The Rise and Fall of the Ancient Oyo Empire
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According to Yoruba legend, the Yoruba race started with a mythic king called Oduduwa who founded Ile-Ife—believed to be the cradle of humanity. Oduduwa’s sons and daughters then established their city-states and reproduced his robust monarchical system therein.

Oyo, founded by Oduduwa’s son, Oranmiyan in the 1300s, was one of such kingdoms. From about 1000-1500, Ile-Ife held its place as Yorubaland's political, economic and religious center. However, as trade routes shifted, Oyo soon overshadowed Ile-Ife’s power and affluence. Oyo rose to become the largest empire in West Africa and reigned supreme in Yorubaland until the 19th century when it collapsed as a result of internal power struggles and external opposition.

The fall of the Oyo Empire reverberated throughout Yorubaland, destabilizing the entire region. For nearly a century after that, the constant breakout of wars led to the abandonment and destruction of several cities. It wasn’t until 1893 when the British military intervened and established a protectorate over Yorubaland, that peace was restored to the region.

The Wealth of the Oyo Empire

The territory of the growing Oyo Empire came to span a variety of environments, including rainforests, dry forests, mangrove swamps, and savannah regions. However, its economy benefitted most from the latter as such regions facilitated transport and trade with neighboring states. Thus, the Oyo economy thrived based on the regional trade of local resources such as okra, yams, dates, palm oil, fish, kola nuts, pepper, ivory, and gold.

The people of Oyo made use of iron-smelting technology to create iron tools and weapons that their cavalry used in war. Via the nearby Niger River, they imported horses and goods from the Mediterranean which had traveled through the Sahara desert and across the savannah belt.

However, the ancient Oyo Empire is perhaps most notorious for its substantial involvement in the slave trade. By the 18th century, about half of Africa’s exported slaves came from the Oyo Empire, the Kingdom of Dahomey, and the Kingdom of Benin, which were all situated on the southern coast of West Africa. The region—which came to be known as the “Slave Coast”—was so central to the slave trade due to its dense population, ease of accessibility to Europeans as well as the structures put in place by Oyo and Dahomey to ease the transport of slaves from interior regions to the coast.

In exchange for their slaves, the people of Oyo received European goods which they could keep for themselves or trade regionally. Some of the slaves who weren’t traded formed part of the internal state structure, for example, many officials in the administration and military were of slave origin.

The Formidable Oyo Empire

Before Oyo was an unstoppable empire, it was a small state with only three settlements, its capital Old Oyo (also Oyo Ile or Katunga), Kusu, and Igboho, which were all located around Ile-Ife. However, the growth of the Oyo economy soon enabled them to establish powerful cavalry units and trained archers who bolstered the empire’s expansion.

Thus, Oyo integrated kingdoms such as Owu and Ede in the southwest, and in the savannah to the north, the kingdoms of Borgu and Nupe. Although, the Nupe seized Old Oyo for a period (1535-1610) before the Oyo kings reclaimed it. In its prime, the Oyo Empire had conquered as many as 13 rival kingdoms, all of which paid tribute to the central government.

By expanding its territory, Oyo hoped to gain control of the profitable regional trade routes along which salt, gold, and slaves were sold. While its expansion efforts were largely successful, the empire faced major opposition from groups like the Ijesha, the Ekiti, and the Kingdom of Benin. The Oyo adopted cultural ideas from some of its conquests, for example, the ancestor worship of the Nupe.

Oyo and Dahomey went to war from 1724-1730 and again from 1738-1748, with Oyo emerging victorious both times. Consequently, Dahomey accepted the political authority of Oyo and surrendered some of its coastal conquests. This gave Oyo access to the sea via the tributary state of Porto Novo (“Ajashe” in Yoruba).

The Decline of the Empire

The Oyo Empire’s government comprised a supreme king (Alaafin) and a council of seven elders (Oyo Mesi) which was led by the Bashorun. Thus, the Alaafin’s ruling powers were not absolute as he still had to answer to the Oyo Mesi—even the Oyo Mesi were subject to checks and balances by a judicial and religious cult called the Ogboni.

The Oyo Mesi essentially acted as a parliament, representing the voice of the people and protecting their interests. The Bashorun served as the commander in chief of Oyo’s army and organized several religious festivals, giving him some military and religious sway over the Alaafin. For instance, the Bashorun was in charge of managing the important Orun festival, during which the Alaafin was unable to leave the palace due to ritual restrictions.

Around the mid-18th century, tensions started brewing in Oyo’s government. While some leaders wished to continue growing the economy through trade, others thought it best to channel Oyo’s wealth of resources into further military expansion. Bashorun Gaa and the Oyo Mesi at the time conspired to oust four successive Alaafins by forcing them to commit ritual suicides. These antics continued until Alaafin Abiodun executed Bashorun Gaa in 1774. Subsequently, he set up an economic policy that focused on the coastal trade with Europeans.

Unfortunately, Abiodun’s excessive focus on the empire’s economy was to the detriment of its army which became increasingly weak. Consequently, the central government no longer had firm control over its vassal states.

Internally, the empire remained divided and politically unstable. Abiodun’s relative, Awole killed him and took to the throne in 1789. Seven years later, Awole was ousted by the revolt led by Afonja of Ilorin, a major military leader. It was this same revolt that led to the separation of Ilorin, which was formerly in the northern part of the empire.

By the 19th century, Islam had begun to spread from the Islamic states in the north to Yorubaland. Hoping to win the favor of Yoruba Muslims, Afonja, now the leader of Ilorin, invited a Fulani Islamic scholar called Alimi al-Salih into his cabinet. Alimi then incited a revolt of the Hausa and Fulani slaves who took care of the horses used by Oyo’s calvary. Hence, Afonja, now backed by both Yoruba Muslims and Alimi’s band of slaves, continued his revolt and conquered some other parts of the Oyo Empire.

However, Afonja fell out with his Fulani allies when he refused to convert to Islam. The Fulani Muslims then decided to take control of Ilorin, eventually defeating and killing Afonja in 1824. Ilorin became a Fulani Emirate, an outpost of the great Sokoto Caliphate. The Fulani also invaded Oyo and sacked its capital in 1835, forcing thousands of people to flee to other territories.

Meanwhile, after Ilorin’s secession, some of Oyo’s other vassal states, including Dahomey, took advantage of the empire’s vulnerable state and fought for their independence. Thereafter, a series of wars ensued throughout Yorubaland.

For the Yoruba, the political decline of the empire had dire consequences as more and more of them were enslaved and shipped off to the New World until the slave trade ended there in the 1850s. Before that time, most of the slaves Oyo sold were from outside Yorubaland.

In 1888, what was left of the once powerful Oyo Empire became a protectorate of Great Britain, with the rest of Yorubaland falling under British jurisdiction five years later.

New Oyo

Today, Oyo refers to both a state in South-West Nigeria and a small city within the state. The city, which is locally known as New Oyo, was founded as the capital of the remains of the former Empire and the new seat of the Alaafin after the fall of Old Oyo. However, the Alaafin is now more of a cultural and spiritual leader than a political authority.

The economy of New Oyo is sustained by agriculture and handicrafts; the town is famed for its carved calabashes, leatherwork, and mat-making. Also noteworthy, New Oyo is home to one of the oldest teacher-training institutes in Nigeria, St. Andrew's College (est. 1897).

Credit: africarebirth


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