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Edo Warrior Kingdom Opposed Atlantic Slave Trade

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By Naiwu Osahon (Last update 09/10/2017)

Although over 30 per cent (about a third) of the Atlantic Slave Trade took place in the territory under Edo control, the Bight of Benin region of West Africa, the territory was too vast for the kingdom to police on a day by day and minute by minute basis, to prevent the trade. It was taboo, however, to capture or sell an Edo citizen and because the kingdom reasonably monitored this well, the African Diaspora has no concentration of Edo citizen slaves. Edo Chiefs had thousands of slaves captured in their territorial expansion wars but would not sell any. The Edo belief and saying was: "What level of hunger and deprivation would make an Edo Chief sell his slaves?" Rather than sell, Edo Chiefs helped thousands of slaves to escape from White holding camps in Edo territory. In fact, Edo Oba Eresoyen was shot at in his palace by a White slave merchant because he refused to help with the re-capture of escapee slaves from the White merchant's holding camps, hiding in Edo Chiefs farms in Edo kingdom.

European slave trade in West Africa started with the acquisition of domestic servants in 1522, and warrior kingdoms like Edo (Benin) had plenty of them captured as war booties, but would not sell them. The slave trade was very unpopular with the Edo people. They thought it was silly to sell fellow human beings. Their Obas and nobles were vehemently opposed to the business of slave trade and to the export of the productive fighting male. The Edo, of course, could not control the day to day happenings of the slave merchants, who apparently largely acted under cover at first in the vast territories under Edo hegemony. However, it was forbidden to sell or take a native Edo (Bini) into slavery and so elaborate identification marks on faces and chests were eventually contrived. The Bini, therefore, were hardly ever captured by Arabs or Europeans into slavery.

Oba Ehengbuda (1578 - 1604 CE.) Ehengbuda ascended his father's throne in 1578 CE. While his father, Oba Orhogbua, might be considered a water warrior who made his greatest impact in the lagoon territories, Oba Ehengbuda campaigned mainly on land in the Yoruba areas.

All the warrior Obas, most times, personally led their troops to war. Oba Ehengbuda, while prosecuting his military activities in the Akure area, sustained burns which healed to leave scars on his body. This was systematized in the Iwu body marks which every Edo adult had to acquire to be able to participate in royal and court activities of the land. The markings also served to identify the Edo person for protection during the slave trade. Strong efforts were made to prevent Edo people from being sold into slavery. Edo people openly and actively encouraged and facilitated the escape of slaves from the holding centres in the kingdom and particularly from the Ughoton port.

Alan Ryder, writing on this in his book: Benin and the European, narrated the experience of the Portuguese merchant, Machin Fernandes in Benin as early as 1522: That was during the reign of Oba Esigie.

"Of the whole cargo of 83 slaves bought by Machin Fernandes, only two were males - and it is quite possible that these were acquired outside the Oba's territory - despite a whole month (at Ughoton) spent in vain attempts to have a market opened for male slaves. The 81 females, mostly between ten and twenty years of age, were purchased in Benin City between 25 June and 8 August at the rate of one, two or three a day."

None of the 83 slaves was an Edo person, according to Ryder, and no Edo person could have been involved in the sales. It was taboo in Edo culture. Edo Empire was vast, with a great concentration of people from different ethnic backgrounds, Yoruba, Ibo, Itsekiri, Ijaw, Urhobo, Igalla etc., making a living in the lucrative Ughoton route that was the main centre of commercial activities in the southern area at the time, of what later became Nigeria.

Alan Ryder, recording the experiences of yet another European merchant, the French trader and Captain called Landolphe, in Benin in February 1778, said, "the Ezomo (leading military Chief) was the richest man in Benin, owning more than 10,000 slaves, none of whom was ever sold." The author then commented: "His (the Ezomo's) refusal to sell any of his slaves is also noteworthy for the light it sheds upon the attitude of powerful Edo chiefs towards the slave trade: however numerous they might be, a great man did not sell his slaves." Says Edo people: "vbo ghi da Oba no na mu ovionren khien?" Meaning, "what need does the Oba want to satisfy by putting out his slave for sale?"

Oba Ohenzae's (1641 -1661 CE) Ezomo (Military General and head of the Edo army) was called Ezomo N'Ogun. Ezomo N'Ogun was the first person in the history of Benin to propitiate his own head, (that is to give thanks to the spirit of good fortune) with a live elephant. The incidence helps to demonstrate the demoralizing effect the slave trade had on African communities through deaths, kidnappings, sacking and disappearance of towns and villages, and the truncation of African progress and civilization. Only two other Edo personages have achieved Ezomo N' Ogun's feat of using live elephant in rites. Iyase Ohenmwen achieved it some 170 years ago and Oba Akenzua II pulled it off in February 1936.

Servants sent by Ezomo N'Ogun to capture a live elephant, took 14 days to come home with one. While the richly garlanded elephant, restrained with strong ropes to the legs, arms and body, was being led in procession through the streets to the ritual site, an elderly man, watching from the safety of the verandah of his home remarked rather loudly:

"What is the cause of the rejoicing of these people over the fragment called life?"

Dragged before the Ezomo N'Ogun for his impertinence, he pleaded to be allowed to explain himself and when allowed said:

"My Lord, what I mean is, what is the cause of the rejoicing of these people over the fragment called life when it is possible to capture an elephant within 14 days return journey in the jungle between Benin City and the bank of River Ovia?

A feat that would have been impossible within such a short time during the time of Ezomo Agban.

" The slave trade had gone on for about two hundred years at the time and had taken its toll on the populations and communities around the city of Benin, turning once lively and sprawling towns and villages during Ezomo Agban's time, into a long stretch of thick jungle. The jungle was in fact, so close, it was within 14 days return journey from the Ezomo N'Ogun's backyard in Edo kingdom. Elephants and wild lives were now the close neighbours of the Edo people who were not allowing themselves to be enslaved. Instead of punishing the old man as his persecutors had hoped, Ezomo N'Ogun thanked and rewarded him generously for his wisdom.

Oba Eresoyen (1735 - 1750 CE) had only just ascended to his father's throne when trouble came calling. Commandant Willem Hogg, the resident Manager of the Dutch Trading Station in Ughoton, had for nearly a year been pleading with Eresoyen's father, Oba Akenzua I, to prevail on the Benin Chiefs owing the Ughoton Dutch Trading Station, unsupplied goods on which they had received credit lines. Also, Holland wanted to be allowed to participate in the Ivory trade and break the monopoly the monarch had granted the British and Portuguese ships calling at the Ughoton port. Traders of the two countries were offering better prices for the commodity.

The palace had seemed to Willem Hogg, unwilling to help the Dutch company recapture slaves who had escaped from the Dutch company's dungeons at Ughoton while awaiting their evacuation ship from Elmina Castle on the Gold Coast, to arrive. Half-hearted promises had been extracted from the palace over the issue of the runaway slaves, against the overriding feeling at the palace that it was the responsibility of the Dutch to secure their purchases after taking delivery.

These were the problems weighing on Willem Hogg's mind when he decided to visit the palace to once more seek the help of Oba Oresoyen. In the presence of the Oba and chiefs, while discussing the issues that brought him to the palace, argument developed, leading to the loss of temper. The Dutchman got up from his seat, pulled out his pistol and shot at the monarch who was quickly shielded by his omada (sword bearer.) The omada took the bullet intended for the monarch and died on the spot.

Regicide had been attempted and murder committed, and in the confusion that ensured, Willem Hogg sneaked out of the palace. This incidence explains the reluctance of the Obas of Benin to be exposed to European visitors and why the British Capt. Henry L. Gallwey, Vice Consul for the Benin River District of the Niger Coast Protectorate and his delegation, suffered frustration and delays in March 1892, when they requested to meet with Oba Ovonramwen, to conclude a 'Treaty of Protection' with Benin kingdom.

It was the responsibility of the Ezomo to take remedial action against the Dutchman because security matters for Ughoton gateway were under his portfolio. Ezomo Odia was not at the meeting. He had sequestered on his farm for a little while because of misunderstanding with the palace over the issue of the runaway slaves who had mostly taken refuge at his farm. Most of the other runaway slaves were with other chiefs. This was why progress was not possible on the matter. Since the chiefs do not sell slaves, they did not feel it was their business rallying runaway slaves for the Dutch? That sums up the popular refrain on all lips at the time.

To get Ezomo Odia to return to town, the oracle prescribed that all the princesses of the realm should pay a courtesy visit to Ezomo Odia. The princesses, on being told that Ezomo Odia was at his farm, when they arrived at Okhokhugbo village, braced up for the long journey through shrubs and narrow bush paths. At the farm, they met Ezomo Odia tending his yam crops. Before the Ezomo could ask, to what he owed the honour, all the princesses were down on their knees, between the yam heaps, to greet him and respectfully invite him back to the city.

Ezomo Odia after making peace with the monarch at the palace went to Ughoton to arrest Commandant Hogg, who was brought to the palace grounds in a mouth-gag, with waist manacles. He was executed at the Ozolua Quadrangle. The two Dutchmen subordinate officers to Willem Hogg at the Dutch Ughoton station were not molested in any way. Six months after Commandant Hogg's execution, on instructions from Elmina Castle, the senior of the two officers at the Dutch Ughoton station, one Herr Van Marken, who had taken over leadership of the station, visited the palace to make peace and facilitate the resumption of business between Benin and Holland. Eresoyen subdued Agbor rebellion; settled dispute in faraway Abor; built a house of money with walls, floor paved with cowries.

Naiwu Osahon renowned author, philosopher of science, mystique, leader of the world Pan-African Movement.

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