Thursday 9 May 2024

EARLY HISTORY OF LAGOS: A response to Oba of Benin

On November 26, 2023, the Oba of Benin ignited a huge controversy about the early history of Lagos. He did so by making the claim that the Edo people of the Benin Kingdom were the founders of Lagos.

Because the crown worn by the Oba of Benin originated from Ife, we must be respectful in our answer to him.

The Oba, in an admirably polished speech, made the following statements – that “Lagos was founded by Benin”; that “Benin founded the nucleus of Lagos”; and  that “Benin founded the origin of Lagos”.

Most respectfully, what we will do is to lay out for the Oba of Benin the most ascertained history of Lagos from the best of knowledge from the studies of African history, the contributions of archaeology, historical linguistics and written records to the knowledge of our history, and from the best and most sustained traditions of the Yoruba and Edo peoples.

The peopling of the coastal forests and islands of the Lagos area occurred in the very ancient era when the Yoruba people, consisting of their many subgroups, occupied the large forest and coastal territory that is the Yoruba homeland. The Yoruba subgroup known as the Awori settled in the Lagos area in those very ancient times.

The Awori are one of the Yoruba sub-groups. One best known fact about the Yoruba nation is that it comprises many subgroups differentiated by dialects of their common Yoruba language. For avoidance of doubt about what we are describing here, we add that the main Yoruba subgroups are,  from the Yoruba territories near the Niger-Benue confluence generally southwards, the Oworo, Bunu, Owe, Iyagba, Jumu, and Ikiri (who together are now commonly called the Okun-Yoruba), the Igbomina, Oyo, Ibolo, Ijesa, Ekiti, Akoko, Owo, Ife, Owu, Egba, Ibarapa, Yewa, Ketu, Ondo, Ijebu, Ikale, Awori, Ilaje and Ishekiri (all today in Nigeria), the Sabe, Anago, Ohori, Popo and others (today in Benin Republic).

The Edo are not a Yoruba subgroup; they are an entirely different ethnic group, a separate people or nation – just as the Nupe, Ighala, Hausa, Ijaw, are separate peoples or nations. The Edo homeland and the homeland of the Awori subgroup of the Yoruba are not contiguous. Between the Edo territory and the Lagos territory of the Awori, there are the territories of the Yoruba subgroups Itsekiri, Owo, Ondo, Ilaje, Ikale, and Ijebu.

According to the best knowledge of history from archaeology and historical linguistics, the different peoples of today’s Nigeria Middle Belt and South (Yoruba, Igbo, Nupe, Ighala, Gbagyi, Edo and others), evolved on the Middle Niger into distinct linguistic or ethnic groups (or nations) about 40,000 years ago. From there, these ethnic groups or nations spread out over millennia and occupied the territories that are now their homelands.   All the available evidence shows that each of these nations had settled into its present homeland by about 6000 BC, or about 8000 years ago.

All over the large forest country and coastlands that became theYoruba homeland in those ancient times, the earliest Yoruba people spread out in subgroup after subgroup. It is from those earliest times that the Awori, one of these Yoruba subgroups, settled in the coastlands and islands that are now known as Lagos – with the Ijebu subgroup to their immediate east and northeast, with the Ilaje and Ikale further to the east, and the Itsekiri still further to the east on the coast.

The Awori settled in a coastal forest area consisting of coastal forests and coastal islands. Their most inland group of settlements was located in Otta. Another group of their settlements lived in Isheri, a short distance south of Otta, on the lower banks of the Ogun River. Another group existed at what became known as Ebute Metta along a part of the lagoon coast. Another settled on Iddo Island. And another settled on the largest island of the area, the island later known as Lagos Island.  Finally, other Awori settlements settled along parts of the coast, all the way westwards to the area of modern Badagry, where Awori and Egun settlements interspersed.

In about the 9th century AD, a very important revolution started at Ife in central Yorubaland and, over the next six centuries (until about 1600 AD), swept over the whole of Yorubaland. The revolution resulted in the creation of unified kingdoms and towns all over Yorubaland. It transformed the ancient clumps of small and separate settlements into unified kingdoms and towns everywhere in Yorubaland. Starting from Ife in the 9th Century AD, this revolution continued until about the 16th Century AD, and turned Yorubaland into a country of many proud kingdoms and many rich towns – and made Yorubaland the most urbanised expanse of territory in the whole of Africa, and one of the most urbanised countries in the world. In the land of the Awori subgroup, this kingdom-creating revolution resulted in the creation of an Awori kingdom at Otta, another at Isheri and another on Lagos Island. Historians believe that these Awori kingdoms were created in the course of the 11th Century AD.

In about the 12th Century, according to the traditions of the Yoruba people and of the Edo people, the Edo people, neighbours of the Yoruba in the southeastern forests, sent to the Oba of Ifefor help. Their problem was that their Edo country, immediate neighbour to Yorubaland, was being disrupted by conflicts. And the help they wanted was that the Oba of Ife should help them to bring the Yoruba kind of political order to the Edo country. The Oba of Ife responded by sending one of his grandsons, a young warrior prince named Oranmiyan, to go and help the Edo. Oranmiyan went, fought and subdued several warring Edo groups, and created the Benin kingdom, a kingdom like the Ife kingdom.

After ruling the Benin kingdom for some years, Oranmiyan decided that the kingdom should not be ruled by him, a non-Edo foreigner, but by an Edo man. Oranmiyan and the Edo elders therefore installed as the king of the kingdom a young son born to Oranmiyan by one of his Edo wives, a boy born and raised in the Edo culture. That young king, named Ewuare, is the progenitor of all the kings of the Benin kingdom till today. That is why Edo kings are today counted among the Yoruba kings or among the “sons of Oduduwa”.

The earliest non-Awori people to come trading with the Awori on the Awori coastal islands of Lagos, even long before the Awori had created any kingdom, were the Ilaje. According to the traditions of all the coastal Yoruba subgroups, the Ilaje were the earliest pioneers of trade along the Yoruba coast. Later, Ijebu traders, and later still the Ikale traders, and then the Egun and Anago traders from the west, came to trade with and among the Awori. This coastal trade existed long before the coming of the earliest European explorers and traders to the coast of West Africa in about the 1470s AD.

Following the coming of European trade in about the 1470s and its expansion along the coast of West Africa, the European traders were attracted particularly to ports like Lagos, the Benin port of Gwato and the Itsekiri port town of Warri. The vibrant trade in European imported goods enhanced the trade and wealth of these port towns. Of the Yoruba kingdoms, the kingdom of Itsekiri on the southeastern coast had, for a start, the closest relationship with the early European traders, the Portuguese. The Itsekiri kingdom became a rich trading kingdom and, culturally, it imbibed some European religion and culture, established close diplomatic relations with Portugal for some time, and grew into a rich and elegant kingdom.

By Banji Akintoye

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