Urhobo Historical Society


By Victor Manfredi, Ph.D.
African Studies Center, Boston University

Subject:         from Ogiso to Eweka
   Date:         Wed, 19 Dec 2001 23:43:08 -0500
   From:        Victor Manfredi <manfredi@bu.edu>
     To:         <ppekeh@acsu.buffalo.edu>

Note on Email Typography of Nigerian Words

Internet technology has yet to accommodate the orthographies of Nigerian languages, hence I adopt the expedient of typing the usual subdot immediately after the letter to which it belongs, thus we have "E.do" and "O.yo." et cetera. For tone, where relevant, I give the pattern immediately after the word, where L = low, M = mid, H = high.

Dear Professor Ekeh,

I read with much interest and pleasure your Egharevba lecture. Here are a few constructive comments.

The name "Benin" remains a mystery. You cite the Urhobo term "Aka" as probably a pre-Eweka appellation for the town, and we can add the Agbo./Western Igbo name "Iduu". As to "Benin", notwithstanding the preferences expressed by O.mo. N'O.ba, it is more informative to consider the phonetically accurate spelling "Bini". On p. 6 of his History, Chief Egharevba relates the name "Bini" to the break-up of the Ife.-Benin relationship (or should we call it the "Uhe.-Bini relationship"?): "After some years residence here he [Prince O.ranmiyan] called a meeting of the people and renounced his office, remarking that the country was a land of  vexation, Ile. Ibinu (by which name the country was afterwards known). . ."

This imaginative etymology of the name "Bini" has now acquired the force of a fact in the minds of most E.do-speaking people, but it is not very plausible in historical linguistic terms and in any case it is never a bad idea to consider alternatives. Let me suggest one. Ryder's northern origin thesis was quoted to me by the late Prof. Ade O.baye.mi in 1997 when we were driving around southeast Kogi State and noticed  architectural similarities to the E.guae O.ba N'E.do in an abandoned palace in one of the villages of the "(A)binu" MHL area north of Kaba (or "Kabba," the area includes Akutukpa MHHH and Ikiri MMH, but I think the town with the ruined Benin-looking palace was "Ayere" LLH). You may also be familiar with O.baye.mi's unpublished paper "Nine places called Ife." where he questions the claim of the present Ile-Ife. to be the same "Ife." referred to in Yoruba oral literature as the ethnic origin point.

Two paragraphs after the discussion of "Aka", you mention the E.do/Urhobo/Esan word "ohwo/ihwo" meaning either 'woman/women' or 'human being/s', and then invoke reasoning from dialect geography (or demography/epidemiology) to the effect that outlying areas are more likely to represent archaic usages. That is in fact true in many aspects of the French situation which you cite, although Quebecois has innovated in some respects, for example with respect to what is called "affrication of coronals". But the inference does not follow in principle. Much more certain, is a situation where two non-contiguous peripheral varieties of a language agree in some feature against the center; then, the probabilities strongly favor innovation in the center. Here it is relevant to note that in Western Igbo, between Agbo. and O.ni.cha, 'woman/women' is either "okpoho/ikpoho" or "okporo/ikporo" LLH. We know that many rhotic or "R" sounds are routinely weakened or deleted in E.do, (cf. "Iyase" versus Yoruba/Its.e.kiri "Iyasere"). I do not find either 'woman' or 'human' in Elugbe's Comparative E.doid. Assuming his divisions of Northwest, Northcentral, Southcentral and Delta E.doid, if the Urhobo meaning 'human' was found in any of the Northwest languages, it would be strong evidence for reconstructing 'human', and not 'woman', to the proto-language, since the Northeast division of E.doid is non-contiguous to the Southwest division.

On the next page, you write: "Each of Yoruba, Igbo and Urhobo has far more internal variations within their languages than what exists in 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 of the works of the new dynasty of the house of Eweka."

First of all, comparing Igbo with Bini is not the point, because Igbo as a whole is several times larger than the whole of E.doid. The scale of diversity in any one of the E.doid, Yoruboid and Igboid "macro-languages" was surely determined long before the political developments of the past thousand years. If we compare "Bini" rather with O.yo., apparently there is much less diversity in the latter. In fact, the centralizing tendency of Benin may have actually promoted certain kinds of linguistic diversity, at least as I understand the situation from my E.do colleagues (I do not speak E.do at all). I am referring to the practice of chiefs from the provinces sending their sons to initiate in palace societies such as Iwebo. Reportedly there is an "Ogbe dialect" in Benin which includes lots of words from "provincial languages" and which is therefore almost unintelligible to non-Ogbe Binis. Study of the palace dialect is obviously of prime historical interest, although it may not be easy to convince the chiefs to share this form of intellectual property!

Primogeniture: Most parts of the Igbo-speaking area have a clear example of primogeniture in the cult of "o.kpala/o.kpara/di o.kpa" whereby the  first son reincarnates the paternal grandfather and therefore inherits the patrilineage o.fo. together with its political role. (Professor O.nwu.ejeo.gwu. has made this comparison but I don't remember in which of his papers.) Agbo. ("Agbor") has both palace primogeniture and the o.kpara cult. Many aspects of Agbo. palace organization are clearly of Benin origin (and these features spread from Agbo. to the west in the Eze Chima movement), and the Agbo. royal lineage "Nmu. Dein" combines the Benin veneration of "Erha O.ba" with features of the normal Igbo patrilineage. However in the opinion of the late Agbo. Obi Chief Augustin E.gwabo. Iduwe., the crisis in the Agbo. monarchy after the Civil War plays out a clash between these two sets of principles. So primogeniture in and of itself may not conflict with patrilineage structure (cf. the old anthropological literature on "the conical clan" in Highland Burma), but as you argue, the impressive stability of the Benin monarchy seems to require corresponding weakness in lineage structure.

Finally, your point about chronic low population in Benin is striking, both with respect to the role of the third moat and also with respect to low E.do participation in the Euro-Atlantic slave trade (as middlemen or as slaves). Given the latter inference, I wonder why Olokun is so strongly venerated in Cuba. In Benin City of the E.we.ka era, Olokun has been effectively the basis of the state religion, but by contrast, Olokun has been venerated much less in the Yoruba-speaking area of historical times (although the story of the Ori Olokun, stolen by Frobenius, may suggest that Olokun's eclipse in Ile-Ife. was relatively recent).

Again there is a relevant comparison with the Igbo-speaking area, which with a few exceptions on the periphery was never known for underpopulation relative to land. The actual scale of Igbo-speakers carried as captives in the Atlantic slave trade remains in doubt. One fact is the near absence of Igbo linguistic evidence in the western hemisphere, apart from a few proper names. Afiigbo says this fact could be explained if most of the people shipped from the Bight of Biafra were not primarily Igbo-speaking, only mislabeled as such by Europeans because of their Igbo exporters. The alternative is to postulate some mechanisms whereby Igbo linguistic evidence was disproportionately erased in Atlantic slavery, e.g., the famous thesis of "cultural suicide", or less subjective factors of chronology, demography and ethnocide.


Adediran, 'B. [1991]. Pleasant imperialism: conjectures on Benin hegemony in eastern Yorubaland. African Notes [Ibadan] 15, 83-95.

Akintoye, S.A. [1969]. The Northeastern Yoruba district and the Benin Kingdom. Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 4, 539-53.

Babaye.mi, S.O. [1979]. The O.yo.-Ife.-Benin relationship reconsidered. African Notes [Ibadan] 8.2, 15-26.

Elugbe, B.O. [1986/1989]. Comparative E.doid: Phonology and Lexicon. [= Delta Series No. 6] University of Port Harcourt Press, Port Harcourt.

Iduwe., A.E.. [ms.]. A History of Greater Agbo.[r]. Manuscript, Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology, University of Benin, Benin-City.

O.baye.mi, A. [ms.] Nine places called "Ife.". Manuscript, Dept. of  History, University of Ilo.rin.

O.baye.mi, A. [1991]. Beyond the legends: a discussion of E.do-Yoruba relations in precolonial times. Cultural Studies in Ife., edited by 'B. Adediran, 33-41. Institute of Cultural Studies, O.bafe.mi Awolo.wo. University, Ile-Ife..

Ryder, A.F.C. [1965]. A reconsideration of the Ife-Benin relationship. Journal of African History 6, 25-37.

Best regards for 2002,

Victor Manfredi
African Studies Center
Boston University
270 Bay State RD
Boston MA 02215