More to this African mask than just a face!

This African mask is carved out of ivory for the "Oba" (king) of Benin, and is believed to be dated from the 16th Century. This mask was actually not worn over the face, but rather as a pendant, either around the neck like a necklace or hanging from the king's hip, like a belt. Scroll down for more ...

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Looking closely, one can see a bunch of little faces - these are carved on top of the head like a crown, as well as around the neck like a collar. These represent Portuguese traders, who actively traded with the Benin people at the time. But this brings up a question: Portugal is near Spain, and Benin is now part of the state of Nigeria in Africa, so where are these countries in relation to each other? What path of travel did the Portuguese need to take to reach Benin? Let's take a look at the map below.

The African mask owned by the King of Benin, with a detailed view of the top of the crown

Trade route used between Africa and Portugal

You can see that the Portuguese had to go on quite a round-about trip to get down to Benin. This now brings up another interesting question: why did the Portuguese travel all the way around Africa to find a trading partner? Why didn't they just trade with the Africans directly south of them?

The part of Africa directly below Portugal is Morroco, and at the time, the two countries were at war with each other. The Portuguese wanted to bypass their enemies and strike out in search of others with which to trade.

Quite an interesting little history lesson, all from looking closely at an African mask!