Benin served as the capital of the empire of the Oba of Benin, which flourished from the 14th through the 17th century. No trace remains of the structures admired by European travellers to "the Great Benin." After Benin was visited by the Portuguese about 1485, historical Benin grew rich during the 16th and 17th centuries on the slave trade with Europe, carried in Dutch and Portuguese ships, as well as through the export of some tropical products. The Bight of Benin's shore was known as the "Slave Coast." In the early 16th century the Oba sent an ambassador to Lisbon, and the king of Portugal sent Christian missionaries to Benin. Some residents of Benin could still speak a pidgin Portuguese in the late 19th century.
The city and kingdom of Benin declined after 1700, with the decline in the European slave trade, but revived in the 19th century with the development of the trade in palm products with Europeans. To preserve Benin's independence, bit by bit the Oba banned the export of goods from Benin, until the trade was exclusively in palm oil.
In the 'Punitive Expedition' of 1897, a small British force, under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, conquered and burned the city, destroying much of the country’s treasured art and dispersing nearly all that remained. The portrait figures, busts, and groups created in iron, carved ivory, and especially in brass (conventionally called "bronze") made in Benin are displayed in museums around the world. See History of Benin, Benin bronzes.
After the fall of Benin in 1897, the British set apart Warri Province, to punish the Oba of Benin and curb his imperial power. The Benin monarchy was restored in 1914, but true power lay with the colonial administration of Nigeria.
The University of Benin (Nigeria) is situated in the city.