By A.I. Okoduwa


This chapter  examine the role of agriculture in and its contribution towards meeting basic human needs for food, shelter, employment etc., in pre-colonial Esan. It will also examine if the people participated in and benefited from the process of the growth which is characteristic of all human societies.
For over a thousand years before the 15th century, the organization for food had become a major pre-occupation of the ancestors of presents Esan. Ralph Beal’s has argued that “the production of sufficient food to permit the survival and reproduction of its membership” was a minimal requirement of any society. This factor became the propelling force towards the evolution of an agriculture base in the Esan region. Consequently, agricultural activities became a form of production in which all hands were required either in the planting, tending or harvesting processes. To this end, the men, women and children all members of the society had their respective roles to play in the production within the primary framework of satisfying human needs.


Pre-colonial Esan society depended on agricultural as a suitable foundation on which other economic pursuits were based. Agriculture is defined as the ‘purposeful’ tending of crops and animals, an attempt at transforming the natural environment through a process of exploiting the available resources.

Esan agriculture is so ancient that is usually associated with the beginning of the world God, Osanobua, decided to stay with those he had created and provided them with pounded yam Ema. God had warned them, not to take and keep more food than they wanted for a meal. After the people had shown that they were matured enough to look after themselves when they began to take more than they would need for a day’s meal from the pounded yam, their greed corrupted the society and God moved moved into the higher heavens. Thereafter, every member of the society was left to cultivate what he needed. The early settlers of the Esan plateau thus came under the impact of an early agricultural phase with consequences which gave it this pride of place in the history of Edo State as a major yam producing area.

The primary development in agriculture came from local initiative stimulated by a desire to live a settled life in a ‘suitable’ environment. Although it is not possible to rule out external lessons from outside Africa for development in tropical forest region from about the 15th century, the primary agricultural development rested mainly on indigenous enterprise.

The transition from incipient cultivation of crops into a full scale agricultural practice among the Esan cannot be dated because of its historical antiquity. However, at about 1000 AD when large Iyala or massive earth construction were dug in the area as revealed by Pater Darling, organized farming had develop to a stage where enough food was produced to support the people were engaged in the gargantuan task of earth tillage. Moreover, such Iyala had “enclosed predominantly rural settlements and were constructed so that the spoil dug from the ditch was dump on the inside to form a bank with its steeper and most impressive slope facing outwards. By the 15th century, Esan agriculture became an established institution organized on culturally accepted principles to provide for the food crops and animal needs of the people.

Pre – colonial Esan agriculture was a dynamic institution with developments which reflected the times. Esan falls into the Guinea forest zone which Afigbo believe had three major stages of crops evolution and development.  The first of these stages marked a period of local initiative which stimulated the cultivation and adaptation of yam, palm trees, cotton and various fruit trees indigenous to the tropical forest. Thus this period marked the cultivation of three species of yam in the Esan region. The white yam was known as Ori and Asukhu while the yellow yam is Ikpein. The antiquity of yam as staple crop of the Esan gave yam in the region the status of ‘King of crops’. Other innovation of the period includes the cow pea (Ikpakpa) and pepper (Asin).
Apepper (Asin).
The second stage in this development was then certain crops regarded as the “South East Asian crop complex” were introduced into the forest region of West Africa. Among these were the water yam, Obhie, water leaf, Okuokuo, cocoyam, Emebo, and banana, Ijemeca.  The introduction of these crops into Esan followed the wake of immigrants from Benin as recorded in the linguistic traditions; for example, water leaf Okuokuo was describe  as the leaf that came through the wind from Benin – Eba nah oho rere bhi Edo. The diversification of crops with the new crops served to supplement an already existing agricultural accomplishment in yam production.

The third stage was when European trade and commerce linked to West Africa economy with the Americas during the period of the Atlantic Slave Trade. “Cassava, groundnuts, maize and tomatoes were brought to West Africa from South America by the Portuguese four centuries ago”. Various fruits including the paw-paw, mango, cocoa, rubber, pumpkin, cocoyam, cassava, pineapple edin-ebo, potatoes etc were introduced into Esan agriculture by the late 19th century. The relatively recent origin of some these crops in the agricultural economy of the people could be attested to by the absence of indigenous names for them.

By the end of the 19th century, Esan was agriculturally rich and most of the major crops found in the region today could be produced. It was in this vein that Okojie in 1960 stressed that “Ishan is an agricultural country, everybody, man or woman being simple farmers whose main food crops are yams, corn or maize, cocoyam, cassava and beans of various types, pepper, groundnuts, melons, bananas with plantains (are subsidiary crops) usually planted by the woman in the agriculture emerge as the “staff of life” for the pre-colonial people of Esan.

Land is a key item in any economic system. The availability of suitable farm land was a crucial factor in the development of agriculture in pre-colonial Esan. Much respect was attracted to its holding and usage in the economy. No use of land was made without the offer of a sacrifice or an obligation to the earth goddess since land belonged to a vast family made up of the ancestors, living members, and members of yet unborn. The earth shrines were served by a priest who held his position by virtue of being the descendant of the leader of the first or earliest settlers in the land. The land priests accepted consultations from all members of the community before any land was brought under cultivation. Such priests were visited yearly with various presents including goats and palm wine before the beginning of the planting and harvest seasons’. Since such visitors to the earth shrine were representatives of the various clans and villages in the chiefdoms, farmland in pre-colonial Esan was communally owned. This system of communal ownership of land began right from the time a choice of land for the farming season had to be made. According to Okojie, “Land in Ishan was strictly communal and held in trust by the Onojie for his people.” To this end, individual acquisition and private ownership were frowned at and discouraged in the society. Thus, every agricultural season witnessed a complex process of selecting suitable farmlands by the people.

A very crucial determinant in the choice of land for farming was the fertility of the soil. This was easily detected by the farmers through the vegetation presentations in the area under consideration. Areas of high and tall tress though tedious to clear were usually preferred to areas with grasses which mostly harboured the termites and plant worms

Wet or moist soils were also avoided because they were consolidated unsuitable for agriculture. Such soils were believed to be the dwelling places of evil spirits that must be avoided “if one’s crops would do well.” It was in view of this culture of Esan people who usually avoided moist soils for farming that Peter Darling emphasised that “the sites generally lie far from sources of water supply and necessitate labourious descents and ascents for women and children collecting water. Generally, moist soils were considered as unhealthy for both the crops and farmers. Such soils provided the ideal habitat for the yams spirochete (Traponema pertenue) carried by the eye gnat (Hippotetes pallipes) and the swampy flood plains which provided a wide range of suitable habitat for Aedes, Culex and Anopheles species of mosquito, which were the main vectors of yellow fever, Dengue fever, malaria, filariasis and elephantiasis.

Communal labour refers to a system whereby all the able-bodies adult male members of the community were organized to clear a parcel of the virgin forest for farming. Once cleared and burnt, such lands were communally held by the members of the village. Nobody, not even the Onojie, could sell or buy a communal land. The amount of land acquired by individual families for farming depended on the amount of labour put during initial work of clearing and burning the bush; hence, the wealth of a man as determined by the number of wives and children he had as helping hands. It was the Oweles right as the most experience and highest yam producer in the village to see to the good conduct of affairs in the communal farms. An average farmer acquired from two to three plots of land for a farm year and sometimes it was less. An individual depended on the amount of seed yam he possessed. Thus, one could say that average farmland an individual possessed in pre-colonial Esan was between two plots on the minimum and four on the maximum. Only the Owele sometimes acquired up to four plots of the farmland. Any member of the community who arrived at this relative peak was recognised as an Owele and informal position or status within the various chiefdoms.

Apart from the communal land, individual could lay claim to land. Individual ownership of land depended on the ability to clear a part of the virgin forest for farming or building. However, the concepts of ‘ownership’ of land implied that an individual could use the land as he thought fit. Such use of land was guided by the will of gods or, the all pervading spirit of the ancestors whose wishes were interpreted through the priest of the earth goddess. Nevertheless, actual occupation of land by individual, once permitted was usually regarded as conferring rights of continued use. Therefore, anyone who deforested a parcel of land had a right to that land. This was expressed locally as ‘Ono gbe egbe ole yanlen egbo’. The piece of land thus acquired became a family property and could not be sold but passed from father to the first son over generations. People were allowed to mark out such lands which they cultivated over the years. The society also sanctioned the system of land lease to desiring individuals. Such lands reverted to the primary owners after a given period of time.

The system of land tenure in pre-colonial Esan led to a significant private enterprise development whereby different rights were exercised over the same piece of land. The right to plant crops might be held by a certain family, in the manner described above. The right to pasture goats or cattle on the same land might be held by all members of the much larger extended family known as the Uenlen. The rights to pick the fruit of tress might belong to an individual, while rights to hunt and to gather snails might belong to a wider group. The Onojie of the chiefdom could also claim any particular land as a right especially when such an area was to be used for the benefit of the very member in the community. For example, the original settlers of the present Uromi Chiefdom market site were asked by the Onojie Okolo of Uromi to evacuate the area for the purpose of siting a market there. The Onojie’s exclusive right over land redistribution was not exercised in isolation by him.  He had to confer with his chiefs and priest of the earth shrine whose approval was necessary before an executive of any land policy. Thus the Onojie as the supreme ruler only held the land in trust for his subject.

Strangers could also be granted land on which to farm provided they obtain permission from the chiefs and their behaviour conformed with the established norms and values within the society. Such values within the society included the regular payment of tributes or presents to the priest and the Onojie. Permission was also given to strangers to obtain land for residential purposes but the moment such an occupant vacated the land with his kins either on his own volition or at the request of the community, the land automatically reverted to the elder as the custodians of such lands.

Apart from the communal farmland, every family head possessed a parcel of land behind his home. Until such lands were distributed to the growing male children of the family wherein they built their respective compounds) they remained as gardens which served as supplements to the products from the main farm. The family head with some assistance from his senior wife planted various crops in the garden at the beginning of every planting season.

Furthermore, every village had their respective burial ground usually located at the end of the central meeting place known as the Okoghele. This area was also seen as a communal property set aside for the burial of the young members of the family. On the other hand, corpses of the elders were usually buried in front of their homes. The communal burial ground was regarded as a nonfarm-land and any attempt at violating this rule attracted serious penalties.

As the land was communal so also were the trees which nature planted on it. Thus, such times like the palm and various fruit trees where communal owned.  Trees like kolanut, pear and coco-nut planted by individuals were regarded as personal property inherited by a next of kin after the death of the owner.

With an acceptable land policy sanctioned by traditions, there were hardly disputes over land in pre-colonial Esan. In cases of any land disputes between two persons, the elders of the village looked into such and affected settlement. If it involved two villages, the Onojie (king) was then to settle the matter. This policy was adopted in order to avert war over land. Land boundary between two villages was usually demarcated by planting an ‘Ukhimin tree’ (Newbouldia laevis) at the boundary by the elders of both villages. Such boundaries marked the terminal point of expansion by both villages. Although Okojie attributed the rarity of land disputes to the coolheadedness of Ishans  as a race or due to the vastness of the land,” he also agreed that “villages in the olden days, wanting to live in peace with their neighbours” usually took an oath at the ALUOKOVEN, usually marked with UKHIMIN TREE” which formed the boundary between the villages.  And disputes between individual members of a village were also settled at the foot of this tree. Okojie further emphasised that it was “the Okoven system which “kept people honest and they rarely even bore false witness against one another.” Since this system was a belief in brotherhood and common descent from the same ancestors, land disputes were uncommon in the pre-colonial period. Moreover, the need to buy land could hardly arise so long as there was plenty of forest land available for the growing population. Consequently, this overall picture of the land tenure system in Esan persisted up to the advent of the Europeans and their Western influences.


“The year in Ishan was divided into Ninety-one and a half FARMING WEEKS consisting of four working days and divided and one day rest, every FIFTH DAY. . . The year was again divided into nameless moons which were tagged with farming stages such as moon for bush clearing, moon for yams, and moon for eating fresh Corn etc.” Although brushing and burning of bush had to be completed before the arrival of dark clouds, in the sky – a sign for the beginning of the new season, the first heavy rains Amukpe was regarded as the commencement of a farming season.  The significance of the first heavy rains Amukpe and the beginning of the new agricultural year was usually a joy to the family head. He would then make a new image of his late father and offer sacrifices to the ancestors at the ‘Alluelimin’ shrine. This was usually a private shrine possessed by every family head where members of the family could offer their prayers to their ancestors. At this period also, the Ilu-Oto or earth worship and purification was conducted by the most successful planting season. Materials for such purification varied from one chiefdom to another and from year to year. In Ekpoma it was the Ihumidumu while Akho was responsible for the earth purification exercise in Irrua, Ehanlen-Oniha in Ewu, Egbele and Unuwazi in Uromi, Idumabu in Egboha, Idumu-Oshodin in Ubiaja etc. Thereafter planting season began. Agriculture was ritualized.

Consultation were also held with the women who at the early stages of the season were expected to remain at home and look after the young and the old members of the community. The women were advised to keep peace within the family and maintain friendly relations with other members of the community while the men were away to prepare the land for cropping.

The future yield of crops in the farm as determine by the healthy looking nature of the young plants was believed to be dependent on the acceptance or rejection of the sacrifices that had been offered to the gods and ancestors. On the other hand, when crops failed due to insufficient rainfall or locust invasion the purity of the Onojie and the Earth-Shrine priest as the intermediaries between the people and the gods was questioned. To avoid such incidents in the Kingdoms, the Equare usually had herbalists and rain makers who ensured that all was well or else shifted blames for failure from an Onojie to his people.

Since farmlands were usually located some several kilometres away from the villages, every male was expected to remain in the farm for about three farming weeks until the task of preparing the yam mounds was complete. A review of Esan planting methods in the early 1920s revealed that yams were still planted in small heaps of earth made by hoeing up the surrounding soil. Such mounds of earth were made from the top soils while digging to a depth of more than six inches was avoided. Each plot of land contained about 400 heaps which were specifically reserved for the yam needling. Once the making of earth mounds was completed the men usually went back to the village to wait for more rains before actual planting could begin. A week or two intervals was given to this before the final decision to plant was taken and the women with their children did the job of transporting crops to be planted in the farm, while the men and the older boys remained to sow the yam seeds. Usually, this process of sowing the yam seed took an individual about a week of four working days per plot. The plants were grown about two yard apart and with about 1,600 plants to acre, approximately yield per acre was about 5 and half tons.

Corn, another male crop was also planted immediately after the sowing of the yam seeds. Corn was planted between the yams heaps, three to four grains being put into the ground close together. The weight of corn of the cob from each plant came to about 11b. Taking 1,600 plants to the acre the yield would be 14, cwt. There were two crops corn and every year, so the average yield per acre came to about one and half tons.

The male task in the planting process would be over once the planting of corn was completed. While a few weeks were given for the young plants to come out of the soil before the women began their planting, the women utilized this short period of rest to transport their crops to the farm. Thus the remaining work of planting was done by the women who planted mainly vegetable crops. In Uromi chiefdom, the women began their planting with cotton seeds. Cotton like corn was planted between yams heaps and grew to maturity when the corn had been harvested. Other crops planted by the women include melon Ogi, pepper Asin and beans Ikpakpa.  Root crops like the cocoyam which was farmland, usually located in the garden or home farm. Various gourds for carrying water, palm-wine and other storage purposes were also planted by the women. Although many of these crops played significant roles in the day to day living of pre-colonial Esan people they were nonetheless regarded as ‘subsidiary’ crops.

After the planting was generally completed by the month of April, the women once more lelt the farm for their husband and other male members of the family who began the work of  tendering the young plants till they were mature and ready for harvesting. This proceeds involved the removal of growing weeds from the farm. It was a tedious aspect of the work following a gradual process of scraping the earth surface with the hoes. Such hoes were balanced, in between the expanded legs of the male who then went about the farm scratching the topsoil spaces between the various crops. In this process much of the weed was removed from the crop plants. Since the process was slow and tedious, this task in the farm was usually seen as continuous one. Every male child assisted in the weeding process while the women collected firewood. Also the women provided meals for the families in the farm. At the end of the day everyone went back home usually before sun-rise and end like the previous day’s until the month of July and early August when corn cobs were removed from their stalks  and new yams harvested. The process of transporting produce from the farms through head potterage was all women and children affair like it was during the period of planting. The men normally would be engaged in the task of removing all the crops from the soil. Yam heads were replanted after the removal of the tenders and by October, they matured into yam seeds which were used in the following year’s planting.

Since storage was as important as the production, pre-colonial Esan developed efficient methods of storing and preserving their produce. They stored their yam in barns in dry but cool areas within the family compound. The women dried their melon and bean seeds in the sun before packing them into various gourds that had been prepared for the purpose.  It was this storage had been completed that each family head could be content over the year’s labour. Thereafter, by the end of the first week of December, the ancestral worship ceremonies for ending the year began in Ekpoma.

In most of the pre-colonial Esan Chiefdoms the Ihunlan or the new yam festival usually began in late October, and early November each year. The period was marked with the symbolic eating of the first pounded yam and drinking of palm-wine by the elders while the youths went about entertaining people with various dances. The occasion was marked each year with many festivities unless there was a year of drought or locus invasion which resulted in famine. Otherwise, “After harvesting yams usually between August and October, there were little farming activities and then began a long period of relaxation . . .  this time of the year was the time ‘meetings’ and the few agitation that occur in Ishan.” By the time these feasts were over in late December, the men would again engage themselves in the preparation and choice of farmland for the next season. Thus according to professor Igbafe,
The agricultural year often took the same pattern. Clearing of yam plots, felling of trees and burning of the clearings usually fell within the dry season months of December to February. Hoeing commenced in March and April with early rains and was usually complete in May.

It could be said that pre-colonial Esan agriculture which develop from the interaction of the human and material resources in the region satisfy the basic desire for food by the people. Despite the similar patterns of each agriculture year, it was efficient. Far from being static institution agriculture develop to meet the demands of an ever growing population in Esan and the people in turn provided their population in Esan and the people in turn provided their labour through a system of division by age and sex for the planting, tending and harvesting process. Thus, in agriculture, every able member of the pre-colonial Esan society was gainfully employed and agriculture satisfies basic human needs.

Source:Department of History, Edo State University, Ekpoma