From the name of this city we get the modern name Guinea, which is used to-day to designate the country contiguous to the great gulf of that name—a territory often referred to in general as West Africa. Here, reaching from the mouth of the Gambia to the mouth of the Niger, is a coast of six hundred miles, where a marvelous drama of world history has been enacted. The coast and its hinterland comprehends many well-known names. First comes ancient Guinea, then, modern Sierra Leone and Liberia; then follow the various “coasts” of ancient traffic—the grain, ivory, gold, and slave coasts—with the adjoining territories of Ashanti, Dahomey, Lagos, and Benin, and farther back such tribal and territorial names as those of the Mandingoes, Yorubas, the Mossi, Nupe, Borgu, and others.
Recent investigation makes it certain that an ancient civilization existed on this coast which may have gone back as far as three thousand years before Christ. Frobenius, perhaps fancifully, identified this African coast with the Atlantis of the Greeks and as part of that great western movement in human culture, “beyond the pillars of Hercules,” which thirteen centuries before Christ strove with Egypt and the East. It is, at any rate, clear that ancient commerce reached down the west coast. The Phoenicians, 600 B.C., and the Carthaginians, a century or more later, record voyages, and these may have been attempted revivals of still more ancient intercourse.
These coasts at some unknown prehistoric period were peopled from the Niger plateau toward the north and west by the black West African type of Negro, while along the west end of the desert these Negroes mingled with the Berbers, forming various Negroid races.
Movement and migration is evident along this coast in ancient and modern times. The Yoruba-Benin-Dahomey peoples were among the earliest arrivals, with their remarkable art and industry, which places them in some lines of technique abreast with the modern world. Behind them came the Mossi from the north, and many other peoples in recent days have filtered through, like the Limba and Temni of Sierra Leone and the Agni-Ashanti, who moved from Borgu some two thousand years ago to the Gold and Ivory coasts.
We have already noted in the main the history of black men along the wonderful Niger and seen how, pushing up from the Gulf of Guinea, a powerful wedge of ancient culture held back Islam for a thousand years, now victorious, now stubbornly disputing every inch of retreat. The center of this culture lay probably, in oldest times, above the Bight of Benin, along the Slave Coast, and reached east, west, and north. We trace it to-day not only in the remarkable tradition of the natives, but in stone monuments, architecture, industrial and social organization, and works of art in bronze, glass, and terra cotta.
Benin art has been practiced without interruption for centuries, and Von Luschan says that it is “of extraordinary significance that by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a local and monumental art had been learned in Benin which in many respects equaled European art and developed a technique of the very highest accomplishment."