When We Ruled: The Importance of African Identity: The Yoruba and Edo
Yoruba kings and queens were supreme rulers in the prosperous country of Yorubaland in West Africa during medieval times, along with Great Benin. Yoruba kingdoms and Great Benin had their own forms of governments, laws, booming economies, political order, and military infrastructure.
The country of the Yoruba people (Yorubaland) before conquest and colonization by Europe consisted of Southwest Nigeria, later under British rule, the Republic of Benin, later under French rule, and The Republic of Togo, later under German, (and later French) rule. During pre-colonial times, the Yoruba had many different prominent people from their many kingdoms who left their mark in African history during ancient and medieval times, and right before the eve of colonization by Europe.
For example, the greatest person in Yoruba history was Ooni (i.e., King) Oduduwa of the Ife Kingdom. His role during the development of the Ife Kingdom was so monumental that when he died, his successors deified him as the father of the Yoruba race, and he was the founder of the monarchical system which became the Yoruba typical system of government. The Ife Kingdom was a spiritual and mystical place because according to the Yorubas, Ife was “the source of the spreading.” The Yorubas believe their race (ethnic group or tribe) were the first human beings, and all human life and civilization originated from Yorubaland. The Ife’s (Yoruba subgroup) are the first Yoruba people, ancient, originally spiritual, agriculturalist, and highly advanced artistically and creatively.
The Yoruba creation story consists of graphic myths of creation and of origins. At the beginning of time, Olodumare, or God (King of Heaven) sent down heavenly beings known as Orishas to earth to create solid land, plant life, and animal life on earth. A popular Yoruba myth details Olodumare spear-heading an expedition of the Orishas descending to earth and Obatala was appointed to lead the Orishas. But along the way Obatala got drunk and was unable to complete the mission that was assigned to him by Olodumare. Oduduwa took over the assignment from Obatala and completed the mission and became the first human to walk the earth, the father of the Yoruba people and all people of the world.
When all the Orishas came down on a golden chain from heaven, they brought with them some quantity of earth, one chicken and one palm nut. When the chain finally landed, it was in the heart of Yorubaland, which was the Great Ife Kingdom. The Orishas poured the earth onto the water, and this created a small piece of solid land. When they placed the chicken on the land, the chicken scratched it with its claws and that was how all the islands and continents of the world came into existence. When the Orishas sowed the palm nut, it sprouted and grew, which was the beginning of plant life in the world. The Orishas became the progenitors of the human race, and the Ife’s were “the fathers of all tribes.” If the Ife’s were not able to resettle their ancient kingdom “the whole world would spoil, as they were the priests to the deities (Orishas) who ruled the world.”
The Great Kingdom of Ife
The history of the Ife Kingdom is from the ninth century AD to the 18th century, but from 1000 AD to 1500 AD was a period of growing economic and political prosperity and power for the Ife Kingdom. There were many other prominent people besides Oduduwa who had come from the Ife Kingdom and left their mark in African history, such as Queen Moremi, who became the heroine of the Ife Kingdom because it was her determination and bravery that stopped the Igbo-Igbo (rival tribe or ethnic group) who kept stealing and enslaving the Ife people for slavery (indentured servitude). Olokun was the richest woman trader and Yoruba traditions identified her as one of Oduduwa’s wives.
Ogunladin (Ogun) was the master blacksmith and an Ife King, and later deified as the God of War Ogun. Ooni Obalufon, said to be Queen Moremi’s husband was Oduduwa’s successor who defeated the threats and raids of the Igbo-Igbo with his wife’s help when she gathered intel and shared it with the Ife government. Ooni Obalufon Ogbogbodinrin is said to have been a very impressive personality. His subjects said he shone like a large sun in the sky; hence, “the great sunlight that illuminates the earth at the height of day.” All traditions agree that his reign was long and peaceful most of the way. Orunmila was a master diviner whose life-long career was practicing and teaching the very best of in Ifa (wisdom, knowledge, education, and learning) divination and mysteries, as well as spiritual development throughout Yorubaland. Obagede was the large-scale plantain-farmer.
The Great Oyo Empire and Great Benin
Before Oduduwa transitioned to heaven to be with the ancestors, on his deathbed, he initiated the kingdom founding movement by urging members of his family to go out and establish kingdoms like Ife in the rest of Yorubaland. This was how the country of Yorubaland was born. Oranmiyan was the greatest, and one of the most enigmatic characters in the history of the Ife Kingdom. He was one of Oduduwa’s youngest grandsons and the foremost warrior prince and adventurer that the Ife Kingdom produced. Oranmiyan founded the second dynasty of the Benin Kingdom (Edo people) and the Yoruba Oyo Kingdom.
The first dynasty of the Benin Kingdom was ruled by rulers known as Ogiso. Under their rule, the Benin kingdom had plunged into disorder. Some Edo leaders sent a messenger to the rulers of Ife, urging the Ife King to send help for the reorganization of the kingdom. The Ife King responded by sending Prince Oranmiyan, who was welcomed by some Edo leaders and resisted by others. Oranmiyan was able to suppress the resistance and established order and a strong monarchy. Oranmiyan decided to leave the Benin Kingdom because he said the kingdom should be ruled by an Edo ruler. He installed his son Ewuare as king. Ewuare was born by one of Oranmiyan Edo wives. The young Edo king led and developed the Benin Kingdom and made it the most powerful Kingdom on the shores of West Africa (present-day Southern Nigeria).
Oranmiyan returned to Ife as a great hero, but he set out again towards Northwest Yorubaland to establish the Oyo Kingdom. The “Alaafin” was the title of the kings of the Oyo Kingdom. After establishing the Oyo Kingdom just south of the Niger Valley, Oranmiyan returned to the Ife Kingdom, leaving his sons in charge of Oyo. One of Oranmiyan’s sons named Sango, born from a Nupe wife was believed to be the most warlike king of the Oyo Kingdom. For instance, when Sango became king, the Oyo Kingdom began to improve because he found out the military secrets of his rivals, which was the Nupe and Bariba peoples had access to the use of cavalry. It was when Sango embarked on buying horses from his mother’s people, the Nupe, and the Oyo Kingdom was able to defend itself from threats from the Nupe and Bariba. Sango fought many fierce battles and won surprising victories and his subjects and enemies alike credited him with supernatural powers.
Unfortunately, Alaafin Sango died in the prime of his life, and one of the supernatural powers he claimed for himself was the power to make lightning. One day, while demonstrating his power to his chiefs and courtiers, he accidentally burnt down the palace. Either out of embarrassment or out of fear of his subjects, Sango took his own life. Out of gratitude, the Oyo people deified Sango as the god of thunder and lightning, and they set up shrines of him to worship.
By the 17th and 18th centuries, the Oyo Kingdom became an empire with Oyo-Ile as the empire’s capital. The Oyo Empire comprised of most of northern and western Yorubaland and their territory included some non-Yoruba peoples such as the Nupe, Bariba, and Aja peoples. It was during the 18th century when the armies of the Alaafin pushed far westward defeating at least one army of the Asante Kingdom in parts of what is now the Republic of Togo. The Oyo Empire was the largest ever in the history of the tropical forest and grasslands of West Africa south of the Niger River.
It was from the north of the Western Sudan where the Oyo’s got their horses which made their armies feared and respected by neighboring kingdoms. The Oyo’s employed horses in the open grasslands, and came to control far-flung communications, established far-flung administrative and commercial networks, and sent armies to subdue and control very distant lands. The Oyo officials were stationed from Nupeland on the middle Niger all the way south to the Eko Kingdom (present-day Lagos State of Nigeria), and present-day Benin Republic all the way to present-day Togo Republic.
By the middle of the 18th century, the Oyo Empire stood at the peak of its territorial greatness, its prosperity in wealth, its pride and glory. By the late 18th century was the beginning of the troubles, which led to the collapse of the empire due to wars with neighboring peoples like the Sokoto Caliphate of present-day Northern Nigeria. When the Sokoto Caliphate proceeded to push further south in Yorubaland, they came to a crushing halt when they were defeated by the armies of the Yoruba kingdom of Ibadan in 1840. As a reward for their bravery in crushing the Sokoto Caliphate, the Ibadan Kingdom was rewarded as “the savior of Yorubaland.”
The Transatlantic Slave Trade and Wars of Change in Yorubaland
From the second quarter of the 18th century, the Transatlantic slave trade became important in the economy of the Oyo Empire and a revenue base for the Alaafin’s government. The Oyo’s gradually became a chief supplier of slaves sold on the Yoruba coast. The usual pattern of trade was the Oyo traders sold to the coastal middlemen, like the Ijebu and Awori peoples (Yoruba subgroups) for the Eko (Lagos) market. When Englishman Richard Lander visited Oyo-Ile in 1826, he recorded convicted criminals were a source of slaves to the coast by the Oyo’s. Since convicts belonged to the state, this must have been a source of royal revenue exclusively. According to Dr. Stephen Adebanji Akintoye, author of A History of the Yoruba People, he stats very probably, from the time of serious political troubles in Oyo-Ile in the third quarter of the 18th century, the number of persons convicted of offences and sold into slavery increased significantly.
Captives in war (prisoners-of-war) constituted a probably larger source, from the Oyo wars with rivaling tribes in the kingdoms of the Nupe, Bariba, and Aja peoples. Oyo also bought large numbers of slaves from the Nupe and Bariba peoples, and from Hausaland (present-day Northern Nigeria), mostly for resale on the coast, and partly for sale to native buyers in the Oyo homeland who owned slaves for domestic or other types of labor. By the late 18th century, European slave traders on the Yoruba coast were aware that large numbers of the slaves being supplied to the coast were bought by the Oyo people from Nupeland and Hausaland.
Most of the Oyo trade on slaves belonged to the royal establishment, bringing revenue to the Oyo Palace. Tolls on the slave traffic also brought increasing royal revenue but never seemed to have amounted to more than a small part of all tolls. According to Ade Ajayi and other historians, the revenue of the rulers of Oyo was not much related to the slave trade but came mostly on trade in the marketplaces and the toll gates, from tributes and gifts rendered by vassal rulers, from large-scale primary production on the kings’ farms, and from trading ventures in which the Alaafin’s employed many of their wives and servants.
Though the revenue and assets accruing to the Alaafin’s from the operation of the slave trade were considerable and growing, they were a small part of the whole revenue and assets of the Oyo government. In other words, the Transatlantic slave trade never became so intense in the Oyo Empire and other Yoruba kingdoms in the 18th century as to command the capacity to disrupt the political system of Yorubaland. While the participation of the Oyo people in the slave trade did increase from the middle of the 18th century, the slave trade did not occasion, in the Oyo Kingdom and its provinces, slave raids or similar disruptions, which were common in many other parts of tropical Africa.
The Oyo’s enjoyed an orderly government and the protection of the roads were still largely intact, even as late as the 1820’s when Englishman Hugh Clapperton visited the Oyo Empire.
The fact that African chiefs and kings had a quite different conception of slavery to that of the Europeans does not excuse them for what they did to get rich, but as time passed, they had to know that Africans who became slaves to build the foundation for the “New World” (i.e., the Americas and the Caribbean Islands) was completely different compared to slavery (indentured servitude) in Africa.
For instance, up to the 16th century, people who were called “slaves” were not “slaves” in the modern sense in Africa because they were laborers either captured as prisoners-of-war or persons imprisoned for various offenses. During the first stages of the Transatlantic slave trade, African chiefs and kings thought they were supplying the Europeans workers who were needed abroad. So, the so-called “slave” in Africa became members of the community, were integrated into families, became members of the arts and crafts, had rights to farmland, held offices, and had all rights and privileges enjoyed by their original captors.
Historian Joseph O’ Callaghan had pointed out that Islam’s brand of slavery could not be compared with the more dehumanizing kind of slavery that was practiced by Christian Europeans. O’ Callaghan, author of The History of Medieval Spain makes it clear that:
“Owners did not possess the power of life or death over them (slaves), nor could they inflict excessive punishments. Slaves had rights and they could actually seek official assistance if they were exceedingly mal-treated.” Whoever it was that said, “All human slavery has been precisely the same,” is simply speaking from a position of extreme historical and cultural ignorance.
On the subject, Jose Pimienta-Bey comments:
“any student of American history knows that this was far from the case `regarding the British and U.S. system of enslavement. The enslaved African was a non-human, legally designated as ‘property’.”
Also, many African royal lineages were among the European captives, including chiefs and kings. According to African tradition, the leader and people were one in the same. This sense of oneness applied only to the members of one’s tribe or ethnic group, and not Africans outside of that tribe or ethnic group. This was why African rulers would secure prisoners-of-war by attacking neighboring kingdoms, because only a savage chief or king would sell their own people into slavery. The Europeans learned about this quite early, and their general plan was the keep the Black race divided. The result was the Africans gradually became overly suspicious of one another, and mutual hatreds grew over time. Historically, this way of living was derived not from anything the Europeans had done, but from the Africans own record of “tribal warfare,” which the Europeans used to their advantage to acquire African people as slaves to build their civilizations outside of Europe.
For the Yoruba people, the 19th century was a century of change because Yoruba Kingdoms were warring against one another, which helped Europeans accomplish their goal of conquering and colonizing Yorubaland. Both Islam and Christianity also began to have a strong foothold in the country, along with the Transatlantic slave trade which found Yorubaland gradually drawn into the economy of Europe and the wider world. During these troubled times in Yorubaland, Kurunmi, a leader and warrior of the Ijaye Kingdom was the greatest Yoruba general following the fall of the Oyo Empire, and he established a personal military ascendancy in Ijaye. Ijaye eventually evolved into a state without a king. It grew into a military dictatorship ruled by Kurunmi who was much loved and adored by the people. The most powerful kingdoms during this turbulent era in Yoruba history was Abeokuta, Ibadan, Ijaya, and Oyo and the Islamic kingdom of Ilorin in the north.
The disintegration of the Oyo Empire and kingdom destroyed the pre-existing system of order and security in Yorubaland and created a situation where all centers of power, old and new had to scramble to establish new systems and patterns that would guarantee order and security. In 1854, a high-powered meeting of leaders of Ibadan, Ijaye, Abeokuta and Ijebu was held at Ibadan to decide to end all wars and cease selling Yoruba people as slaves to Europeans on the coast. The decisions were taken, but no positive results followed because the Yoruba wars throughout the country continued.
The Yoruba wars did not end until European powers intervened and imposed their own system of order, security, and peace. The closing act of the 19th century was the imposition of British rule, which was most of Yorubaland (Southwest Nigeria), and French rule in the Republic of Benin and German Rule of Togo Republic. In 1914, Nigeria officially became a colony of Great Britain. Politically, the Yoruba territories and other neighboring tribes or ethnic groups were unified by Nigeria’s British colony, along with the French colony in the Republic of Benin, and the German colony in the Republic of Togo.
“Everywhere that I have studied our history, I have never witnessed Indo-Europeans or European-Asians, whatever we want to call those individuals of the northern climate. I have never experienced them coming in and actually overcoming us. Before they even come in, we (African people) are fighting amongst ourselves. Be it in Kemet (present-day Egypt), or if it is the Moors in Numidia (North Africa), whether it is the plantation, whether it is the projects. Everywhere that they have been able to overcome us, they have been able to divide us, and conqueror us, and it’s time for us to respect each other wherever we may come from. As I tell people, wherever Africans are, Africa is, and wherever Africa is, I am home. We must unite, stop fighting amongst ourselves. Respect and honor our differences and embrace our similarities.” - Dr. Kaba Kamene
The colonization by the British marked the beginning of Christianity’s major emergence in Nigeria. On October 1, 1960, Nigeria was declared independent of British rule.
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