Carol Ann Lorenz

The oral histories of both Esan and Benin state that soon after the creation of the Onojie title, several Esan kingdoms struggled to assert their complete independence from Benin. For example, late-fifteenth century Oba Ozolua waged battles against the rebellious Ekpoma, Uromi and Uzea, which left their Enijie and Ozolua himself dead (Egharevba 1968: 25; Okojie (1960): 163, 222-4; Bradbury R3/no.7 and R6/no.1). The defensive deepening of the iyala earthworks

on the Esan Plateau may date from this period. At various times throughout Esan history, up to the reign of Oba Ovoranmwen in the late-nineteenth century, the relations between Esan and Benin were characterized by intermittent rebellion (isote).

Esan resistance often took the form of refusal to Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission provides annual tribute to Benin, but it also manifested itself in the support various Esan groups gave to contenders for the title of Oba of Benin. For example, Ewohimi, abetted by additional Esan kingdoms (Hawkesworth 1932: 6) gave Erediauwa sanctuary during his succession battle against his brother, in which he emerged victorious and took the throne as Oba Osemwede around 1816 (Egharevba 1968:43; Okojie [1960]: 286). Similarly, Ogbewekon, a contender to the throne during the reign of Oba Adolo, sought refuge in the Esan kingdom of Igueben, his mother's birthplace, and instigated the Amahor War (1853) and other Esan uprisings which disturbed Benin for almost thirty years (Egharevba 1968: 46; Okojie (1960): 303, 311).

The relationship between Esan kingdoms and Benin varied according to the personalities and ambitions of the Oba’s and Enijie in any given period. While some Esan leaders used succession strife in Benin or any other opportunity to rebel, others remained loyal to the Oba (e.g., Butcher 1935d: 6-7). An Esan kingdom which fought bitterly against Benin under one Onojie might send warriors to fight on behalf of Benin during the reign of another.

For example, many Esan groups, including erstwhile rebels, distinguished themselves fighting for Benin during the Akure War in the reign of Osemwede, who granted them certain heritable rights and privileges because of this service

(Egharevba 1968: 44 re: Uromi; Okojie [1960]: 303 re: Ebelle; Hawkesworth 1932: 4-5 re: Irrua; Chief Oyi Ordan, Odio. nwele of Idasun, Ugboha, 17 July 1980 re: Ugboha; Okojie [1960]: 310 re: Amahor; H.H. s. U. Enosegbe II re: Ewohimi).

Esan kingdoms also fought for Benin against Ubulu-Uku in Ika Igbo territory (Butcher 1935e: 11; Okojie [1960]: 177-8) and against Lagos (Hawkesworth 1932:5).

In establishing their autonomy and authority, Esan kingdoms also fought among themselves. Irrua is said to have been particularly warlike, fighting Uromi incessantly and waging campaigns against Ekpoma, Ugbegun, Opoji and other Esan kingdoms (Hawkesworth 1932: 6; Okojie [1960]: 174-5, 215-6). Other large and powerful kingdoms, including Ewohimi, Uromi, and Ubiaja engaged in regular warfare with their neighbours, while smaller kingdoms defended themselves against larger power-seeking kingdoms, or battled among themselves (e.g. Butcher 1932: 9; 1935: 4; Okojie [1960]: 216, 256, 260, 274, 303).

Warfare, or the avoidance of it, caused the displacement of large numbers of Esan people. One Esan kingdom (Ezen) was exterminated by Benin during the midnineteenth century Amahor War; the homeless remnants of Ezen settled in Amahor and Ugun or moved to Ika Igbo territory (Okojie [1960]: 308, 317, 330). Wars between Esan groups sometimes caused the migration of an entire kingdom; warfare forced Ogwa to move in the 17th century, and Ujiogba and

Ohordua relocated in the early nineteenth century as a result of two additional wars (Okojie (1960): 274, 314). At other times, people scattered or fled to other kingdoms; for example, most of the population of the royal quarter of Opoji retreated into thick bush because of the expansionist efforts of Irrua in the 16th century, while war refugees from Ugbegun, Ogwa and Opoji sought refuge in Uromi and Okhuesan (Okojie (1960):174-5, 215, 270). Sometimes people fled from the indiscriminate warlike tendencies of their own Enijie; for example, the population of Irrua was displaced under the reigns of Ogbeide the Terrible and Eromosele the Great in the nineteenth century (Okojie [1960]: 193-8).

Although Esan kingdoms often fought among themselves, they sometimes also joined together to repel common enemies. In some cases cooperation between Esan kingdoms was engendered by the responsibilities of consanguinity between the ruling houses, which forbade fighting while obligating mutual defense.

Unrelated Esan kingdoms could establish non-aggression pacts (okoyen), which were reinforced by strong boundary medicines with the power to kill anyone who

broke the peace (Butcher 1935e: 7). Intermarriages could also cement peaceful relationships between Esan kingdoms (Okojie [1960]: 74). Self-preservation was the simple reason for an alliance between Uromi and Ekpoma in resisting Oba Ozolua (Okojie [1960]: 75) in the sixteenth century, and the same groups coming to aid Oba Osemwede against Akure in the nineteenth century. The proximity of this Yoruba group to their own borders may be part of the reason that Esan Enijie were so eager to assist Osemwede in this undertaking.

Also in the nineteenth century, northern Esan kingdoms fell prey to Nupe raids (Jull 1932a: 4; 1932b: 11) and, while at least one Onojie employed Nupes as mercenaries against his Esan enemies (Okojie [1960]: 202), others fought against them with varying degrees of success. An alliance between Esan and the Ika Igbos was forged for mutual resistance to Nupe invaders (Ijoma 1986: 9-10). Esan kingdoms also banded together briefly to resist the invasion of the British, but soon accepted their domination as inevitable.

Carol Ann Lorenz

Associate Professor Of Native American Studies; 
Director, Native American Studies Program
Sociology & Anthropology


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