ON IDEOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT IN PRE-COLONIAL ESAN:
THE ROLE OF BENIN
By B.E. Oseghale
There is evidence to suggest that by the end of the 15th century an intricate system of socio-political economic and cultural links had been established between Esan and Benin. Through these linkages, there emerged continued cross fertilization of ideas which tended towards intensive and extensive cultural relationships between both peoples. The degree of cultural exchange and the manifest impact on both societies perhaps prompted Bradbury to remark that “of the Edo group of peoples. The Esan are perhaps the most influenced by Benin . . .” Largely Otite believes that this strong bilateral cultural relationship was a common feature of the entire peoples of the former Bendel State because theoretically, all the peoples were of common stock.
The composition of the Edo stock have been subject of controversy in certain quarters. Okpewho attributed the cause of these disagreements to the fact that scholars have continually imposed Edo identity on the people as an acknowledgement of the high degree on similar social institutions between the Esan and Bini. Okpewho's view is that the name Edo should not be enthusiastically applied to other Bendel peoples such as the Esan, Eka or Ika, Urhobo, Itsekiri, Etsako etc, because these peoples have perfectly respectable names by which they were known from the distant past. Evidences abound to suggest strong cultural ties between Esan and Benin peoples during the period.
An examination of both Esan and Bini languages with the view to identifying areas of cultural influences is crucial because it constituted the major vehicle through which ideas were transmitted. The degree of similarity in terms of language, perhaps, led many people to suggest: The notion of a common ancestral and cultural heritage. Emessiri for instance, categorised Bendel languages into three levels. Category I represents common visible objects, among the first a person picks up when learning a new language. In this category, Esan and Bini were almost identical. Category II contain words of invisible objects or technical words. There were words which a learner of a new language could not readily acquire. In this category the Esan language demonstrated considerable divergence from Bini. Category III represented items introduced into the region by Europeans, particularly the Portuguese after 1485. In this category both Esan and Bini had identical names on the whole the differences in both language in category II-was put at about forty-two percent while the percentage of Bini derived words was put at about eighty percent. From such work, it can be said, that Esan language manifest in a close linguistics similarity to the Bini language. However, the difference on the technical words of both languages points to the survival of an aboriginal Esan languages, despite the essentially oral status of both languages, and the several hundred years of interactions between them.
Again Esan and Benin political institutions and government during the period attest to strong cultural ties between the two groups. Both peoples have traditions conferring the idea of monarchy and other chieftaincy, institutions on Bini being a consequence of the latter’s imperialistic thrust into the Esan country" Also, similarities in court and ritual ceremonies, names and symbols associated with political rulership support the notion of pre-colonial bilateral movement of ideas between both peoples.
Although there was the possibility that a centralize system of Government evolved in Esanland, Benin largely affected its constitution particularly through the Oba's appointment of the first Esan Enijie.
Similarly the symbols of both Esan and Benin rulers and the significance of the ada. And in the political history of both peoples are important. It is necessary to recall Esan belief that the Symbol of office is alien to Esan since the traditions attribute the idea to Benin. Igueben iron Smiths came to perfect the production of the ada and eben to the extent that they supplied the Oba with the subjects in subsequent years. The leader of the Iron smith in Esan, as in Benin, was called the Okaigun and performed similar social and political functions in both societies.
Related to the above were very similar chieftaincy titles and institutional structures. To begin with, the hereditary titles in Esan were patterned on the line of the Uzama NIMIRON of Benin, but local customs and in many cases sheer autocracy and corruption, brought some differences so that some titles that are not hereditary in Benin are so in Esan.
In other words, chieftaincy titles such as were in Benin, include the Oliha, Iyase, Ezomo, Edohen, Oloton, Uwangue, Eroy, Isekhure etc, were to be found also in Esan. In Esan, many of these titles were not hereditary and the order of rank was s0metime altered to reflect the realities of the Esan situation. In any case, the Oniha in Esan, quite like the Oliha in Benin; was more or less next to the monarch. He performed ritual and ceremonial function during interments and during the installation of the On0jie or the Oba of Benin. The Iyasele in Esan, like his counterpart in Benin, spoke for and defend the interest of the commoner’s in society.
Furthermore the basic unit of government in both places was the village, with the Edion council. In both Esan and Benin the counsel was headed by the eldest man called Odionwere or Odionwele respectively. The dualism in organisation of social-political life of Esan and Benin communities was similar. In Benin, there was government at the village level, and at the central government. In Esan, this duality was more apparent from the imposition of a derived rulership system on the indigenous village structure. A final point of bilateral cultural relationship worthy of note was the agnatic or patrilineal bias in the monarchical system.
Incontrovertible as it may seem both Esanland Benin tittle organisation and the monarchy maintained a relationship that was essentially conciliar. However, some salient difference in the political culture of both peoples existed. Firstly, quite unlike the elaborate monarchical institution in Benin, the institution of the Onojie in Esan was less grandiose in terms of its historical circumstances. Consequently, the central institution of the latter may be explained in the central institutions in the respective Esan chiefdoms were less imposing less divine compared to that of Benin. Though there was the tendency for the Esan Onojie to be autocratic by virtue of the support they enjoyed from Benin, their largely secular attributes were unmistakeable probably because:
Most of those appointed to the position as a result of 1463 ‘diplomatic’ conquest of the Esan by Benin were neither the spiritual, oldest men, nor were they necessarily members of the founding families to whom belong the ancestral shrines.
Secondly, the Enojie in charge of villages and communities directly under the Benin Kingdom, as noted earlier, had very limited powers compared to the Esan Enijie. The latter had power over life and death, while the former had to refer serious cases to the Oba for settlement. Again the Esan Enijie failed to adopt (or were prevented from doing so) certain aspect of the Oba regalia. For example, the Enijie in Esan did not wear crowns, and did not decorate themselves with expensive coral heads and schi other exotic materials associated with Oba’s regalia. This could be due to limited supplies they had. Finally, Esan rulers were usually addressed as Zaiki. Whereas there were a number of ways and manner the Oba was addressed Zaiki was not one of them. It has been suggested therefore that the term lost précised meaning in Esan language as it was northern influence. In others words, the Nupe, Igala and other middle belt groups probably conferred that legacy on Esan.
All male population in the component villages and communities were divided into three age sets. In Esan, the age sets were the Edion comprised of elders of over forty five years old, the Igene of Ighama. Comprised males of between thirty forty-five, and Egbonughele which consisted of boys and younger of between ages twelve and thirty. The Edion took all decisions in council under the leadership of the
respective Edionwele, the Iegene constituted the work force and the military class while the Egbonughele performed menial task such as cleaning communal roads and running errands. In Benin, the management was essentially the same. The Edion, the Ighele or Igbama and the Iroghae comprised of males of about the same age and performed the same functions as their Esan counterparts. This structure was further enhanced by a system of titled organisations into which male citizens were qualified to move on attainment of various levels of success either in military assignment or in the ability to accumulate wealth or the capacity to take good decisions. Amongst the Esan and Benin, this organisation was commonly referred to as the Otu.
In the case of customs or Jaws governing marriages and divorce similar affinity existed. In both places, the act of betrothing young girls to young boys by parents was a common practice. A newly born baby could be betrothed to a young male child for a number of reasons, the commonest being the desire to strengthen existing family ties. It was customary in both places to pay bride price. Usually dowries were paid to the parents of the girl. Bride prices were kept low so that every adult male could at least afford a wife. Such payments during our period took the forms of yams, goats, cows; and even slaves depending on the affluence of the people involved. There are records to show that some Oba and Benin chiefs married from Esan, and vice visa. However, Arheboa or arewa which was the practice in Esan whereby and unmarried daughter of a man who died without a son, was encourage to remain at home to bear children for her late father, was an uncommon practice in Benin. This cultural practice was particularly common in Irrua, Ewohimi and Uzea in Esanland.
The mortuary rites in Esan and Benin were not precluded from influences. The degree of semblance of the death and mortuary rites in both places was observed by the ethnographer Bradbury when he said that the Esan mortuary rites “appear to be similar to those of Benin.” In both places, mortuary rites differed according to the locality and the status or rank of the deceased. Generally, the senior son play the leading role in the ceremonies. Children and childless adults were buried. Unceremoniously by the age grade to which the deceased belonged. Head of households and sometimes other senior adults were buried inside their house or under the eaves. The greater number were usually buried in the bush. The rites took about seven days for ordinary people and about fourteen days for the respective Oba, Onojie and some very eminent chiefs. As stated earlier the mortuary rites of a deceased Onojie in Esanland, may not be processed unless proper permission is obtain from the Oba of Benin. As a mark of assent, the Oba sent a piece of white cloth to the senior son of the deceased ruler with which the latter was expected to wrap up the dead.
Further evidence of Esan–Benin relations may be found in their laws of inheritance. In both places, the eldest son completed all the funeral ceremonies of his late father. In case the eldest fails to perform the burial rites his younger brother could do it for their late father after which the property belonged to him. Heirs were expected to inherit both the deceased property and liabilities. Hence, it was the duty of the heir to provide for his younger ones and maintain his father’s wives. He could take over any of the wives that are childless.
In situation where the deceased had no son, the father’s brother inherited the property, though he was expected to give shares of the property to the adult daughters of the deceased. During our period, it was not uncommon for the head of family to divides a certain amount of his estate between his children before he died. Except for the house in which the father lived which automatically belonged to the senior son, other moveable property could be shared by the Uro system. Every wife and her children got something from the estate. It could however be noted that in some parts of Esan, the laws differed to some degrees. In Uromi for instance, the Onojie and the Onojie’s mother inherited the property of a man who died without sons and a woman who also died without sons.
The religious practices in both Esan and Benin were essentially based on ancestral worship. During our period, there is no evidence to show that Christianity had been introduced into Esan. Ancestral worship or hero veneration, the belief in magic and witchcraft characterised religious worship in both polities. Esan and Benin has similar pantheons of gods and goddesses. The goddesses of the sea and wealth was called Olokun and Olokun in Esan and Benin respectively. The goddess was also associated with human fertility. It appears that Esan people who lived on a plateau with no major river borrowed the idea of Olokun worship from Benin. Olokun, in Benin mythology, was the senior son of Osanobua the Most High God. Olokun was believed to reside in the river which rises near the town of Urhonigbe in the south east corner of the Benin Kingdom. At Urhonigbe the head quarter of the cult by both Esan and Benin peoples, there was a large temple in which were housed life sized clay figures the goddess, represented as the Oba with his retinue.
In both places, 0gun was the god of Iron and the patron deity of smiths and hunters. A few other deities to be found amongst both peoples were Osun and Ojiuu besides other communal shrines. Some traditions spoke of the appointment of some Esan priests from Benin. For example, the Okaigun leader of the Igueben iron smiths and other ritual priests were either appointed from Benin or had their appointments ratified by the Oba through the appropriate guild in Benin. Badbury also attested to the fact that most priestesses of Olokun including those in Esan visited Urhonigbe on pilgrimage during which they were given certain objects to put in their respect shrines.
Major or national festivals like the one in Benin had the Esan equivalent of the festival usually ushered in a new traditional year. As was the case in Benin where the Oba was the first to celebrate the New Year respectively. Esan Enijie celebrated theirs first. The people sent yams, meat, palm oil arid palm wine to the palace to enable the monarch perform this annual obligation. There were indications that attempts were usually made to synchronize the time of the festival in Esan and Benin.
Music, musical instruments and songs which were necessary accompaniments of precolonial wars marriage ceremonies, burial and religious rites, and festivals were not excluded from bilateral cultural influences. Akhibi, the valium Onojie of Opoji brought back to Esan from Benin a musical trumpet. Okojie described Akhibi as a man who possessed strong power of observation since he, Akhibi took notice of all he saw in that land of beautiful singers and dancers. Thus all the drums for the various war dance in Opoji today are copied. There were, probably many like Akhibi in both Esan and Benin; Traders warriors, and traditional doctors that frequented Benin from Esan, and vice versa, played prominent roles in the important export of music, instruments and the technique of handling them.
Several centuries of cultural relations greatly influenced the personal and place names in both Esan and Benin. Particularly during the period Esan names such as Edobo (the Binis have been helpful), Edoijawerie (you cannot change Edo (Bini) way of life), Edozele (We are grateful to the Binis) and Esangbedo (Ishans and Binis are brothers but later, some Esan people bore names like Esanguedo (Ishan can never be too sure of the Binis) and Esanbhafomen (I can’t speak Ishan let alone a foreigner language often Bini). The Benin people also gave names like Esangbedo, but the meaning for such names were slightly different and pejorative. It was probably and acknowledge of Esan independence and pointed the way towards Esan culture, equality and friendship with Benin.
At this junction, the point should be made that on contrary to common belief that Esanland was continually on the receiving end of cultural influences, there are some evidences to suggest that the trend during our period was essentially bilateral. A good example was that of Ehenua, an Esan emigrant who came to influence Benin culture. Ehenua lived as a youth in Esan and later moved to the Isi district of Benin with some followers. As a grown up man, he came to Benin City, entered the service of the Oba and as a reward for his services in establishing the Oba in his position was made Ezomo. The Ezomo title should be noted was no ordinary one. It belonged to the original five chieftaincy titles in the Uzema council which probably pre-dated the Benin monarchy. The title was not known to have been conferred on mediocre especially as it was second only to the Oliha in the Uzama council. Ehenua was probably not the first nor the last Esan person to wild such political influence in Benin.
There are also traditional which speaks of Esan military chiefs and native doctors playing key roles in the determination of Benin’s political culture in pre-colonial times. Okpota, for example was a native doctor whose skill could not be confined to Esan. He was invited to Benin by Osa Ozolua. Okpota, through an oracle and divination, came to influence the Oba’s decisions and government. His importance in Benin affairs led to the building of a special quarter for him close to the Oba’s palace, where he was easily reached for consultation by the Oba. One the same spot where Okpota once lived several hundred years ago, the Benin Town Hall now stands the Hall was name Urho-Okpota in honour of the migrant doctor from Esan.
The theoretical disposition which maintain that Benin exercised a far greater influence over her neighbours, particularly Esan is based on the common assumption by historians and anthropologists that: wherever an institution, symbol, ceremony, ritual or an idea attained the peak of its development, there is its beginning from where it subsequently diffused to or was imposed upon or was borrowed by other centres where it survives on a less pronounced scale.
To accept this however, is to accept that Christianity for example, originated from Rome where it was strongest, rather than in its ancestral abode of Jerusalem. According to Afigbo, this disposition is a product of the researcher's desire not to upset established views. He therefore stressed the need for historians to "learn to put aside such criteria as territorial size, military, and ceremonial grandeur as they have little or nothing to do with it.”
Nevertheless, Benin's cultural influence over Esan, can hardly be substituted with another argument. Evidences suggest the Bini’s to have been more adventurous than the Esan at the early period. Even though this trend appear to have been reversed during and after 1800 more migrant traders and refugees evidently left Benin for Esan during the three hundred years from 1500 to 1800. Esan traditions and the political institutions attest to the above claim especially for Ekekhen and Igueben. Another explanation for the greater Benin cultural influence in Esan may be found in the extensive Benin contact with the cultures of the Yoruba and Igbo. The Benin culture was also enriched due to influences from the Itsekiri, Urhobo,
Isoko, Igala, Esan and later, European cultures.
There was the political dimension to Benin’s cultural impact in Esan. Through Benin chiefs, Benin cultural values were transmitted to or administered in Esan. In fact, there were instances where Esan princes were deliberately trained in the Benin Laws and customs as a preparation for their tenure as rulers in Esan. For example, Ozolua took Uda, the son of Oghale the Onojie of Ekpoma, and gave him "to a Benin chief to educate in the customs and institutions of Benin" such deliberate acculturation of Esan princes and individuals was believed to have been Benin standard imperial policy.
Department of History. Edo State University Ekpoma, Nigeria.
Department of History. Edo State University Ekpoma, Nigeria.