Urhobo Historical Society


By Peter P. Ekeh
State University of New York at Buffalo, USA

Fourth Chief Jacob U. Egharevba Memorial Lecture, under the auspices of the Institute for Benin Studies, at Oba Akenzua II Cultural Centre, Benin City, on 14 December, 2001. I thank the Institute for Benin Studies for its kind invitation and for honouring me with the opportunity of delivering this distinguished lecture. I thank Professor Omo Omoruyi, currently resident in Boston, USA, for an insightful conversation on the subject of pockets of dialectic variations in modern Benin language. I am grateful to Dr. Igho Natufe, now resident in Ottawa, Canada, and Engr. Onoawarie Edevbie, currently resident in Detroit, Michigan, USA, for their careful reading of a draft text of this paper and for offering several important comments and suggestions.

In many ways, this lecture is a celebration of the uniqueness of Benin and its culture. Let me hurry to say, however, that I have not come here to praise Benin history, but to analyze it. I have come before you in the hope that I will be able to highlight certain features of Benin history and culture in an academic fashion. I cannot claim to know Benin in any degree that is close to your intimate knowledge of your own folkways and your command of the history of Benin royal legacies. What I can do as an academic is to foster a level of analysis of Benin history and culture that will enable you to weigh your experiences and acquaintance with the Benin past and its traditions on a scale of knowledge that is different from that to which you are used.

Let me begin that analysis by clarifying my assertion concerning the uniqueness of Benin history and culture. I will discuss a premier element of Benin's uniqueness as my introduction to this lecture. Benin is unique in bridging the African past with our present world. Ancient Africa experienced an abundance of civilizations and state formations. They stretched back to ancient Egypt of some five millennia removed from our times through Kush, Ethiopia and other Nilotic traditions of civilization to the triple state formations of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai and the Hausa and Yoruba states of West Africa. Except for the more ancient instances of Egypt and Kush, which existed long before the Christian era, most of these state formations were contemporaries of Benin. Remarkably, with the single exception of Ethiopia and Benin, all the significant civilizations and state formations of ancient Africa ceased to exist before the arrival of European imperialism introduced a new era in African affairs. Both Ethiopia and Benin had strong royal traditions, even after the advent of European imperialism in Africa. In the 1970s, Ethiopian royalty collapsed, leaving Benin monarchy as the sole survivor and exemplar of royalty from ancient times of African history.

In this respect, within the compass of recent and contemporary Nigerian affairs, let me recall to your memory that royal traditions have changed dramatically in the last century of our history. The British sought to control our royal traditions, supplanting those occupants of thrones that did not readily accept their imperial overtures. That was how such a formidable royal presence of the nineteenth century as Muhammadu Attahiru dan Ahmadu, Sultan of Sokoto, lost his throne, allowing an occupant of that throne, Muhammadu Attahiru dan Aliyu Baba, whose appointment by the British in 1903 was dictated by their own imperial needs (See H. A.S. Johnston 1967, Chapter 23). The intense animosity between the British and the Benin at the close of the nineteenth century, leading to the fiercest war fought by the British for any territory in Nigeria, was so palpable that the British were clearly intent on changing the line of succession to the Benin throne. The pragmatic British changed their mind and accepted the verdict of the Benin people who insisted on continuity of Benin royal succession by way of primogeniture.

Let me remind you further that during the first blush of civilian control of Nigerian affairs in the 1950s, we in this country witnessed the quick removal of the Alafin of Oyo and Emir Sanusi of Kano, both of whom were not readily compliant with the wishes of the ruling Action Group in Western Nigeria and the ruling Northern Peoples Congress of Northern Nigeria, respectively. If there was one stable source of opposition to the ways of the Action Group from Midwestern Nigeria in the 1950s, it was led from the much beloved and tough-minded Akenzua II, the Oba of Benin during the decade of campaign for Nigeria's independence from British rule. Yet it would be unthinkable for the Action Group to interfere with Benin royal traditions, even when their bearer was not in its support. We should pose the following question as a matter to attend to in this lecture: Whence did Benin royalty gain such strength?


Answering that question may require further characterization of Benin and its royal traditions than what we have so far noted about their uniqueness. Royal institutions have been at the center of Benin history and culture for centuries, probably closer to some two millennia than most current estimates allow. There is a feature of royal traditions which are readily identified with the histories of China and of Europe, but which are rare in Africa, for which Benin should be well noted. A sequence of reigns or rule by members of a single royal family constitutes what is referred to as a dynasty. We are probably much more familiar with the dynasties of English history. The Tudors (1485-1603) provided England with an impressive line of succession of Kings and Queens that witnessed a great deal of progress in English history. They were followed by the much-maligned Stuarts who brought England and Scotland together in a union that bore the name of Great Britain. Most European kingdoms recorded several dynasties. The Chinese historical record is longer, and it also witnessed a good number of dynasties.

Dynasties are, however, quite rare in African history. Aside from the famed dynasties of Egyptian history, Ethiopia and Benin again provide us with the most distinguished instances of dynasties in African history. The Benin case is quite remarkable. Benin's long history has been dominated by two ruling houses. Jacob Egharevba and other students of Benin history have given estimates of up to thirty-one Ogisos who ruled Benin in its earlier period. That is an outstanding line of succession that would be difficult to replicate in other corners of African history. While respecting that range of figures of ruling Ogisos as indicating a broad accurate estimate, we should be more circumspect with respect to the duration of the Ogiso era of Benin history. Converting events counted in African indigenous calendars into the Gregorian calendar of reckoning is not an easy task.

If estimates that date the beginning of the Ogiso era to the sixth or seventh century were upheld, ancient Ghana and Benin would have begun their experiments in building kingdoms about the same time. My own suspicion is that the Ogiso era spanned a larger canvas of time than that allowed by the learned Egharevba and other scholars of Benin history, generally estimated to cover some six centuries. My reason for saying so is that the kingdom built by the Ogisos was a pristine state. Pristine states were original political constructions that did not have other examples and templates, from their past histories or from elsewhere, on which to model their behaviours. They were living experiments, making mistakes and correcting their systems of rulership along the way at a pace of development that was liable to be slow. Pristine states, such as Egypt and Ghana, to cite two prominent instances in ancient African history, spanned much longer periods of time than states that followed them. The Ogisos began an experiment in statecraft in circumstances that were elementary and their ascent to maturity must be assumed to have taken a longer period of time than their apparent achievements would indicate. It was upon their accomplishments that the succeeding kings in the ruling House of Eweka built a formidable city-state and then an empire, at a much faster pace.

In any comparative assessment of dynasties, the existence of two Ruling Houses in the total span of Benin history is most conspicuous. Let us stay with the example of English history because many of us are much more familiar with it than other cases in comparative world history of royalty. English history boasts seventy one Kings and Queens, who have ruled England from 827 C. E. to the present time, that is for about twelve centuries. That time span is obviously shorter than the history of Benin royalty. Yet, counting the earlier Anglo-Saxon Kings together until the epoch-making arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066, English Kings and Queens are grouped into eleven dynasties. It is fair to say that in the comparative history of royalty, the Benin historical experience of two ruling Houses of the Ogiso and Eweka for more than one and a half millennium is spectacular.

Whatever doubts there might be regarding the centuries in which the House of Ogiso ruled, the record is much clearer in the second dynasty of the Obas from the House of Eweka who succeeded the Ogisos, following an interregnum that the nobleman Evian presided over, in the 12th century. So strong is the sense of oral history in Benin and so secure is the entrenchment of the House of Eweka that the names of the Obas have been ingrained into Benin history and folklore with remarkable clarity. Beginning in the 12th century, there have been thirty-eight monarchs from the Ruling House of Eweka. In the reckoning of dynasties, these records for the Ogisos and for the Ewekas are quite impressive.

Such features of Benin history and royalty are commonplace facts with which many in this hall are thoroughly familiar. They may appear slightly different because I have stated them in comparison to other instances of royal history in the ancient world. But we must now move beyond statements of historical facts to the more demanding task of explaining them. We must ask difficult questions of those facts in the attempt to understand why and how Benin history evolved along its own special way. Stating what happened in Benin history is important and even challenging. However, we are liable to exaggerate or mystify historical developments if we are not guided by the desire to understand and explain the facts of history as events that have their own boundaries of probabilities within the limits of human achievements.


I offer two key principles as avenues for understanding the nature of Benin history and culture. The first may be stated as follows: The Kingdoms of the Ogisos and of the Obas of Benin were established by the people of these lands on the theory that monarchy would best protect their interests. The people who lived under the Ogisos and the people of Benin who have lived under the Obas of the House of Eweka were never conquered by any of their kings, although they expected their kings to conquer other lands. Whereas most other kingdoms in the ancient world were presided over by dynasties that claimed their right to rule from their conquest of the lands of the people, the ancestors of the Benin people, whom the Ogisos and the Obas ruled, could rightly claim that they and their culture willed and then designed the kingdoms over which these enduring dynasties governed the affairs of the people.

Permit me to elaborate on the essence of this first principle of Benin history, which accounts for a great deal of the special features of Benin history and culture. The men and women who lived through various segments of at least a millennium and a half of Benin royal history took active part in the design and construction of Benin monarchy. In a vital sense, they believed that they owned the social institutions that housed their kingdom. Having collectively invested so much in the building of their state, they have acted as its owners. They rewarded those kings who advanced the fortunes of the state with adulation and high praise -- rarely matched anywhere else in the ancient African world. But they were also known to have meted out severe punishment to those of their Kings who degraded their state and threatened the people's welfare. Benin kings were powerful people within their domain and outside of it. But their power was a result of their paying close attention to the affairs of the state and their unmatched ability to listen to the complaints of even the littlest man and woman in the kingdom. Kings who failed in these respects have occasionally suffered disgrace from actions of the people.

That was how the first dynasty of the Royal House of Ogiso was terminated. The following epigrammatic passage from Jacob Egharevba's A Short History of Benin tells us at once the role of the people in the dissolution of the old Ogiso dynasty; in their rejection of attempts by a non-royal aristocrat to be their king; and in the creation of a new dynasty by way of the deliberate invitation by the people to a neighboring kingdom for a royal prince to help out with their crisis of governance:

It was some years after Evian's victory over Osogan [the monster] that Owodo was banished for misrule by the angry people, who then appointed Evian as an administrator of the government of the country because of his past services to the people. When Evian was stricken by old age he nominated his eldest son, Ogiemwen as his successor, but the people refused him. They said he was not the Ogiso and they could not accept his son as his successor, because as he himself knew, it had been arranged to set up a republican form of government. This he was now selfishly trying to alter.

While this was still in dispute the people indignantly sent an ambassador to the Ooni Oduduwa, the great and wisest ruler of Ife, asking him to send one of his sons to be their ruler, for things were getting from bad to worse and the people saw that there was need for a capable ruler. (Italics added.)

Putting aside for now the historical nuances in the reasons for the invitation to Ife, there can be no doubt whatsoever of the people's role in terminating the Ogiso dynasty and in launching, by their election, of a new dynasty that began with Eweka I, the royal reward of the people's efforts to govern their affairs effectively.

There is an important corollary of this first principle of Benin history. It is that the people, during Ogiso times and under the succeeding ruling House of Eweka, fought strenuously to protect the monarchy whenever it was threatened by hostile forces. Just compare from our recent history in Nigeria the reaction to the British imperial invasion of Benin and of the Fulani Empire of Sokoto, the two leading states in our region of West Africa in the nineteenth century. The Benin fought with determination until they fell, earning the respect of history for their loyalty to their king and to their state. In the Sokoto Caliphate, the British, having anticipated much opposition, surprisingly rode into the once mighty Fulani state with ease. The Hausa, whose kingdoms the Fulani had liquidated a century earlier, were pleased to see the new conquerors. (2)Conquered subjects of kingdoms, such as the Hausa in the Sokoto Caliphate of the 19th century, could never fight for the survival of their kingdom and their King with the same amount of resolve as the Benin displayed in February 1897. The Benin were fighting to protect their kingdom, a state which their ancestors had helped to build.

Let me now turn to the second principle of Benin history which, I claim, has made Benin history and culture what they are. It may be stated as follows: Dynastic struggle between the Ruling House of Eweka and the defeated House of Ogiso has had the intended and unintended consequences of consolidating and greatly expanding the small state that the House of Ogiso experimented with and built in the course of many centuries. In exploring this region of Benin history, we are approaching a line behind which it is not historically responsible to talk about authoritatively. Indeed, our knowledge of the era of the Ogisos is murky for two principal reasons. First, dynastic struggles in world history include a determination by the succeeding dynasties to diminish and control the knowledge of the events of the dynasties that are being overtaken. This has been the case in Benin history. Second, the historical events of the Ogiso era occurred in relative isolation, at a time when the people of these lands did not have much contact with outsiders. One reason why historians have been able to talk with privileged authority about the later dates of Benin history, under the dynasty of the Obas, is that its events can be measured in time against outside incidents. The arrival and activities of Europeans in our region in the later half of the fifteenth century had opened up the historically pristine political territories of what historians have labelled the forest states of West Africa (see Connah 1987 [2001 edition: 144-180]).

Dynastic struggles are by their nature ideological. They are waged against departing royal ruling houses, which no longer exist, by new ruling houses, which seek to establish their own legitimacy. Dynastic struggles are intrinsically double-handed. On the one hand, a major tool of dynastic struggle is the diminution in the stature and achievements of the failed dynasty. Sometimes, the extinct dynasty was so powerful that the succeeding dynasty rules under its predecessor's shadows. That was what happened in English history to the Scottish Stuarts whose achievements were always unfavourably compared to the grounded achievements of the pragmatic Tudors. In the Benin case, the native Ogisos were disgraced and hounded out of their reign by the people. Their diminution rituals, during the successful dynasty of the Obas of the House of Eweka, continued under various guises. On the other hand, dynastic struggles involve efforts by the new ruling houses to glean and claim the successes of the extinct dynasties and then to build on them. Here, in the Benin case, we have an example of one of the most successful instances of achievements, by the House of Eweka, that were built from the history and culture of the previous dynasty of the House of Ogiso.

Having stated these two principles of Benin history in more or less general terms, let me now move on to discuss each of them in the context of the events of Benin history. I will handle them in reverse order.


The earlier portions of the reign of the Ogisos constitute what historians like to call prehistory. Historical scholarship can shed some light on a great deal of the events of the prehistoric era from various sources, provided we are modest enough to admit that we are reconstructing probable events from a period about which there are no clear records. Unfortunately, two fallacies have beclouded the studies of prehistoric portions of our existence in Nigerian history. In order to render a responsible and truly probable interpretation of the Ogisos and their times, it is necessary to comment on, and then correct, these two fallacies in Nigerian scholarship.

First, Nigerian historiography is infested with what I would like to label as the fallacy of the regal origins of societies and cultures. It is the false assumption that societies and cultures have grown from kingdoms that were built by immigrant princes. This habitude and preoccupation with kingdoms as sources of cultures and societies probably began with the Reverend Samuel Johnson's tortured acceptance of the view that Oduduwa, the progenitor of the Yoruba, was a fugitive prince who fled religious persecution from Muslim devotees in Arabia. In his famous The History of the Yorubas, Johnson initially rejected any suggestion that the Yoruba were Arabians in their origin:

The Yoruba are certainly not of the Arabian family, and could not have come from Mecca -- that is to say the Mecca universally known in history, and no such accounts . . . are to be found in the records of Arabian writers or any kings of Mecca; an event of such importance could hardly have passed unnoticed by their historians (Johnson 1921: 5)

Having so wisely denounced this thesis of Arabian origins of Yoruba, Johnson was nonetheless swayed by the "only written record . . .on this subject" from the much learned Sultan Bello of Sokoto who sought to link the origins of the Yoruba to the Biblical story of Noah's curse on the children of his youngest son, Ham. According to Sultan Bello, the Yoruba "originated from the remnant of the children of Canaan, who were of the tribe of Nimrod [Ham's descendant]. The cause of their establishment in the West of Africa was, as it is stated, in consequence of their being driven by Yar-rooba, out of Arabia." That is to say, the Yoruba mysteriously adopted the name of their persecutor, Yar-rooba. The Reverend Johnson creatively adds that Nimrod was probably the same ancestor of the Yoruba whose name had been corrupted from Nimrod to Lamurudu {Namurudu). (See Johnson 1921: 5-6). The late Professor Saburi O. Biobaku (1979) added the weight of his scholarship to these claims of Yoruba migration, suggesting "that the Yoruba were probably the last Sudanic people to migrate to their present territory." (cited in Otite 1978: 20). (3)

While we all must be intrigued and amazed at the fertile intellectual imagination that enabled brilliant scholars to reach such fanciful conclusions, it is much more bewildering that modern academics should endorse these self-deprecating stories as appropriate material to be taught in Nigerian schools. The result has been imitation of migration stories in other areas of Nigeria, ignoring traditions of origins of our people that do not incorporate migrations from distant places. For example, Robin Law, the British historian who is an authority on Oyo, has noted the existence of other traditions of Yoruba origins, which have apparently been ignored: "there exist among the Yoruba numerous origin legends which, while agreeing in tracing descent from Oduduwa and Ile-Ife, do not refer to a migration from elsewhere" (Law, 1973: 30). There should be little doubt that the original intention of these fabulous migration stories was to establish the specious point that all Nigerians were after all migrants, as the Fulani overlords of the Sokoto Caliphate undeniably were, and that rival groups like the Yoruba and the Edo had no superior indigenous claims to their own lands.

When compared to the age of human existence on the African continent, Mecca and Islam, and indeed Christianity, are late instances of human history. Such knowledge does not seem to hinder this type of improbable mythology dressed up as respectable prehistory. Mohammed was born in 580 C. E., by which time African states like Ghana and Ethiopia were already well established. He died in 632 C. E. Seven years later, in 639 C. E., Arabs began to pour into Africa, on a mission of converting Christian Africa and Christian Europe to Islam. Since then, there are clear records of the movements of Arabs in Africa. None contains any mention of this fantastic connection between Yorubaland and Arabia. This distortion is a troubling aspect of our scholarship because it insults our claim to be some of the oldest humans on earth.

The fallacy of the regal origins of societies and cultures seems to have influenced some students of Benin history to assume that the Ogisos founded the societies which they then ruled. Such land has retrospectively been named after the first Ogiso as Igodomigodo (see Oronsaye 1995, Bradbury 1957: 19; Otite 1978: 19)). However, it is much more probable that the Ogiso dynasty arose from clan and village societies that were already in existence for thousands of years. That would not make their accomplishments smaller. Bringing various clans and villages under the control of a ruling family must have been a major challenge for the Ogisos, a challenge that they seemed to have met magnificently until the mismanagement of their own successes overthrew their long era of dominance. Our region of humankind is not young, certainly not as young as the last two millennia within which the House of Ogiso built their kingdom. We must acknowledge the contribution of these village and clan communities in the evolution of what eventually became the Kingdom of Benin. It is to their credit that out of the numerous indigenous communities that existed for tens of thousands of years in our corner of humanity, it was their culture that began the process of state building which mushroomed into a powerful kingdom many centuries later.

A second troubling fallacy in Nigerian historiography, which affects our appreciation of the Ogisos and their times, is what Professor Reinhard Bendix from the University of California, Berkeley, many years ago labelled as the fallacy of retrospective determinism. It surfaces in the assumption that the themes and features that characterize our modern societies and history also applied in ancient times. In effect, this fallacy is the process of falsely levelling our history backwards into antiquity. I will give an example from within our subject matter. One of the great achievements of the kings in the House of Eweka is the founding of the City of Benin, which then nurtured an urban ethos among the Benin. Some historians of Benin seem to imply that the Ogisos did the same thing. Actually, not all dynasties build cities and there is no evidence that the Ogisos built one. Certainly, their contemporaries did not seem to be as urban as modern Benins have become.

Aware of the dangers in these two fallacies, let us now explore the Ogisos and their times. What type of kings were the Ogisos and what type of societies did they preside over? Here our exploration must take the route of discovering the distant past from their reconstructed refractions in our own existence. But understanding that the Ogisos, like the Stuarts of English history, have sometimes been maligned in Benin folkways, we will need the help of other fragments of the culture that the Ogisos influenced in their times. Just consider the appearances of the Ogisos in Benin and Urhobo folktales. In Isidore Okpewho's (1998) comprehensive and scholarly study of Benin folklore, there is a Benin folktale concerning the Ogiso, which ends as follows:

Ogiso goes back on his word. Whereupon heaven and earth threaten to convulse the nation, forcing the Ogiso to capitulate. >[His rival] became the Oba, and the Ogiso became his sword-bearer. (p. 67)
This kind of degradation ritual is quite common in dynastic struggles. But such treatment of Ogisos in Benin folktales would be thoroughly baffling, probably annoying, to the Urhobo. In Urhobo folktales, the Ogiso has a different imagery. The Urhobo, even modern educated Urhobo, have not studied Benin monarchy in the way that it has understandably occupied the Benin. But the Ogiso was the King whom the Urhobo know and understand thoroughly. The Ogisos were ruling when many communities left these lands, which later became known as Benin, to sojourn southeastwards to establish new communities or else to join indigenous people who were already established in the western Niger Delta. In doing so, they took away fragments of the culture that was in existence at the time of the Ogisos. It is difficult to estimate what centuries these were. But it was most probable that these migrations were serial. Rather than taking place in one fell swoop, they probably covered a course of several centuries in the first millennium of the Christian calendar.

Urhobo understanding of kingship was shaped by the political culture that was in existence at the time of the Ogisos. It included a complex imagery of the Ogisos in Urhobo folklore. That composite picture was of a king who was most argumentative. He had a troublesome first wife, Inarhe, who would not brook much from the demands of the Ogiso. Ogiso could be harsh in his ways, but he clearly attended to the needs of ordinary people, including the proverbial yaws-infested man, okpufi, whose needs could not be neglected in the society in which Ogiso was king.

Urhobo language yields clues to the profile of the society and culture which the Ogisos ruled. To begin with, the Urhobo know this king by his straightforward name, Ogiso, without any other titles. He was their king. On the other hand, the Urhobo know the kings of the House of Eweka more distantly as Oba r' Aka, the King of Benin. Of course, Urhobo language does not contain the word Benin. Nor does it have Edo. Benin and Edo were names that were introduced by Ogiso's powerful successors into the culture that the Ogiso once ruled. By the time these words of Benin and Edo, by which the culture is now known, were introduced in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Urhobo had left these lands.

If any of the Ogisos were to be called back from the Great Beyond to our modern world, they would be baffled by these new names. They were not there in their times. The reawakened Ogisos would probably understand the Urhobo word for Benin, namely Aka, and might well understand the word Uhobo by which modern Benins know the Urhobo. But the resurrected Ogisos would not be aware that the lands they once ruled are now known by the names Benin and Edo. They might be lost in complex Oredo, the City of Benin, which was built long after they left the scene. According to Urhobo folklore, Udo would be the town that the Ogisos would know well. There is little doubt that the shades of the Ogisos would be much more comfortable among the modern Urhobo than with the modern Benin. There certainly would be greater mutual respect and understanding between the Urhobo and the shades of the Ogisos than anything the Ogisos could expect from modern Benin.

Any of the Ogisos might also have difficulties understanding modern Benin language. A language changes over time, especially when a new powerful dynasty emerges in its society. Just consider the vast changes from the English of Chaucer's era in the 14th century to the English language spoken nowadays -- a bare separation of some seven centuries, certainly less than what separates us from the Ogiso times. There is always a temptation to assume that any language has remained constant over centuries. But languages do change. Let me illustrate this aspect of probable changes in the language spoken at the time of the Ogisos and modern Benin. It is well known that Urhobo shares a host of words with Benin, because the two cultures were joined by their common experiences of the culture over which the Ogisos presided. But it would be a mistake to assume that the meanings of all of these common words have come from the times of the Ogisos. Take the word ohwo (plural ihwo). It is common to Urhobo and Benin as well as Ishan. But what does ohwo mean in these languages?

In Benin and Ishan, ohwo means woman. In Urhobo, ohwo means human being. Obviously, the two usages are related. Which of these was in use in Ogiso's times? I rather suspect that the Ogiso usage of this word would be closer to its Urhobo meaning. I say so because there is a pattern in cultural migrations that favours immobilities in fragments of a master culture that have undergone migration to other climes, while changes tend to be much more profound in its original habitat. As Louis Hartz (1964) put it somewhere else, modern French is spoken in Paris, but in Canada's Quebec an 18th century version of the French language is spoken.

By far the more manifest refractions of Ogiso times in modern Urhobo is in its organization of society and culture. Despite the geographical and cultural proximity between Benin and Urhobo, there are deep-seated differences in the cultural organization of these fragments of what has been called Edoid complex of cultures. (4) Urhobo exemplifies a segmentation in its cultural ensembles that has sometimes been called clan organization. Urhobo is certainly segmented into smaller cultural groupings that are all linked together into the Urhobo cultural whole. Each of these constitutive cultural groupings is organically linked to the wholeness of Urhobo culture. None of them would feel complete without their linkage to the whole of Urhobo culture. But none of them would feel whole without their singular distinction in the wider framework of Urhobo culture.

By contrast, clan identities are minuscule in Benin culture. If there is one area in cultural organization where modern Benin can claim a uniqueness, it is in the fact that kinship organizations are weak in Benin culture and society as compared to its significant neighbours, Urhobo and Yoruba. With respect to a comparison between Yoruba and Benin, the British anthropologist R. E. Bradbury has noted the "absence of large lineages with continuing rights in offices" in Benin culture, in contrast to the Yoruba where they are abundant (Bradbury 1973: 15).

We may therefore ask the following question: Was the political organization of these lands during Ogiso times more like those in Urhobo land or were they closer to the centralized political system, which is relatively free of strong subcultural loyalties, that has come to distinguish Benin political organization? I would suggest that the Ogiso political system was closer to the Urhobo pattern. The Urhobo, in all probability, took away with them the pattern of clan organization in place under the Ogisos, while the Benin experienced important transformations under the succeeding dynasty of the House of Eweka.


The prominence and power of the Obas of the House of Eweka were derived from the transformations that they wrought in the post-Ogiso era. In the cultural sphere, the elementary society of villages and clans that existed under the Ogisos were transformed into a city-centered culture. There is need to characterize what this means, lest it be confused with the related urban culture of the neighbouring Yoruba. The city-centredness in Benin culture was unique because it was based on the notion that all Benin citizens had space within the political culture of the City in the same way as the Greek City-states were run. In one sense, all Benins were citizens of the City. In other words, Benin was a City-state.

In another important sense, Oredo, the City of Edo, which is another name for Benin City, had the same ritual significance for the Benin as Ile-Ife had for the Yoruba. But there was an important difference between the two. While Ile-Ife conveyed a symbolic significance for the Yoruba, Oredo provided a substantive meaning in the lives of the Benin because it was at once the religious and political headquarters of their existence. The tremendous authority that the Obas of the House of Eweka wielded for many centuries in the affairs of Benin derived from their management of the affairs of the City of Benin as the centre of Benin culture as well as their control of the relationships between Benin City and the rest of the city-state of Benin. In this transformation from the elementary clan-based state and society that the Ogisos ruled, Benin culture achieved a uniformity that is absent from Benin's significant neighbours. Consider, for instance, the variations in language. Each of Yoruba, Igbo, and Urhobo has far more internal variations within their languages than what exists in Benin, although significant pockets of dialectic distinction remain entrenched in a few areas of Benin. We must assume that the spread of a common urban Benin language, which has overridden major dialects in Benin culture, is a product of the transformation that followed from the works of the new dynasty of the House of Eweka.

There is a second area where the transition from the Ogisos to the ruling House of Eweka led to major changes in the fortunes of Benin. It is in the sphere of empire-building. The Ogisos were not empire-builders. Nor was it clear from the early Obas that the new dynasty would embark on empire-building. The change probably came with the famed five Obas of the middle fifteenth and the whole of the sixteenth centuries -- Ewuare the Great, Ozolua, Esigie, Orhogbua, and Ehengbuda -- whose reigns in close proximity established Benin as a foremost imperial power in West Africa. But it is easy to overstate the achievements of these great Obas relative to earlier ones. Their achievements became clearer because they began their reign at a time when European presence in the Western Niger Delta allowed historical records to be established. It is entirely probable that the earlier Obas had laid down the groundwork for the achievements of Oba Ewuare the Great and his successors.

Whatever the case was, history has rewarded Benin's achievements handsomely. It is striking that Benin built its empire in the same centuries as the brilliant Songhai who composed, from the little state networks that they took over from Mali, a huge empire of several states in what historians, using an Arabic term, call the Western Sudan. Songhai's empire was vast, stretching from modern Mauritania to the Hausa states of modern Northern Nigeria. Yet, today no single significant land or water mass bears Songhai's name. The presence of Arab powers nearby, in the Maghreb and in the Sahara, was Songhai's nemesis and misfortune. Benin's good fortune is the absence of Arab or even European imperial powers at the time it was expanding. Today, judging by the number of institutions, lands, and waters that are named after Benin, we all must acknowledge that out of the ancient states of West Africa and the Nile Valley history has been most kind to Benin. Togo's national university is named as the University of Benin. In the 1970s, following disputes among its ethnic groups, some of which objected to the name Dahomey as being too local and parochial, the country to the west of Nigeria changed its name from Dahomey to the Republic of Benin. European cartographers joined in the tribute to Benin's influence. An important river in the Western Niger Delta is named as Benin River. Then, consider the significance of that huge section of the Atlantic Ocean bordering West Africa that is called the Bight of Benin -- especially in view of the fact that the Atlantic coastline is some distance from Benin itself. All of these namesakes must be seen as tributes to Oba Ewuare the Great and his successors.

However, I believe that the Ogiso era deserves a share of Benin's recognition for preparing the groundwork for these achievements. This is so for two significant reasons. First, it has been claimed by many that the stability and eminence of Benin's rulership owes a great deal to the institution of primogeniture (see, e.g., Ekeh 1976), which is the principle that authorizes succession by the first male child. Despite the contention by Jacob Egharevba that this principle dates back to only about the seventeenth century, it must be clear that the tradition of primogeniture was already strong during the era of the Ogisos. That principle is probably as strong among the Urhobo as among the Benin -- a clear indication that it dates back to Ogiso times.

Primogeniture of course existed in the histories of many other monarchical traditions, across the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe -- especially in antiquity. But the Benin case was special in its practice. I can see no other instances in history in which was practiced the ritual separation between the King and the heir apparent in the manner in which primogeniture in royal succession was historically enforced in Benin culture. This ritual separation occurred at birth, following the performance of rites that established the succession rights of the infant heir apparent. The severity of this custom was unmatched anywhere else. Where did it come from? Clearly, it was a cultural imposition on the Kings, not their choice. We must search into Benin history and culture for the origins of this uncommon cultural practice that portended to safeguard the monarchy --even when it was enforced at the cost of denying the King the right to interact freely with his first male child.

What was the purpose of this custom of the ritual separation of King and his infant heir apparent? Actually, no meaningful answer usually emerges in response to questions about the purpose of customs. But we can search into Benin history for clues. The end of the Ogiso dynasty came as a result of arbitrary behaviour of the last Ogiso, Owodo, towards his first -- and, as it turned out, his only - son. He banished him and then wanted to recall him, leading to much bloodshed. That was a harsh lesson in Benin history. I suggest to you that Benin culture responded to such royal behaviour by taking over from the King the sole authority to decide on the fate of his successor. The ritual separation between the King and his infant heir apparent allowed Benin culture to protect both the infant heir apparent and the line of succession designed by Benin culture against any royal whims that could resemble Owodo's behaviour. In other words, it is my contention that Benin culture instituted a principle of socialization for Benin kingship that embodied lessons learnt from the era of the Ogisos.

There is a second leftover from the Ogiso era that informed subsequent developments in Benin history. At its height, what is popularly known as the Benin Empire had three portions. There was the eastern Igbo Province, essentially made up of what is today Western Igbo. This was an area that was won by way of warfare, the most important wars being those with Agbor (1577) and Ubulu-Ukwu (1750). Benin imperialism met with considerable resistance, resentment, and bloodshed in Igboland (see Ohadike 1994 and Okpewho 1998). Then there was Benin's Yoruba Province that was won on the platform of military action, but with much less resentment and acrimony than the Igbo case. Towards the end of the nineteenth century this area was being harassed by aggressive Fulani expansionism from its Sokoto Caliphate base.

The rest of what was called the Benin Empire was hardly won by war and its lands experienced far less military control from Benin. These were areas where Benin enjoyed cultural ties with surrounding communities. The oldest of these communities were Isoko and Urhobo that were partially peopled by those who migrated from Ogiso's lands and therefore had cultural and linguistic ties with Benin. The expansion of Benin influences in Isoko and Urhobo countries were the harvest from Ogiso's era. These territories had more people than Western Igbo. If the Benin had to fight any imperial wars in these areas, as they did in Igbo country, the Empire would have been sapped of much of its energy. The influence of the Obas of Benin in those areas was important, but it was based on mutual needs. That this was so could be seen from the fact that the relations between Benin and Urhobo continued on a voluntary basis even after British imperialism severed the ties between Benin and the lands where Benin Obas once exercised influence, whereas the Igbo relationships were hurriedly and permanently ended. There were other Edoid areas whose communities were peopled by groups that migrated from Benin lands when the Eweka dynasty was already in place. Such more recent emigrants as the Ishan, who left Benin under the Obas of the House of Eweka, were much closer to the rule and control of Benin City than the older communities in Isoko and Urhobo countries in the Niger Delta whose cultural ties with modern Benin were more indirect, because they were rooted in their common experiences during Ogiso times.


Of the two propositions that I enunciated at the beginning of this lecture as key principles of Benin history, namely, the dominant role of the people in the making and design of Benin kingdom and the dynastic struggle of the House of Eweka against the defunct House of Ogiso, I may appear to have paid more attention to the latter than to the role of the people. In fact, however, the people's presence and influence were present, in implicit ways, in the affairs of Benin, as much in the second dynasty as they were robust in Ogiso's era. In coming to the conclusions of this lecture, I must now turn to an explicit examination of the role of the people in the design of Benin kingdom and in its nurture.

In doing so, we need not go much further than Jacob Egharevba's brilliant A Short History of Benin. If that book deserved another title, it would be: The People of Benin and Their Kings. For it was a narration of how the interests and needs of Benin people were well promoted and protected by their kings and their institutions. The Benin were people whose needs could not be ignored. Great kings, like Oba Ewuare, listened to their voices.

I will illustrate this thesis on the relationship between the people and the kings of Benin by examining two puzzles in Benin history. The first of these puzzles concerns the deep trenches, also called moats, that surrounded old Benin City. They are unparalleled in tropical Africa. Like the Great Zimbabwes of southern Africa, these moats represent something of a puzzle. Historically, ramparts, such as the Benin moats, are built for protection against perceived foreign enemies. Adiele Afigbo, the influential Nigerian historian, is reported as having quipped on one occasion as to why the Benin needed a deep moat. At the time these trenches were constructed, in the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, Benin was under no threat from its neighbours. There was no power of Benin's size whose attack Benin kingdom feared. Why spend so much labour and time building terrifically deep trenches from Benin's hard and red soil?

Egharevba provides us with intriguing answers to those questions, which attest to Benin's complex history. In The City of Benin, Egharevba (1952) offers two explanations for the building of the moats. The first reason for undertaking the horrendous task of building these gigantic ramparts was to protect the City of Benin from its internal Benin enemies, clearly indicating that the notion of Benin City was not universally popular at the beginning and that it had to be defended, not against foreigners, but against its internal Benin detractors. Egharevba writes, thus: "There are three main moats or ditches surrounding the City. The first and the second were [sic] dug by Oba Oguola about 1280 and 1290 A. D. as barriers to keep off the invaders in the time of war. Especially against Akpanigiakon, the Duke of Udo, who was then harassing the City" (Egharevba 1952: 11).

The explanation for the building of the third portion of the moat reverses the logic of the first two sections. Having built earlier regions of the moats to keep some troublesome Benins from the City, two centuries later, there was an urgent need to keep Benins inside the City, barring them from fleeing from the onerous duties of empire building. Egharevba tells us that Oba Ewuare's vindictive policies enforcing a prolonged mourning period for the loss of his two favorite sons were the final push factor, the final straw as it were, that led to renewed emigration from Benin. Egharevba (152: 11) writes:

The people therefore cried out in a melancholy mood,, Ewuare, o! gi Edo gha bun, meaning Ewuare let the City of Benin be increased. The Oba then hysterically [sic] dug the third moat to prevent his few remaining subjects from further desertion. He [sic] began to tattoo their bodies so that they might be known and identified amongst the people of other tribes. This was the origin of the Benin tribal mark.
Sensitivity about the loss of population in the Benin of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was, in all probability, a distant playback to Ogiso's times. The Ogiso dynasty suffered considerable hemorrhage from migrations from its realm in ways that do not now appear obvious to us, modern people. But it must have been clear to ancient Benins of those distant centuries that there was danger of repeating the Ogiso debacle of earlier centuries if citizens left Benin City in large numbers. Their Kings listened to them. The extraordinary extent to which they went in order to ensure that there were enough people to perform the functions of the state and to manage its economy, as well as engage in an expensive enterprise of empire building, is the result we see in the Benin moats. We are not told what other reforms were undertaken in order to make the affairs of the state attractive to its citizens. But we must assume that there were such measures. Clearly, the value of people for the ancient Benin Kingdom is the clue to solving that first puzzle of moats and ramparts that were not built for fending off foreign enemies but rather in response to exigencies of internal Benin policies and pressures.

The second puzzle of Benin history is no less intriguing. It concerns Benin's role in the Atlantic Slave Trade. That evil trade, spanning several centuries, devastated the Western African region. Unlike the Arab Slave Trade from eastern and central Africa, in which Arabs undertook the slave raids directly, the West African Atlantic Slave Trade by European traders relied on African states and African slave raiders for their human victims. Throughout the region, many states embroiled themselves in the slave trade. Asante, Oyo, Dahomey, the Rivers states of eastern Nigeria, were all involved in the evil trade. In the nineteenth century, the Sokoto Caliphate joined this train of West African states that traded on fellow Africans, causing the depopulation of the Benue Valley in this instance (see Dike 1956: 27).

What about Benin and its empire? Clearly, Benin had important trade connections and political ties throughout the region that would have put it in a place of considerable advantage in the competition of the slave trade. How much did Benin press its advantages in pursuit of the Slave Trade? The puzzle is that Benin did not press its advantages to engage in the Slave Trade. Indeed, Benin's role in the Slave Trade was minor. It seems fair to say that Ryder's (1969:198) conclusion on this score has been well accepted by historians. He says: "There is no evidence that Benin ever organized a great slave trading network similar to that which supplied the ports of the eastern delta, or that it ever undertook systematic slave raiding . . . Benin either could not or would not become a slave-trading state on a grand scale" (also see Davidson 1971:65). Don Ohadike, the Anioma historian whose region of western Igbo would have been grievously impacted if Benin had played a large role in the slave trade, concurs with Ryder:

Slavery was neither an economic necessity nor a vital component of the entire political and social life of [Benin] society . . . even after the rise of Benin as a large kingdom, its involvement in slavery was limited. Ryder has demonstrated that Benin's participation in the Atlantic slave trade or the European trade generally was minimal. Ryder's thesis is confirmed by the fact that the Edo political structures were not particularly affected by the European trade as was the case with Dahomey and the Gold Coast (Ohadike 1994: 42; also compare Igbafe 1979: 27).
Benin's policies forbidding any large commitment to the slave trade is a puzzle for two main reasons. First, it makes Benin the sole exception among West African states in their full-scale participation in the European Slave Trade. Second, Benin had a strong institution of slavery in its culture and internal social organization. Benin's abstinence from the evil trade could not fairly be attributed to some humanitarian inhibition on its part. How then does one explain this rare phenomena in African history?

The Caribbean scholar Walter Rodney offers one good clue that will help us to solve this puzzle of Benin history. Rodney argued that many African states craved to refrain from the slave trade but were afraid to do so. They were so weak that the European traders could imperil their power and survival if they failed to participate in the slave trade (see Rodney 1972: 80-82). The reverse logic in Rodney's postulate was that only strong African states could make deliberate decisions to participate in the evil trade or else to refrain from it. Benin was a strong state that could say no to European powers and not be threatened with punishment that would destroy it. Apparently, from the outcome of history, Benin took the calculated decision not to involve itself in the slave trade in the manner of other states and not to encourage slave raids such as those for which the Aro were notorious in the Igbo hinterland in eastern Niger Delta.

But why did the Benin decide not to involve the resources of their kingdom in slave raids and slave trade, as so many other African states did? This is where to bemoan the absence of literacy in the civilizations of Benin and the other areas of tropical Africa. How one wished there were written records to reveal the arguments that were advanced for and against Benin's involvement in the slave trade, with menacing pressures from European traders and rival state organizations all across West Africa to cope with. But no such records exist. However, from its history, we can offer two speculative strands of reasoning for Benin's abstinence in the Slave Trade. First, it was entirely possible that policy makers saw the futility of the slave trade. The payback to the participating African states was miserable. But its disruption in their social structures was horrendous. Such was the fate of Oyo that destroyed its state institutions and civilization from the slave trade and a catastrophic civil war that the slave trade instigated in Oyo. A second reason is that Benin needed growth in its population for the management of its state affairs and for its external imperial engagements during the centuries of the Atlantic Slave Trade. There is always the temptation to believe that a large Empire, such as the one that the Benin managed, was being run by a huge population. But that was not the case. Benin was a nation with a small population who ran a big empire -- just as a small Songhai nation sustained a huge empire in the Western Sudan. Involvement in the slave trade would not help in the battle against population decrease that various Obas of the House of Eweka fought to reverse. The policy of abstinence that resulted on this score of the slave trade accords with the imperatives of Benin history of that time.

Whether these explanations for the absence of Benin from large-scale participation in the slave trade are correct or not, the policy forbidding such involvement paid handsome dividends for Benin. Its social structure and political system did not suffer from the destruction which the slave trade wrought for Dahomey, Asante, Oyo, and a host of other African states in the centuries of the slave trade. Moreover, out of the total area of the West African Atlantic coast impacted by the slave trade, the region of the western lower Niger Delta, in which the Benin Empire held sway, was the least disrupted.


In concluding this lecture, let me reflect slightly on the nature of history that we inherited from colonial times. I went to colonial schools for my elementary and secondary school education. I am from a cohort of Nigerians who were fed from what was then labelled as History of the British Empire. It was a brand of history in which British imperialists could do no wrong and in which their enemies could do no right. History of the British Empire was severe on enemies of British imperialism, whether they be Americans victorious from their revolt against the British in 1776 or the Benin in West Africa defeated by the British in a vicious campaign of 1897. Nigerian historiography has fought back by seeking out fresh spots in our historical actors of the nineteenth century as being praiseworthy for their "resistance" to British imperialism. Unfortunately, Nigerian historiography will continue to be hopelessly indebted to the methodology of British imperial historiography for as long as it concentrates its attention on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in which Europeans set the agenda of historical events in the region.

The nineteenth century was cursed in African history. It was a century of which the Benin cannot be proud. One major value of Jacob Egharevba's historical scholarship is that he strongly scolded the behaviour of Benin policy makers in the nineteenth century (see Egharevba 1952: 14-15). Indeed, if we were to limit Benin history to the events of the nineteenth century the harsh judgement that British propaganda and arrogant imperial history have handed over to generations of Nigerians might have some degree of validity. But Benin history is much more than the nineteenth century. When the historian goes back to earlier centuries and then fairly assesses the achievements that elevated a small population to such great heights, then I am convinced that the historical judgement of Benin and its empire is liable to be positive.

In this lecture, I have gone behind the nineteenth century, which was dominated by the British and other Europeans in West Africa, to earlier centuries. What we have is a history of a people in West Africa that husbanded its cultural resources carefully, enabling them to value their culture internally and to gain strength therefrom for embarking on the risky business of empire-building. It is my conclusion that, on balance, the resulting empire did more good than harm to its region of impact in the western lower Niger. I have gone back to Ogiso times because the complex of cultures that resulted from dispersals in those distant centuries is historically significant, in the annals of the ancient world and in the surviving cultural and social ties that those dispersals generated.

These are conclusions that would be impossible to arrive at if we concentrated on the nineteenth century. I dearly hope that the result of this preliminary exploration of the history of what has been labeled as Edoid complex of cultures will encourage others to move behind the European presence in West Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to more distant centuries of our history and prehistory.

I thank you all for your kind attention.


1. Fourth Chief Jacob U. Egharevba Memorial Lecture, under the auspices of the Institute for Benin Studies, at Oba Akenzua II Cultural Centre, Benin City, on 14 December, 2001. I thank Professor Omo Omoruyi, currently resident in Boston, USA, for an insightful conversation on the subject of pockets of dialectic variations in modern Benin language. I am grateful to Dr. Igho Natufe, now resident in Ottawa, Canada, and Engr. Onoawarie Edevbie, currently resident in Detroit, Michigan, USA, for their careful reading of a draft text of this paper and for offering several important comments and suggestions.

2. Consider the views of Baba of Karo (in Smith 1954: 67): "[The Europeans came when] Yusufu was the king of Kano. He did not like the Europeans, he did not wish them, he would not sign their treaty. Then he saw perforce he would have to agree, so he did. We Habe [Hausa] wanted them to come, it was the Fulani who did not like it. When the Europeans came, the Habe saw that if you worked for them they paid you for it, they did not say, like the Fulani, 'Commoner, give me this! Commoner, give me that!' Yes, the Habe wanted them; they saw no harm in them."

3. What is a "Sudanic people"? "Sudan" is the Arab term of reference to the "Blacks in Sub-Saharan Africa with whom they had established contacts. Walter Rodney (1972: 56) probably offers the best definition of the term: "To the Arabs, the whole of Africa south of the Sahara was the Bilad as Sudan -- the Land of the Blacks. The name survives today only in the Republic of the Sudan on the Nile, but references to Western Sudan in early times concern the zone presently occupied by Senegal, Mali, Upper Volta, and Niger, plus parts of Mauritania, Guinea, and Nigeria." It seems clear that those who use the term in these migration stories confuse the Republic of Sudan with the wider area that the term, as the Arabs used it, originally referred to.

4. See the following definition that I offered elsewhere of Edoid: "In this paper I will use the italicized termEdoid to refer to the cultural and linguistic ensemble that includes the following ethnic fragments: Bini, Ishan, Owan, and Etsako, in Benin land and northern zones; and their more distant cultural relatives: Isoko and Urhobo in the western Niger Delta" (Ekeh 2000: ).


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