Saturday 25 June 2022


Moremi statue in Ile-ife, South West Nigeria. 

Moremi made significant contributions to African freedom but her life has received little scholarly attention. She was a queen of the Yoruba nation, which is one of the most famous and influential black tribes in history. Moremi’s exploits helped preserve the commercial life of her people and freed them from oppressors. Today, there are over 41 million ethnic Yorubas who live predominantly in sixteen countries in West Africa, although, because of the transatlantic slave trade, large Yoruba communities have taken root in countries like Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and other parts of the Americas. There are also Yoruba communities in many European countries—most having migrated in the immediate decades after the end of colonialism in the 1970s and 1980s while fleeing economic and political instability in their home countries. But the Yorubas would have never survived to become a prominent black ethnic group in the 21st century if it were not for the bravery of some of its early heroes, among which is the remarkable Queen Moremi.

Unfortunately, there are hardly any original written documents to validate most of the things we know about Moremi. We must rely on folkloric accounts passed down over generations by the Yoruba themselves—which is a common limitation when studying ancient and medieval African history. Although accounts of Moremi’s exploits are now sparsely documented in popular culture, the Yorubas have always considered folklore (called ‘Aroba’ in the Yoruba language) the strongest medium for teaching and preserving history, rather than written documents or wall‐​carvings. This medium of preserving history is a feature common to many Sub‐​Saharan Africa tribes. We also do not know for certain exactly what year Moremi was born or when she died owing to the absence of written evidence. But we do know that she was a princess from the town of Offa  and was later married to the Ooni (king) of Ile‐​Ife. Her husband was either Ooni Obalufon Alayemoye II  or Ooni Oranmiyan—both direct descendants of Ooni Oduduwa, the legendary founder of the Yoruba tribe and the first Ooni of Ile‐​Ife. There are also claims that she was married to both Oonis at different times.  To figure out when Moremi most likely lived, we can consider the dates of some related entities. For instance, the Copper Mask of Obalufon II—first introduced to the world in 1937 by Ooni Adesoji Aderemi in Ile-Ife—is believed by archaeologists to have been created around 1300 CE while Obalufon II was still alive. We can peg Moremi’s lifetime to around this period since she was likely married to Obalufon II. Even if she was actually married to Oranmiyan, who succeeded Obalufon II, the timeframe of her life would not be much further from circa 1300. This is because Moremi’s hometown of Offa was founded in 1359 by a crown prince (Olalomi Olofa‐​gangan) from one of the older kingdoms (Kingdom of Oyo) founded by Oranmiyan.

Since Offa is an offshoot town of the Kingdom of Ife, Ife is the spiritual home of Moremi just as it is for any contemporary of Yoruba origin. Spirituality has a huge influence on the story of Moremi. The original religion of the Yoruba people, which is practiced in Ile‐​Ife and throughout the old Yorubaland, was the Ifa Religion—a divination system that considers the world controlled by Olodumare (the Supreme Being) through spiritual energies.  Ifa practitioners—including Moremi and the early Yoruba people—communicate with Olodumare through the Orishas (gods) and the Irunmoles (deities). 8 Moremi’s quest for freedom was informed by this spiritualism. But the popularity of Moremi started while she was still a young princess in Offa. She was well‐​known throughout the town and its neighboring territories as a beautiful woman and is still revered today as one of the most beautiful Yoruba women that ever lived.


There is a gap in history between Moremi’s youth and when shshe moved to Ile‐​Ife where she married the Ooni. We do not know what influenced her thought process while growing up or what might have influenced her zeal for freedom. But we know that while she was a queen in Ife, the kingdom was greatly troubled by raiders who occasionally looted the market in Ife and abducted citizens of the kingdom into slavery. These raiders also often stole properties, staple foods, and domestic animals. They are believed to be from a neighboring community called Ugbo.  Although the people of Ile‐​Ife were furious about these raids, they did not have the means to defend themselves. This is because the Ugbo invaders are seen as spirits by the people of Ife. Yoruba masquerades are always dressed in cotton robes but the Ugbo raiders—who appeared as masquerades—were completely covered in raffia leaves. Out of all the atrocities of the raiders, Moremi could not stand two in particular: the disruption of the Ife market and the enslavement of captured Ife citizens. The market in Ife was the mother of all markets in Yorubaland due to its location within the sacred Kingdom of Ife and its commercial vibrancy. Furthermore, citizens of Ife were direct descendants of Oduduwa and the Orishas. Having them in enemy captivity could have led to divine retribution on Ife. Moremi believed that despite the mystique surrounding the identity of the Ugbo raiders, there must be a way to stop them. To find answers, she consulted an Orisha at the Esimirin river. The consultation of an Orisha while contemplating major decisions is cardinal to the Ifa religion. In early Yorubaland, the Orishas were the conductor of the forces of nature and an individual will hardly take a definitive course of action in life without consulting an orisha either personally or through a Babalawo (Ifa priest).

Esimirin offered to help Moremi deliver her people from oppression but demanded an offering as a payment after Moremi’s request was met. Moremi agreed and went home to work on a classic spy plan. She would pose as a trader on the next market day and allow herself to be captured by the raiders. Once in captivity, she planned to infiltrate the Ugbo leadership with her beauty and magic in the hope of finding a weakness that the people of Ife could exploit.

As planned, during the next raid Moremi allowed herself to be captured and she was taken to Ugbo along with other captives. When the captives were put on parade before the leader of Ugbo, Moremi’s beauty captured his attention and he ordered she be brought to his court as a wife. Moremi spent some time in Ugbo studying the people’s way of life with a specific interest in the raffia‐​dressed masquerades. Eventually, she lured the leader of Ugbo into revealing the nature of the masquerades and their weakness. The leader told Moremi that the raffia masqueraders were not spirits but that they were humans disguised as such to intimidate the people of Ile‐​Ife into submission during raids. He also revealed that since the masquerades were dressed in dried raffia leaves, they would not survive the slightest touch of fire. Moremi kept this revelation to herself and soon made her way back to Ile‐​Ife.

When in Ile‐​Ife, she tipped the Ooni about her discovery and advised that on the next market raid, some people should be on the standby with Igita (short hard tree branch) and Oguso (a ball of the middle layer of a palm kennel font). She explained that the Oguso should be lit when the marauders were in the market and that the burning Igita be used to torch the masquerades. They did exactly as she advised. On the next market day, the torch‐​bearing people of Ife—many of who were market women—cast their burning torches at the Ugbo raiders. The prospect of being burned alive by the torches terrified the raffia‐​dressed Ugbo masquerades. The raids ended and Ife was victorious. The Yoruba people were successfully liberated by both the torch and the Moremi’s heroic plan.

Source: African history group.

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