It should be expected that for a vast community as that, diverse peoples, today’s accounts of its trade dynastic relations, migrations and other bric-a-brac would be different from area to area. However, it remains amazing that certain areas of cultural influence within the old empire remain so strong till today as various ethnic nationalities still talk about them with nostalgic pride: for example, an independent Republic of Dahomey in 1975 decided to change its name to the Republic of Benin; the Itsekiri of Warri , the Igbo of Onitsha and others trace their own highly venerated royal lineages to the Bini link is claimed even as far as the Kalabari Ijaw of Degema in Rivers State.
At the heart of this expansive empire was the old Benin Kingdom. What is remarkable about the Old Benin Kingdom is that it was purely an African state whose growth was not stimulated by either Islam or contact with Europe. Like Oyo, Benin was at its greatest before any contact with Europe was ever made. Under Oba Ewuare, the Great, 1440-1473, the Kingdom of Benin through conquests from Idah to the North, Owo and Akure to Igboland , West of the Niger, had become an Empire. The Oba gave Benin a strong central government that weakened political factions and intrigues of the chiefs. His constitutional reforms strengthened the Oba against the Uzama and the Palace chiefs. A great and shrewd magician, regarded as a semi-divine monarch, Oba Ewuare gave Benin City the look and status of an imperial metropolis. It was during the time of Ewuare’s reign that the first European, Ruy de Sequeira reportedly visited Benin in 1472, although Michael Crowder argues that it is more likely that the first European, Joao Affonso d’ Aviero’,came to Benin in 1486.
It can be said here that Benin attained her greatest glory and splendour under Oba Esigie (1504 -1550) , when her progress in the fields of culture, politics, arts and crafts was immeasurably outstanding. The Oba, according to some English visitors could field twenty thousand warriors in one day, and up to 100,000 men if necessary”. In 1702, a Dutchman, David Van Nyendal described the richness of the Bini people’s diet (beef, mutton or chickens..) And their neat and ornamental mode of dress. Their craftsmen included metal workers, weavers, wood-carvers and brass-smiths. Edo State, the surviving core of the Old Benin Empire, today, arguably though, claims to be the Heart-Beat of modern Nigeria. Outside the Ogiso dynasty, thirty-eight Obas (Kings) have ruled the Kingdom to date.
The legendary fame of the old Benin empire was widespread and the peoples of Europe heard about, and desired to visit it. Also, it was known before the 15th century that somewhere in the hinterland of the Maghreb, gold was obtained by the Arabs from the Negroes for sale on the European markets. Thus naturally, Europeans wanted to gain direct access to the source of supply and sideline the Arab middlemen. Also, Portugal and Spain were interested in finding a sea-route to India in order to avoid trading for Indian goods through Arab intermediaries. These economic motives, plus a desire to extend geographical knowledge and, then possibly, find a Christian king in tropical Africa as an ally in the struggles against Islam led Prince Henry of Portugal, the navigator, to launch expeditions to sail beyond the West Coast of Africa to discover a new route to India. Aided by the Papal Bulls of the 1450s, which had secured their rights to the African Coasts, the Portuguese had by 1480 completed their exploration of the West Coast and were able to settle down to its fruits “mainly in gold from Mina and peppers from Benin.
As mentioned above, the real motive for the missionary work in tropical Africa was the desire to find a Christian king to become all ally in the struggle against Islam. The crusades (1096 -1453) were undertaken in Europe in order to recapture the Holy Land of Jerusalem from the infield Turks who had occupied it from 7th century. These expedition having failed, most parts of Europe were traumatised, and quite naturally, the Christian nations needed allies outside Europe. Then came the reports about the fame, size and power of the Benin Empire. And if the Portuguese were to make any headway in West Africa, Benin City, the centre of the empire, was to be the take-off point.
Thus Benin became the centre-piece of the missionary strategy of the Portuguese. Unfortunately, their priests, rather than settle amongst the Benin people and learn their language and customs were instructed to convert the Oba and make him decree the Catholic Faith as the religion of his realm as Emperor Constantine did in the Fourth Century Roman Empire. But the Oba’s position as head of the cultic life of his people, and one they regarded as divine guaranteed the failure of the Portuguese missionary strategy.
However, Oba Esigie in an effort to spread Christianity in his realm sent Ohen -Okun, the Olokun priest at Ughoton, as an ambassador to the king of Portugal to ask him to send priests to Benin to teach him and his people about the Christian Faith. He also allowed churches to be built in the city at Ogbelaka, Idumwerie and Akpakpava.. The last-named being the Holy Cross Cathedral” site. The Oba and the King of Portugal exchanged valuable gifts and a Portuguese Ambassador was accredited to Benin. The Aruosa church in Benin City remains a survivor from this era.
Michael Crowder in his The Story of Nigeria tells about the Portuguese who in the second half of the fifteenth century built a factory at Ughoton, the port of Benin to handle pepper trade and purchase of slaves. The Oba had a royal monopoly on trade and it was the duty of his high chiefs like Uwangue and the Eribo to transact business on his behalf. Other items trade included Leopard skins, ivory, Benin cloths, wood works, brass works and in exchange for them Portuguese goods like firearms, dresses, glasses, beads and umbrellas were obtained. The introduction of firearms in Benin at this time positively increased its military strength and played a remarkable role in its imperial expansion in the 16th century.
It is not disputed that most nationalities in both Edo and Delta States (except perhaps the Izon) have direct or indirect links with Benin origin. The Esan are said to have migrated from Benin, some during the Ogisos and others after. Their first enijies were mostly princes from Benin. So, too are the Oras. The Etsako are Benin migrants.
The Ika (Agbor people) came from Benin in several waves. Other Western Igbo and Onitsha trace their roots to Benin. The Ihoho (Urhobo) were migrants from Benin and Their language is clearly a dialect of Edo language. The Benin monarchy extended its influence to Eko (Lagos – where it set up its dynasty; the first Eleko of Eko), to Itsekiri land (where prince Ginuwa became the first Olu the Itsekiri ) and to Badagry and beyond.
Now, we may first try to describe the Itsekiri people whose kingdom is Warri. As already pointed out, the Dutch map of 1705 referred to above, marks their homeland as Awyri which over time had variously been spelt Iwere, Ouere, Oere, Warree, Wari. and now Warri. The Edo and the Yoruba call them Iwere. The people who constitute the Itsekiri tribe have diverse origins: early settlers from Ijebu, some from Igala and Aboh came to settle in various communities such as Omadino, Ureju, Ugborodo , Inroin, etc at various times out of human memory . Then a party from the Benin Royal family about the end of the 15th century set up a monarchy which constituted these erstwhile autonomous mini-communities into a nationality which it is today. Prof. P. C Lloyd says that “in the English literature they are known as Warri or Jekri, though in the 19th century they were often referred to as Benin since contacts with them were first made on the banks of the Benin River”. Here was a Kingdom founded by the royal party from Benin, but by the early sixteenth century through the seventeenth, it had done so much overseas trade to match or exceed that of the mother – kingdom; the reason being its advantageous position within the empire on the rim of the Atlantic. The Itsekiri speak a Yoruba dialect whose vocabulary has been widened by the infusion of a large number of Portuguese, Bini and English words.
As an introduction of the influence of the Bini culture in Itsekiri land, it is pertinent to recall part of the address presented to Prince Solomon I.A Akenzua, then Edaiken of Uselu (now His majesty the Oba of Benin by the Itsekiri community in Benin) by the Itsekiri community in Benin on the occasion of his retirement from public service and return home in 1973.
We would like to recall the special historical relationships that bind your people and ours. Both Bini and Itsekiri histories agree that Ginuwa, a prince, as your goodself, left this great city to found the Iwerre (Warri) Kingdom about 1480. In the 15th and 16th centuries, these two kingdoms emerged as a civilising force in this part of the world and provided great splendour which attracted European adventurers, missionaries and merchants alike. The visit of D’ Aviero of Portugal of Benin City in 1485 and the establishment of a Catholic Mission in Benin about 1515 AD were great historical developments that have had their parallels only in Iwerreland. At the beginning of the 17th century, a son of a reigning Olu went to Portugal for ten years (as the Oba’s ambassador went to Portugal between 1481 and 1495 to be educated in the best schools and returned with a Portuguese lady of a high birth as his wife, their son , Antonio Domingo was Olu of Warri in the 1640s. The site of the Catholic Cathedral (St. Anthony) built in Ode-Itsekiri.. is still called (Satoni)… we have proud similar chieftaincy titles-Iyatsere as Iyase; Ologbotsere as Ologhosere; Uwangue as Uwanguel Otsodi as oshodin and many other… Even your present esteemed title of Edaiken compares with “Daniken”, the last ceremonial stage of the Olu-Elect before coronation. And, our Itselu means “sacred quarters” of the Olu’s mother as Uselu in Benin. Aslo, our war songs, lyrics and burial songs have common roots with Bini ceremonial songs.
Truly, these cultural bonds span the vast areas of royalty, chieftnancy, language, music and dancing, rituals to dynastic ties.
The Warri throne, being a direct off-shoot of the Benin monarchy, bears all its attributes. Historically, the Olu of Warri, like the Oba, is the personal focus of the people’s loyalty and affection. The crown, highly glamorised, is the symbol of supreme authority in both kingdoms. The Olu, like the Oba (aiguobasinwin) does no wrong and can not be queried or challenged (Afo massin; Afo were tse were); he is the keeper of the corporate conscience of his people. The Oba is titled Uku-Akpolokpolo which literally means high and extremely very large. In essence, it means next to God, divine and infinite. He is also addressed: Ogie N’Ogbomwan be edge uwuikomwam; i.e king who can confer life and death. A similar title of the Olu of Warri is Ogie-uwu i.e , king over death. The Oba is also addressed: Ekpen N’uwa i.e the tiger at home. In spite of the contemporary societal forces which have constrained the practical meanings of these titles, in the nitty-gritty of the norms of Benin and Warri societies, these mind-bending titles, theoretical as they are, still do provide the pillars and sign-posts that guide most traditional activities. These titles remain stilted and honorific.
Examining some royal titles in Benin and Warri, one would be amazed at the striking oneness of their roots. Even in some cases, Warri tended religiously to follow Benin titles every sixty years on the average. The fourth Olu of Warri, Ojoluwa who ascended the throne in 1550 assumed the title of the fifteenth Oba of Benin Ozolua who reigned in 1483; the fifth Olu Esigie who became king in 1570 bore the title Esigie, the sixteenth Oba of Benin who came to the throne in 1504. And the thirteenth Olu Akengboye (1710) took the title of the twenty-second Oba Akengboi (1669). Others who followed were the fortheeenth Olu Atogbwua (1735) who bore the title Orhogbua, the seventeenth Oba (1550). And the sixteenth Olu Akengbuwa (1807) took the title of the thirtieth Oba Akengbuda (1750). Even Erejuwa in Warri and erediauwa in Benin sound alike. In both cultures, part from the crown, and other high-profile symbols of royalty are swords and scarlet cloth. The Itsekiri have derived the names of these items from Bini.
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The main Itsekiri chieftaincy titles are derivatives of Bini titles. Some are Iyatsere (Iyase), Ologbotsere (Ologbosere), Uwangue (Uwangue), Olisan (Oliha), Otsodi (Oshodin), Osula (Osula), Ojomo (Ezomo) and Ero (Ero). In both kingdoms, chiefs perform palace rituals and, in the olden days, assisted their monarchs to rule in-council.
According to Igbafe the custom was for the Oba’s eldest son, on reaching maturity to be shown round to the people and installed as the Edaiken, or heir to the throne. He was then sent to live in Uselu, a village which was outside the walls of the town but is now incorporated in Benin City , to be trained in the dignity and responsibilities of kingship” Today, the Edaiken is one of the seven Uzama chiefs (Uzama nihairon) – a distinct branch of the Bini traditional government. In Warri, Daniken is the three lunar- month period of restriction imposed on an Olu-Elect during which, as in Benin he gets trained in the dignity and responsibilities of kingship. The title in Warri, as shown, refers not to a person but to a period. Meaning hold with care, Daniken in Warri could not have related to a person (Olu’s eldest son), because Igiuna left Benin with no son to take from him. However, he married and had children during his long journey to Warri. Rather, it would seem that at the time of his demise in Ijala (Warri), his retinue, while installing his son Ijijen a the Olu, cautioned him to hold with care his new responsibilities.
As soon as the Edaiken leaves Uselu to ascend the throne, his motehr becomes known as Iyoba, and goes to live in Uselu. As head of the village, she has her court, like the other Uzamas, and confers titles. Thus in Benin, the Iyoba has some political functions, to perform. In Warri, Omoneukarin says, “tradition is somewhat silent as regards the political activities of any previous Iyolu.. (Olu’s mother), the first Olu did not come from Benin with his mother.. (and) and the custom of investing the Oba’s mother at Benin with the title of the Iye-Oba (Queen mother) did not exist at Benin before Prince Iginua left about 1480 and until the reign of Oba Esigie about 1504”. However, in Warri kingdom, Itselu (Uselu) is regarded as the quarters of the Olu’s mother and is beyond any attacks by the Olu himself. There is this saying in Itsekiri: “Aja te je oba jija reje Itselu” meaning the town that the Olu can never attack is Itselu (Uselu).
In royalty and chieftaincy areas vast numbers of Itsekiri words as already shown above are coined or borrowed from Bini. Other words such as Ugbo (forest) Idimi (quarters), Ighele (adult man), Odibo (steward) have Bini roots. Others are Ugha (compound), ekete (throne) and Igedu (timber).
Music and Dancing
All Ibiogbe dance songs are in Bini language. Ibiogbe is a kind of military dance generally performed at all Itsekiri funerals, and come after Ukpukpe, another military funeral dance. During Ibiogbe dance, seven songs are generally rendered.
Benin and Warri developed vast overseas trade which made them prosperous and famous. Both experienced slave trade, welcomed overseas missionary workers, dealt with foreign kings and their ambassadors, exchanged correspondences with them, but at the end of the nineteenth century, suffered unwarranted humiliating defeats in the hands of British Imperialism. These events in both Benin and Warri had their appropriate ripple effects in the neighbouring communities.
It will not be out of place to refer to a British merchant, George William Neville, who seemed not to see justice on the side of his own Government in the way the Old Benin Kingdom was sacked in 1879.
He was the first Lagos manager of the Bank of British West Africa and a good friend of Nanna, whose own deposition he had also condemned. Believing that Consul Phillips was high-handed in his treatment of Oba Ovonramwen and his kingdom, Nevilla wrote.
“I contend that we have no more right to ride roughshod over the susceptibilities of subject races than we have to storm the tabernacles and tear down the banners of the Salvation Army”.
And on the exaggerated tales of human sacrifices in Benin circulating in Europe: he opined:.
“The motive ( of wholesale human sacrifice) is not blood lust but a deep – seated belief in the principle of propitiation, for which authority is not wanting in the Old Testament”.
“In judging the African”, Neville wrote, let us not forget that, almost within living memory, we Englishmen hanged men for sheep-stealing and exhibited heads on Temple Bar, and I question whether any atrocities in Africa – now things of the past – have ever approached in magnitude the massacres under Cross and Crescent in modern times”. Neville died in 1929. Being excerpts of paper titled March of Edo civilisation and its effects on the neighboring communities.
Vanguard: Transmitted WEDNESDAY, 5th April, 2000
P/S: Mr Ayomike is Itsekiri.