History of the Yoruba people

History of the Yoruba people

Ancient history

The African peoples who lived in Yorubaland, at least by the 4th Century BC, were not initially known as the Yoruba, although they shared a common ethnicity and language group. Both archeology and traditional Yoruba oral historians confirm the existence of people in this region for several millennia. Yoruba spiritual heritage maintains that the Yoruba ethnic groups are a unique people who were originally created at Ile-Ife. Legend holds that the creation was delegated by the supreme spiritual force, Olodumare. This task attributed to orisha-nla Obatala, actually may have been conducted by orisha Oduduwa assisted by orisha Eshu, the divine messenger. The name "Yoruba" is most likely an adaptation of 'Yo ru ebo', meaning "will venerate (make offerings to the) Orisha". This refers to the Aborisha spiritual religion of the Yoruba prior to Islamic and Christian invasion, influence and indoctrination. Yoruba civilization remains one of the most technologically and artistically advanced in West Africa to this time.

Some contemporary historians contend that some Yoruba are not indigenous to Yorubaland, but are descendants of immigrants to the region. This version of history contends that Oduduwa was a mortal king, probably from northeast Africa, under whose leadership the Oyo region of Yorubaland was conquered sometime in the 11th century CE and the kingdom of Ife was established. Oduduwa's relatives established kingdoms in the rest of Yorubaland. One of Oduduwa's sons, Oranmiyan, took the throne of Benin and expanded the Oduduwa Dynasty eastwards. Further expansion led to the establishment of the Yoruba in what are now Southwest Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, with Yoruba city-states acknowledging the spiritual heritage primacy of the ancient city of Ile Ife. The southeastern Benin Empire, ruled by a dynasty that traced its ancestry to Ifẹ and Oduduwa but largely populated by the Edo and other related ethnicities, also held considerable sway in the election of nobles and kings in eastern Yorubaland.

Golden age

Between 1100 CE and 1700 CE, the Yoruba Kingdom of Ife experienced a golden age. It was then surpassed by the Oyo Empire as the dominant Yoruba military and political power between 1700 CE and 1900 CE. The nearby splinter Yoruba kingdom of Benin was also a powerful force between 1300 and 1850 CE. The Yoruba civilization also had strong historical exchanges with the Nok civilization, which may date to 900 BCE, as with other neighbouring African settlements. The exchanges have been both genetic and cultural.

Most of the city states were controlled by "Obas" (elected monarchs) and councils made up of Oloye, guild of noble leaders or chiefs, and merchants. Different states saw differing ratios of power between the kingship and the chiefs' council. Some such as Oyo had powerful, autocratic monarchs with almost total control, while in others such as the Ijebu city-states, the senatorial councils were supreme and the "Ọba" served as a figurehead.

In all cases, Yoruba monarchs were subject to the continuing approval of their constituents, and could be easily compelled to abdicate for demonstrating dictatorial tendencies or incompetence. The order to vacate the throne was usually communicated through a symbolic message or "aroko", of parrots' eggs delivered in a covered calabash bowl by the senators.

Modern history

The Yoruba eventually established a federation of city-states under the political ascendancy of the city state of Oyo located on the Northern fringes of Yorubaland in the savanna plains between the forests of present Southwest Nigeria and the Niger River. Following a Jihad led by Uthman Dan Fodio and a rapid consolidation of the Hausa city states of present northern Nigeria, the Fulani Sokoto Caliphate annexed the buffer Nupe Kingdom and began to press southwards towards the Oyo Empire. Shortly after, they overran the Yoruba city of Ilorin and then sacked Ọyọ-Ile, the capital city of the Ọyọ Empire.

Following this, Ọyọ-Ile was abandoned and the Ọyọ retreated south to the present city of Oyo (formerly "Ago d'Oyo", or "Oyo Atiba") in a forested region where the cavalry of the Sokoto Caliphate was less effective. Further attempts by the Sokoto Caliphate to expand southwards were checked by the Yoruba who had rallied to resist under the military leadership of the City State of Ibadan which rose from the old Oyo empire, and of the Ijebu city-states.However, the Oyo hegemony had been dealt a mortal blow. The other Yoruba city-states broke free of Oyo dominance, and subsequently became embroiled in a series of internecine wars, from which prisoners feed the slave trade conducted by Arab and European traders. These wars weakened the Yoruba in their opposition to British colonial and military invasions. Military defeat at Imagbon of Ijebu forces by the British ensured a tentative European settlement in Lagos which was gradually expanded by protectorate treaties. Defeat of Yoruba forces at the Battle of Imagbon, by the British military and the protectorate of Lagos, proved decisive in eventual annexation of the rest of Yorubaland and eventually of southern Nigeria and the Cameroons. In 1960, greater Yorubaland became subsumed into the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Different Names and Slavery-era Diaspora

During the 19th century, the term "Yoruba " or "Yariba" came into wider use, first confined to the Ọyọ. The term is often believed to be derived from a Hausa ethnonym for the populous people to their south, but this has not been substantiated by historians.

As an ethnic description, the word first appeared in a treatise written by the Songhai scholar Ahmed Baba (1500s) and is likely to derive from the indigenous ethnonyms Ọyọ (Oyo) or Yagba, two Yoruba-speaking groups along the northern borders of their territory. However, it is likely that the ethnonym was popularized by Hausa usage and ethnography written in Arabic and Ajami. Under the influence of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a Yoruba clergyman, subsequent missionaries extended the term to include all speakers of related dialects.

Aside from "Yoruba" and its variant "Yariba", this ethnic group was in different times and places known by a variety of other names, including "Yorubo", "Akú", "Okun", "Nago", "Anago" and "Ana" and "Lucumi".

Before the abolition of the slave trade, some Yoruba groups were known among Europeans as "Akú", a name derived from the first words of Yoruba greetings such as "Ẹ kú àárọ?" ‘good morning’ and "Ẹ kú alẹ?" ‘good evening.’ A variant of this group is also known as the "Okun", Okun being also a form of "A ku". These are Yorubas found in parts of the states of Kogi - the "Yagba", Ekiti and Kabba.

The terms "Nago", "Anago" and "Ana" were widely used in Spanish and Portuguese documents to describe all speakers of the language. They derive from the name of a coastal Yoruba sub-group in present-day Benin. Yoruba in Francophone West Africa are still sometimes known by this ethnonym today.

In Cuba and Spanish-speaking America, the Yoruba were called "Lucumi" after the phrase "O luku mi", meaning "my friend" in some dialects. This term is at present used mainly to refer to an Afro-Caribbean religion derived from the traditional Yoruba religion, more often known as Santería.

Yoruba origin mythology

The mythology of the origin of the Yoruba, who refer to themselves as "Omo O'odua" (Children of Oduduwa), revolves around the mythical figure of Oduduwa or Odudua . The meaning of the name may be translated as "the spiritual one ("O/Ohun") who created the knowledge ("odu") of character ("iwa")." There are two variants of the myth of how Oduduwa became the legendary progenitor of the Yoruba.

Cosmogonic Origin Mythology

"Orisa'nla" (The Great Divinity) also known as Ọbatala was the arch-divinity chosen by Olodumare, the supreme deity, to create solid land out of the primordial water that constituted the earth and populating the land with human beings. Ọbatala descended from heaven on a chain, carrying a small snail shell full of earth, palm kernels and a five-toed chicken. He was to empty the content of the snail shell on the water after placing some pieces of iron on it, and then to place the chicken on the earth to spread it over the primordial water.

According to the first variant of the cosmogonist myth, Ọbatala completed this task to the satisfaction of Olodumare and he was then given the task of making the physical body of human beings after which Olodumare would give them the breath of life. He also completed this task and this is why he has the title of "Obarisa" (King of all Deities).

The other variant of the cosmogonic myth does not credit Ọbatala with the completion of the task. While it concedes he was given the task, it claims that he got drunk before he got to the earth and was thus unable to do the job. Olodumare got worried when he did not return on time and sent Oduduwa to investigate. When Oduduwa found Ọbatala in a drunken state, he took over the task and completed it.

The spot on which he landed and which he redeemed from water to become land is called Ilė-Ifę and is considered the sacred and spiritual home of the Yoruba. Olodumare later forgave Ọbatala and gave him the responsibility of molding the physical bodies of human beings.

According to Idowu, 1962, the making of land is a symbolic reference to the founding of the Yoruba kingdoms and this is why Oduduwa is credited with that achievement.

Recently, historians have attributed this cosmological mythology to a pre-existing civilization at Ilė-Ifę which was invaded by a militant immigrants from the east, led by a king named Oduduwa. Oduduwa and his group had been persecuted on the basis of religious differences and forced out of their homeland. They came to Ilė-Ifę where they subjugated the pre-existing Ugbo inhabitants (often erroneously rendered as Igbo but unrelated to the present Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria), under the leadership of Oreluere (Ọbatala).

After Oduduwa

Upon the death of Oduduwa, there was a dispersal of his children from Ilė-Ifę to found other kingdoms (Owu, Ketu, Benin, Ila, Sabe, Popo, Awori and Oyo). Each making a mark in the subsequent urbanization and consolidation of Yoruba confederacy of kingdoms, with each kingdom tracing its origin to Ile-Ife.

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