or worked reddish-brown agate from Northern Nigeria (an older bead type). It has protective qualities reinforced by sacrifice, but its beauty and association with the color of power and danger also strengthen its desirability. Even though coral was an imported substance, the enisen dressers of the palace transformed it into jewelry, stringing it into single or stacked strands, and also created netted royal garments. The crown shown here is a relatively simple mesh version, which the Oba probably wore at less important times. His sacred head must be kept covered, but this lightweight, openworked cap crown would have been cooler and more comfortable than the other elaborate versions he owned. At 5.5 pounds, the flywhisk weighed far more, and would have been an impressive status symbol. West African rulers often own whisks made from cow or horsetails, which they wave in acknowledgment of supporters. Completely beaded flywhisks are unknown elsewhere, although Ovoranmwen owned a second example.


This file appears in: Oba's Palace, Benin City, Nigeria