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Precolonial History of the Forest and Coast, The Yoruba

Oyo empire, kingdom of Benin, common media, Fulani, bloody civil war

The first well-documented kingdom in what is now southwestern Nigeria was centered at Ife, which was established as the first of the Yoruba kingdoms in the 11th or 12th century. Over the next few centuries, the Ife spread their political and spiritual influence beyond the borders of its small city-state. Ife artisans were highly skilled, producing, among other things, bronze castings of heads in a highly naturalistic style. Terra-cotta, wood, and ivory were also common media.

Shortly after the rise of Ife, the kingdom of Benin emerged to the east. Although it was separate from the Yoruba kingdoms, Benin legends claim that the kingdom’s first rulers were descended from an Ife prince. By the 15th century, Benin was a large, well-designed city sustained by trade (both within the region and, later, with Europe). Its cultural legacy includes a wealth of elaborate bronze plaques and statues recording the nation’s history and glorifying its rulers.

At about the same time as Benin’s ascendance, the major Yoruba city-state of Oyo arose. Situated northwest of Ife, Oyo used its powerful cavalry to replace Ife as Yorubaland’s political center. (Ife, however, continued to serve as the spiritual center of Yorubaland.) When the Portuguese first arrived in the late 15th century, it was the Oyo who controlled trade with them, first in goods such as peppers, which they secured from the northern interior lands and transferred to the southern coast, and later in slaves. In Oyo, as elsewhere throughout coastal West Africa, the traffic in slaves had disastrous results—not just on those traded, who were largely from the interior, but also on the traders. As African nations vied for the lucrative commerce, conflicts increased, and other forms of advancement, both agricultural and economic, fell by the wayside. As a result, when Britain banned the slave trade in the early 19th century, Oyo was hard-pressed to maintain its prosperity. The Oyo state of Ilorin broke away from the empire in 1796, then joined the northern Sokoto caliphate in 1831 after Fulani residing in Ilorin seized power. The Oyo empire collapsed, plunging all of Yorubaland—Oyo, Ife, and other areas—into a bloody civil war that lasted for decades.

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