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12.9: The Yoruba States

  • Page ID
    72302
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    Learning Objective

    • Discuss the Yoruba states and their progression towards centralized government

    Key Points

    • Yorubaland is the cultural region of the Yoruba people in West Africa. It spans the modern-day countries of Nigeria, Togo, and Benin. Its pre-modern history is based largely on oral traditions and legends. According to Yoruba religion, Oduduwa became the ancestor of the first divine king of the Yoruba.
    • By the 8th century, Ile-Ife was already a powerful Yoruba kingdom, one of the earliest in Africa south of the Sahara-Sahel. Almost every Yoruba settlement traces its origin to princes of Ile-Ife. As such, Ife can be regarded as the cultural and spiritual homeland of the Yoruba nation.
    • Ile-Ife was a settlement of substantial size between the 12th and 14th centuries, with houses featuring potsherd pavements. It is known worldwide for its ancient and naturalistic bronze as well as stone and terracotta sculptures, which reached their peak of artistic expression between 1200 and 1400.
    • The mythical origins of the Oyo Empire lie with Oranyan, who made Oyo his new kingdom and became the first oba  with the title of Alaafin of Oyo. The oral tradition holds that he left all his treasures in Ife and allowed another king named Adimu to rule there.
    • Oyo had grown into a formidable inland power by the end of the 14th century, but it suffered military defeats at the hands of the Nupe led by Tsoede. During the 17th century, Oyo began a long stretch of growth, becoming a major empire. It never encompassed all Yoruba-speaking people, but it was the most populous kingdom in Yoruba history. The key to Yoruba rebuilding Oyo was a stronger military and a more centralized government.
    • In the second half of the 18th century, dynastic intrigues, palace coups, and failed military campaigns began to weaken the Oyo Empire. It became a protectorate of Great Britain in 1888 before further fragmenting into warring factions. The Oyo state ceased to exist as any sort of power in 1896.

    Terms

    Yorubaland

    The cultural region of the Yoruba people in West Africa. It spans the modern-day countries of Nigeria, Togo, and Benin, and covers a total land area of 142,114 square kilometers. The geocultural space contains an estimated 55 million people, the overwhelming majority of whom are ethnic Yorubas.

    Oranyan

    A Yoruba king from the kingdom of Ile-Ife; although last born, he was heir to Oduduwa. According to Yoruba history, he founded Oyo as its first Alaafin at around the year 1300 and one of his children, Eweka I, went on to become the first Oba of the Benin Empire.

    Oduduwa

    The King of Ile-Ife, whose name is generally ascribed to the ancestral dynasties of Yorubaland because he is held by the Yoruba to have been the ancestor of their numerous crowned kings. Following his posthumous deification, he was admitted to the Yoruba pantheon as an aspect of a primordial divinity of the same name.

    Ile-Ife

    An ancient Yoruba city in southwestern Nigeria (located in the present-day Osun State) that turned into the first powerful Yoruba kingdom, one of the earliest in Africa south of the Sahara-Sahel. It is regarded as the cultural and spiritual homeland of the Yoruba nation.

    Yorubaland: Introduction

    Yorubaland is the cultural region of the Yoruba people in West Africa. It spans the modern-day countries of Nigeria, Togo, and Benin. Its pre-modern history is based largely on oral traditions and legends. According to Yoruba religion, Olodumare, the Supreme God, ordered Obatala to create the earth, but on Obatala’s way he found palm wine, which he drank and became intoxicated. Therefore, his younger brother, Oduduwa, took the three items of creation from him, climbed down from the heavens on a chain, and threw a handful of earth on the primordial ocean, then put a cockerel on it so that it would scatter the earth, thus creating the land on which Ile-Ife would be built. On account of his creation of the world, Oduduwa became the ancestor of the first divine king of the Yoruba, while Obatala is believed to have created the first Yoruba people out of clay. The meaning of the word “ife” in Yoruba is “expansion.” “Ile-Ife” is therefore in reference to the myth of origin, “The Land of Expansion.”

    Ile-Ife

    Evidence suggests that as of the 7th century BCE, the African peoples who lived in Yorubaland were not initially known as the Yoruba, though they shared a common ethnicity and language group. By the 8th century CE, Ile-Ife was already a powerful Yoruba kingdom, one of the earliest in Africa south of the Sahara-Sahel. Almost every Yoruba settlement traces its origin to princes of Ile-Ife. As such, Ife can be regarded as the cultural and spiritual homeland of the Yoruba nation. Archaeologically, the settlement at Ife can be dated to the 4th century BC, with urban structures appearing in the 12th century CE. Until today, the Oòni (or king) of Ife claims direct descent from Oduduwa.

    The city was a settlement of substantial size between the 12th and 14th centuries, with houses featuring potsherd pavements. Ile-Ife is known worldwide for its ancient and naturalistic bronze as well as stone and terracotta sculptures, which reached their peak of artistic expression between 1200 and 1400. In the period around 1300 the artists at Ife developed a refined and naturalistic sculptural tradition in terracotta, stone, and copper alloy—copper, brass, and bronze—many of which appear to have been created under the patronage of King Obalufon II, the man who today is identified as the Yoruba patron deity of brass casting, weaving, and regalia. After this period, production declined as political and economic power shifted to the nearby kingdom of Benin, which, like the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo, developed into a major empire.

    image
    Bronze head from Ife, probably a king, dated around 1300. Ile-Ife is known worldwide for its ancient and naturalistic bronze, stone, and terracotta sculptures, which reached their peak of artistic expression between 1200 and 1400.

    The Rise of the Oyo Empire

    The mythical origins of the Oyo Empire lie with Oranyan (also known as Oranmiyan), the second prince of Ile-Ife, who made Oyo his new kingdom and became the first oba  with the title of Alaafin of Oyo (Alaafin means “owner of the palace” in Yoruba). The oral tradition holds that he left all his treasures in Ife and allowed another king, named Adimu, to rule there.

    Oranyan was succeeded by Oba Ajaka, but he was deposed because he allowed his sub-chiefs too much independence. Leadership was then conferred upon Ajaka’s brother, Shango, who was later deified as the deity of thunder and lightning. Ajaka was restored after Shango’s death. His successor, Kori, managed to conquer the rest of what later historians would refer to as metropolitan Oyo. The heart of metropolitan Oyo was its capital at Oyo-Ile.

    Oyo had grown into a formidable inland power by the end of the 14th century, but it suffered military defeats at the hands of the Nupe led by Tsoede. Sometime around 1535, the Nupe occupied Oyo and forced its ruling dynasty to take refuge in the kingdom of Borgu.
    The Yoruba of Oyo went through an interregnum of eighty years as an exiled dynasty. However, they re-established Oyo to be more centralized and expansive than ever. During the 17th century, Oyo began a long stretch of growth, becoming a major empire. It never encompassed all Yoruba-speaking people, but it was the most populous kingdom in Yoruba history.

    image
    Oyo Empire and surrounding states c. 1700. The Oyo Empire rose through the outstanding organizational skills of the Yoruba, gaining wealth from trade and its powerful cavalry. It was the most politically important state in the region from the mid-17th century to the late 18th century, holding sway not only over most of the other kingdoms in Yorubaland, but also over nearby African states, notably the Fon Kingdom of Dahomey in the modern Republic of Benin to the west.

    The Power Of Oyo

    The key to Yoruba rebuilding Oyo was a stronger military and a more centralized government. Oba Ofinran succeeded in regaining Oyo’s original territory from the Nupe. A new capital, Oyo-Igboho, was constructed, and the original became known as Old Oyo. The next oba, Eguguojo, conquered nearly all of Yorubaland. Despite a failed attempt to conquer the Benin Empire sometime between 1578 and 1608, Oyo continued to expand. The Yoruba allowed autonomy to the southeast of metropolitan Oyo, where the non-Yoruba areas could act as a buffer between Oyo and Imperial Benin. By the end of the 16th century, the Ewe and Aja states of modern Benin were paying tribute to Oyo.

    The reinvigorated Oyo Empire began raiding southward as early as 1682. By the end of its military expansion, its borders would reach to the coast some 200 miles southwest of its capital. At the beginning, the people were concentrated in metropolitan Oyo. With imperial expansion, Oyo reorganized to better manage its vast holdings within and outside Yorubaland. It was divided into four layers defined by relation to the core of the empire. These layers were Metropolitan Oyo, southern Yorubaland, the Egbado Corridor, and Ajaland.

    The Oyo Empire developed a highly sophisticated political structure to govern its territorial domains. Scholars have not determined how much of this structure existed prior to the Nupe invasion. Some of Oyo’s institutions are clearly derivative of early accomplishments in Ife.
    The Oyo Empire was not a hereditary monarchy, nor an absolute one.
    While the Alaafin of Oyo was supreme overlord of the people, he was not without checks on his power. The Oyo Mesi (seven councilors of the states) and the Yoruba Earth cult known as Ogboni kept the Oba’s power in check. The Oyo Mesi spoke for the politicians while the Ogboni spoke for the people, backed by the power of religion. The power of the Alaafin of Oyo in relation to the Oyo Mesi and Ogboni depended on his personal character and political shrewdness.

    Oyo became the southern emporium of the trans-Saharan trade. Exchanges were made in salt, leather, horses, kola nuts, ivory, cloth, and slaves. The Yoruba of metropolitan Oyo were also highly skilled in craft making and iron work. Aside from taxes on trade products coming in and out of the empire, Oyo also became wealthy off the taxes imposed on its tributaries. Oyo’s imperial success made Yoruba a lingua franca almost to the shores of the Volta. Toward the end of the 18th century, the empire acted as a go-between for both the trans-Saharan and trans-Atlantic slave trade. By 1680, the Oyo Empire spanned over 150,000 square kilometers.

    Decline

    In the second half of the 18th century, dynastic intrigues, palace coups, and failed military campaigns began to weaken the Oyo Empire. Recurrent power struggles and resulting periods of interregnum created a vacuum, in which the power of regional commanders rose.
    As Oyo tore itself apart via political intrigue, its vassals began taking advantage of the situation to press for independence. Some of them succeeded, and Oyo never regained its prominence in the region. It became a protectorate of Great Britain in 1888 before further fragmenting into warring factions. The Oyo state ceased to exist as any sort of power in 1896.

     

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