2. The pre-colonial period

While the imposition of colonial rule at the end of the l9th century marks an important turning point in Yoruba history, it was only the culmination of a century of warfare and fifty years of direct European involvement in the interior. For two centuries prior to this the Atlantic trade had been an important influence in Yoruba politics. The period prior to the 16th century, for which we have no evidence apart from archaeology and oral traditions, presumably saw the foundation of the major Yoruba kingdoms which have dominated Yoruba history ever since.[2]

There has recently been something of a revolution in our understanding of the formation of centralised states in this area. Most earlier accounts, from Crowther and Johnson onwards, started with the arrival of Oduduwa at Ife, either from heaven or from the Middle East (Johnson,1921: 5-7), and the subsequent migration of his descendants to found their own kingdoms elsewhere.

At first the archaeological evidence tended to support this type of approach. The spectacular finds at Ife (Willett, 1967) suggested a wealthy, sophisticated culture with kingship institutions already established. Radiocarbon dates put the 'classical' period of Ife, art at about A.D. 1000-1400. This neatly tallied with reconstructions of chronology based on the surviving kinglists of states like Oyo, Ketu, Benin and Ijebu. Their foundations were generally placed between the 13th and 15th centuries - perhaps about 1300 (Smith, 1969: 34), and the tradition that their founders came from Ife, was accepted at face value by many authors.

Recent accounts are more sceptical about the validity of the oral traditions, and there is also a larger body of linguistic and archaeological evidence available. Interest has shifted away from the origins and careers of the sons of Oduduwa to more general questions of the evolution of social and political organisation among the Yoruba and their neighbours (Obayemi,1976). The Ife creation myths, though undoubtedly the most widely diffused, are not unique: Obayemi reports similar traditions from Igbomina (1976: 232). As Law has shown (1973b), all the versions we have of the myths of origin have been collected since the mid-19th century, and have clearly been distorted in the light of later political events. The best-known example is Johnson's History in which they are used to justify Oyo's claim to primacy among the Yoruba kingdoms, and the Alafn's claim to a measure of authority over other rulers.
Law is also sceptical about the dates proposed for the foundation of Oyo (1977: 33-4). The early part of the Oyo kinglist, he suggests, is a fabrication. The earliest rulers listed were probably mythical rather than historical, while some names of later rulers have been omitted (1977: 49). There are difficulties in relying on average lengths of reigns to reconstruct the chronology. After 1730, Oyo switched from a system of primogeniture and reigns up to 1836 were generally short (1977: 56-8). Presumably these difficulties with the kinglist are not peculiar to Oyo.

Taken together, the linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests firstly that main processes of settlement and cultural differentiation had taken place before the period to which the myths of origin of the present ruling dynasties appear to refer (Obayemi, 1976: 200-1). Secondly, we need no longer assume that political centralisation is a prerequisite for a flourishing tradition of artistic production. Such a tradition exists in northeastern Yorubaland, where political centralisation never took place. Indeed, Obayemi suggests that the 'classical' period of Ife, art was the product of a less centralised political system, pre-dating the establishment of the present dynasty (1976: 211).

Obayemi's conclusion is that the Oduduwa myths in Ife reflect a process of political centralisation which took place at an unknown date, but which was not a prerequisite for the development of Ife art. A parallel process took place in some other, though not all, Yoruba areas, as well as among the Edo, Nupe and other neighbouring ethnic groups. It is unlikely that there was a single centre from which kings were sent to rule other states, though this raises the question of why these other states should have later acknowledged Ife, primacy in the way that they did. One possible suggestion is that Ife was probably the source of the glass beads from which the crowns of the Yoruba pba were made (Obayemi,1976: 204-5).

Before this period of centralisation, the main political units among the Yoruba and their neighbours were 'ministates' (ibid: 205-8), with a variety of forms but sharing some common characteristics. The main social units were descent groups, often linked by cross-cutting institutions such as age-groups, title associations and secret societies. The political leaders held titles such as oba, olu or oloja, either vested in a single descent group or rotating between groups, as in Kabba, though their actual power was perhaps limited. The main object was to maintain a balance between the competing claims of age, ability and adequate sectional representation.

In some areas, ministates like these survived into the colonial period, as in Kabba, Akoko, Ikale, and Ilaje, . In others, like Ondo and Ijebu, they were incorporated into larger kingdoms though there is still evidence of their original independence. The degree of control of the capital over the subordinate towns remains a live issue. Some towns like Ado Ekiti or Ijebu Ode are made up of distinct sections, each with its own political leadership (Lloyd, 1962) which may have originated in separate settlements. In Ohori-Ije the opposite process has taken place as a result of repression, with the sections of the capital moving apart to form separate villages (Asiwaju, 1976a: 16-17).

The question is: why did the larger kingdoms or 'megastates' as Obayemi calls them develop in some areas while they failed to in others? As Horton has pointed out (1971) the development of state organisation does not necessarily involve a great deal of institutional innovation. Age-groups, secret societies and compact settlements exist in many areas of West Africa usually regarded as politically 'uncentralised', though they can also be adapted to serve the interests of the state. Kingship has much in common with other ritual offices. The impetus towards centralisation among the Yoruba was most probably provided by trade (Obayemi, 1976: 258-9). Indeed the areas that retained their 'ministate' organisation until quite recently were those which were away from the main trade routes. However, it is not certain what the main items of trade might have been. Unlike the Akan states, the Yoruba have no gold deposits: alternatives could have included ivory, salt and kola as well as glass beads from Ife. The agricultural technology was well able to maintain a group of rulers or craft specialists. Once a larger-scale state had developed, it would have been able to extend its boundaries through conquest or incorporation, and would have attracted immigrants from elsewhere. The political rituals, regalia, or even princes of the ruling house were adopted by some of the ministates from their larger neighbours. Trade continued to play a crucial role in politics after contact with Europeans on the coast had been established, and this is particularly clear in the case of Oyo.

The rise and fall of Oyo

In comparison with states like Dahomey and Benin, the sources available on the history of Oyo are meagre. The major source is Johnson's History of the Yoruba, and this can be supplemented with other local histories, information recorded by Europeans along the coast, and a variety of oral traditions including oriki and Ifa verses.[2] The written evidence has been most recently synthesised by Robin Law (1977). Even when the evidence is more plentiful, as it is for the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the exact chronology is still often difficult to reconstruct (e.g. Akinjogbin, 1966a; Smith, 1969; Law, 1970). The only Europeans to visit Oyo-Ile were Clapperton and the Lander brothers between 1826 and 1830. This was shortly before the town was abandoned, when the empire was already in rapid decline.

There is no firm evidence for when the kingdom was founded, and the first four Alafin listed by Johnson were probably mythical figures. Sango, the fourth Alafin, is still worshipped as the Oyo divinity of thunder, and the cult had great political importance (cf. Westcott and Morton-Williams, 1962). Sango is said to have had a Nupe mother. Oyo-lle itself lies in the far north of Yorubaland, not far from the Bariba and Nupe areas, and it is possible that the original rulers were replaced by a dynasty from Nupe.

In the 16th century, the capital was sacked by the Nupe, and, according to Johnson, the Alafin made his way to Borgu. His successor returned to establish a capital at Kusu and, later, at Igboho. Eventually Oyo was able to reassert its influence to the east and Oyo-lle was re-occupied (Smith, 1965). It is likely that this account hides a second dynastic change (Law, 1977: 40-1). Many other towns in northern Oyo have rulers of Bariba origin (Babayemi, 1971), and Oyo itself may be no exception.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the kingdom expanded steadily, largely through the use of cavalry introduced from the north, probably during the Igboho period. This also determined the general direction of the kingdom's expansion. Cavalry could not operate in the forest, where the horses were vulnerable to tsetse fly, and it was less useful in hilly areas. There were exceptions like Egba and the Mahi hills, but Oyo success here might have been due to the small political units they had to deal with. Attempts to expand to the south-east were less successful (Law,1977: 31), and Oyo later concentrated on the area to the south-west. Here there is a break in the forest and the savanna extends almost to the coast.

This expansion was closely related to Oyo involvement with its northern neighbours and in the Atlantic slave trade. Horses do not breed in the southern savanna, and Oyo had to import its horses from the north (Law, 1975). Initially they were probably paid for by the export of slaves to the north. In the 17th century, the demand for slaves grew along the coast, and Oyo started to export slaves to the south through the kingdoms of Allada and Ouidah. European goods were imported which were used to pay for the horses in the north. The slaves came from Oyo raids to the north and west (Law, 1977: 226), and, in the 18th century, from trade with the Bariba and Nupe.

In the early 18th century, Dahomey conquered both Allada and Ouidah, threatening Oyo's economic interests. Dahomey was defeated in a series of campaigns between 1730 and 1750, and a tribute was imposed. The trade was gradually diverted from Ouidah to ports further east outside Dahomey control (Akinjogbin, 1967: 145ff.; Law, 1977: 221). These included Porto Novo, Badagry and Lagos. Oyo control over the routes to the south was strengthened by the colonisation of Ifonyin and, later, of Egbado.

At its greatest extent, the Oyo kingdom stretched from the Opara River in the west, where it bordered with Sabe, through Igbomina to the western parts of Ekiti. In the north, the Moshi River formed the boundary with Borgu, while in the south Oyo extended through Ibarapa, Egbado and Ifonyin almost to the coast (Law, 1977: 85-90; cf. Atanda, 1973a: 1-14). Oyo tributary kingdoms included Egba, Dahomey, Porto Novo, and parts of Nupe and Borgu. In the late 18th century, they also included the Mahi areas to the north of Dahomey. Other neighbouring kingdoms such as Ila, Ijesa, Ijebu, Owu, Ketu and Sabe, probably retained their independence, though at times some of them acted as Oyo allies, or their rulers exchanged gifts with the Alafin.

While its empire expanded, Oyo experienced political conflict in the capital, which continued until the kingdom's collapse. The political system which developed in the 17th and 18th centuries was extremely complex. At the centre of it was the Alafin, whose power was, in theory, absolute, but who lived secluded in the palace, surrounded by ritual restrictions. He administered the empire through a staff of eunuchs and slaves who probably numbered several thousand. Many of his powers were delegated to the three principal eunuchs: the (Ona Iwefa, Otun Iwefa and Osi Iwefa, or the Eunuchs of the Centre, Right and Left respectively. They represented him in his judicial, religious and executive capacities respectively. The Osi Iwefa, originally the most junior of them, came to have the greatest power, and was one of the group of officials known as abobaku, who were expected to commit suicide on the Alafin's death. They held sensitive and influential posts and the custom presumably ensured their loyalty, but it also allowed the Alafin to fill key positions with his own men on his accession. One of the most senior titled slaves in the palace, the Olokun Esin or Master of the Horse, was also one of this group. Other groups of palace slaves included the court historians (arokin), the executioners (tetu) and the male and female ilari. The male ilari acted as the Alafin's messengers and had important roles in revenue collection and provincial administration .

Outside the palace the capital was divided into a number of wards. Some of these contained members of the royal descent group, and were administered by the senior royal chiefs, the Aremo, the Ona Isokun and the Baba Iyafi. The Aremo was usually the Alafin's eldest son, and until 1730 he regularly succeeded his father. From then on he was expected to commit suicide on his father's death, a practice which was followed until the 1850s (cf. Law,1977: 66-7). The reasons for the change are obscure, though it would have strengthened the position of the Oyo Mesi chiefs who were responsible for the final choice of a new Alafin. The Aremo at times shared a good deal of his father's power, but was not subject to the same ritual restrictions. The Ona Isokun was the head of one of the three branches of the royal descent group, and the one from which the Alafin was actually chosen. Some segments of the Isokun branch were also unable to succeed, and the Baba Iyafi was elected from one of these. It was his duty to accept criticism and responsibility for the Alafin's actions (Johnson, 1921: 69). On the other hand, he was the only man in the kingdom allowed to rebuke the Alafin (Morton-Williams, 1967b: 61).
The other wards of the capital contained the non-royal descent groups and were administered by the Oyo Mesi. These were the seven principal non-royal chiefs, who together formed the Alafin's council.[3] They were also responsible for the final choice of a new Alafin from the candidates presented by the royal descent group. In the early 18th century the Basorun, the most senior of the seven, was regularly the Oyo commander in war. The eso the seventy military chiefs who, with their slaves and retainers formed the highly-trained core of the Oyo army, were probably responsible to the Oyo Mesi rather than the palace. Individual Oyo Mesi were in charge of Oyo cults, and one of them, the Samu, also died with the Alafin. All the titles were vested in descent groups. It is not clear whether or not the Ona Modeke was a member of the Oyo Mesi Johnson lists him as a palace official in charge of the age-set system, while Atanda (1973a: 16) says that he lost his place among the Oyo Mesi on the evacuation of the capital.

Collectively the Oyo Mesi could force the Alafin to commit suicide - a prerogative which they exercised frequently in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Alafin could depose individual chiefs, and he had the final say in their appointment.

Outside the capital, the kingdom was organised into ekun or provinces. Johnson lists four of these, but Law suggests that there were eight (1977: 105- 8). Details are given in Table 3. The provincial towns had their own hereditary rulers, either subordinate pba not entitled to wear beaded crowns, or bale. They sent tribute to the capital at the annual Bere festival (cf. Babayemi, 1973), and gifts on the accession of a newAlafin. These were taken to the capital by the rulers, who also had to go there for confirmation of their own accession. The Alafin could depose provincial rulers and his court was a final court of appeal for the whole kingdom. Only he could order the death sentence. The provinces had to provide contingents of troops, under the command of the provincial rulers, the most senior being the Onikoyi. In the 17th century, the Alafin created the post of Are Ona Kakanfo as commander-in-chief of the provincial forces under more direct control. He was usually a bale of one of the provincial towns, and once appointed, he could not return to the capital - possibly to avoid conflict with the Oyo Mesi. He was also expected to commit suicide in the case of failure.

Each of the provincial towns was assigned to a patron, one of the chiefs in the capital, through whom it could communicate with the Alafin. The patron also retained a share of the annual tribute. Law suggests that the Alafn's control over the provinces through his palace slaves was progressively tightened (1977: 117-18). The towns could only communicate with their patrons through officials called babakekere or 'little fathers' appointed by the Alafin. A royal representative or ajele was appointed for each town to look after the Alafin's interests, and these were in turn supervised by ilari (Smith, 1969: 45). Gradually patronage over provincial towns was shifted to the palace officials and royal chiefs rather than the Oyo Mesi. By the colonial period, only the Basprun had control of a single town-Awe.

The most completely controlled province was Egbado. By the 1820s effective authority was in the hands of the Onisare, a Nupe or Hausa slave of the Alafin stationed at Ijanna. His importance was shown by the fact that he was one of those who died with the Alafin. In the other provinces, tribute collection and judicial matters remained the responsibility of the provincial rulers. Here they were handled by the Alafin's deputy.

The tributary kingdoms retained more autonomy. Egba was less vital to Oyo interests than Egbado. It is not certain whether Oyo officials were resident there or whether they were simply sent to collect the annual tribute (Law,1977: 139). Dahomey was left virtually autonomous apart from the tribute fixed in 1748, though the Alafin might make other demands if he felt he could get away with them (Law, 1977: 165-8; cf. Akinjogbin, 1967: 124- 5).

This, then, was the framework within which the constitutional conflict of the 18th and 19th centuries took place. The main details of these are that between 1750 and 1774, the capital was controlled by the Basorun Gaha, one of a line of powerful holders of the office. He was able to force the suicides of three rulers who opposed him, and he set up a rival provincial administration through his own relatives. He was eventually killed, along with most of his family, in 1774. The Alafin who managed to get rid of him, Abiodun, did so only with the aid of the provincial army commanders, and he was to be the last powerful Alafin of Oyo-lle.

Akinjogbin (1966b) sees this conflict as a struggle between two factions, one headed by the Alafin favouring a policy of developing trade and exploiting the resources of the areas already under Oyo control, and one led by the Oyo Mesi, favouring a more expansionist foreign policy. There is evidence that Abiodun was a trader before his accession, and one of his main concerns was with the trade routes to the coast. Law, on the other hand, argues that the conflict was not about policy, but about power and the control of the new resources derived from Oyo expansion and increased involvement in the slave trade from the 17th century onwards (1971). The Alafin and the Oyo Mesi had both benefited from this economic growth. The Alafn was able to expand his palace staff and to reorganise the administration of the empire, but he was reliant on troops raised by the Oyo Mesi. The balance of power in the capital lay with them. The main strength of the Oyo army in the 18th century lay in its archers and cavalry, led by the eso who were responsible to the Oyo Mesi. This created chronic instability, which the deposition of successive rulers by the Oyo Mesi did not resolve. Gaha tried a radical solution: the replacement of the Alafin's imperial administration with his own.

Abiodun himself died in 1789. After his death, the empire fell apart with remarkable speed, and by 1840 it had completely collapsed. The capital had been sacked by the Fulani and evacuated, and effective political power had passed to Ibadan and Ijaye in the south, and to the Fulani rulers of Ilorin to the south-east. Clapperton visited Oyo-lle, in 1826, and from 1840 onwards information about the interior became more abundant, especially from the accounts of the missionaries. Despite this, the main reasons for the kingdom's collapse, and the chronology of events between 1789 and 1836, are still confused.

Abiodun was succeeded by Awole, a much weaker figure, but the conflict with the Oyo Mesi continued. Abiodun had been able to get rid of Gaha with the help of the provinces. Awole alienated not only the Oyo Mesi, but also the provincial commanders, including Afonja, the Are Ona Kakanfo and Bale of Ilorin.

Afonja was related to the Alafin himself, and may have coveted the title, though it is not clear how strong his claims were. Awole, ordered him to attack the town of Iwere located on top of a steep inselberg, presumably on the assumption that he would fail and be forced to commit suicide. Afonja instead staged a rebellion; with the support of the Oyo Mesi and the Onikoyi he marched on the capital and forced Awole, to commit suicide himself, in about 1796.

After his death, Adebo was appointed Alafin. He was followed rapidly by Maku who was deposed after only two months. Then there was an interregnum of uncertain length (Law, 1970; Akinjogbin, 1966a) - suggestions range up to twenty years. Meanwhile Afonja consolidated his position in Ilorin and no longer acknowledged any allegiance to the capital.

Islam had long been established in the larger towns of the kingdom, having been introduced from the north in the 16th or 17th century (Gbadamosi, 1978). The capital had a Muslim ward under the control of the Parakoyi, who also commanded the Muslim troops in war (Law, 1977: 75). In 1804 the Fulani jihad or 'holy war' started in the Hausa state of Gobir, and its repercussions were eventually felt by the Yoruba.

To strengthen Ilorin's position, Afonja called on the support of Muslim elements in the kingdom. He was not a Muslim himself, and it appears to have been a piece of political opportunism, to harness forces which were proving to be invincible in the states to the north. He enlisted the help of an itinerant Fulani scholar, Alim al-Salih, better known as Mallam Alimi, who declared a jihad at Ilorin. Other support came from Yoruba Muslims led by a man called Solagberu, from pastoral Fulani, and from Muslim slaves who deserted their owners and fled to Ilorin from the adjacent towns. From these, mainly northern, elements, a military force was created which started to lay waste large areas of the Oyo kingdom. Alimi's influence among these troops grew stronger, and Afonja belatedly realised that he was no longer in control. His attempts to disband them led to a civil war, and he was killed in the fighting, probably about 1823 (Johnson, 1921: 193-200; cf. Law, 1977: 255-60). Solagberu was also eliminated. On Alimi's death (the date is uncertain), control of Ilorin passed to his son Abudusalami. He declared his allegiance to the Sokoto empire and was recognised as Emir. The Fulani dynasty in Ilorin has survived to the present.

After the interregnum in the capital, Majotu became Alafin, and was still on the throne when Clapperton visited Oyo-lle in 1826. In the reign of his successor, Amodo, Oyo-lle was captured by Ilorin, and the Alafin made a nominal submission to Islam. He was killed in a counter-attack on Ilorin. Ilorin forces then went on to destroy a number of other important towns, in the Ikoyi area. With the devastation, refugees flooded to the south. Oluewu, the last Alafin of Oyo-lle, was killed in another attack on Ilorin which he made with Bariba help, and the capital was abandoned soon after, around 1836.

The reasons for the collapse of the empire have been extensively discussed (Akinjogbin, 1965; Smith, 1969: 136-9; 1971a; Lloyd, 1971; Atanda, 1973a: 28-44; Law, 1977: 278-99). It is probably fruitless to try and isolate a single 'crucial' factor, but there is some agreement that in the late 18th and early 19th centuries Oyo encountered a series of related military, economic and political problems which it had increasing difficulty in solving.

There is evidence of a military decline in the late 18th century. Oyo suffered defeats at the hands of the Bariba in 1783 and the Nupe in 1790. It had probably been forced to pay tribute to Nupe before this, and there was a long period of Nupe raids on the north-eastern areas of the kingdom. The Egba revolted, probably in the 1790s, while Dahomey was becoming steadily stronger in the south-west.

It is difficult to pinpoint the reason for Oyo's weakness in the 1780s. It is difficult to believe that the army was deliberately run down. On the other hand, the wars of expansion had been largely completed twenty years before, so that it was probably not the seasoned fighting force it had been.

It is easier to find reasons for the military decline after 1790. The Oyo cavalry depended on imports of horses from the north which were paid for with European goods from the south. These in turn depended on exports of slaves, and the demand for slaves dropped in the 1790s (Curtin, 1969: 227-8). The resurgence of Dahomey meant that by 1807 Oyo had been forced to use Lagos rather than Porto Novo as its outlet for slaves, and here it had to deal with Ijebu middlemen (Law, 1977: 224, 274). The Oyo economy was in a vicious cycle. The more Oyo power declined, the less control it had over the major trade routes, and the greater became its military difficulties. Slaves increasingly bypassed Oyo as they were taken through Borgu and Dahomey in the west, and through Ilorin and Ijebu in the east. European goods and horses were both scarce in Oyo by the 1820s (ibid: 281-4).

Closely related to these factors were the political developments. It may be, as Law argues, that the conflict between the Alafin and the Oyo Mesi was not resolved because the Alafin was unable to create a military force in the capital under his direct control. The labour and cost of maintaining a cavalry force meant that the balance of power remained with the eso and the Oyo Mesi (ibid: 242). On the other hand, the decline of the empire did not stem directly from the conflict: this had been going on while the empire was expanding as well. The new factor after 1774 was the involvement of provincial rulers in the politics of the capital. They intervened again in 1796, though this time, instead of the status quo being re established the kingdom broke up. The question is: why had provincial disaffection reached the stage where this was possible? Law (1977: 254-5) suggests that the provincial rulers might have been concerned about the Alafn's increasing administrative control, as demonstrated in Egbado, or about the increased taxation which might have been necessary because of the drop of revenue in the slave trade. But if these were the reasons, they probably reflected a more general trend. The loyalty of the provincial rulers to the capital was bearing diminished returns. Their own followings depended on their ability to distribute rewards. During the wars of expansion they were able to do this from their share of the spoils. After a string of military defeats this was no longer possible. If participation in the system no longer provided adequate rewards, the idea of opting out of it must have become increasingly attractive, especially as the power of the capital to impose any sanctions was steadily eroded. This interpretation is suggested by Johnson's statement that after 1796 Afonja no longer aspired to the throne. The of fice of Alafin had become irrelevant: now he simply wanted to take over the empire (1921: 193). For the century after this, Yoruba history was dominated by a succession of men like Afonja: autonomous Yoruba war-leaders answerable only to their followers, and willing to make or break alliances as expediency dictated.

While Oyo fell apart in the north, a series of wars developed in the south which involved the Ife, Ijebu, Owu and Egba, and which led to the destruction of both the Owu and Egba kingdoms (Mabogunje and Omer-Cooper, 1971; Biobaku,1957). It further illustrated the importance of trade in Yoruba politics and the results of the declining power of Oyo. With the shift in the slave trade to Lagos, the role of the Ijebu as middlemen became more important. Oyo sold many of its slaves to Ijebu dealers at Apomu, but Law argues that in the 1810s supplies from Oyo were limited, and the Ijebu were hard-pressed to meet the demand (1977: 274). Attacks on travellers and kidnappings became common in the area, and it was from such an incident that the Owu conflict arose. In 1811, Oyo travellers were being harassed at Apomu by Ife, raiders. On Oyo instructions, Owu intervened and destroyed a number of Ife villages. This provoked a war between Owu and Ife, which Owu won. After another incident involving Ijebu traders at Apomu, Owu destroyed the town and a number of Ijebu were killed. Owu was now confronted by an Ife-ljebu alliance. According to Johnson (1921: 208) the Ijebu were better armed than the other Yoruba, having acquired firearms from the Europeans - another result of the shift in the slave trade. The Owu were defeated in battle, and their capital was destroyed after a five-year siege, around 1821. The Ife and Ijebu troops, together with groups of Oyo from the north, went on to attack the Egba towns further west. In the following decade, the area was systematically devastated .

The Owu and lJgba wars, together with the decline of Oyo, set the scene for the long series of conflicts which engulfed Yorubaland for the rest of the century. The 1820s and 1830s saw the foundation of powerful new states by bands of refugees and freebooters. Abeokuta was founded in the 1820s, the Egba being joined by survivors from Owu. Ibadan was founded in 1826 on the site of an Egba Agura town by a mixture of Ife,, Oyo and Ijebu (Johnson,1921: 238; Awe, 1967). The Ife were expelled in a civil war, and Ibadan has been, in culture at least, an Oyo town ever since. Ijaye was founded in the same period by a group from Ikoyi, led by Kurunmi (Johnson, 1921: 238-46; Smith,1962). Finally, Atiba founded the new town of Oyo after the evacuation of Oyo-lle in 1836 (Johnson, 1921: 274-84). As a son of Abiodun, he was able to secure his own election as Alafin.

The political institutions of Oyo were reconstructed in the new capital, though Oyo itself ceased to have much influence over towns like Ijaye and Ibadan. Kurunmi of Ijaye was appointed Are Ona Kakanfo, and Oluyole of Ibadan was given the title of Basorun.[4] Ijaye's influence extended to the north-west, and Ibadan's to the north-east, where it came into conflict with Ilorin. Despite their defeat at Osogbo in 1840 (Ajayi and Smith, 1971: 33-6) the rulers of Ilorin continued to become involved in the wars between the other Yoruba states for the rest of the 19th century.[5]

The Owu wars marked a new phase in Yoruba warfare in two senses. Firstly, there was the use of firearms. These were at first no great advantage to the side using them, but their accuracy and importance gradually grew. Secondly, it marked the start of a new type of total warfare in which whole towns were destroyed, and their inhabitants either enslaved or dispersed. With the supply of slaves from the north dwindling, the number of slaves of Yoruba origin on the market increased, and slaves became the most important spoils of war for the military commanders. Some were exported, but others were recruited into their captors' armies. Many of the 19th century leaders had large slave estates, producing food for the armies and palm oil for the trade with Europeans on the coast (Agiri, 1974: 467; Awe, 1973: 67).

The wars resulted from the attempts of the newer states-Ibadan, Ijaye, Ilorin and Abeokuta - to fill the political and economic niche previously occupied by Oyo. But now conditions were different. With the shift in population to the forest fringes the importance of cavalry had diminished, and the wars during the rest of the century were fought by armies of infantry with arms imported from the coast rather than the north. This change is neatly symbolised by the story Johnson tells of the Ibadan victory at Osogbo. After the battle, the only uses the Ibadan had for the captured Ilorin horses were as food and as supplies of horsehair for tying on their amulets (1921: 288). The change took place against the background of increasing European penetration, by explorers, missionaries and merchants, followed by troops and administrators.

The growth of European involvement

Three related factors were involved in the expansion of European involvement. The first of these was the slave trade. The activities of slave-traders along the West African coast antedate the discovery of America, but the trade received a great boost with the development of sugar plantations in Brazil in the second half of the 16th century. In the 17th century the demand increased in the plantations both of South America and the Caribbean, and in the 18th century it spread to North America. Curtin estimates that nearly half a million slaves were exported from the Bight of Benin in the century up to 1810 (1971: 267). Many of these would have passed through Oyo, though the Yoruba themselves were not enslaved in large numbers before the Owu and Egba wars.

After the abolition of the trade by the European powers around the turn of the century, their naval forces started to take action against the traders along the coast. Though this did not halt the trade, it did result in the arrival of large numbers of emancipated slaves in Sierra Leone, and after 1820 many of these were of Yoruba descent. Secondly, it made some of the traders look for more secure ports of call and thus helped the commercial growth of Lagos and Badagry. Badagry declined in importance in the 1830s, but Lagos remained the most important slave market in the area until the British bombardment of the island in 1851.

The second factor was Christianity. Mission activity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries drew its strength from the same evangelical revival which had produced the agitation against the slave trade. The Church Missionary Society (CMS) was founded in Britain in 1799 and was responsible for the earliest mission work among the Yoruba, together with the Methodists and the American Baptists.

The third factor was British commercial interest. Despite the fervour of the abolitionists, their increasing support in Britain in the period up to 1807 reflected important economic changes accompanying the industrial revolution. Finding manpower for plantation agriculture was no longer the main concern. This was rather to find sources of primary agricultural commodities and markets for European manufactured goods.

Evangelism, commerce and the abolition of the slave trade came together in the Niger expedition of 1841. The aims of this were to explore the interior, to make treaties with the local peoples, to evangelise, and to establish a model farm at Lokoja (Crowder,1966: 141). Present on the voyage was Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the most eminent of the Saro repatriates from Sierra Leone. Captured after the destruction of his home village near Iseyin in 1821, he arrived in Sierra Leone the following year, and was one of the first students at the newly established Fourah Bay College (Kopytoff, 1965: 35).

The Methodists started mission work at Badagry in 1842, and were soon joined by Townsend, Gollmer and Crowther, all of the CMS (Ajayi, 1965: 31- 4). Townsend and Crowther started work in Abeokuta in 1846. With the growing number of Saro repatriates in Abeokuta, conditions appeared especially favourable for the missions. Initially, their influence was strong, especially after they had helped ward off an attack by Dahomey in 1850, and had supported the British attack on Lagos in 1851. The missions moved further into the interior. In 1853, Hinderer and Mann of the CMS started work in Ibadan and Ijaye respectively, while the Baptists Bowen and Clarke toured extensively in northern Yorubaland and started a station at Ogbomoso. Crowther made a trip to Ketu, before leaving to start his work on the Niger in 1854. The recruitment of Saro missionaries was part of the policy of establishing a native pastorate initiated by Venn, the CMS secretary, who held that a self-supporting and selfpropagating church should be established quickly under local leadership. One of his greatest successes was in getting Crowther appointed as Bishop of the Niger in 1864, despite some opposition from Townsend (Ajayi, 1965: 186-9). The CMS relied heavily on the Saro during the l9th century, and the great majority of the priests ordained were of Saro origin.

The increase of mission activity had a number of other important effects. Firstly, it intensified the study of the Yoruba language and its reduction to Roman script (Ajayi, 1960). The Bible was translated by Crowther and others, and both Crowther and Bowen produced important Yoruba grammars and dictionaries. Townsend was producing a newspaper in Yoruba in Abeokuta by 1859. Secondly, extensive first-hand information on the interior began to appear, both in the mission reports and in published memoirs. A further effect was to influence British policy towards the area, and especially towards Lagos.

Lagos politics and the Ijaye war

Lagos politics during the early 19th century were complicated by a long dynastic dispute which culminated in the deposition of Oba Akitoye in 1845 by Kosoko, his nephew. Kosoko was a leading slave-trader, and the chances for 'legitimate' trade in the area were regarded as poor by the British as long as he remained in control. In exile, Akitoye gained the support of the British at Badagry. He promised to stop the slave trade at Lagos if reinstated, and Kosoko was expelled by force. He fled with his followers to Epe, but continued to interfere in Lagos affairs. After Akitoye's death, the British administrators installed his son Dosunmu as ruler, but in the interests of trade (and to the disgust of the missions) they eventually came to an understanding with Kosoko, who was allowed back to Lagos (Kopytoff, 1965: 146). With the establishment of British consular authority over Lagos, trade with the interior increased rapidly, as did cotton production in Abeokuta and the exports of palm oil from Lagos (Smith, 1974: 405). To allow firmer control over trade, and to protect British interests, Lagos was annexed as a colony in 1861 and a governor was appointed. But by now the political situation in the interior had deteriorated and trade was being increasingly interrupted.

After the defeat of Ilorin by Ibadan in 1840, rivalry between Ibadan and Ijaye grew. In Ibadan the population had increased to over 60,000 by 1851. The Oyo Yoruba had come to dominate the political life of the town, and a political system gradually evolved which was well suited to military expansion (Awe,1967). There was no Oba, and chiefships were not hereditary. The chiefs were organised into four lines: the civil chiefs, led by the Bale; the military chiefs in two lines, headed by the Balogun and the Seriki; and the women chiefs led by the Iyalode. Within each of these lines the titles were ranked, and each chief moved up a rank as those above him died or were killed in battle. The bottom ranks were filled by magaji, the elected leaders of the Ibadan descent groups. The most senior title, that of Bale, was usually filled by a Balogun who had proved himself in war. The fact that there was no oba reflected the theoretical suzerainty of the Alafin, though from its foundation Ibadan pursued an independent foreign policy. In the 19th century the military chiefs usually had the greatest authority. Promotion to a title depended on a man's ability to mobilise a following and on military skill. Prestige and wealth came from warfare and the result was an aggressive policy of expansion.

Ijaye was founded about the same time as Ibadan, by refugees from the Ikoyi area, led by Kurunmi, described by Johnson as the 'greatest soldier of his age'. It became an important communications centre, and under strong leadership it prospered. Mann, the CMS missionary, lived in the town in the 1850s, and he provided much first-hand information on it. By this time, Ijaye probably had a population of 40,000 or more. Initially, relations with Ibadan were good, but rivalry between the two gradually developed. An issue for a final confrontation was provided by the death of Alafin Atiba in 1859. He was succeeded by the Aremo Adelu, and Kurunmi refused to recognise the succession. Ijaye and Oyo were already at loggerheads over the control of the Upper Ogun towns around Saki. In any case, Ibadan sided with the new Alafin and war broke out. Kurunmi died in 1861, before the final capture and destruction of his town.

This was not the end of the matter. The Egba had supported Ijaye, and the Ijebu Remo had supported Ibadan. Remo lay on the most direct trade route from the coast to Ibadan. Egba attacked Remo, and Ibadan became directly involved because of its trading interests. Ikorodu, one of the Remo towns besieged by the Egba, is just north of Lagos, and the British became actively involved in the Yoruba wars for the first time. Governor Glover, one of the more aggressive administrators of the colony in the 19th century, had formed a view of the situation which successive governors were to share: that the Egba and/or the Ijebu were blocking the road to the interior and that this was the main issue in Yoruba politics. The wider political issues of the period, the struggle between Ibadan and the other states for supremacy, largely escaped them (Phillips, 1970). In Lagos, the administration was short of funds. It relied on customs dues and trade, and needed to keep the roads open. The merchants supported it at this stage, but the missions were still pro-Egba. Townsend was opposed to Glover's attempts to station a British viceconsul in Abeokuta, but his own influence in the town was on the wane. After some peculiar doubledealing, Glover expelled the Egba forces from their positions around Ikorodu by force in 1865, but failed to achieve either his political or his economic objectives. He merely antagonised the Egba, who were already worried by the British annexation of Lagos. There was a further dispute between the Egba and the British over customs dues and the presence of Lagos police on Egba territory. Egba hostility erupted in the ifole ('housebreaking') riots of 1867, after which both European missionaries and merchants were excluded from the town for fifteen years.

In the early period of British involvement in Yorubaland, the interests of the missions, the traders and the administration often diverged. The missions were reliant on the goodwill of the local rulers in the interior, and, in the absence of a British political presence, they were extremely vulnerable. Their strategy was therefore to act as spokesmen on behalf of the towns where they worked, and to oppose the more aggressive measures of the Lagos administration. The administration itself needed to protect British interests and prestige, but at the same time allow conditions under which trade could develop, so that it could balance its books. As Ikorodu and its aftermath showed, it was difficult to achieve both ends at the same time. After 1865, the Lagos governor lost some of his autonomy when Lagos was placed under the jurisdiction of Freetown and later of Accra.[6]

The merchants needed the administration to protect their interests, but it did not want a political situation which would prevent trade. Thus, in the early 1860s they supported Glover's attempts to open the roads, but a decade later they were complaining to the governor at Sierra Leone over his plans to close the roads in order to put pressure on Abeokuta (Kopytoff, 1965: 155-6). During the consular period the merchants and the administration had united against the missions over their policy towards Kosoko. The slavery issue became less important after 1861 (Smith, 1974: 411), and the British merchants and missionaries united in their opposition to Glover in the 1870s. By the time of the Ije,bu expedition of 1892, on the eve of the British takeover in the interior, the interests of all three groups largely coincided. Many of the Saro on the other hand were becoming increasingly alienated.

The Ibadan empire

With Ijaye disposed of, Ibadan was free to consolidate its empire in the east. Between 1847 and 1870, large areas of Ijesa, Igbomina, Ekiti and Akoko came under Ibadan control (Akintoye, 1971: 33-75). Initially, this was in response to the threat from Ilorin. Some of the Osun towns like Osogbo had willingly come under Ibadan protection. More force was used in the subjugation of the towns further to the east. The Ijesa proved difficult to control. While Ibadan was occupied with the Ijaye war, the Ijesa attacked them from the east. They were beaten off, and the Ibadan capture of Ilesa in 1870 marked the high point of Ibadan power (Akintoye, 1971: 56-60).

The subordinate towns controlled by Ibadan came to be administered through officials called ajele, a system similar to that of the former Oyo empire (Awe, 1964). Each of the towns was the responsibility of a babakekere in Ibadan, who administered through an ajele in the town itself. The subordinate towns were distributed among the Ibadan chiefs who derived much of their income from them. Though the quality of administration varied, the ajele and their subordinates in the east gained a bad reputation for oppression and arrogance (Akintoye, 1971: 70-5; Awe, 1965). Their unpopularity was a major factor in the development of the Ijesa-Ekiti alliance against Ibadan which became known as the Ekitiparapo. This was in contact with the Ekitiparapo Society in Lagos, founded by Saro of Ijesa and Ekiti descent (Akintoye, 1968).

Ibadan had already become involved in yet another war over trade with Egba and Ijebu in 1877, when Ibadan traders on their way from Porto Novo with firearms were attacked by the Egba. This gave the Ekiti and the Ijesa their chance. In 1878, the revolt against Ibadan rule started with the massacre of Ibadan officials in Ijesa, Igbomina and Ekiti. This led to a war which dragged on for sixteen years. Eventually, Ibadan found itself fighting on five fronts. In the east it faced the Ekitiparapo under the command of Ogedemgbe, the Seriki of Ijesa. In the south it faced the Egba and Ijebu. Ilorin joined in in the north. Finally, Ife joined the alliance in 1882. There had long been friction between the Ife and the Oyo settlers at Modakeke. These animosities were strengthened by the war during which Ife itself was sacked by the Modakeke and their Ibadan allies, and Modakeke was sacked by the Ife and Ekiti.

The main action of the war, however, took place in the north-east. The Ibadan and Ekitiparapo forces faced each other at Kiriji, a few miles east of Ikirun. Control of the trade routes was a major issue. There were three main routes to the interior, via Egba, Ijebu and Ondo. The Ondo route had been opened up by the British because of the frequent closure of the other roads. During this war, it became the main supply route for both sides (Akintoye, 1969). Some Ibadan supplies were able to get through via Ijebu. The war was unpopular with Ijebu traders, and the Awujale was forced into exile in 1885. Despite this, the flow of supplies was not completely free. Ijebu traders' profit margins were high, and they retained strict control of trade through the kingdom (Johnson, 1921: 610-11).

After some initial reverses, the Ekitiparapo gained something of an advantage in the conflict, and the help they received from Ekiti Saro merchants in Lagos was crucial. The most important factor was the supply of breech-loading rifles, much more accurate than the arms being used by the rest of the Yoruba, though the Ibadan were later able to get a small supply of them as well (Akintoye, 1971: 119).

Attempts at mediation had started as early as 1879-80. Both the Alafin and the Oni were involved, but neither was trusted by both sides, and Ife later joined in the fighting. The Lagos government was under instructions from London and Accra to keep out of the conflict, even though the fighting was having serious effects on the economic life of the colony. Under commercial and mission pressure, the Lagos government attempted to mediate but was rebuffed, and from 1882 to 1884 the British did nothing. Attempts by Saro in Lagos and by the Fulani emirs to end the conflict also failed.

After 1885 the attitude of the administration started to change. Firstly, there was the changing political status of Lagos which was separated from the Gold Coast in 1886. Secondly, the scramble for Africa by the colonial powers was well under way, and there were fears of French interference. Thirdly, some of the main protagonists of the war were themselves getting tired of it (Akintoye, 1971: 176).

To negotiate a peace, the administration turned to the CMS. A ceasefire was arranged in 1886 through the efforts of Samuel Johnson, the historian, and Charles Phillips, later the Bishop of Ondo. The parties then signed a treaty in Lagos with Governor Maloney which provided for the independence of the Ekitiparapo towns and the evacuation of Modakeke, to suit Ife,. This proved impossible to carry out. Ilorin refused to stop fighting in the north where it was besieging Ofa. Thus the war dragged on, and the forces refused to disband (Akintoye, 1971: 181-4).

British fears of the French soon appeared justified. There was the curious incident of 1888 when an employee of a French company persuaded the Egba chiefs to sign a treaty with France, providing for the construction of a rail link with Porto Novo (Ayandele, 1966: 49-51). This was a direct threat to trade with Lagos, but the French refused to ratify the treaty. The two powers hastily agreed on a frontier in 1889 (Anene, 1963). The areas recently invaded by Dahomey fell within the French sphere of influence. The British moved into the interior with the establishment of a post at Ilaro in 1890, while the French invaded Dahomey in 1892.

More aggressive measures to extend British control in the interior came with the arrival of Governor Carter in 1891. Like Glover, he took the view that the key to the situation lay in control of the trade routes through Ijebu and Egba. The result was the Ijebu expedition of 1892 (Ayandele, 1966: 54-69; Smith, 1971b). Ayandele suggests that in fact the Ijebu had showed more willingness to open the road than the Egba, but the decision to attack Ijebu was based partly on the hostility of the missions: unlike Egba, Ijebu had never allowed them in. The impact of the expedition was considerable. In 1893, Carter was able to set off on a tour around Yorubaland, making treaties with Oyo and Egba, and finally persuading the Ibadan and Ekitiparapo forces to disperse. The Egba opened the road to Ibadan, and allowed the start of railway construction. After two final incidents, the bombardment of Oyo in 1895 (Ayandele, 1967) and the capture of Ilorin by the Royal Niger Company in 1897, effective colonial control was established throughout most of Yorubaland.


The implications of the events of the 19th century for the direction of change in the 20th were profound. The main centres of population were no longer in the savanna but along the northern fringe of the forest. Warfare was related to economic changes, as the slaves which it generated were used to fight, to produce food to feed the armies, or to produce palm oil for the traders on the coast. It is one of the ironies of 19th century history that the gradual abolition of the slave trade by the Europeans and the switch to the 'legitimate' trade in palm products led to an increase in the number of domestic slaves in the interior.

The successor states wrestled with a variety of problems in establishing a new political order, but the underlying trend was a shift in power away from the hereditary rulers to the more independent military commanders with their followings of 'war boys' or omo ogun. In Ibadan a system had to be developed which could accommodate the interests of these men. In Abeokuta, refugees from many small states had to be integrated into a single system, and a balance of power achieved between the war-leaders, the traders, the traditional chiefs and the Saro. In Ife and Ogbomoso, arrangements had to be worked out by which immigrants could live alongside an existing population (Agiri, 1966; Oyediran,1974). In all these cases the problem persisted into the colonial period, as did the search for new solutions.

The religious changes were just as far-reaching. After initial setbacks, Islam made rapid strides, especially in areas with populations originating from Oyo. Christianity developed fastest in the south, in Ondo and Ijebu. The two world religions are now equally strong, but their distribution had profound implications for the relative levels of educational and economic development of the various Yoruba subgroups.

The growth of British influence in Yorubaland was a slow process. Forty-two years elapsed between the bombardment of Lagos and Governor Carter's tour of the interior. The reasons for the delay were complex. Public opinion in Britain had at times been against imperial expansion, and it was only in the 1880s, when the pace of competition with the French and Germans quickened, that the British increased their influence in the interior.

Other opposition had come from the merchants who wanted good relations with the interior states, and from the missions. The attitudes of the merchants gradually changed, especially with the trade slump of the 1880s which emphasised the need for political intervention. By 1892 the European merchants at least supportea the invasion of Ijebu, and a rail link with the interior under British control was now seen as the main hope for the development of commerce.

The missionaries, too, had relied on good relations with the interior, and their vulnerability had been shown by the ifole episode. Nevertheless, they had supplied Lagos with a wealth of information on the interior, and they were to play an important role in the negotiations to end the wars. Towards the end of the century, the interests of the British missionaries and the Saro clergy began to diverge. The British missionaries might have supported the attack on Ijebu, but James Johnson, himself an Ijebu, was passionately opposed to it. Within the CMS there was growing criticism of Venn's policy of relying on a native pastorate. In the 1890s there was an influx of younger European missionaries favouring tighter European control (Ajayi, 1965: 233-69; Webster,1964: 1- 41). Even Bishop Crowther's work in the Niger Mission came under attack, and after his death no African successor was appointed, despite the availability of men such as James Johnson, who had been considered for a diocese as early as 1876 (Ajayi, 1965: 231). The alienation of some of the laity led to the formation of the African churches at the turn of the century (Webster, 1964).

The same trend was apparent in other areas of public life. In the early days of the Lagos colony, a large number of senior officials in Lagos life had been of Yoruba Saro extraction (Cole, 1975: ch.3; Kopytoff,1965: ch.12). Their successors were usually British. West Africa was no longer the death-trap for Europeans that it had been in 1841, and the use of quinine had lowered mortality rates considerably. While some Saro, notably Henry Carr (Cole, 1975: 105-9) remained loyal supporters of British rule, others began to take a more nationalistic stance. A good contrast is to be found in T.B. Macaulay and his son Herbert. The father was a good friend of Glover and the main advocate of British academic education. The son was the major critic of the British administration in the first half of the colonial period (Cole, 1975: 109-19; Baker, 1974: 88-94). A further sign of the times was the adoption of Yoruba names by many of the Saro. The 1890s saw a minor Yoruba cultural renaissance, the finest product of which was Johnson's History (Ayandele, 1966: 264-5; cf. Hopkins, 1969).

The establishment of colonial rule marked the start of a new phase in the development of Yoruba society, and yet there are many continuities between the two periods. The pattern of population distribution left by the wars influenced the pattern of economic development under colonialism. By the end of the century, an export-oriented cash-crop economy had developed, with Lagos as the main port. The l9th century completely altered the political map of Yorubaland, creating the framework on which
the British imposed their administration. It was within this framework that the social developments took place which will be considered in the following chapters.

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