Origin of Benin Kingdom—Folklores

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Odighi N’Udo, the river where Arhuanran drowned himself.

A discussion of Benin origins generally has two aspects. The first is the origin of the people, while the other is the origin of the ruling dynasty.

FOLKLORES

According to Igbafe, “a great deal of confusion has been introduced into the study origin of Benin kingdon, a history by the mixture of these two aspects by some writers. The origin of the people of Benin is by no means certain. Scholars, members of the Benin educated elite, rulers – including the late Oba of Benin (Oba Akenzua II) – and several writers have engaged in numerous and interminable debates on this elusive question. Yet, no definitive pronouncement on the issue can he made at this point of our study of the history of Benin. Several traditions, however, embody various theories which can lead to a tentative and plausible conclusion on the origin of Benin”[

Some informants and sources speak of a general migration of the people from the East. While some use this to follow the line of least resistance in subscribing to the general idea of looking towards Egypt for the origins of many African civilization, others have interpreted this tradition to refer to an Ife origin, thus confusing the people with the dynasty. Probably, this tradition of an eastern origin of Benin kingdom, is a mere extension of that which links the present ruling dynasty in Benin with Ife.

ORIGIN OF BENIN KINGDOM FROM THE BASE FROM THE BEGINNING

In Benin City, there are several wards and areas whose inhabitants claim to have been in their localities ‘from the very beginning’. Among such groups, there are no traditions that their ancestors migrated from anywhere else. According to Benin mythology, Benin was the youngest child of Osanobua (the High God). He was sent to live in the world with his elder brothers, including the first kings of Ife and other Yoruba chiefdoms[.

The above assertions by Prof. Igbafe were further corroborated by him

Eweka also toed the line of Igbafe when he concludes while discussing the origin of Benin kingdom and kings that “To lay to rest all the conflicting beliefs about the origin of the Edo people, one can now say unequivocally that the Edo people never migrated to their present location, but in fact were created in and have always lived on the present site of their ancient city. There is no doubt that other people have migrated to join the aboriginal Edo people and that in the course of history the migrants have inter-changed their culture and also imbibed the culture of their new abode”.

MARSHALL REPORT

In the Intelligence Report on Benin City, Marshall narrates a similar version of the origin of Benin, as above, thus, according to Bini tradition, Ife, locally known as Uhe, was the cradle of the human race and was the only land in the world. Ododuwa, the first King of Ife, possessed a snail shell which had the magical power of creating earth. Shortly before his death, Ododuwa called his seven sons and, giving to each of them a portion of the “medicine” from the magical snail shell, sent them out to form the inhabited world. One of Ododuwa’s sons was called Obanigodo and on receiving his share from the magical snail-shell, he set out with his followers to the south-east. Creating land as he went, he finally reached the present site of Benin and there he and his followers settled down and gave the place the name Ugodo N’Igodo. Certain of the present inhabitants of Benin claim to trace their descent from this first migration.

A SHORT HISTORY OF BENIN

In his epic A Short History of Benin, the renowned Benin traditional historian, Egharevba narrates how “many, many years ago, the Binis came all the way from Egypt to found a more secure shelter in this part of the world after a short stay in the Sudan and at Ile-Ife, which the Benin call Uhe. Before coming here, a band of hunters was sent from Ife to inspect this land and the report furnished was very favorable. Tradition says they met some people who were in the land before their arrival. These people are said to have come originally from Nupe and the Sudan in waves…The Empire of the first period or dynasty was founded about 900 A.D. The rulers or kings were commonly known as ‘Ogiso’ before the arrival of Odudua and his party at Ife in Yorubaland, about the 12th century of the Christian era”.

It is worthy of note that Omo N’Oba N’Edo, Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Erediauwa (CFR), the Oba of Benin observed during his opening address on Thursday, 29th April 1982, at the exhibition of “The Lost Treasures of Ancient Benin”:

The Ife Connection

There is no doubt that both the Ife Royal House and the Benin Royal House have a common ancestor. The point of disagreement is who that ancestor was and where he came from. To the Yoruba who call him Oduduwa, he came to Ife from the East. To us in Edo that person was no other than Ekaladerhan.

However, in One Thousand Years of Benin and the Dynasty, Omo N’Oba Erediauwa suggested the need for further research on the Benin origin from Ife when he stated, inter alia, that:

Dr Samuel Johnson a Yoruba historian claimed that the first Oba of Benin was the grandson of Oduduwa and a brother of Oranmiyan. In other words Oba Eweka who was the first Oba of Benin was recognized by Yoruba tradition as a descendant of Oduduwa, but the Edo aborigines consider themselves different from the Yorubas in relation to their language, culture and social characteristics. The Benin monarchy is connected to Ife but the Edo aborigines existed before the era of the ogisos. Obaro Ikime posists that some scholars of Benin History agree with the fact that Benin does have the Ife connection, but the problem which remains is that some scholars do not want to either accept the Ife connection or discuss the issue. But it should be noted that although the dynasty is linked to Ife, it is also rooted on Benin soil.

THE YORUBA CONNECTION AN ISSUE

This point raised by the Oba of Benin is quite important, for Marshall, in his Intelligence Report of Benin City of 1939, concludes, with a caveat, on this subject-matter that “it should be noted that certain of the intelligentsia (sic) are no longer prepared to accept this traditional story but claim that the original inhabitants came straight from Egypt (factoid); there is no tradition and even less evidence on which they can base this claim. On the other hand, there is the undoubted fact that linguistic experts are agreed that the Edo language is unconnected with Yoruba, and certain Edo villages, notably Udo and certain of the Isi villages, have their own story of the creation which appear to have nothing to do with Ife. The story of the creation given probably refers to a ruling class who came from Ife and found here an earlier race of whose origin nothing is known”

EGHAREVBA ASSERSTION

Further narrating the origin and foundation of the Benin Empire, Egharevba asserts that, one of the prominent leaders in Benin in the early years of its founding – Igodo – was made Ogiso or King Igodo, the first Ogiso, wielded much influence and gained popularity as a good ruler. He died after a long reign and was succeeded by Ere, his eldest son, who after his own (Ere’s) death, the country was ruled by many princes and princesses in succession.[

The last Ogiso (Owodo) was ultimately banished from the throne for maladministration and especially for the commission of kirikuvua, that is, the ordering of the execution of a pregnant woman. He was on this account banished from the throne and took refuge at Ihimwirin, just outside Benin City, where he died miserably.[

Thus, the first period of pre-colonial Benin history can be called the Ogiso period. Little of this period is known. But there is enough to support an intelligence reconstruction of this elusive era of Benin history.[The Ogiso rulers feature prominently in Benin folktales and fables where some of them are often represented as having dealings with personified animals like the tortoise (egwi). Primarily for this reason, the Ogisos have been designated semi-mythical kings by some writers, but they are not as mythical as some people may think. It seems probable that the Benin folktales are only one medium of preserving memories of the very distant past, and the semi-supernatural feats attributed to the rulers of the Ogiso period merely reflect their divine attributes and stress the aura surrounding such rulers.

BENIN TRADITION ON OGISO

According to Benin traditions, the first Ogiso ruler was Igodo, also called Obagodo, who was a prominent Odionwere (leader) in one of the Benin communities. Under him, these communities became collectively known as Igodomigodo, meaning ‘town of towns’ as well as ‘the land of Igodo’, thus reflecting the origin of the Benin kingdom and the genesis of its monarchical system under Igodo and his successors.[

Egharevba in A Short History of Benin, while discussing the origin of the Binis, seem to place the creation of many communities and towns in the south-central part of Nigeria –  by people from Benin – at the doorsteps of emigrations, which, according to him, were very common in those days because of the atrocious hearts of the people. The early people of Ishan and Afenmai Divisions, the Eka and Ibo-speaking peoples of the west bank of the Niger, Aboh, the Urhobo, Isoko and the people of Onitsha are all emigrants from Benin.

FORMATION OF ONITSHA

It was during the reign of Oba Esigie (1504-1550), the son of Oba Ozolua, that Onitsha was founded by people who migrated from Benin. It is reputed that the Oba of Lagos was the direct son of Oba Orhogbua (1550-1578). The Obi of Isele-Uku was the direct son of Oba Akenzua I (1713-1735 AD). Obi of Onitsha came from Benin.

The Eze Chima group is reputed to have migrated from Benin. Some of them were soldiers who were settled there during the war years of Oba Ewuare the Great (1440-1473), Oba Ozolua (1483-1504), Oba Esigie (1504-1550), and Oba Orhogbua (1550-1578). No doubt, the military activities of these Obas indicated that there was considerable migration during their reigns and there is no wonder that migration from various places like Onitsha was a matter of course in those turbulent days.

On this note, Afigbodemurred. First, he claims that historical studies of pre-colonial south-central Nigeria, as of other parts of the country for the same period, have so far been concerned mainly with two important themes. These are the origins of peoples and the evolution of socio-political systems. The economic, artistic and other cultural aspects of human experience here are still to find their historians. Not surprisingly, therefore, according to him, it is in respect of these two themes, i.e. origins of peoples and of state structures, that the Bini hypothesis has been used in the most sweeping and unquestioning manner, for, “here, chief (Dr) Jacob Egharevba, the Bini historian par excellence, leads the parade as high priest”. However, it should be borne in mind that claims to Benin origin are also found in the oral traditions of many communities of the region.

AFIGBO ANALOGY

By and large, in the Benin “Mirage” and the History of South Central Nigeria, Afigbo critically analyzed the origin legends of communities and towns in the South Central area of Nigeria, having carefully appraised the views and works of academic historians of great standing such as Professor K.O. Dike, Dr. R.E. Bradbury, Professor Obaro Ikime, and Dr. Jacob Egharevba, who he considered were “adherents of the Benin hypothesis” of the origin of the people of that area. However, he was in agreement with Obayemi, who has also argued that what later became the Benin Kingdom was at one time only one out of 130 or 140 mini-states in the Edo-speaking part of South-Central Nigeria; and with Connah, who thinks that more information leading to a better understanding of pre-imperial Benin can come from further archaeological excavations within the city. Thus, Afigbo is of the firm opinion that the Bini thesis regarding the peopling of South-Central Nigeria requires further investigation and research.

True enough, to this, one may further add that “the historian of the narrow school relies solely on written records, whereas the historian less restricted in the sources he consults, considers unwritten sources equally vital, wherever such is available”.

ANDAH TAYLOR:  STUDY OF ARCHAEOLOGY

According to Andah, Taylor in his book: A Study of Archaeology clearly demonstrated that “behind an artifact is an idea”, meaning that, the material object is evidence of thought. Although this object does not give us the full range of thought, it gives us the thought pertinent to the societal level, which is all that archaeologists and anthropologists, at large, claim to reconstruct.[

In spite of all the aforementioned antithesis of the Benin hypothesis by Afigbo, he still affirms and recognizes, in Igboland Before 1800,  that the origin of the Benin monarchy has been traced to the period about 1300 AD but probably not until about the 15th century was that state transformed from a small kingdom into an aggressively expansive empire. This change is said to have taken place in the reign of Ewuare the Great. Under his command, the Benin armies extended their conquests beyond the Edo regions, subjugating towns and villages of Ekiti, Ikare, Afenmai and the Western Ibo”.

To Afigbo, it would appear that from this time, Bini power became a factor of great consequence in the life of the western Igbo. But, according to him, the exact nature of this influence, how much of it was direct, how much indirect, how much of it was political and administrative and how much were social, cultural and economic, that is informal, still awaits its historian.

Nonetheless, Afigbo believes that the Benin expansion and campaigns eastwards were also a matter of some demographic consequence for the Igbo, leading to a recoil of the population that was probably hitherto expanding westwards. The Onitsha who claim to have left Benin in the 17th century were probably just elements of this Igbo population thrown back eastward by Benin expansion.