Esan Cotton Economy and the Case for an EPZ and Inland Port in Esanland

Britain V. Esan War;

Esan Cotton Economy and the Case for an EPZ and Inland Port in Esanland.

By Anthony Okosun 

This article would appear to be a multi barrelled piece. Here we shall be looking at the Britain V. Esan war of 1901, the very profitable Esan cotton economy which helped Esan Kings build very formidable and well-equipped armies and the way forward. The way forward would usher us to the imperative for the development of an Export Processing Zone and an Inland Port in Illushi, Esanland. This piece would have been broken up into several articles with each article dedicated to the discussion of the several distinct subject matters that constitute this article; however, the various distinct subject matters combine to constitute a continuum of inter-related subject matters. The very well historically documented ultra-profitable Esan cotton economy and the Esan textile industries constituted the great prize, over which legendary wars were fought.

The Benin verse Uromi war of 1499-1506 was fought over the control of the Esan cotton economy. Uromi as the flagship of the Esan international cotton trade under the leadership of King Agba refused to surrender the legendary and very profitable Uromi cotton and textile trade with the Europeans and the Arabs to King Ozolua of Benin. King Agba was the son of King Ijesan who was the first son of Oba Ewuare birthed by a Portuguese woman, and relocated to Uromi by the Bini monarchy to reign as King; at a time, the Binis were not ready for a half European and half Bini King. In Chief Anthony Enahoro’s book, THE FUGITIVE OFFENDER, the Portuguese wife and son of an Ogiso that were relocated to Uromi, were mentioned. However, accurate historical calibration has identified the period as the era of Oba Ewuare.

Beside the desire of the British government to ensure the total annihilation of the Edo war machine, the very massive and celebrated Esan cotton economy would appear to be another very instrumental factor in the decision of Britain to move the British war machine to Esanland and specifically lay a siege on Uromi from where they sought to demilitarize all Esan Edo towns especially Uromi and Uzea. Now, we will first examine the British war efforts in Esanland and thereafter examine the desire of the British government to tap into and derive benefits from the Esan cotton economy, as a veritable source of cotton supply to the British textile industry.

“After the fall of the administrative headquarters of the ancient Edo Empire, Benin City, the British authorities initially thought that the Edo Empire, which they had erroneously limited to Bini Kingdom, had been effectively put under control. Based on the erroneous assumption that the fall of Benin automatically translate to the fall of the already waning Edo Empire; Britain attempted to enforce its dominion over Edo land. The British authorities quickly realized that until and unless Esan land was demilitarized, the fall of Benin would not translate to a conquest of the Edo Empire. Yes, at the time Benin fell, the Edo Empire was already in her twilight years. The glory days of the zenith of Edo Empire’s military might were in the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Intelligence gathered by the British authorities convinced the Brits that Uromi and Uzea towns were the two major military forts in Esan land that must be taken down, to effectively bring Esanland under control. In an effort to take down Uromi and Uzea, the British Empire authorities sent a contingent of army officers from England and Canada and infantrymen from Northern Nigeria to war against Esanland especially Uromi and Uzea in 1901. The leader of the British war party to Uromi was Captain Honecker, later known as General Honecker. 

There were evidently many reasons while the Britain determined that it was imperative and incumbent on the British imperial army to demilitarize Uromi and Uzea, which by the calculation of the British means the demilitarization of the Esans. One thing is clear, the British military encroachment on Uromi, confirms that Uromi was recognized by the British intelligence authorities as an integral and fundamental military bedrock of the Edo imperial war machine. The British authorities figured out that with Uromi, Uzea and Igarra which was also attacked; left heavily militarized, the Benin leadership could regroup.” 

In an excerpt from a Book written by the leader of British military expedition to Esanland General Honecker, entitled BUSH WARFARE: THE EARLY WRITINGS OF GENERAL SIR WILLIAM C.G. HENECKER KCMG DSO, the Canadian trained, British army officer wrote about his experience vis a vis rendering the British perspective of the latter’s war campaign in Esan-land. Pertinent portions of General Honecker’s account are reproduced hereunder. Appropriate analysis of the British General’s account shall follow the reproduction of the accounts:

“….. Ulia and Ishan Expeditions (1 March–23 May 1901) Heneker commanded operations at Ishan and Ulia lasting from 1 March to 23 May 1901, witnessing several severe engagements. Heneker’s force of 223 officers and men were in constant contact with the enemy from 9 March to 8 May, suffering 42 casualties including three soldiers killed.”……“Ishan reconnaissance: Before the Ishan Expedition, which operated on the Eastern border of the Benin country, a reconnaissance was being conducted. At a certain town, by name Irua, the chief of which was called Ogirua, it was rumoured that the approach to the Ishan town of Ulia was strongly guarded and intrenched; it was decided to reconnoiter the road as far as possible” 

……… “The Ishan people had evidently been watching the two previous expeditions in the Benin country with anxiety, and decided that stratagem and cunning were the factors which would aid them in their struggle against the conquerors of Benin City. 

Their tactics were interesting. The Ishan territories were divided into two parts, the town of (Uzea), was the head town of the northern section, that of Uremia (Uromi) the stronghold of the southern people. Each district was populous, and the natives determined. The southern one was entered first, and the towns on the way to Uromi were found almost deserted, no opposition being met with. In every place one or two people remained to say that the inhabitants did not want to fight, but were anxious to be friends with the white man; also that the King of the country was anxious to be friendly, but that he was a very old man, “even too old to travel in a hammock, so if the white man would only go to Uromi matters could be settled.”

“After endless negotiations the force marched to Uromi and encamped. It is, needless to state that every precaution had been observed in the various camps, and especially in this one in the chief town, to guard against surprise, and not without reason. The King could not be seen on arrival, and the people said that word would be sent to him that the white man had arrived. Then without warning the country rose, fiercely attacked two detachments, which were visiting outlying towns, and these had to fight their way back to Uromi. The chief of a neighbouring country, with a retinue, on his way to pay his respects, was waylaid, some of his people killed, and he arrived with a few followers in camp more dead than alive, having crawled through the bush. Another party from another country were massacred, only one man escaping, and he appeared in the camp badly wounded, and related how he had escaped also by hiding in the bush. For a fortnight communication were cut with Benin City, and grave fears for the safety of the expedition were entertained. Perpetual fighting night and day ensued. The whole nation was encamped in the towns round, and their incessant tom-tomming at night showed that orgies and dancing were in progress, celebrating the holding up of the white man.

From the above we have the direct words of Britain’s General Henecker that King Okolo of Uromi refused to directly receive the British soldiers when the British army moved down to Uromi and laid a siege on Uromi. The refusal of King Okolo not to welcome the British army to Uromi is understandable, when viewed against the preceding events of the British sacking of Benin and the exiling of King Ovonramwen to Calabar.”

It is interesting to observe from General Henecker’s writing that despite the fall of Benin to the British army, Uromi and Uzea still refused to recognize the might and or superiority of the Whiteman. It would appear that Uromi’s strategy was the deployment of the element of surprise. Whereas, the Uromi armed forces gave the British military the impression that the Uromi army was indifferent to the British military presence in Esanland, and this attitude relaxed and distracted the British army officers; the Uromi army would suddenly, massively and very viciously attack the British invaders and the armies of the Esan towns that sought to surrender to the Whiteman.

General Henecker further stated: “The enemy was most determined, and nearly every place was vigorously defended…. Finally, ……the principal men ……were held as hostages for the good behaviour of the people”.

What General Henecker is actually saying above, is that Uromi leaders who were invited for peace meeting with British military officers were kidnapped by the British military and used as a bargaining equity to demand for the cessation of further hostilities by the Uromi army.

More from General Henecker: “While the force prepared to enter the northern district, the inhabitants of which, . .  breathed defiance, and daily sent insulting messages daring the white man to advance into their country. The change now in the tactics was most marked. A thick belt of bush some four miles wide, without a town or village in it, separated the two districts. What possessed the Ulia people to change their tactics did not transpire but change they did. Instead of a cunning policy, the opposite course was resorted to, and the whole country turned out into this piece of bush to defend their stronghold. No sooner was the thick bush entered and the boundary line between the two districts crossed, than scouts and flankers were thrown out and almost immediately found the enemy.” 

“No stockades or entrenchments had been made, and the enemy fought as their countrymen did on the Ologbo Road, they attacked incessantly front, flanks and rear. A very slow but steady advance was kept up, and whenever the pressure became very severe at a point, a section or so charged into the bush and dislodged the enemy; they were never allowed to go far, 100 yards was quite enough, the enemy flying in all directions. They then returned to their place in the column, and the enemy, not a whit discouraged, collected again at another point along the road and attacked again as vigorously as ever. Ulia was entered about 2 p.m., and with its capture, resistance practically ceased.” 

From the writings of General Henecker reproduced above, we are able to have a glimpse of the determination of the armies of Uromi and Uzea to defend their homeland against British military invasion. The men fought gallantly and were ready to fight to the very last man standing. Even, the Brits were awed by the courage and great fighting spirit of the local soldiers.

The attack on Uromi and Uzea confirms Uromi and Uzea as the flagships of the ancient Esan military. Of course Uromi and Uzea are brother towns with brother militaries. There are certain fundamental points that must be noted about the Esan British war: The Esan Edo army constituted a fundamental and integral part of the Edo empire military machine. The Uromi –Uzea army was never conquered by the British army. The British laid a siege on Uromi and the British officers calculated that it would be suicidal to launch a direct attack on Uromi. The British actually invited some Uromi leaders to a meeting, where they were kidnapped and used as bargaining equity to demand for the cessation of all military hostilities by the Uromi armed forces.

The refusal of the Uromi leadership and the people of Uromi to accept British overlord-ship even after the cessation of all hostilities, led the British government to send a coalition of military officers and infantry men down to be permanently stationed in Uromi. The officers were sent in from Britain and Canada, while the infantrymen were sent in from Northern Nigeria. At the material time, Northern Nigeria was a different country from Southern Nigeria.

Uromi was the first city state to create the need for a permanent military force to be stationed in its territory.  The logistics of raising an officer’s corps from Britain and Canada and an infantry unit from the Northern Nigerian country, as Southern Nigeria did not have enough military capability back then for deployment to Uromi; posed a unique problem. A school of thought, firmly believe that the logistical problem of raising a military team from Northern Nigeria, which was a different country from Southern Nigeria, for deployment to Uromi, was the very genesis of many conflicting scenarios that forced the debate by the British government of the issue of the amalgamation of Southern and Northern Nigeria to the front burner.

We now know that the British expedition to Benin was paid for by the sale of some of the looted artifacts from Benin. Now the question is; how was the Esan military campaign that brought army officers from England and British Canada and infantrymen from Northern Nigeria to Esanland, especially Uromi and Uzea paid for? The piece reproduced below confirms that the British military expedition to Uromi was predicated on the hope of tapping into the Esan cotton economy as a source of cotton export to Britain; to help recoup the cost of the expensive military expedition to Esanland.  

There is evidence that the British Parliament voted to encourage the production of cotton in Esanland in the early 20th century:  A. I. Okoduwa and A. O. Odigie In their work: British Attempt at Developing Cotton as an Export Crop from Esan, Edo State, Nigeria, 1902-1925 wrote:  “The promotion of cotton growing in Esan during the colonial period and in the Benin Province, was undertaken by the British Cotton Growing Association (BCGA). It was founded in 1902 for the main purpose of ensuring the continued prosperity of British cotton industry by extending the sources of supply to overseas territories (Anjorin, 1988, p. 122). In collaboration with British colonial government, the BCGA sent out cotton experts to develop cultivation of the crop in Esan Division. The first cotton experimental farm and ginnery in the area was established at Illushi the evacuation port for all produce from Esan (Osagie, 1988, p.76). From there colonial officials spread the new varieties of American and Egyptian long staples to all parts of Esan. For example, when Mr. W. Fosbery the then commissioner of the Central Division of British Southern Nigeria undertook a visit to Uromi in 1902, he emphasized the importance of cotton growing and distributed three bags of American cotton seeds to the people (Anene, 1966, p. 239).

“It is self-evident from all the combined references above that cotton cultivation, textile production, marketing and export thereof, brought much wealth to Esanland. The prosperity from the Esan cotton economy attracted the attention of the Benin monarchy and much later the British imperial power. Wealth from the pre-colonial Esan cotton economy helped equip the Esan army and to a very large extent, and based on the extensive evidence of Esan military presence in pre-colonial Lagos, helped in financing the building of the foundation of all that area known today as Lagos state.  The name of the current Oba of Lagos, Oba Akiolu (Which means Cotton economy in Esan Edo) attests to the fact that wealth from the pre-colonial Esan cotton economy was the financial predicate on which modern Lagos / Eko was built. The names Oyekan (Oyeko –Which means one who travelled to Lagos in Esan Edo) as in Oba Oyekan, Eyo (from Eyo-Okulo - Which means soldier in Esan Edo) These names attests to the might of the ancient Esan Edo army and the fact that the army was built with profit from the ancient Esan cotton economy.”

“The main export commodity that attracted the Europeans traders among other international traders to Esan in the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries was the booming Esan cotton economy. The cotton economy was known by the Esans as EKIOLU or alternatively as AKIOLU. Yes, same as the AKIOLU in OBA AKIOLU of LAGOS. As recorded by early European historians Uromi and Uzea were the leaders in the international Esan cotton trade and Uromi and Uzea women were the leaders in the Esan cotton textile trade. Uromi’s very advanced and very prosperous cotton and textile industries predicated the Benin-Uromi / Uzea war of 1499-1506”.

In the book, “When Men and Women Mattered: A History of Gender Relations among the Owan of Nigeria by Onaiwu W. Ogbomo, we have the following “Okoduwa’s research among the neighbouring Esan reveals they also capitalized on the trade in cloth. In Okoduwa’s words: There are hint’s in the traditions of Uromi that Ichesan (IJESAN) and Agba’s reigns and those which followed (Ca. 1439-1538) was the century of trade and prosperity. This was the era when benefits from the cotton trade and industry led to the emergence of merchant princes in Uromi.”

This piece hereunder is culled from my article


“It is manifestly self-evident from the above that the Esan cotton and textile industries brought tremendous wealth to Esanland; and Uromi occupied the leadership seat in this regard.  The piece reproduced below makes clear that the wealth introduced by the successful cotton and textile industries was long lasting. To a great extent the wealth from the cotton and textile industries funded the expansion of the Edo Empire. Ijesan, the first King of Uromi was the first son of Oba Ewuare, who could not be king in Benin as the Binis were not ready for a half Portuguese and half Bini king. Ijesan became the king of Uromi since consequent to the cotton export trade, Uromi already had a very large European population at the time, and the Uromi people were comfortable with Ijesan and his Portuguese mother. This Portuguese (Kpotokin) connection and the wealth available from the cotton trade made Uromi a major asset in the Edo imperialist military campaigns.”

In the article “THE ISHANS (Irrua and Evbohimwin Connection); the author Professor Ademola Iyi-Eweka wrote: “Of the Edo-speaking group. Ishan/Esan is the closest to "BINI" ie the dialect of those who live in and around Benin City. In fact, when the people of Benin sneezes, those in Ishan/Esan develop hiccups, then and now. Riots that erupts in Benin politically, often reverbarates in Ishan/Esan land. Before 1897, the Ishans/Esans were the most avid defender of the Edo monarchy. It is not surprising, because Ishan/Esan women have produced most of Obas of Benin. Eheniuan, the first Ezomo of Benin, who later became the commander of the Benin/Edo Royal army is of Ishan descent.”

“Prince Erediauwa marched into Benin City, ahead of an Ishan/Esan dominated military. He was crowned Oba Osemwende of Benin in 1816. It was Oba Osewende who granted to the Enogie of Uromi, the right to inherit the estate of any person who died childless within Uromi district. This was his reward for supplying men and material in the war to reconquer Akure in 1818-20 rebellion and the battle in defence of the Ekitis against the Ibadans.”

The Esan armies referred to by Professor Eweka, who is a Benin Prince, were equipped and armed by profits from the Esan cotton economy. The materials supplied by the King of Uromi in promotion of the Edo empire project were sourced by profits from the Esan cotton economy.

 A. I. Okoduwa and A. O. Odigie In their work: British Attempt at Developing Cotton as an Export Crop from Esan, Edo State, Nigeria, 1902-1925 wrote: “However, it must be said that since major spinning, weaving and cloth dying centres existed in Uromi (as in other parts of West Africa like Kano, Biu, Etsako, Nupe and Idah to mention but a few) what raw cotton found its way into the export market from the 15th century to the 19th century was the surplus production which could not be absorbed by West African industries (Nzemeke, 1985, p. 3) ”


“Esan sales were in cowries. Prices of cloth varied over the years. Ryder says that Dutch and English alike bought them in thousands for resale in other parts of the African coast in return for slaves and gold. Although several goods served the purpose of money in a non-common currency economy, Esan cloth known by the Portuguese and the Dutch as the Benin cloth had the advantage of a currency being comparatively a non-perishable commodity that was easily stored (Ryder, 1969, p. 206).”

Again, the piece hereunder is culled from my article EDO CIVILIZATION, ESAN WAR MACHINE AND THE FOUNDING OF LAGOS:

“Uromi was the largest town in pre-colonial Esan and remain the largest Esan town. Uromi’s large population evidently derives from Uromi’s attraction as an Eldorado for wealth seekers. As a major trading center with an early attraction for Portuguese (known in Uromi as Kpotokins) and the Dutch and other Europeans and Arabs, Uromi became a major attraction for immigrants seeking wealth, freedom, dignified existence, military protection and political freedom.”

The ancient Port through which all cotton exports left Esanland in pre-colonial time was the Ozigono (Illushi) inland water port; which said inland water-way port was on the bank of the river Niger. Ozigono appears to be an evolved form of OZA-NOGOGO. Many immigrants to Uromi were recorded to have emigrated from and OZA and or OZA-NOGOGO area. It would appear that that easy invasion of enemies via the river Niger forced the OZA NOGOGO immigrants to relocate inwards to IDUMU OZA in UROMI.

Images by River Niger-Illushi

The begging questions among many other unanswered questions are:

1.  Whatever happened to the Esan Cotton economy?
2. Why was the Esan cotton economy and Textile industries abandoned?

3. Why has the ancient Ozigono inland water way port not been upgraded to a modern INLAND WATER WAY PORT?
4. Why is there no federal or state economic presence in Esanland? Would the establishment of an Export Processing Zone help to massively industrialize Esanland?
5. Should Esan Edo leaders and masses push powerfully for the federal government of Nigeria to re-categorize Illushi Esanland as an Export Processing Zone and commence the actualization of that prospect?
6. Should Esan Edo leaders and masses push powerfully for the federal government of Nigeria to build a modern Inland Water-Way Port in Illushi, Esanland?

Images by River Niger-Illushi

It is interesting to observe that why our Esan ancestors were very wise and advanced in their socio-economic and political calculations and ventures and successfully built a very profitable cotton and textile based economy and engaged in international trade with European and Arab business partners and even partly financed major projects like the massive Esan military presence in pre-colonial Lagos among other locations, the present generation of Esans are yet to take over the gauntlet and elevate the success attained by our ancestors.
There is now a Nigerian army. There is no more need for an Esan military. Then again, there is need for all the Esan local government council authorities to work together in conjunction with the Edo state government and Esan political leaders and traditional institutions to agitate for the building of an INLAND WATER WAY PORT and an EXPORT PROCESSING ZONE IN ILLUSHI ESANLAND.
The development of the twin economic engines of an INLAND WATER WAY PORT and an EXPORT PROCESSING ZONE IN ILLUSHI ESANLAND will be the turning point in the northward economic progress of Esanland.
Business Dictionary defines EXPORT PROCESSING ZONE as:

Type of free trade zone (FTZ), set up generally in developing countries by their government to promote industrial and commercial exports.  In addition to providing the benefits of a FTZ, these zones offer other incentives such as exemptions from certain taxes and business regulations Also called development economic zone or special economic zone. I guess the above definition is satisfactorily self explanatory. The benefits are self evident in the definition.

The development of an Inland Waterway Port in Illushi, Esanland, and the development of an Export Processing Zone with the consequent dredging of the river Niger at Illushi will help to open up the Esan and Igala areas for massive economic and industrial activities. These projects will help to attract massive prosperity and employment opportunities to Nigerians who live in the Esan and Igala countries. An EPZ will rapidly attract many global corporations that would be interested in enjoying all the fiscal advantages that an Export Processing Zone offers. Examples abound the world over of how rapidly, massively and tremendously an Export Processing Zone can catapult a community to the pinnacle of industrialization and economic boom.

Finally, all Esan leaders in the business of politics and government must push for federal incentives to encourage major investments in and the re-awakening of the Esan cotton and textile industries. Investment in cotton production will consequently lead to investments in modern textile production facilities in Esanland.

It is interesting to observe that whereas our Esan ancestors were very corporate business savvy and engaged in the enterprise of cotton and textile production among other economic products and perfected same by exporting their products to far flung regions of the world and even had an ancient inland waterway port in Illushi Esanland; the present generation of Esans are yet to accept the baton handed over to us by our Esan ancestors of yester years.

All Esans must channel their energies, attention and influence on securing federal and state government focus on the ultimate task of the industrialization of Esanland. Without doubt, the twin economic engines of an Export Processing Zone and an Inland Water Way Port facility combined with government encouragement and investment in cotton and textile production in Esanland, will greatly help to elevate the industrial, economic and social prospects of Esanland.

The Esan climate is uniquely perfect for cotton production. Massive government encouragement and investment in cotton production and social conditions that will encourage international and local private sector investment in cotton production in Esanland will attract prosperity to Esanland and will also attract investments in the textile industries, which will hopefully elevate Esanland to the next social economic level.

It needs no over-emphasis nor exaggeration to drive home the point that the two most important factors or economic engines that can help predicate an ultra-industrialize Esanland are an Inland Water-Way Port and an Export Processing Zone.