By Prof. Banji Akintoye

On November 26, 2023, the Oba of Benin ignited a huge controversy about the early history of Lagos. He did so by making the claim that the Edo people of the Benin Kingdom were the founders of Lagos. Because the crown worn by the Oba of Benin originated from Ife, we must be respectful in our answer to him. The Oba, in an admirably polished speech, made the following statements – that “Lagos was founded by Benin”; that “Benin founded the nucleus of Lagos”; and that “Benin founded the origin of Lagos”.

Most respectfully, what we will do is to lay out for the Oba of Benin the most ascertained history of Lagos from the best of knowledge from the studies of African history, the contributions of archaeology, historical linguistics and written records to the knowledge of our history, and from the best and most sustained traditions of the Yoruba and Edo peoples.

The peopling of the coastal forests and islands of the Lagos area occurred in the very ancient era when the Yoruba people, consisting of their many subgroups, occupied the large forest and coastal territory that is the Yoruba homeland. The Yoruba subgroup known as the Awori settled in the Lagos area in those very ancient times.

The Awori are one of the Yoruba sub-groups. One best known fact about the Yoruba nation is that it comprises many subgroups differentiated by dialects of their common Yoruba language. For avoidance of doubt about what we are describing here, we add that the main Yoruba subgroups are,  from the Yoruba territories near the Niger-Benue confluence generally southwards, the Oworo, Bunu, Owe, Iyagba, Jumu, and Ikiri (who together are now commonly called the Okun-Yoruba), the Igbomina, Oyo, Ibolo, Ijesa, Ekiti, Akoko, Owo, Ife, Owu, Egba, Ibarapa, Yewa, Ketu, Ondo, Ijebu, Ikale, Awori, Ilaje and Ishekiri (all today in Nigeria), the Sabe, Anago, Ohori, Popo and others (today in Benin Republic).

The Edo are not a Yoruba subgroup; they are an entirely different ethnic group, a separate people or nation – just as the Nupe, Ighala, Hausa,  Ijaw, are separate peoples or nations. The Edo homeland and the homeland of the Awori subgroup of the Yoruba are not contiguous. Between the Edo territory and the Lagos territory of the Awori, there are the territories of the Yoruba subgroups Itsekiri, Owo, Ondo, Ilaje, Ikale, and  Ijebu.

According to the best knowledge of history from archaeology and historical linguistics, the different peoples of today’s Nigerian Middle Belt and South (Yoruba, Igbo, Nupe, Ighala, Gbagyi,

Edo and others), evolved on the Middle Niger into distinct linguistic or ethnic groups (or nations) about 40,000 years ago. From there, these ethnic groups or nations spread out over millenia and occupied the territories that are now their homelands.   All the available evidence show that each of these nations had settled into its present homeland by about 6000 BC, or about 8000 years ago. 

All over the large forest country and coastlands that became the Yoruba homeland in those ancient times, the earliest Yoruba people spread out in subgroup after subgroup. It is from those earliest times that the Awori, one of these Yoruba subgroups, settled in the coastlands and islands that are now known as Lagos – with the Ijebu subgroup to their immediate east and northeast, with the Ilaje and ikale further to the east, and the Itsekiri still further to the east on the coast.

The Awori settled in a coastal forest area consisting of coastal forests and coastal islands. Their most inland group of settlements was located in Otta. Another group of their settlements lived in Isheri, a short distance south of Otta,  on the lower banks of the Ogun River. Another group existed at what became known as Ebute Metta along a part of the lagoon coast. Another settled on Iddo Island. And another settled on the largest island of the area, the island later known as Lagos Island.  Finally, other Awori settlements settled along parts of the coast, all the way westwards to the area of modern Badagry, where Awori and Egun settlements interspersed.

In about the 9th century AD, a very important revolution started at Ife in central Yorubaland and, over the next six centuries (until about 1600 AD), swept over the whole of Yorubaland.  The revolution resulted in the creation of unified kingdoms and towns all over Yorubaland. It transformed the ancient clumps of small and separate settlements into unified kingdoms and towns everywhere in Yorubaland. Starting from Ife in the 9th Ceury AD, this revolution continued until about the 16th Century AD, and turned Yorubaland into a country of many proud kingdoms and many rich towns – and made Yorubaland the most urbanized expanse of territory in the whole of Africa, and one of the most urbanized countries in the world. In the land of the Awori subgroup, this kingdom-creating revolution resulted in the creation of an Awori kingdom at Otta, another at Isheri and another on the Lagos Island. Historians believe that these Awori kingdoms were created in the course of the 11th Century AD.

 In about the 12

Th Century, according to the traditions of the Yoruba people and of the Edo people, the Edo people, neighbors of the Yoruba in the southeastern forests, sent to the Oba of Ife for help. Their problem was that their Edo country, immediate neighbor to Yorubaland, was being disrupted by conflicts. And the help they wanted was that the Oba of Ife should help them to bring the Yoruba kind of political order to the Edo country. The Oba of Ife responded by sending one of his grandsons, a young warrior prince named Oranmiyan, to go and help the Edo. Oranmiyan went, fought and subdued several warring Edo groups, and created the Benin kingdom, a kingdom like the Ife kingdom. After ruling the Benin kingdom for some years, Oranmiyan decided that the kingdom should not be ruled by him, a non-Edo foreigner, but by an Edo man. Oranmiyan and the Edo elders therefore installed as the king of the kingdom a young son born to Oranmiyan by one of his Edo wives, a boy born and raised in the Edo culture. That young king, named Ewuare, is the progenitor of all the kings of the Benin kingdom till today. That is why Edo kings are today counted among the Yoruba kings or among the “sons of Oduduwa”. 

The earliest non-Awori people to come trading with the Awori on the Awori coastal islands of Lagos, even long before the Awori had created any kingdom, were the Ilaje. According to the traditions of all the coastal Yoruba subgroups, the Ilaje were the earliest pioneers of trade along the Yoruba coast. Later, Ijebu traders, and later still the Ikale traders, and then the Egun and Anago traders from the west, came to trade with and among the Awori. This coastal trade existed long before the coming of the earliest European explorers and traders to the coast of West Africa in about the 1470s AD.

 Following the coming of European trade in about the 1470s and its expansion along the coast of West Africa, the European traders were attracted particularly to ports like Lagos, the Benin port of Gwato and the Itsekiri port town of Warri.  The vibrant trade in European imported goods enhanced the trade and wealth of these port towns. Of the Yoruba kingdoms, the kingdom of Itsekiri on the southeastern coast had, for a start, the closest relationship with the early European traders, the Portuguese. The Itsekiri kingdom became a rich trading kingdom and, culturally, it imbibed some European religion and culture, established close diplomatic relations with Portugal for some time, and grew into a rich and elegant kingdom.

 But the location of the Itsekiri kingdom was much less accessible to European traders than the port of the Benin kingdom. Therefore, most of the European trade along the Yoruba coast went to the Benin port. Until about the 1550s, the port of the Benin coast controlled most of the coastal trade and became the source of most imported goods going into the eastern parts of the Yoruba interior. As a result, the Benin kingdom became, for about a century, the richest and most powerful kingdom on the West African coast, and the most memorable West African kingdom among European traders. 

In those early years of the European coastal trade, the port of Lagos was known to, and desired by, the European traders, but reaching it with their bigger boats from the sea was made difficult by sand bars along the entry to the Lagos port. However, over time, the European boats gradually mastered this difficulty and, by the 1550s, Lagos was attracting increasingly large shares of the European trade along the coast. As the natural port to the extensive and heavily urbanized Yoruba country in the interior, Lagos simply blossomed into a massive commercial

Centre from about the 1550s. Nearly all European traders along the West African coast traded in Lagos. This growing commercial importance of Lagos attracted to Lagos more and more indigenous traders from all over the West African coast – the Ilaje, Ijebu, Ikale and Itsekiri who had traditionally traded to Lagos, and now Edo traders from the Benin kingdom, and Ijaw traders, and traders from the Yoruba interior kingdoms, and traders from the far western coasts all the way to what was called the Upper Guinea Coast in the European records. Lagos was on its way to becoming the greatest cosmopolitan center in West Africa.

By about the 1580s, Lagos had become the greatest commercial centre on the coast of West Africa, and Its trade with the European traders had totally surpassed that of the Benin kingdom. Very many Edo traders were coming to trade in Lagos, and Lagos became very famous in Benin. Benin traders to Lagos became like a special class of people in Benin society.

The rulers of the Benin kingdom responded to this by embarking on an attempt to seize, control and possess the booming trade of Lagos. Fortunately, we have some written records by European traders who were trading in Lagos in these years. The Oba of Benin sent a considerable military force to Lagos. In 1603, A German trader trading in Lagos wrote in his notes that Lagos had become like a Benin military camp. The background to this is that a succession dispute was going on between two princes of the Awori kingdom of Lagos, and the Benin decided to support one of the princes to win the throne and thereby turn the Awori kingdom of Lagos into a vassal of the Benin kingdom. 

The Benin forces were successful for some time and the prince supported by them became considerably stronger than his rival. But the fighting was not yet over. In the further fighting, the commander of the Benin forces was killed. The near-victorious prince, named Asipa in most traditions, then decided to further seal his relationship with the Benin by offering to lead the group that was taking the body of the dead Benin commander to Benin. In Benin, this Awori prince met the Oba of Benin, and the Oba of Benin declared him his adopted son. Some traditions have it that Asipa also married a Benin wife in Benin.

Asipa returned home into continued opposition and, in the midst of serious contention, he was crowned Oba of Lagos. As the opposition to him never relented, he was forced to lean and harp continually on his Benin support. Some traditions have it that, to show support for this embattled Oba of Lagos, the Oba of Benin paid a brief visit to Lagos in these years. In the midst of all this, this Oba of Lagos and his leading Awori supporters started the tradition that he was a prince from Benin, a descendant of the Obas of Benin. This is the origin of the tradition that claims a Benin origin for the Obas of Lagos, the tradition that some Lagos families still hold to today, the tradition that the current Oba of Lagos has occasionally been heard to affirm – the tradition that the Oba of Benin proudly proclaimed during his visit to Lagos on November 26, 2023. 

But the Benin kingdom never succeeded in capturing and controlling Lagos or its bouncing trade. In fact, as the commerce of Lagos flourished more and more bountifully and Lagos developed into the great emporium in West Africa in the course of the centuries after 1600, the trade of Benin declined sharply and relentlessly. Other problems added to the weaknesses of the Benin kingdom in these centuries – resulting in the fact that the Benin kingdom never

Recovered but went on declining until it was conquered by the British in 1897.

The Lagos kingdom had its own troubles too – the troubles emanating from the royal politics of the kingdom’s princes. But, in the roaring commercial and economic prosperity of Lagos, the politics of the royal princes became hardly more than side shows. The troubles of the Asipa era ended with his passing in about 1630, and, according to the traditions, less troublesome successions prevailed thereafter for the next two centuries. From about the 1830s, some liberated former slaves returning from the Americas began to settle in Lagos, bringing greatly transformational influences with them.  In the course of the 1840s, a great new factor came – namely, the missionaries of various Christian denominations. Meanwhile, the commerce had become so great that the various European countries on the island were getting into conflicts with one another over shares in the trade; and when a succession dispute erupted between two princes in 1851, one of the European countries, the British, found it worthwhile to intervene with great force in it and support one prince against the other, in order to push British interests to the forefront on the island.  The coming British era saw enormous transformations, especially Western education, the emergence in Lagos of large numbers of Yoruba university graduates, the beginning of British institutions, and the emergence of a Movement of Yoruba Cultural Nationalism. In short, for the next two centuries and more after Asipa’s time, Lagos flew into high skies of prosperity and greatness that the Benin kingdom could not even dream of.

To summarize then, it is indisputable that the Awori are a subgroup of the Yoruba nation, that they are not descendants of the Edo of Benin, that they were the earliest settlers on Lagos Island and its neighboring forests, that their early 17th century Oba who chose, or who was forced, to describe himself as a prince from Benin was an Awori prince and not an Edo prince.

 I have received calls or messages from some Yoruba persons who have told me that they are disturbed by the November 26 statements by the Oba of Benin about the origins of the Lagos kingdom. I don’t think that any Yoruba person should be disturbed by any claims or insinuations about any part of our Yoruba nation. It is natural for people to desire to take and own that which they find beautiful, attractive or successful. In spite of our Yoruba nation’s intensive suffering from Nigeria’s abominably poor governance, state-generated poverty and state-promoted insecurity, for over one century, we Yoruba are still the most prestigious Black nation in the world, and our homeland is still the most desirable to all Nigerian peoples. The Oba of Benin’s November 26 statements about the origins of Lagos are totally false, but we Yoruba must never cease respecting and honoring the Obas of Benin, since they belong to a significant strand of our nation’s main roots.