Origin Of The Yoruba According To Professor Saburi Biobaku - THE DAILY CRUCIBLE



Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Origin Of The Yoruba According To Professor Saburi Biobaku


I consider it a very great honour to be asked by the Nigerian Broadcasting Service to give the first series of talks which they have named “Lugard Lectures.” Lord Lugard should need no introduction to a Nigerian audience; for as Sir Frederick Lugard, he was the architect of the amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914 and he was the first and only Governor-General of Nigeria, as distinct from the new Federation of Nigeria. He held the reins of his high office from 1914 to 1918. There is much that we owe to Lord Lugard: he pacified the country, gave it a firm and just rule and based that rule largely upon the indigenous institutions of the country. He was the Father of Indirect Rule and later the eloquent and influential advocate of the concept of Dual Mandate in the administration of subject peoples.

Moreover, he stood for many years at the head of the International African Institute, an organisation which encourages research into African problems and enables scholars from many nations to keep others interested informed of the results of their labours. Through the Lugard Lectures the Nigerian Broadcasting Service afford an opportunity to the public to hear of some research, the result of which has not so far been published. You will see at once how appropriate it is to name such a series of talks after the late Lord Lugard, whose political services as well as intellectual activities in the interest of Africa were so outstanding. My own subject which is historical is indeed a felicitous choice when we link the name of Lady Lugard with that of her husband. Flora Shaw, later Lady Lugard, was a great pioneer, and forerunner of historians of Nigeria. The very name derives from her and we owe much to her early work on various Arab sources of the history of the Sudan in general, and of Northern Nigeria in particular. Her book, ‘A Tropical Dependency’ is an important work which links our country firmly with the great medieval Sudanese empires of Ghana, Melle and Songhai. In a sense, my aim is to penetrate a little deeper the areas which she traversed and track down the origins of one of the many peoples that now inhabit the Federation of Nigeria.

   The problem of origins is a fascinating one. The origin of Man and of the Universe itself may for ever be a subject for speculation and is certainly one of divine revelation in most religions. The origin of a particular people, however, is one that anyone can trace with the aid of History and allied disciplines. The origin of the Yoruba is, therefore, a historical subject and I have for some years now delved into the past of the Yoruba peoples in the hope of arriving at their origin. First I must warn my listeners straight-away that my search is by no means over. Work continues and what I hope to do in the present series of talks is to give a progress report.

Indeed a historian cannot afford to be dogmatic. In his craft, he examines all the evidence available to him and reconstructs the past in the light of the various sources within his reach. If another historian were to come across fresh documents, a new light is thrown on the subject and much of what the first historian has written may be modified or even invalidated. Nonetheless the duty of the historian is to study his subject and record the past as he sees it and thus afford a basis for others to work upon in the ceaseless search for “what really happened?”. 

   The difficulties in the way of the historian in reconstructing the past from documents are many and varied. But they are nothing to be compared with the difficulties which beset a traditional historian who aims to recapture the past of non-literate peoples. Written documents are the normal raw materials of History: the traditional historian must find some other kind of straw with which to make his bricks. The task is difficult but the challenge is compelling. In this series of talks I hope to show how both written documents and other sources can help us in our search for the origin of the Yoruba peoples.

   I come now to define whom I mean by the Yoruba peoples. Today, Yoruba-speaking peoples inhabit a small part of the Northern Region and the major part of the Western Region of Nigeria and overflow into French Dahomey. In the rest of Western Nigeria, the Jekri are an offshoot of the main Yoruba stock and the Oba of Benin and his immediate nobility can trace their descent back to Ife, the Yoruba Holy City. Younger members of the Benin ruling House founded principalities in the Ibo country even across the Niger, although Onitsha was the farthest they established before the British came. Their influence also extended to the Creeks, notably at Nembe in the Brass District.

   Very few of the non-Yoruba-speaking peoples just mentioned will acknowledge their connection with Yoruba stock. Nor did many an Egba, Ijesha, Ijebu, Ekiti, or even Ife call themselves ‘Yoruba’ until recently; for Yoruba or Yoba was a name reserved to the Oyo peoples. The Oyo are sometimes called the ‘Yoruba proper’- the Yoruba eponymous and it was their named that was gradually extended to cover all peoples  of the same stock and are now known as the Yoruba-speaking people, although the sub-groups have retained their respective identities. This change was brought about largely owing to the influence of the Anglican Mission which although first based at Abeokuta was named ‘Yoruba Mission’ in keeping with its aim to penetrate the hinterland into the famous Kingdom of the Yoruba with its capital at Eyeo or Oyo. The Anglican Missions evolved a written language and based it on Oyo speech and so provided a standard language which those who spoke other dialects learnt at school and in which they corresponded.

   There is no conclusive evidence so far that there was an earlier name which covered all the Yoruba-speaking peoples and their off-shoots who have now been absorbed into other language groups. As you will hear that later they might have been called after the leaders of their several migrations in the same way as the sub-groups undoubtedly acquired their distinguishing names after the dispersal from Ile Ife. Early in the nineteenth century when Africans who had been liberated from the slave ships by the British Squadron were arriving in Freetown, Sierra Leone, those from the Yoruba country were known as ‘Aku’ peoples and Koelle in his famous ‘Polyglot Africana’ distinguished the various sub-groups-Egba, Ijebu, Ijesha, etc. – and recorded their dialects. Today, the Yoruba are still called ‘Aku’ in Freetown and the name was derived from their mode of salutation, “Eku’ joko”, “Eku’ le” etc. On the other hand in French Dahomey people of Yoruba descent are known as Nagot-Nago or Inago or Anago in general; the sub-groups are also distinguished by their own names.

   I shall use ‘Yoruba’ in these talks to embrace all peoples who are believed to have had a common origin whether they are called Yoruba now-a-days or not, and knowing full well that they might have had an earlier collective name which has been lost. They possess certain essential characteristics in common: they are farmers who dwell in towns; their political institutions are monarchical and yet democratic; their indigenous religion is polytheist but they recognise a supreme deity; they are an artistic people whose skill was once of a high order. The fact that the Yoruba possess a homogeneous culture is noticeable throughout the areas which they inhabit or into which their influence has penetrated.

   I hope in successive lectures in this series to carry you with me to my tentative conclusion on the origins of these peoples. In the second lecture I shall state the opinions of some early and modern writers on the subject and examine them closely in order to see how far they lead us towards our goal. I shall deal with what traditions have to say on Yoruba origins no less rigorously in the third lecture. Whilst I hold the view that tradition has much that is useful to say I shall warn against its inevitable habit of casting everything in the heroic mould. In my fourth lecture I shall describe my own method of approach in some detail. I shall show the place of oral evidence and the value of the art objects and the remains which we have inherited from the past. Then I shall forge a link in my fifth lecture between the origin of the Yoruba and the well-known major migrations in the Sudan. In my sixth and last lecture of the series I shall draw my conclusions.



Many writers have attempted to solve the riddle of the origin of the Yoruba. Some sought through the pages of classical authors with no real success for any allusions that might link the Yoruba with ancient civilisations. From well-known similarities of laws and customs such as Bishop Crowther found while he translating the New Testament into Yoruba, some writers linked Yoruba with the Jews and others identified them with one of the Lost Tribes. One theory follows upon another; each is based on the study of an aspect of Yoruba life, thought or relic.
    In the era of the advent of Christianity in the Yoruba country, the obvious ancient people with which to liken the Yoruba were the Jews. Indeed Bishop Crowther readily noted similarities between his own people and the shrewd Israelites and he revelled in the thought that his Yoruba countrymen were as intelligent and wide-awake as the Jews. Other writers went beyond Bishop Crowther. I shall mention only one; namely Mr Sibthorpe of Freetown, Sierra Leone, who writing in 1909 proudly announced that the Aku or Yoruba were one of the lost Ten Tribes; he found his first proof in the similarity of their traditions and he promised to give more proofs. There is really nothing unusual in this; for many a people whose origin has become obscure has often been identified with the Ten Lost Tribes: one example is the Fulani.

    P. Amaury Talbot in his famous work, ‘The Peoples of Southern Nigeria’, advanced the theory that the Yoruba probably introduced Bronze into modern Nigeria: they came in from the north-east and gave the period as the beginning of the second millenium before the Christian era. According to him the Yoruba were followed later by the Bariba (Borguwa), the Bussawa, Tapa (Nupe) and the Jukun among others. He said that their migration arose from events in Egypt such as Nubian Wars of about 1870 B.C. or the conquest of Egypt a little later by the Hyksos with their bronze scimitars and chariots drawn by horses. Amaury Talbot mentioned that the Yoruba arriving at Ile Ife became adepts in the making of pottery and iron-work and he remarked on the fact that Ogun, the god of Iron, was one of the earliest deities in the Yoruba pantheon. 

    Thus Talbot linked the Yoruba with Egypt and thereby accounted for their material culture and their skill in bronze work. Leo Froebenius, A German explorer, writing his ‘Voice of Africa’ in 1913, propounded a still more interesting theory. He had visited the Yoruba country and had discovered the new famous heads and terra cottas at Ile Ife. Obviously elated by his finds he declared: “this Yoruba, I assert, is Atlantis, the home of Poseidon’s posterity, the Sea God by them named Olokun; the land of a people of whom Solon declared: “They had even extended their lordship over Egypt and Tyrrhene!”  Frobenius claimed that in Yorubaland he had rediscovered the lost Atlantis, the far-famed and mysterious land “far beyond the Pillars of Hercules.” The civilisation of the West crossed the ocean into Africa in the thirteenth century B.C. and the littoral settlements including those of the Yoruba were affected by it. But it soon decayed, leaving the Etruscans as the torch-bearers of civilisation. The Yoruba terra cotta, aspects of Yoruba architecture and religion were so patently Etruscan that mere coincidence must be ruled out; Yoruba civilisation was Etruscan.

   We come next to Samuel Johnson, the historian of the Yoruba. He based his conclusions upon traditional stories of the origin of the Yoruba: I shall examine these traditional accounts in my next talk. Meanwhile, Johnson’s conclusions are that the Yoruba sprang from Upper Egypt or Nubia; that they were the subjects of the Egyptian conqueror Nimrod who was of Phoenician origin and that they followed him in his wars of conquest as far as Arabia, where they settled for a time. The Yoruba were driven from Arabia because they clung to their own form of worship when people around them were going over to Islam. 

    In his learned work on the Religion of the Yoruba Dr Lucas lends powerful support to the theory of Egyptian origin. He shows that the link with Egypt covered almost every period of Egyptian history and he derives the very name Yoruba from rpa or rba, a mythical king in Northern Africa and later a feudal prince in Egypt. Mere intercourse between the Yoruba and Egyptian immigrants was ruled out. Then Dr Lucas concludes that “it would appear that the Yoruba migrated gradually from Northern Egypt to Southern Egypt and then to the Sudan until they reached their present home.”

   Let us look at the various theories a little closely. They all agree upon one thing: namely that the Yoruba migrated into their present areas, they were not the aborigines. All the theories point to a near-Eastern origin. As I have said before, we can discount the Jewish origin; although there is much evidence that Yoruba indigenous religion incorporated Jewish stories but that fact mainly shows that the Yoruba were subject to Jewish influence rather than that they were a Jewish people. Froebenius’s theory of the lost Atlantis and an Etruscan civilisation is interesting and flattering but it cannot be sustained. Certainly there were striking points of resemblance between the Yoruba and the Etruscan culture–glass-ware, water-storage, structures, terra cottas, the ‘templum’ idea, etc.–but the link between the Yoruba and the Etruscan is too tenuous. What was probable was that remnants of Tyrrhenian arts and beliefs filtered through to the north-east by the way of the Carthaginians who were closely allied to the Etruscans. Thus evidence of Etruscan influences suggests that the Yoruba came from the near-East where they were subject to those influences.

   Talbots supports the near-East theory and links the migration with events in Egypt. Johnson pointed the same way and in fact, Talbot merely placed Johnson’s analysis of traditional views in wider historical perspective. Dr Lucas, however was more emphatic on the Egyptian origin and in doing so over-stated the case. This is perhaps inevitable in the philological approach. Proofs that the modern Yoruba language is similar or identical to the ancient Egyptian language easily arouse scepticism and to give the meaning of the word Yoruba as the “living rpa” or the “Creator of rpa” which was adopted as name by worshippers of rpa is open to doubts. Moreover, as I said in my first lecture, Yoruba was originally the name of only one section of the Yoruba peoples and was certainly not the collective name used at Ile Ife, their first settlement in these parts.

   The writers have established that the Yoruba probably migrated from the near-East and Talbot mentioned other peoples who came in at about the same time as the Yoruba. Herman Hodge in his “Gazetter of Ilorin” is emphatic that whatever theories are true of the Yoruba are equally true of the Bussawa–and Dr Lucas has shown that the theory of similarity of language, religious beliefs, customs, etc., between the Yoruba and the ancient Egyptians is applicable to other West African peoples. The important problem that remains is that of dating the migration of the Yoruba and the kindred peoples. 
Talbot said the Yoruba (and he meant the Oyo) arrived between 2000 and 500 B.C. in the local Bronze Age. Froebenius said the Yoruba embraced the culture of West in their Atlantic littoral settlements in the 13th century Before Christ. Johnson said that the Yoruba migrated from Arabia because they rejected Islam and this placed the date of their arrival in these parts not earlier than 7th century A.D. Dr Lucas rightly said that the migration was gradual but suggested no dates.

   It is essential that we should track down the original home of the Yoruba as well as the time when they took to the forest or the desert in search for a new settlement. It is only by intensive research that we can recapture the whole story and even map out their journey. 
It is clear that we shall find very little help besides valuable clues to be followed up in the few books on the subject. I shall in my next lecture, turn to the traditions of the people and search among them for clues especially as to the dates of their wanderings. Traditional accounts have their limitations but in our present search they also have their relevance. 

To Be Continued On Thursday courtesy of Senator Ojudu Babafemi 

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