MEET OBA EWUARE THE GREAT : ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST ILLUSTRIOUS ANCIENT KINGS
By Naiwu Osahon
Tuesday, December 21, 2009.
Oba Edoni (1295-1299 CE) and Oba Udagbedo (1299-1334 CE) made no impact on Ubini. Oba Ohen (1334-1370 CE) whose murder of his Iyase, the traditional prime minister of Ubini land, led to a rebellion that brought his reign to an end with his stoning to death. Oba Ohen was succeeded in turn by four of his sons. Oba Egbeka 1370 CE, Oba Orobiru, Oba Uwaifioku and Oba Ewuare the Great who consolidated, developed, and expanded the kingdom through innovative leadership ideas, closely knit, disciplined community organization, warfare, and conquests. He ushered in the period of warrior kings, which lasted into the 16th century CE, traversing the reigns of Obas Ozolua, Esigie, Orhogbua and Ehengbuda.
Oba Ewuare the Great (1440-1473 CE) was himself forced into exile and nearly would not have ascended to the throne. When Oba Orobiru died, members of the Edion’isen (king makers) where uncomfortable with Oba Ohen’s third son’s strong and independent streak and did not want him (Prince Ogun) to become the Oba. When the hostilities building against him over his right to the throne was getting unbearable, with death penalty hanging on his head, he fled into the woods to save his life, taking his junior brother, Uwaifiokun, along with him. He did not know at the time that the Edion’isen favoured Uwaifiokun over him to rule.
After three years of living wild and aimlessly, with the toll beginning to tell on him, he decided to send Uwaifiokun to the city to discreetly find out what the feelings were about the Ubini throne that had been vacant since he and his brother escaped into the forest. When Uwaifiokun arrived at Chief Ihama of Ihogbe’s home, the chief excitedly rushed him to meet with the Edion’isen who enthusiastically received him. Asked about his elder brother, Prince Ogun, Uwaifiokun lied that he had not seen him for a long while. The king makers then offered him the throne which he quickly accepted, thus betraying his brother’s trust.
Prince Ogun was upset by the betrayal and started plotting to take the throne from his junior brother. Ogun’s relative, Azuwa, living in Uhunmwun Idumwun in the eastern outskirts of Ubini, using the Iha divination, told Prince Ogun that he would win his throne. He listed what Prince Ogun had to do to reverse the animosity of the Edion’isen because ordinary Ubini people were routing for him, although thinking he was already dead. Royal ancestors and the gods of the land were angry over the injustice done to him, and many people had begun to leave the city in fear of the wrath of the gods.
Prince Ogun was told that he would meet a pregnant woman, a hunter, and finally an old woman living opposite the market place, who would each influence the process of his gaining the throne. He promised Azuwa great reward if Iha’s predictions came through. News of his visit to Uhunmwun Idunmwun soon reached the Ubini monarch who quickly dispatched troops to the area to try to capture him.
Prince Ogun escaped through Ikpe territory, deep into the hinterland. At Igogogin bush, where he retired to spend the night, he heard the moaning of someone that appeared to be in pains. Obviously, he was dreaming, but it was very vivid. He was shocked that he was not alone in the forest. On investigation, he found that the moaning person (a tree) required help to relieve it of worms ravaging its trunk. Ogun wasted no time in doing just that and as reward, the tree asked him to make a request because he, the tree, was the spirit of Ase that could grant anything.
The spirit placed an object at Ogun’s feet and asked him to pick it up and make a demand of it. Ogun, unbelieving, playfully asked the object to make the tree bothering him, to shed its leaves and die. The tree promptly shed its leaves and died. Ogun woke up and found the object by his feet, and that he had reclined against a tree that had shed its leaves and died. The tree was full of life when he chose to recline on it for the night, he thought. He picked up the object and asked another tree near-by to shed its leaves and die. The tree promptly did.
He went to Ekae village where he lived for a while and gave birth to the Evbo Aigbogun people, then he moved on. In the meantime, the monarch’s troops, acting on reports of sightings, were raiding villages around him. They almost caught him when they trooped past him in a forest were he was hiding. He plucked a large green leaf and put it in his mouth, and in demand of his ‘Ase charm,’ the leaf rendered him invisible, (or looking like a shrub) to the troops. Hours later, when the danger had subsided, he called the leaf that saved his life, Ebe Ewere.
At the base of the tree where he had spent the night, blood had dropped all over him. When he carefully looked up, a leopard was snoozing up a branch of the tree after eating its prey. He killed the leopard with one arrow shot. On the ground by the tree where he had slept, he found he had laid his head on a snake coiled up neatly as his pillow through out the night. He killed the snake too. A little while later, at a blind corner along the bush path near where he had slept, a pregnant woman was approaching him, going to her farm, not knowing someone was there. She struck her toe against a stump and screamed in lamentation, “what bad omen is this? The spirits are angry, ancestors are taking lives. Ogun the rightful heir to the throne must be found to ascend the throne before peace can return to the land.”
The sudden manifestation of Prince Ogun on the bush path startled the woman who did not recognize the prince. After Ogun had introduced himself, she was happy to repeat herself, thus re-assuring Ogun that he was loved by the ordinary people of Ubini who were hoping he was not dead yet. Ogun was delighted with what he heard and promised to declare the area where the woman farmed at Ugbekun, Royal farm land in her honour, with all the labour she would need provided by the state from season to season.
Ogun then decided to head for Ubini. Close to Umelu junction, he heard a hunter who was resting under a tree shade, talking aloud to himself: “I am going home with these killings, but with no one to share them with. O! Ihama and the five Edion, you have put our land in great peril. The ancestors visit the sins of your hatred of Prince Ogun on our people. What shall we do?” Ogun surprised the hunter with his presence, introduced himself, and thanked the hunter for his comments. He named the tree the hunter was sheltering under, the Okha n’Ohue. Source of good omen. Remembering Iha’s predictions about his encounters on the way to the throne, which appeared to be coming true, Ogun decided to head through stealthy paths for the market place in the city.
At Unueru quarters, the Royal army almost caught up with him. He hid and resisted using his ‘Ase charm’ to destroy the army because he reasoned they were his people, his future subjects. Later that night, he retired to Chief Ogieva Nomuekpo’s home, hoping to find respite there from the troops haunting him. The chief expressed fear of the troops and hid Ogun in a dry well in his compound. The chief covered the mouth of the well with leaves and in betrayal left to alert the Royal army about his catch.
While Ogieva was on his way to invite the Royal army to come and arrest Prince Ogun, Edo, the head servant of Ogieva’s household, alerted Prince Ogun about his master’s diabolical plan and helped the prince to escape from the well with a ladder. Ogieva returned with the Royal troops to find that Edo had helped Ogun escape. The troops killed Edo on the spot.
Prince Ogun in the meantime, had found his way to the hut of the old woman opposite the market place in the city. She was a powerful mystic, poor, old, and childless. She hailed from Eyaen village in the present day Oduwawa cattle market area on the Benin-Auchi Road. The name her parents gave her was Uwaraye. As a young woman, during the reign of Oba Ohen, Prince Ogun’s father, she married Chief Azama of Ihogbe district, as his second wife.
Uwaraye was considered indolent by her husband because she could not cook. She could not get pregnant either. Azama’s first wife, Arabe, handled the domestic chores and gave birth to all the children of the household. Azama soon nicknamed Uwaraye, Eke’Emitan, corrupted to Emotan, meaning lazy bones. She had a redeeming feature though. She was good at helping to (nurse) or take care of the brood of the household.
As the children of the household reached the age when they no longer required close supervision by adults, Emotan who could make ‘evbarie’ (a soup seasoning condiment made from fermented melon seeds) and spin threads from cotton bolls, began taking these plus some herbal products to sell at a stall opposite the city market. When her husband died and she could not return to her parent’s home because they too had died in old age earlier on, she set up a hut to live in at her trading post opposite the market place. Her hut soon became a popular make-shift nursery for the children of families patronizing the market. She attended to the children’s health and other needs flawlessly without charging fees and the kids’ parents soon could not have enough of her services.
It was in her nature, therefore, to agree to have Prince Ogun as her guest and to help him take his throne. During Prince Ogun’s first night at the hut, the Royal army raided the market neighbourhood, searching possible hideouts, including Emotan’s hut. He was invisible again. As soon as the army moved their search from the hut to other areas in the vicinity, Ogun sneaked out, avoiding the path of the army, and headed straight for the palace where he killed his brother, Oba Uwaifiokun. The news of his action soon spread around the city. Ordinary citizens were supportive of his action, insisting that it was Ogun’s right to do what he did and expressing joy and hope that the tragedies of the recent past would soon end because justice had prevailed.
Emotan sent word to Ogun to stay put in the palace and consolidate his hold while she continued spiritual work outside to win empathy and love for Ogun. Within a few days, the Edion’isen had come round in support of Ogun, eventually crowning him as the Omo N’ Oba Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare. Iha divination’s title choice of ‘Oworuare,’ alias Ewuare, could not have been more apt because it means, after the heat, the cooling effect of rain.
Oba Ewuare appointed Emotan as the Iyeki (that is the leader of the authorized Ekpate guild) tasked with security matters in the market and with enforcing market rules. Emotan died not too long after Ewuare’s ascension, so the Oba decreed that she should be buried in her hut. Later the grave was marked with an Uruhe tree and her deification as the conscience of justice was ordered by the king. Every celebratory procession in Benin pays homage to the burial site.
The first Uruhe tree (marker) survived for some three hundred years before it fell. The replacement Uruhe tree survived for about one hundred and fifty years before an Iroko tree was planted to support it. A severe storm fell both trees on their, around one hundred years’ anniversary together. Oba Akenzua II, in cooperation with the British Colonial authorities commissioned in 1954, a life size bronze statue of Emotan as a young woman, sculpted by Mr. John A. Danford, in his Chelsea, London, studio in 1951, from a miniature model cast by Igun Street artists.
Oba Ewuare, in continuation of the fulfillment of the promises he made to reward those who helped him win the throne, installed Azuwa as the ‘Iha man mwen’ of Igun, meaning the Ihama of Igun. Oba Ewuare bought the corpse of Edo from Ogieva and had it exhumed. He gave the servant posthumous freedom and ordered his reburial underneath the altar of Ukhurhe Edion at the Aro Edun, the entrance to the palace’s inner tower, an ultimate place of honour.
Then, he invited the people of Ubini to join him in honouring a bondsman who gave his life for him to live. He changed the name of the city, language and kingdom, to Edo. This was later expanded to Edo O’Evbo Ahire, meaning Edo the city of love, in appreciation of Edo’s love that saved young Prince Ogun’s life and gave Edo kingdom her greatest king.
The present day elegant ceremonial costumes of the kings and chiefs of Benin originated from Ewuare’s reign. Ewuare restored the annual cycle of royal ceremonies, the most important ones being Ugie Erha Oba, in honour of royal ancestors and Igue, to strengthen the mystical powers of the king.
Oba Ewuare’s vow to propitiate his head and give thanks to his ancestors with a major spiritual event if he gained the throne, is the genesis of the Igue festival, which started three years into his reign. The Igue festival is the leading spiritual festival of the Edo. It is a two week long thanksgiving festival to the head, as the focal point of anointing and the centre of the human person. The head symbolizes both the sacredness of creation and of the spirit entity in man. To quote the Isekhurhe, “it is to the head you raise your hands, in respect and adoration.”
The Oba goes into seclusion for spiritual purification during the period. Igue activities include Igue ivbioba, Igue edohia, Ugie ewere, Otue igue Oba (chiefs paying homage to the Oba) Igue Oba and Ugie emobo (when the Oba comes out of seclusion.) The incantations used at the Igue festival were developed by the Ihogbe family.
During the festival, Edo people say prayers, cleanse themselves of their sins, bring members of their extended family together to bond, share gifts and blessings, feeding on the food of atonement and thanksgiving. The Ewere leaf that saved Ewuare’s life in the bush when he was nearly caught by the Royal troops, has its day of lavish use, with the leaves taken by youths from home to home around the city. They tear pieces of the leaves and paste them on the heads, particularly the foreheads of people, to show joy. At that moment of sharing, the salutation is ‘Ise Logbe’ (Happy New Year) and the reply or response is ‘Ogbe man vbe dia re’ (Many happy returns.)
Oba Ewuare the great, was the most dynamic, innovative and successful Oba in the history of Edo kingdom. Under him, Edo was completely transformed religiously, politically, socially, physically and militarily. Ewuare re-organized the government of Edo by centralizing it and he set up three powerful palace associations of chiefs. The political elite of the kingdom was made up of titled chiefs and members of the royal family.
The seven highest-ranking chiefs, who were, in fact, descendants of original elders of Edo, were constituted into Uzama with leadership authority next to the king. The brothers of the king who tended to be potential rivals were sent as hereditary rulers (Enogies) of administrative districts. The mother of the king was given the title of Queen mother and set up in her own palace in the town of Uselu just outside the city.
The palace, which did not have a permanent site in previous reigns, was constructed on a massive scale covering several acres of land at its present location and turned into a beehive of activities as the political and spiritual nerve centre of the vast kingdom. The Edo have a saying that in the Oba’s palace there is never silence. The complex includes shrine areas, meeting chambers for a variety of groups of chiefs, work spaces for ritual professionals, royal artists and craftsmen, storehouses, a large wing called Ogbe Ewuare, residential sections for the Oba’s numerous wives, children and servants.
While the expansion activities in the palace was going on, the civil engineering work to dig the City’s inner moat was embarked upon. Oba Oguola’s outer moat, hugging the Ogbe river valley, kilometers away from Okoo village, left the palace rear exposed. Ewuare’s moat was less than a kilometer from the palace’s rear and so provided additional security for the palace.
A seventeenth century Dutch engraving from Olfert Dapper’s Nauwkeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaansche Gewesten, published in Amsterdam in 1668, described the palace thus: “The king’s palace or court is a square, and is as large as the town of Haarlem and entirely surrounded by a special wall, like that which encircles the town. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam, but one larger than another, resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, and are kept very clean. Most palaces and houses of the king are covered with palm leaves instead of square pieces of wood, and every roof is decorated with a small turret ending in a point, on which birds are standing, birds cast in copper with outspread wings, cleverly made after living models.”
The city’s houses originally built with poles or palm ribs and padded with mud were rebuilt with packed mud. The city was re-planned and neatly laid out, with roads radiating from the center. It was divided into two distinct segments with Ore ne Okhua, constituting the public sector, and the Oba’s sector (Ogbe) the other. The population of Ore ne Okhua was organized into wards with each specializing in a peculiar craft or ritual services in allegiance to the king. My grandfather’s home shared fence with the palace at a point in Ogbe. He must have had a significant role in the palace to warrant his living so close. I have not investigated this. I am his reincarnation
The arts, particularly brass casting, flourished during Oba Ewuare’s reign. He set up a war machine that extended Edo notion of kingship, objects, aesthetic, ideas and power, across the West Coast of Africa and through dominance lent their name to the Bight of Benin. At its height, the Edo controlled vast Yoruba land with populations several times larger than that of Edo and exerted considerable influence on eastern Yorubaland, maintaining trading connection with Oyo. Owo (Ogho in Edo), Ekiti, Akure, Ondo (Udo in Edo), were all Edo towns. The kingdom established Lagos, where it set up a military camp of occupation which it called Eko and extended its dominance from there all the way to the Republic of Benin, Togo and eastern Ghana.
Edo Empire extended through most of Delta state to Ahoada in the east. Ika (Agbor), Aniocha, Asaba were all in the Edo Empire. Onitsha across the River Niger was an Edo town established by Ogbogidi, an Edo military generalisimo. The kingdom’s dominance cut through Igalla in the north to the fringes of Kogi state. The Edo spread their culture and traditions, particularly their Obaship ideology and system, by sending royal brothers to rule over tributaries, or holding hostage, sons of conquered chiefs to be trained in Edo, or by sponsoring candidates for thrones of conquered territories. Objects such as Ada and brass masks, were introduced to vassal lords as emblems of their authority, and these symbols have endured in virtually all the territories that experienced Edo control.
Even in places outside direct Edo influence, such as parts of the Niger Delta area, the reputation of the Oba of Edo was such that leadership disputes were brought to him for arbitration and the winners took back home, Edo regalia to form part of their leadership traditions. However, the frontiers of the Edo Empire were constantly expanding and contrasting as new conquests were made and as vassals on the borders, rebelled only to be re-conquered.
It was towards the tail end of Oba Ewuare’s reign that the Portuguese first made their visit to West Africa in 1472. Oba Ewuare the great died in 1473. At the actuaries on the bank of what is today known as the Bight of Benin, the local people the Portuguese met there, when asked about the kingdom in the interior, told the Portuguese it was called Ubini. The Portuguese abbreviated this to Benin/Bini because they could not properly pronounce Ubini. When the Portuguese arrived in the kingdom of Benin, they were stunned by what they found on the ground in terms of level of administrative sophistication, social engineering and military activities. They found a monarchy dating back many centuries, with complex structure of chiefs and palace officials presiding over a kingdom that was expanding in all directions and a highly developed kingdom with unique and very sophisticated political, artistic, linguistic, economic, cultural and military traditions in the process of territorial conquests.
Edo kingdom was in the throes of great conquests and had healthy, disciplined citizens; well planned and laid out streets, a palace extending over kilometers of territory and a king and his nobles, civilized to their bones. The Portuguese felt honoured to be accepted by the Bini and quickly entered into treaties of cooperation with Oba Ewuare, exchanging emissaries and trying to trade. There is a hint that they tried to preach Christianity to the monarch but were not rewarded with favourable response. It was taboo to talk about alien Gods in a civilization ruled by vibrant African Gods. It was during Oba Ewuare’s reign, however, that an Aruosa (Edo faith) delegation visited Portugal in 1472 as guests of the Portuguese faith, with mutual respect.
A British adventurer called Ling Roth, was the first to refer to Benin as great, a tribute not only to the extent of the Benin Empire but also to the elaborate, detailed and efficient administrative machinery the people had evolved.
One of the military commanders who made strong impact in Ewuare’s expansion conquests and maintenance of vassal territories to the West and across the Niger to the East was a formidable personage by the name Ezuku. He was probably Ibo, judging by his praise-name: Ogogobiaga. He was merciless, fearless and impartial in dishing out punishment and miseries to opponents. He was set up in camp at Ogan, the village across Orhionmwon River from Abudu town, facing Ika vassal territories. From there he monitored activities including possible rebellion and commercial traffic from eastern flanks and beyond, of the Edo Empire. When Ezuku died, he was deified.
Another very successful military commander of the Edo army at the time, was Iken. He was probably more successful than Ezuku, but was never acknowledged, honoured, or rewarded for his valor by the monarch. His problem at that early stage of Edo’s conquest of foreign lands was probably because he was a son of the soil. Here was a native son vanquishing and beheading alien kings, signing treaties, and turning kingdoms into vassal territories of his monarch. His feats were enough to propel him to the top of leadership in his native land, if not immediately as king, at least, as an alternative voice or a strong contender, challenger, aspirant to the throne, in the eyes of the people. His feats were definitely enough to make him the Iyase, (i.e. leader of all the chiefs, second in command to the Oba) and prime minister of Edo land.
His spiritual prowess, intimidating aura of success, abundant confidence, pride and bravado, were too strong for the chiefs, scared that he would not only be too powerful if made the leading chief or even just a chief, both of which he had earned in war exploits and trophies, but that his influence would almost totally eclipse theirs. The chiefs did not have this problem with Ezuku because Edo people do not give their chieftaincy titles to non-indigenes. Shoving Ezuku to the outskirts of the kingdom with dignity and respect was enough to keep Ezuku happy and in check.
Iken was not only deprived of honour and respect for his military victories for Edo people, he was relatively poor compared to the chiefs, and he had only one wife who unfortunately could not give him a child. The Oba, who routinely dished out lavish gifts, titles, and his daughters in marriage to lesser achievers in the society, appeared not to reckon with Iken, perhaps because no one, not any of the chiefs, would put in a good word for him in such matters in the palace. If anything, they played the devil’s advocate at every opportunity against Iken.
Iken gradually began to worry more and more about how he was being treated by the society he had served so well and was ready to die for. One day, he decided he had had enough. He would no longer go to war for Edo people, socialize with them and their chiefs, or even visit the palace for whatever reason. He began rebuffing invitations from the palace, ignoring entreaties and visits by emissaries, regardless of the quarters from which they came. This was happening at a time when the vassal kings of Akure and Ekiti were refusing to continue to pay due tributes to the Edo monarch, and were even threatening war.
The palace needed Iken to deal with the two rebelling vassal kings so the palace began pestering Iken with messages, invitations, and visits by respectable emissaries, until he succumbed, visited the palace, and agreed to take on the rebelling vassal monarchs. By the time he was ready to go to war, Ekiti Oba had withdrawn his threat and returned to being a loyal vassal to the Edo monarch. As soon as he left Edo with his troops for Akure, Edo chiefs immersed themselves in extensive wizardry, intended to prevent Iken from returning to Edo alive, even if he succeeded in the war against Akure.
Akure battle, laced copiously with witchcraft, was tough. Several lives were lost before Iken could subdue the Akure army. After beheading their king and sending trophies of his triumph to the Edo monarch, he embarked on an inspection tour of his conquered territory, Akure. At the Akure palace, a pretty daughter of the Akure king played on his libido, offering him favours right there and then, and pretending to want to serve as war booty and the nucleus of a new harem. He fell for the bait but had to remove his clothes, including his spiritual war regalia responsible for his invincibility in war, to be able to get down with the princess. As he was about to climb on the bed naked with the princess, her accomplices pounced on him to machete him to death.
When the news reached the Edo monarch, and he found out the role his chiefs had played in the matter, he was sorry. He then created the title of Edaiken (Eda-iken) (meaning holding forth for Iken, or looking after Iken’s household, affairs, and interests) until he returns, as the title for the Crown Prince and Oba in-waiting of Edo kingdom.
Oba Ewuare initially considered adopting the Ogiso succession format of first son inheriting the throne so, he made his first son, Prince Kuoboyuwa, the Edaiken, and appointed his second son, Prince Ezuwarha, the Duke (Enogie) of Iyowa. Ezuwarha was not happy about not being allowed to aspire to rule after his senior brother’s turn. After all, that was how his father became king, he reasoned. In a quarrel over the issue, the two brothers died on the same day. After a prolonged mourning period, accompanied with elaborate rites for the two dead sons were called off, Oba Ewuare consulted the oracle and was advised to blend the bloodlines of the Obas with that of the Ogisos, to ensure stability in the succession issue.
The search for a maiden of marriageable age and descending directly from the last Ogiso, produced Omuwa from Udo town in Ovia. She gave Oba Ewuare, two sons, Ezoti and Okpame. Oba Ewuare had another son, Olua, by a different mother from Omuwa’s children. Oba Ewuare asked his chiefs to do a personality assessment of who would make the best Oba from among his three sons. The chiefs could not recommend any of the children for the throne.
They described Ezoti, the oldest of the three sons, as stingy and likely to plunge the kingdom into prolonged hunger if he became Oba. Olua, the second in line, was described as a spend thrift (okpetu kporozo) who would take less than three lunar months to squander the Oba’s wealth, built up over a number of centuries, on silly and irrelevant programmes just to look good in the eye of the public. As for Okpame, they believed he would plunge the kingdom into endless warfare because his only passion, and things that gave him happiness, had to do with the sword.
Oba Ewuare, perplexed that none of his sons would make a good Oba, decided to stop bothering with innovations and return the kingdom to the “equality of siblings” process, which would guarantee the three sons, ruling in turn.
Naiwu Osahon is a Nigerian historian and academic.