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Cheta Nwanze: How The Bini Established Lagos, #HistoryClass Explains Why The ‘Yoruba’ Nation Didn’t Exist Until 1893

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First, an apology for abruptly suspending #HistoryClass. I had to take that drastic step because in Nigeria’s just concluded political season, we found that nothing was sacred, and I did not want this being used for all sorts of nefarious ends.

Today’s #HistoryClass draws heavily on the work of Professor Ademola Iyi-Eweka, Anthony Okosun, Michael Uchebuaku, and Andreas Joshua Ulsheimer, who visited Lagos in 1603. Oba Ewuare ascended the Bini throne in 1440 and put the kingdom into a period of rapid expansion with his formidable professional army. During Ewaure’s 33 year reign, Benin expanded its territory east as far as Onicha (Onitsha), West as far as today’s Togo, south as far as the Atlantic coast, and north as far today’s Kogi state. Ewuare successfully laid the tradition of imperial annexation of coastal Yorubaland. Why did Ewuare suddenly become interested in coastal Yorubaland?

In 1472, the Oba was visited in his court by the Portuguese explorer, Ruy de Sequeira. After that visit, the Binis and the Portuguese exchanged ambassadors, and signed a trade pact. The Oba of Benin and the King of Portugal agreed that international trading ports should be built in some locations along the West African coast where the Oba had influence and control. As a result of this, the Oba had to firm up on his control of those areas.

Oba Ewuare died in 1473, and his death was followed by internal struggles following the assassination of his son, Esi, at his coronation. Esi was succeeded by his brother, Ezoti who reigned for two brief years, then Olua, Ewuare’s third son, who spent his five year rule bringing dissent to heel. Olua was succeeded in 1480, by his son, Ozolua. Ozolua, who the Binis renamed Ozolua n’Ibarmoi, Ozolua the Conqueror, resumed the expansion of the Bini Empire starting with conquering the Kingdom of Owo in his first year as Oba. Ozolua was to reign for 34 years, and when he died, there was a brief civil war between his sons Esigie and Arhuaran. Esigie won, and while he wasn’t a warrior king, he administered his kingdom quite well. Esigie was succeeded in 1547 by Orhogbua.

Now, when Orhogbua was the Edaiken (Crown Prince) he had been sent by his father, Esigie, to Portugal for schooling, and had trained at a naval school. Orhogbua as a result, understood the importance of sea power. When he returned, and ascended the throne, Orhogbua set about establishing a chain of camps along the coast. One of the generals he sent, was a man named Osodin, who set up a permanent garrison in Mahin, and Ilaje community, and renamed it Eko Osodin (Osodin’s Camp).

By 1550, Isheri Olofin, Ido, Ebute Metta, Oto-Olofin and other coastal Yoruba communities in the area fell to superior Benin invading army, and began paying tribute directly to Osodin, and thus indirectly, to Orhogbua.

By that time, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade had taken off, and Benin’s allies in Portugal wanted more and more slaves. Lagos quickly became a major slave trading port with slave holding centres established at Apongbon (corruption of the Edo word Agbongbon, meaning “New World”), Oyingbo (corruption of the Edo Oaigbon, meaning “Place of Slaves”) and Igbosere (corruption of the Edo Igbonashelen, meaning “Sold Slaves”). Osodin also established a naval base, Kuramo (corruption of the Edo, Eko Amen, meaning “Water Camp), and a prison camp, Ikoyi (corruption of the Edo, Eko Oyi, meaning “Camp of thieves”).

Following the death of Orhogbua in 1580 after a reign of 33 years, Benin was ruled by his son, Ehengbuda for 22 years. Ehengbuda died in 1602 on his way to put down a rebellion in Badagry, and was succeeded by his son, Ohuan who was weak, and lived very long. Ohuan ruled for 54 years, and was not interested in expanding the Empire. As a result, many of the generals in charge of the various camps began to fight each other, and establish, and consolidate their own kingdoms. One general, Isidahome, for example, established the Kingdom that became known after him as Dahomey.

Lagos, and other towns like it, were established because the Portuguese wanted trade, and needed someone local to do it. Direct control of Lagos and most of the Atlantic Coast in West Africa remained strong and then declined during Oba Ohuan’s long reign. However, Obas after him still collected tribute from these places until Ovonramwne was sacked by the British in 1897.

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Cheta Nwanze writes from Lagos Nigeria and can be reached via @Chxta on twitter

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. deuces

    2015/05/05 at 1:38 am

    God bless you. God bless you. When I tell my fellow yorubas that the British colonized us because an ijesa man would not pay respects to an ibadan man. Or that an ijebu man went to war with an egba man. Or that yoruba tribes raided other yoruba tribes for slaves end masse. We have no tribal construct, no national construct and very little by way of personal construct.

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