History of Yoruba – A series

The Yoruba tribe lies to the West of the River Niger (below the confluence) and South of the Quorra {i.e., the Western branch of the same River above the confluence), with Dahomey to the West, and the Bight of Benin to the South. It is roughly sitting between latitude 6° and 9° North, and longitude 2° 30′ and 6° 30′ East.

The history of the tribe shows that Europe found out Yoruba nation from the North through the explorers of Northern and Central Africa. In old records, like in Webster’s Gazetteer, there are records in Hausa and Fulani language where it is written “Yarriba,” West Africa.

The entire south of the Yoruba tribe’s location is a network of lagoons connecting the great River Niger delta with that of the Volta, and into this lagoon which is belted with a more or less dense mangrove swamp, most of the rivers which flow through the country North to South pour their waters.

In a letter the Rev. S. A. Crowther (before becoming Bishop) sent to Thomas J. Hutchinson, Esq., Her Britannic Majesty’s consul for the Bight of Biafra and the Island of Fernando Po, we find the following graphic description of the Yoruba tribe:

. . . ” This part of the country of which Lagos in the Bight of Benin is the seaport, generally known as the Yoruba country, extending from the Bight to within two or three days’ journey to the banks of the Niger. This country comprises many tribes governed by their chiefs and having their laws. They were all tributaries to one Sovereign, the King of Yoruba, including Benin on the East and Dahomey on the West, but are now independent.

Ethnic Tribes in Yoruba Nation

The principal tribes in the Yoruba nation are as follows:

The Egbados: This tribe comprises Otta and Lagos near the sea coast. This forms a belt on the lagoon’s banks towards the forest, to Ketu on the border of Dahomey on the West. Then extends to Jebu on the East on the edge of Benin then to the Egbas of the forest now called Abeokuta. From here comes Yoruba proper northwards in the plain; Ife, Ijesha, Ijamo, EfoH, Ondo, Idoko, Igbomina, and Ado near the banks of the Niger, from which a creek or stream a little below Iddah is called Do or Iddo River.

. . . “The chief produce of this country is the red palm oil, oil made from the kernel, shea butter from nuts of the shea trees, groundnuts, beniseed, and cotton in abundance, and ivory—all these are readily procured for European markets.

. . . The present seat of the King of Yoruba is Ago, otherwise called Oyo after the name of the old capital visited by Clapper ton and Lander.

A King is acknowledged, and his person is held sacred. His wives and children are highly respected. Any attempt of violence against a King’s person or of the Royal family, or any act of wantonness with the wives of the King, is punished with death.

There are no written laws, but such laws and customs handed down from their ancestors, especially those respecting relative duties, have become established laws. The right to the throne is hereditary, but exclusively in the male line of the male issue of the King’s daughters.

The Government is absolute, but it has been much modified since the kingdom has been divided into many independent states by slave wars, into what may be called a limited monarchy …”

Geographic Features

Physical features.—The country generally presents two distinct features, the forest and the plain; the former comprising the southern and eastern portions, the latter the northern, central and western. Yoruba Proper lies chiefly in the plain and has a small portion of forest land. The Yoruba tribe is relatively well-watered, but the rivers and streams depend upon the annual rains; an impassable river in the rains may become a dry water-course in the dry season.

There are a few high mountains in the north and West, but in the east, the prevailing aspect is high ranges of mountains from which that part of the country derives its name, Ekiti—a mound —being covered as it were with Nature’s Mound. The soil is vibrant and most suitable for agriculture, in which every man is more or less engaged. The plain is almost entirely pasture land. Minerals do not exist to any appreciable extent, except iron ores which the people work themselves and from which they formerly manufactured all their implements of husbandry and war and articles for domestic use.

Flora.—The forests teem with economic and medicinal plants of tropical varieties, as well as timber, of which mahogany, cedar, brimstone, counter, and iroko are the principal.

There are also the Abura, helpful in carving purposes, ebony, Ata 2i hardwood used for facing carpenters’ tools, the Iki, a hard wood which when dry is very difficult to work, as it speedily blunts edged tools. The Ori is another hard wood useful for making piers on the coast, and the Ahayan is a tough wood unaffected by ordinary fires, dry rot, or termites.

All these are indigenous, but recently “Indian teak” has been introduced, flourishing widely, and the beefwood tree on the coast.

Although a large variety of fruits can be grown, the people do not take to horticulture; what there are grows almost wild, with very little attention being paid to them. Papaw, bananas of several varieties, plantain, oranges, pineapples, the Oro, plums (3’ellow and black), the rough skin plum, the butt lime are found everywhere. Some fruit trees have been introduced, which have become indigenous, e.g., the sweet and soursop, the avocado (or alligator) pear, guavas of two kinds, pink apples, rose apple, mangoes, the breadfruit and breadnut trees, the golden plum, etc. All these are cultivated, but not widely.

Vegetables, of which there are several kinds, are primarily cultivated. Yam, Koko, cassada, sweet potatoes are the principal “roots ” used as a diet. Also, beans (white and brown), small and large, and the groundnut are primarily grown for food. The guinea corn grows in the north and maize in the south. The calabash gourd and the Egusi from the seeds of which Egusi oil is pressed grow everywhere.

Fauna.—^Big game abound, especially in the north, where the lion is not far to seek, also the elephant, buffalo, leopard, wolf, foxes, jackals, monkeys of various species, deer, porcupine, etc. The hippopotamus is found in large rivers and alligators in the swamps and lagoons in the south.

The usual domestic animals and poultry are carefully reared. Of birds, we have the wild and tame parrots, green pigeons, stork, crown birds, and others of the tropical feathered tribe. The country was at one time very prosperous and powerful, but there is probably no other country on this earth more torn and wasted by internal dissensions, tribal jealousies, and fratricidal feuds, a state of things which unhappily continues up to the present time.

Authority in Yoruba Nation

When the central authority, which was once all-powerful and far too despotic, grew weak by driving the powerful chiefs into rebellion and internecine wars, the entire kingdom became broken up into petty states and independent factions as we now know them. As far as one race can be characteristically like another, from which it differs in every physical aspect, the Yorubas has been noted—are not unlike the English in many of their traits and characteristics.

It would appear that what the one is among the whites, the other is among the blacks. Love of independence, a feeling of superiority over all others, a keen commercial spirit, and of indefatigable enterprise, that quality of being never able to admit or consent to a defeat as finally settling a question upon which their mind is bent, are some of those qualities peculiar to them, and no matter under what circumstances they are placed, Yorubas will display them.

We have even learnt that those of them who had the misfortune of being carried away to foreign climes so displayed these characteristics there and assumed such airs of superiority and leadership over the men of their race they met there, in such a matter of fact way that the attention of their masters was perforce drawn to this type of new arrivals! And from them, they selected overseers. These traits will be discerned in the narratives given in this history. But apart from the general, each of the leading tribes has unique characteristics of its own; thus dogged perseverance and determination characterize the Ijebus, love of ease and quickness to adapt new ideas the Egbas, the Ijesas and Ekitis are possessed of a marvellous amount of physical strength, remarkable docility and simplicity of manners, and love of home.

Among the various families of Yorubas Proper, the Ibarapas are laborious farmers, the Ibolos are relatively docile and weak in comparison with others, but the Epos are hardy, brave, and rather turbulent; whilst the Oyos of the Metropolitan province are remarkably shrewd, intelligent, very diplomatic, cautious almost to timidity, provokingly conservative, and withal very masterful.

The whole people are imbued with a profoundly religious spirit, reverential in manners, showing deference to superiors and respect to age, where they have not been corrupted by foreign intercourse; ingrained politeness is part and parcel of their nature.

The early history of the Yoruba country is almost exclusively that of the Oyo division, the others being then too small and too insignificant to be of any import, but in later years, this state of things has been somewhat reversed, the centre of interest and sphere of importance having moved southwards, especially since the arrival of Europeans on the coast.

Such is the country, and such are the people whose history, religion, social polity, manners and customs, etc., are briefly given in the sequel papers

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