Abeokuta History

Egba history in Abeokuta started in this street next to Olumo rock, pictured here in 1826
The street next to Olumo Rock in Abeokuta, 1826. Photo: National Archives, U.I.

The Egbas were peaceful forest dwelling members of the Yoruba nation of whom nothing was known until their 1775 uprising against the central authority of the Oyo Empire. The independence of this tribe was followed by series of wars, which appeared in the end to be a catalyst for the opening of an enlightenment era. Although slavery had been prevalent far before the Civil Wars that beset the Yoruba nation after the fall of Oyo Empire, it was uncommon for the Yorubas to sell their fellow countrymen. This changed with the great animosity that came between the tribes. Egba men and women, among other tribes, were sold into slavery but some of them were blessed to have had their ship intercepted by the British anti-slavery squadron. They were not only freed but also shown the light of education and of the Christian religion. They returned to join their kinsmen in Abeokuta, influencing both their town and the nearby lagoon town of Lagos. This marked the modern political beginning of Africa’s biggest country, Nigeria.

Independence from Oyo Empire

All the principal families of the Egbas trace their origin from Oyo, the city built by Oranyan who was the second Alaafin of the Oyo Empire. Although a couple of tribes in the Yoruba nation, Owu, for example, sprouted from the founder, Oduduwa himself, their leaders and indeed the entire land fell under the rulership of the last son of Oduduwa, named Oranyan who achieved great advantage through certain means which have been theorized as Oduduwa’s making, or Oranyan’s survival of his older siblings, or just his war-like demeanor. The tyranny of successive Alaafins weighed heavily as a burden on the districts of the Oyo Empire of which Egba villages were one. During this time, a well-built man named Lisabi from one of the Egba towns, Itoku, having observed the violent deeds of Alaafin’s representatives, made plans to set the Egba tribe free from the oppressive grip of the Alaafin who was then, the emperor of most of the Yoruba nation. By creating a mutual society among, and bond between his would-be soldiers, Lisabi effected the massacre of Alaafin’s representatives all over Egba villages. As expected, this was followed by a retaliatory invasion from the Oyo capital, but Lisabi, ingeniously emptied Igbehin, the Egba town he resided, keeping women and children in a nearby ravine, the Ogbun Melegun. He and his army hid themselves in the other part of the ravine from where they took Empire army by surprise and routed them.

Exodus to Abeokuta

Owu was the first of the settlements within the Egba district of old to be displaced from their original location. In 1827, a deadly war had started from very trivial cause. The Apomu market saga, in which a woman from the Ijebu tribe of the Yoruba nation accosted a grain seller, an Owu man, for being inaccurate in the counting of grains purchased resulted into a brawl. This degenerated into an inter-tribal war upon the manslaughter of a different Ijebu woman by Olugabi Awolana, the Akogun of Owu commissioned to maintain peace in the market. Yoruba towns of Ife and Oyo collaborated with Ijebu in raiding Owu, suffering defeat at first but succeeding in decimating Owu’s military power after incessant attack, selling their people into slavery. Because of the mutual envy between them, neighboring Egba towns did not come to the aid of their Owu brethren and the same fate befell them. Aggressors sacked Egba villages of Ikija, Ilugun, Kesi, Kemta, Iporo, Emere, Erunwo, Ijemo, Ijeun, Igbore, Igbehin, Iro, Ijeja, Ikereku, Ipara, Itoku and Oba among others. Because the Egba people could no longer endure the humiliation to which they were subjected, they resolved to encamp far away in the western side of Ona River. Thus Egba people moved under Sodeke of Iporo, the Seriki of Egba army ironically descended from the Egba army rank that professed loyalty to the enemy camp of Maye. They took a very intelligent precaution, leaving some of their leaders behind at Ibadan with Maye, Commander of the joint army of hostile tribes who by then considered Egba people as his slaves. These leaders, among who was Lamodi, the Balogun of Egba, served to read the mood of their master antagonist less they would be surprised with an attack. Lamodi fell narrowly under the swords of Maye’s army who grew suspicious of him. In 1829, the fear of the Egba people played out as Maye’s army went after them at Oke Ona but they defeated their antagonists decisively.

Immediately after this war, the people had started considering settling in a more secured place. The mind of Sodeke, who was the Egba leader was naturally drawn to the farm place where Liperu, the Egba chief from Itoku escaped upon the destruction of his village, and where three hunter brothers were taking refuge plus a particular farmer named Adagba. The place was named Abeokuta, after the dwelling of the three brothers who lived in a cave for security purpose. It was also called Oko Adagba, meaning Adagba’s farm. Sodeke asked Somokun, the Balogun of Ilugun to bring a handful of earth from the place, with which he inquired from the Yoruba traditional diviner, Ifa about the suitability of the land. It was then that the coming of the British was predicted. Most of their lost children, it was said, would be found there and a state from over the seas would come to raise the Egba nation on the proposed site.

In August, 1830, Sodeke marched the whole Egba tribes from Oke Ona to Abeokuta, their new home. They settled together, clan by clan and for the first time enclosed themselves within a wall encompassed by deep trenches.

 

Victorian Abeokuta

Alake of Abeokuta witth colonial agents
Meeting between Chief Railway officer from Lagos to King of Abeokuta about rail line in construction. Drawing by Franc Craig.

 

Thirteen years before this time in far away London, the British Parliament had, after the long passionate efforts of people like William Wilberforce declared the slave trade illegal.

In 1838, just eight years after the founding of Abeokuta, an Egba man who was one of the emancipated slaves in Sierra Leone had sailed with a few countrymen down the coast, happily to see Lagos where he and his kinsmen had been deported as slaves. These traders discovered on inquiring that their people have now settled in Abeokuta. They set for the new settlement where they had an incredibly touching reunion. They returned to Sierra Leone to share the good news, hence started the movement of the Egbas in Sierra Leone to Abeokuta (and Lagos) and inevitably, the introduction of Christianity. By 1859, Henry Venn, a fellow abolitionist of Wilberforce who believed negroes must be provided not only with spiritual but also commercial benefits have succeeded in inspiring small industrial institutions in Abeokuta.

In January 1, 1843, Reverend Henry Townsend, on the invitation of the Sierra Leonean Egba returnees, came to Abeokuta to a grand reception. Sodeke, the Egba leader made the British clergy sit on his lap, in a traditional gesture of great honor, and he remarked; “The feature resembles the one I saw in my dream a few days ago.” Townsend returned briefly to England to get prepared for the mission work in Abeokuta. He was joined in August 1846 by a native and one of the Sierra Leonean freed slaves, Reverend (later, Bishop) Ajayi Crowther. In order to demonstrate the effectiveness of legal trade, missionaries facilitated the admission of European merchants to Abeokuta. Nobles of the town started to cultivate good etiquettes through examples of these foreigners. Other neighboring towns, hearing of the prosperity of Abeokuta, invited missionaries into their midst. There came therefore, the opening of stations at Oyo, Ibadan, Iseyin, Ife, Ilesa and so on.

The activities of the missionaries touched the people in many ways. Apart from the social rejuvenation encountered, the people had started profiting in ginnery and cotton exportation, which commenced in 1849. Human sacrifice and slavery was suppressed. The first newspaper in Nigeria, Iwe Irohin, was published in 1859 in Abeokuta. The Bible was first translated into the Yoruba language in 1862. It is worth mentioning also that this transformation commenced a few years before the advent of the missionaries, but not in organized form, so yielded not as much influence. Foreign traders who were Muslims had impressed a great population of the town with their ways and have won many converts.

In the year 1884, there was a small pox epidemic that killed a large percentage of the town’s population. The Egba chiefs, suspecting a foul play from the worshippers of the god purported to infest this disease called Sopona, carried out a raid that conclusively verified their suspicion, and ended the crisis. Sopona worshippers had caused the epidemic by infesting the town’s water sources as to be able to rip off the families of victims who by tradition can be buried by them alone.

The Great Setback

First Christian church in Nigeria is sited at Ake, Abeokuta
19th Century photo of the first Christian church in Nigeria, at Ake, Abeokuta. Source: National Archives, U.I.

Many traditional elements dissented on the influence of the British, for the fear of loosing their grip on locals. Also, the frustration of loosing in the Ijaiye War of 1860-62 and the Ikorodu expedition of 1864-65 contributed in the dim view they were beginning to have of the same people the town had stood still for, less than two decades back. The growing disaffection had come to a head with Governor Glover of Lagos’ decision to expel Egba army from Ikorodu. He had before then, agreed to their mission based on the morality of their clamor but his patience waned when the Egba failed to seize hostility in Ikorodu after six months. Believing the white men in Abeokuta actually connived with the colonial government of Lagos against their army, a large number of Egbas, led by Solanuke, the Balogun of Abeokuta, mobbed Christian worshippers in Abeokuta in the Sunday morning of 13th October 1867 and required them to leave the town.

In spite of the Basorun of Abeokuta, Somoye’s official apology, the Ifole Uprising of 1867 led to the loss of the first Nigerian newspaper, Iwe Irohin, and the transfer of Grammar School, Training institution and the Yoruba Missionary Headquarters to Lagos. This portends a major set back to the progress of education in Abeokuta until another forty-one years when the local Abeokuta church had to re-establish a secondary school by itself. When in 1875, the Reverend Townsend and his wife finally re-entered Abeokuta, they were warmly received by the major elements of the town who reiterated the expulsion of the missionaries had brought no progress but blight on the tribe.

Absorption into Nigeria

Following the anti-Christian outbreak, Abeokuta had suffered for many power tussles among titleholders and strongmen of the Egba kingdom. The town had particularly fallen into disorder with imbalance in titles among the four sections of the kingdom and the appropriation of revenues by the already titled strongman who was likely to succeed the late de facto ruler of Egba land, Basorun Mogaji Ogundeyi who reigned after successive tenures of Sodeke who led the entire tribe to the new site, and Okukenu, the first King of Ake (Alake) after the mass migration, and Somoye, and Ademola whose leadership was contested, and Oyekan his contender, and Oluwaji who achieved nothing, and Osokalu who shared his authority with three lieutenants, among whom was Basorun Mogaji, whose death in 1897, led to another political impasse in which the Balogun Aboaba aspired to appropriate the already abused title and revenue of the land to himself. Aboaba’s ambition had particularly miffed the Lagos colonial Governor, McCallum who arranged to assert the authority of the Alake, Osokalu, over Aboaba or any Bashorun to follow. Through the recommendation of the Governor, the four kings of Abeokuta for the first time soared above restrictive superstition on January 26, 1898 to meet and shake hands. Aboaba was banished and a re-organized government called the Egba United Government under the Alake was formed. The first Alake had been selected in 1854 with the advice of Townsend, and had been accepted, after wide consultations, as the premier among Egba Kings.

Although the British agent, Sir Gilbert Carter asserted Egba’s independence in the treaty of 1893 under the Alake, the practicability of this was tested on a few occasions such as the 1901 Itori uprising, the riot of Kemta that followed two years later, and the anti-Alake meetings of 1908 which led to lost of lives just like the 1914 Ijemo land dispute. To maintain law and order in the Egba kingdom, it was proposed that the country officially come under British protection. Native administration was entrusted to the Alake, subject to the control of the Governor of the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria.

 

Ladipo Ademola, Alake of Abeokuta in 1937 arrives in his palace.
Ladipo Ademola, Alake of Abeokuta in 1937 arrives in his palace. Source: LIFE