August 28, 2016



Esan is located in the tropical zone of Northern part of the Nigeria forest region. Esan is an Edo word which refers to a people and their land situated on a plateau of North-East of Benin City. Esan has boundaries on the North West with Owan and on the North East with Etsako, on the South West with Orhionwon and Ika, while on the South and South East with Aniocha and Oshimili areas respectively. The River Niger terminate her Eastern boarders.

During the pre-colonial period which is the main focus of this work, there were no fixed geographical boundaries.  Fixing rigidly defined boundaries is a European concepts. The tradition boundaries were fluid, often long roads and demarcated by geographical and environmental features including hills, Rivers ans Streams. sometime it was the Iyala or moat that demarcated an in-group from an out-group of Esan settlers in the region. consequently, Esan area extended and contracted under various political and economic circumstances which reflected the possible strength and weaknesses of expansion were usually attributed to good organisation and able leadership. 

According to Peter Darling, most boundary permanent's and other territorial details are little more than recent attempts to redefine in physical terms an ill-defined or concept of historical validity. This is to emphasize the lack or absence of rigidly defined geographical boundaries ain pre-colonial Esan. Despite the expansion and contraction of her geo-political boundaries in the pre-colonial times, the Esan people retained their relative flat terrain where they develop their society. By the end of the pre-colonial period, the geo-political extent of Esan was about 1, 858 square kilometres

Generally, early Esan settlers located their settlements and farms on the upper interfluves and avoided the valleys. Instead, they preferred having much of their activities on the dry areas of the land and as such settled in the upper interfluves or plateau leaving the valleys as “no man’s land”. According to P.J Darling, “this appears to have been a strong pattern in the past, being graphically illustrated by the location of Iyala (Moat) enclosures and pottery sherds discovered.

The location of Esan settlements away from the valleys was based on traditional beliefs which provided a link between the real causal agents and the forms of behaviours. Usually valleys were flooded during raining seasons, not airy and without adequate sunshine for both the farmer and his root crops. According to P.J Darling, the Esan were descended from and influx, or series of influxes of savannah dwellers who in the course of their migration went along with their settlement pattern, customs and prejudices. Part of this culture was not to settle in the valleys not only of the fever – carrying mosquitoes but as the valleys also haboured tse – tse fly with its dreaded sleeping sickness. According to R.P. Moss,  moist soil condition  provided the ideal habitat for the  yaws spirochaete (Traponema Pertenue) carried by the eye gnat (Hippoletes pallipes), and the swampy flood –plains provided a wide range of suitable habitats for the various species of mosquito, the main vectors of fever, filariasis and elephantiasis. Malaria is still one of the most widespread diseases in Africa today.

As the early Esan settlers moved south from the Savannah into the forest, they continue their Savannah derived preferences of settling along the interfluves and constructed Oghodo or ponds to avoid or reduce visiting rivers and streams. The evidence from the Iyala, moat and sherd distribution attest to the early maintenance of high localized population densities. The primary settlements of clustered tightly together among the interfluves and later each village entity occupied larger land areas as people moved out of the central core. In this way the forest areas with their associated tse-tse flies and sleeping sickness were driving into river valleys.


Studies have shown that the relatively flat terrain of Esan has “an average slope of about 1838 on the surface with an elevation ranging format between 350 to 460 metres above sea level.” The highest point on this Plateau exists at the village in the Uromi Chiefdom with “466 metres above sea level.” The topsoil of the Esanland is a mixture of laterite and sandy light brown soil; and just beneath this, according to professor Akinbode, is made of up “of clays, fine-grained sands, lignite, and carbonaceous shaley clays”. Generally, the tops soil which is full of humus like probably was in the pre-colonial era must have been primarily be responsible for good crop yields especially yams in the region. This in turn must have encouraged planting of crops and the settlement of the region. Part of the Esan live on the plateau and part on the lowlands. The chiefdoms of Irrua, Ekpoma, Ubiaja, Ugboha, and Uromi were on the plateau while Ewohimi, Ewu, and Orhodua were on the lowlands. Accoridingly to Okojies, the established chiefdoms,  in the early Esan were Irrua, Uromi, Ekpoma, Ubiaja, Ugboha, Ewohimi, Ewu, Uzea, Emu, Ohordua, Ebelle, Amahor, Okalo, Udo and Ugbegun.

Esanland can be divided into two broad categories – the lowland and the plateau. The lowlands is rich in water with several springs and streams. It marks the end of plateau. Okojie describes the plateau of Esan land as waterless in contrast to the lowlands. The streams are few and there is insufficient water for general needs of the people because most of villages do not have natural sources of water. The water table appears low and Akinbode Emphasis that to the West and South of the tributaries of the Ossiomo River drain into the Benin River while the Eastern Rivers including Utor stream drain into the Nigeria. The rivers cut deep valleys which penetrate almost to the centre of the plateau. In the view of P.J Darling, the plateau has “powerful” springs, some occurring at the permanent regional water table and others, such the Ekpoma spring coming from perched aquifers.” In essence, these sources of water supply were hardly sufficient because the pre-colonial Esan dug open pits or Oghodo which were used to store rain water. An informant also stated that before the introduction of pipe borne water supply to the every part of Esan in 1955, every village possessed a central pond where the inhabitants went to fetch water for domestic needs. Such central ponds were dug through communal efforts under the auspices of the village’s elders who equally kept a close watch over their years to year maintenance. Even in several cases individual “family units” had their private ponds. Such ponds or Omin were dug in the family compounds and were maintained by their members while the Oghodo or central pond was maintained by the members of the village unit. Thus water from the ponds and the various streams were used to meet the domestic needs of the Esan people.

Of relevance to meeting the water needs of the Esan people were the Odighi or seasonal lakes formed form earths subsidence. The Odighi pools were shallow elliptically and enclosed depressions on the interfluved soil level and the range in the width from 100 metres to over 2 kilometres. The magnitude rule out anything but natural origin. In the rainy season, the odighi was often saturated and formed swampy open water bodies which retained water through much of the dry season. As it eventually dries up, water holes up to a metre deep were dug progressively nearer the centre of the depression by those searching for water. The people usually preferred to get the water from the odighi in the wet season, followed the dry season digging of water holes in the depression which also was one of the important factors in the early colonization of the plateau. The cultural practice of digging water holes in the odighi depression perhaps contributed to the knowledge of digging the Oghodo and omin ponds. It must be emphasised however that Oghodo was also dug to collect mud for house building while again the idea of digging omin can be attributed to natural intelligence.


Esanland possessed some minerals which were exploited by the early settlers. Prominent on the plateau was the clayey soil which was exhibited in the various ways. For example. There was the eating of the white kaolinitic clay eko by pregnant women. Also it was used to manufacture medicines. The practice of eating crustal clay originated with the knowledge that kaolin effectively combated morning sickness in pregnancy. It later acquired the erroneous reputation that it was nutritious.  Thus eko was much sought after and it was found in many parts of the Esan plateau.

The Kaolinitic clay eko was distinct from the pure white clay erhe which mostly found in the lowlands. Like the Bini, the Esan used the white chalk erhe for sacrifices, burial, adornment of bodies and homes during festivals and ceremonies to herald good tidings. Unlike the crustal eko clay, erhe was powdery when excavated until it was, moulded into sizes for various purposes.

The third type of clay unakpa is red and was used for building houses. This was typical of the free standing mud walls of the Esan architecture. It was the predominantly soil in the plateau. Therefore its use was a characteristic Esan patter of economic optimization in ecological habitat. The red clay soil, met the immediate need for mud to build houses and such buildings lasted for generations even through the colonial period. Apart from meeting a practical need, the red clay was believed to have protective qualities against evil. The Edo people generally believe that red is a threatening colour which has the power to drive evil spirits. This red combined with white, was believed to bring peace and prosperity to the Esan home. I t was I n this vein that E. Ogie emphasised that the Edo man “loves the gorgeous colour which his soil supplies. . .”

Apart from clay, another mineral that was found in the Esanland and exploited by the Esan people of the Ekpoma and Uzea was gold. Gold, unlike clay, is a precious metal and its exploitation was controlled through religious sanctions. Gold mining activities were carried out in the cover of the dark and its production fell into a few hands controlled by the oto or Earth Shrine Priest so that not many people knew the location or source of the supplies. Despite the efforts of keep the mining of the gold in Esan a secret, Van Naerssen of the Dutch Company and six Aki slaves were sent by Oba Ozolua C1483 -1504  from Benin to locate the source of gold in the Esan country. According to Alan Ryder, at Uzea, “three of them went with some servants of the Oba to an area where the ruler and his council thought gold might be found. . . There with great labour the slaves gathers minute amount of gold dust…” This was enough confirmation about the existence of gold in the region and the Oba launch a war again the Uzea people. It was in this war that Oba Uzolau was subsequently killed. Esanland had minerals.


Esanland is influenced by two yearly seasonal winds. These are the South -West and the North -East winds. The formal blows from Atlantic Ocean from April to October, and is warm and humid. The wind prevails over the land and brings in its wake heavy rains causing the rainy or wet season. This was a period of the heavy rainfall. It was also a period of much human activity when the planting of various crops by the farmers and their families was done. When rainfall rings the North East winds. This usually lasted from November to March when there is virtually no rain in Esanland. The Esan climate at this time is very hot with a temperature of about 23 degree – 25 degree centigrade at mid-day. From December to January the weather becomes so harsh that it is referred to as the harmanttan or Okuakhua. According to Akinbode, these seasonal variations in the region could be due to “latitudinal migration of the inter-tropical convergence zone (ITCZ)” Although rainfall is unevenly spread throughout the period of the rainy season, light rainfalls are at times recorded in the months of December and January. Again strong winds and high air temperatures could be recorded between the months of January and March while the lowest are recorded during the months of the June and July. Generally, the altitude of the Esan plateau modified the temperature to such a level of elimination extreme weather conditions. It is therefore not surprising that the relatively flat tops of the plateau are much cooler than parts of the land through the year.


Esan a rich vegetation’s made up of two distinct parts. Predominantly, the southern part of the area are made up of the moist deciduous forest, rich in timber and other forest woods. This are comprised the lowlands with rivers and numerous valleys. The forest were thickly wooded and inspired beliefs from the average Esan individual. In this respect, the forest bush was held distinct from the forest farm. At night, without the backing of ebolo or strong medicine even the bravest of hunters respected the wild forest or ‘forest bush’. Only few dared risk the strange and terrifying experience of venturing where they thought the evil azem or witches were operating in tree tops and they believe that even the relatively harmless ihoholele or dwarf – like beings found in the deep forest could killed if they ran between one’s legs. In the forest bush too it was said roamed the spirits of those who had not been settle by proper burial ceremonies. Thus the forest thickly woody could and unreceptive was generally dreaded by the ordinary Esan especially at night.

Yet in day time the forest and its products were highly valued for their innumerable contribution everyday life. The forest was vital to the life and Culture of the Esan. There were medicinal preparations for leprosy, gonorrhoea, loose teeth, fevers, abscesses, black tongue' childbirth and purgatives. There were Portions prepared from forest products to put people to sleep, charms to make yams grow and poison for ordeal and to put on arrow tips. Different timbers were used for nearly every aspect of house building and there were a variety of woods for making tool! Native tobacco-pipe, traps and for collection as firewood. Burnt wood derivatives included charcoal, potash; salt and ashes for native soap and native dye. There were adhesives, sponges for polishing house walls, ropes bowstrings, dance rattles etc. There were special tree used for chewing sticks and many fruits; seeds, roots and leaves gather for the preparation of different soup. There were other food stuffs such as wild beans, edible fungi, palm wind, snails and honey from wild bees. Hunters caught various games from the forest rich in wild animals including bush pigs esi, giant pouch rat’s eluo and grasscutters Okhaen etc. part of the forest riches can be gleaned from a description of the 15th century market places in the Benin area.


". . . Roasted baboons and monkeys – bats and large rats, parrot, dried lizard, fruit, palm wine.”

The contradiction of Esan attitudes to the forest i.e. their fear of its supernatural forces on the one hand and their physical dependence on it for their everyday needs on other have led to different interpretations some interpretations suggested that the nucleated Esan villages and their farm and fallow lands were separated and surrounded by forests ever threatening to encroach and believed to be peopled with evil spirits. 30 To this end, Esan attitudes to the forests stemmed from fear on the other hand, Peter Darling have suggested the possibility of higher population densities or a continuation of savannah derived practices to preserve the flora during the period of Iyala or moat constructions (C1000 AD) in the area. In this vein a higher or low population tended to favour practices in which conservation of the useful forest environment (at the margins of the rotational bush fallow system) were encouraged. Therefore it was not fear but the cultural dictates to conserve the flora that created a reverence of the forest among Esan. According to J. B Webster “Plant totems have been associated the preservation of flora in the Sahel. The Oak tree among several other is the “Totem of the Isaba ward in Ewoyoma” village in Uromi. So also other trees are held in reverence among the Esan people. Whether it was reverence derived from fear or for preservation, the forest survived long into the colonial period when it was denuded by colonial companies that exploited the timber for export even though forest resources were needed by the Esan people. Timber concessions were granted by the colonial governor in Esan to Messrs W. B. Maclever and Co., Messrs A.C.B Henri and Co., Messr Mc Neil Scott and Co., and Messrs Miller Bor. Ltd.

The dichotomy between the 'forest bush and forest farm' was created by the early Esan and it was based on neat ecological distinctions of forest, bush and farm. According to Ben Amos, there was a major dichotomy between concepts of home and bush, wild and civilized nature and culture - a dichotomy in which the Iyala or moat once played an important part and survived till the present day. Both concepts were incorporated into the annual cycle of ceremonies in Esan. For example in the chiefdom, the year began with ceremonies concerned with brushing the farm and purifying the land after planting, other ceremonies were directed at the fertility of crops. The Ikukpe ceremony in Ekpoma for example marked the traditional end of the year. The entire agricultural cycle derived much of its spiritual dependence from the forest and this is in addition to the physical dependence of agriculture and housing on forest products. In the culture of a rotational bush fallow system the fallow time exceeded the time the land is cultivated and the aim usually was created a regular system of fallows which was never permitted to return to woodland or forest bush. The Esan term Ugbon uke last year’s farm and Ugbo nikpea last year but one’s farm expresses fallow; Ogo an overgrown farm clearing, as an extension of farmland Ugbo and not forest Oha. Thus the farmland was held distinct from the un-closed forest Oha.

Unlike the lowland, the plateau on the northern fringes of Esan had the forest savannah country. This part is made up sandy topsoil that could be easily cleared, cultivated, and relatively weed free. The topsoil is also mixed with laterite and various clays that have already been discuss. These provided early incentives for the settlement of Esan people.

Department of History.
Edo State University Ekpoma, Nigeria.