October 8, 2016



By A. I. Okoduwa
Of the cultural history of Esan the origin seem to be the least studied and the most misconstrued. Where it was studied, interest was mainly directed at documenting the oral accounts of the Esan people. These works including the various intelligence Reports written by colonial officials who were in the area maintained that the people of Esan had their ancestors in Benin. This view was increasingly held and popularised by generations of Esan students, scholars and traditionalist. By it, Esan origin dates back to just about 500 years ago when emigrants fled Benin for the jungle to avoid the harsh rule of Oba Ewuare in Benin.

It did not really matter whether people had lived or were living in the area  or whether emigrations from Benin was part of a grand imperial design to form annexures to an expanding Benin. Thus Esan origins was not seriously analysed for general acceptance. Instead, the traditionals simply enabled the individual to locate himself within his family lineage and the larger community. Origin is more than this. The aim of this chapter therefore is to examine Esan origin in the light of archaeological evidence from the area. It is hoped that at the end a more expanded out look of Esan origin will emerge.

The origin of Esan has been the subject of great controversy since the major tool for reconstruction of the early Esan history has been oral traditions in which various communities lay claim to one migration or the other. On a large scale, these numerous versions have been unanimously in the contention that the people came directly or indirectly from Benin. Sometimes the claim has been mainly on some observable similarities in language and customs of the Esan and Bini people.

Esan as a word has had other variants, for example, Isa, Esa and Ishan. The early European travellers, writers and administrators used these word interchangeably. It is evident in the pre-colonial history of Esan that Esan as a name, referring to a settled people had long existed before the 15th century. In other words, there are cultural evidence in Esan oral traditions which are indicative of the fact that before the 15th century, Esan consciousness was in existence. J Egharevba, the Bini historian writes:

“The early people of Esan or Ishan were Bini emigrants from the first and second periods of the Bini Empire. Esan is the name of the first man who migrated became the founder and progenitor of Esan.”

Two issues are raised by Egharevba, the issue of origin and that of the derivation of name “Esan” Egharevba had no conclusive evidence on either the origin of the Esan people or their name. Rather, what would appear plausible in the assertion is that “Esan progenitors” may have had a common migrating stock with early Bini settlers. Bini traditional or palace historians who are essentially imperial in their outlook see the origin of Esan as beginning from the reign of Oba Ewuare in about 1440 A.D. and the name Esan being derived from the description of the manner in which the Esan people fled –‘Esanfua’ – during Ewuare’s reign. Dr Christopher Okojie contradict this when he says:

“It would at first appear that Ishan (Esan) did not originate until after 1440, when Oba Ewuare imposed his selfishness and wickedness on the great Benin stool. No, before this time there were inhabitants scattered in the jungles now comprising Ishan as evidence by our own Ishan (Esan) folks lores featured Ogiso – the common name for Bini rulers before the advent of the great Oranmiyan.”

It would appear pertinent to emphasize the point that Esan people did not suddenly into existence during the reign of Oba Ewuare. People has existed in the Esan geographical area and these people had a knowledge of themselves according to Esan extant traditions. When the exodus occurred, Bini immigrants fled or moved to various places in what Edo land and therefore the eventual settlement of these Bini immigrants was not peculiar to Esan. It is argued, that naturally people hardly migrate to places unknown, the Bini immigrants went to settle where they had previous contacts with. Furthermore, migrants would move to places where they hoped to have security and accommodation. In other words, there were contacts and intersections between Bini and Esan before the exodus of the 15th century. ‘Esan-fua’ does not explain the origin of Esan. It’s doubtless therefore, that Esan-fua as a term was a concocted expression often told as jokes against neighbours. Alagoa describe such a tradition as a “stereotype of abuse.”

Although the Ewuare version of Esan origin may mean the origin of organized political institutions in the area and the phase of radical societal restruc-turing due largely to increased migrants from Benin into the area it would not be appropriate to see it in terms of the origin per se  of all that is the Esan entity. This view is more pronounced since some communities owe their origin to areas other than Benin. One of such communities is Irrua which according to tradition was the earliest kingdom founder in Esan by a warriors from Ifeku, an island near Idah. Butcher in the same vein claims of Irrua origin that some sections of the community migrated from places like Uke near Benin and Abgede in Etsako while Otouruwa inhabitants are said to have migrated from Uhe near Ife at about the same time that Bini people migrated from the region. Like Bradbury in his Bini Studies. Butcher contents that Esan is of heterogenous origin. Although this view complements the migration theory, an archaeological dimension to these contentions make them more plausible than the oral traditions of the Irrua.

Recently, archaeological evidence from the Ekpoma part of Esan have revealed that people lived  in organized politics in the area from about half a millennium years ago. According to Peter Darling, these people who were engage in the taste of massive earth constructions known as the Iyala were the inhabitants of a mini – kingdom at the time.

In his words “The men once engaged in this gargantuan task were most probably, the ancestors of the present day Bini and Esan (Ishan) speakers still living in the area.”

Apart from this evidence from Darling, Emessiri and Webster have shown that despite the similarities in Bini and Esan languages, their common words and intonation were derived from a common Kwa stock. Ordinarily, there exist over forty percent differences in both languages especially in technical terms. These technical terms include words of invisible objects which learners of a new language can hardly use. They include the word bone which is Ugboloko in Bini while in Esan it is known as Ugue. Also blood in Bini is esagien while in Esan it is called arhanlen.  On the other hand words for common visible objects are identical. Again, a third category of words derived from the period of European contact to the present day reveal identical names.

These include fruit names like pine-apple, pawpaw, banana, plantain etc. the use lexical changes from Esan to Bini has been put at about forty per cent, phonological changes also forty per cent while the percentage of Bini derived words has been suggested to be about eighty percent consequently, out of the a total of sixty words percentages of similarities and differences of Esan from Bin language been pure as below:

Differences                           19 = 32%
Similarities                          20 = 33%
Phonological Changes       21 = 35%
Loan words from Bini       41 = 8=68%

The language of Esan is the only linguistic pattern employed by the people as a group. It serves as a generic name for the distinct varieties spoken in the numerous chiefdoms spreading over the present Agbazilo, (now Esan North East and Esan South). Okpegbho, (Now Esan Central, and Esan West), Etsako, and Akoko –Edo Areas. Esan manifest the closet linguistic similarity to the Bini language in terms of the lexical terms used but the intonation in Esan and the over forty percent differences in technical items demonstrates the survival of the aboriginal Esan linguistic pattern.

Also deserving attention in the quest for the study of Esan origin is the aspect of totems. A lot of differences exist between Benin and Esan totemic practices. Fundamental variations in totemic practices indicate some form of differences in the cultural develop – ment of the Esan and Bini people. Among the major totem. This is particularly interesting because the alligator is not a common animal in Esan as the land does not possess any particular large of water. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that among the Bini people, the alligator is not a totem. The contention therefore is that the alligator totem probably reflects the pre-15th century origin of that part of Esan when cross migration from as far as the swamps forest of the Niger Delta must have occurred. This suggestions accentuated by the fact that among the Orogun people of the Niger Delta, the alligator is the major totem. Also, the long tailed bird (Ogbemensukpe) meaning “whoever kills me would not last for a year” us a major totem peculiar only to the Esan people among the diverse Edo speaking group of people.

It’s from this point that any meaningful quest for Esan origin must begin from the aboriginal settlers of the region. This is possible through archaeological surveys in the area. Although systematic archaeological surveys for Stone Age habitations are yet to be carried out in Esan like the one done R.C. Soper in Northern Nigeria, there is the strong evidence that Hoeing up the earth for seasonal planting of crops sometimes revealed polished stone tools knowns as Udo-avan.  Because of their antiquity, traditions and stories hold that they fell from the sky during thunder storms since logically no rocks exist in such areas. Rather, Stone Age men and users had been known to carry their stone tools to areas of need and consequently caused a dispersal of such stones tools. But oral tradition would not remember this. There is therefore the growing belief that the Bini had crossed the Esan geographical area during migration from the Savannah down south into the forest region. This view is further enhanced by the fact the founder and first Onojie of Udo, an ancient Benin town was said even in Udo traditions to have been Esan migrant.

Udo was an earlier Kingdom to Benin. Furthermore the analysis made on the cultures of the Guinea Coast area and the Congo Basin by famous ethnographers like Herskovits, Ankermann and Trobenus is of vital importance. Their submission on the direction of culture dissemination not only tallied with Professor Greenberg’s study of Bantu migrations, but also indicates the possibilities of an ancient Benin empire springing out of Esan region. Large migrations I n the opposite direction (from Benin to Esanland) only occurred in the 15th  century when as result of the prevailing conditions at the time in Benin, certain groups of people had cause to retrace their foot- steps back in the direction from where their ancestors and forbears came. To this extent, the aboriginal Esan never referred to themselves as the Esan people. It was not until 1463 when under Oba Ewuare that the word (Esan) came to be increasingly applied to the Kingdoms and their people North East of Benin City.

The Edo language group to which the Esan and Bini languages belong like their Igbo and Yoruba languages also belong to the Kwa language family which in turn was a part of the larger Niger – Congo stock. The Nigeria Congo group of languages according to language experts commenced its process of separation about 4,500 years ago, the same time Esan Origin in the second or third centuries B.C. P.J. Darling archaeological work in Esan lends credence to this view. It tallies with the dispersal and separation of the Nigeria – Congo language belt form north to south from the central Nigeria language and moved straight on South-wards and Eastward into the Congo basin, and from there fanned out. Thus it was not a migration from the South to the North or North –East as implied in the existing tradit-ions on Esan origin.

Of necessity, a prelude towards a plausible study of Esan origin must embrace both the various migration theories and the aboriginal factor. Each available evidence and document must be meticulously weighed on its merit. Popular traditions which propound the Ewuare version, rather than being considered in isolation but also by totemic practices and general cultural peculiarities of the Esan people. Above all, archaeology must be an asset. To rigidly peg the origin of Esanland on the 15th century mass migration from Benin would be too simplistic. The 15th century migrations and the conference of appeasement between Oba Ewuare and the various Esan representatives which followed can best be put I n its proper perspective if seen as a turning point in the evolution of the Esan polity when chiefdoms built around Enigie as they now exist began to emerge. This marked the beginning of the prevent socio-political system in Esan, father than it’s entire origin.

Department of History. 
Edo State University Ekpoma, Nigeria.