Oyo Empire

Oyo Empire(1600-1836) was a Yoruba empire, located in present day Nigeria and Benin. Oyo rose to become the most important city state, surpassing Ife during the 1300s. Unlike other Yoruba states, which were located in the forest area, Oyo was situated in woodland savannah. Oyo like all African states on the coast engage in the slave trade. Thousands of Africans were exported to the new world from the ports in Ouidah, Ekpe, Porto Novo, Badagry, and Lagos.











Beginnings


Oyo according to tradition was founded by a descendant of Oduduwa. According to tradition,Nupe conquered Oyo. Oyo arose after 1550 by acquiring horses and organising a strong military cavalry. Eventually Oyo conquered Nupe and started a campaign of conquest of other Yoruba states and neighboring Egba, Egbado, and Dahomey. By 1600, Oyo had emerged a major empire. At her height, Oyo stretched from the woodland grassland in Nigeria to eastern Ghana, going far south to the coast, which was mostly woodland savannah. Oyo achieved her peak in 1650.

Administration


Alafin of Oyo
Oyo was ruled by the alafin and the Oyo Misi, council of noblemen of Oyo. The council had the authority to elect the alafin. The Oyo Misi was responsible for the day to day operation of the empire, running the capital city and local territories. The Oyo Misi was headed by the bashorun, which was an administrative and spiritual designation. The bashorun communicated with the orun, the dual of the alafin. It could be determined by the bashorun that the alafin was unfit to rule and have him deposed. 

The Oyo Misi held sway in largely Yoruba territory but in non-Yoruba conquered territory, representatives were appointed by the alafin. Slaves called Illari would usually occupy these position. Illaris would collect taxes, settle disputes, and thwart intrigues that threatened the power of the alafin. With the spread of the worship of Shango, the power of the alafin grew. Shango was viewed as a protector god of the alafin.

Military

Yoruba Ida Sword

Oyo's army was comprised of cavalry (elesin), archers (olofa), and foot soldiers (elese). Soldiers in the cavalry would be armed with spears, sword, and axes. They would be surrounded by archers. Bows would have a 60 yard range. Arrows would be laced with poison at the tip. Guns would not be used until 1730, after the defeat of Dahomey. Dahomey had to pay Oyo tribute in muskets. Muskets never really took hold in Oyo's army. It was not a deciding factor in Oyo's military victories, as can be seen by Dahomey's defeat.

The military was divided into the capital army and provincial army. The capital army had 70 eso or titled war leaders. Sixteen senior title and fifty four junior titles. Each eso had his own troops, which he raised himself. Title seem to reflect function. The gbonka title for example meant 'leader of the van.' Thirty five eso was always stationed at the capital. Thirty five would engage in battle outside the capital. The alafin also had his own palace slave army. Palace officials, Sarunmi, Are Ago, Osi Iwefa served war functions. In New Oyo, the Osi Iwefa lead the army into battle. Initially, it was the alafin, who lead the troops into battle. During her imperial phase, it switched to the basorun and later the Osi Iwefa.
Oyo Yoruba Ethnic Marks
The Queen Mother also had her own all female army.

Initially, the provincial army was lead by obas and bales of conquered territories. They were expected to raise troops for warfare and defense. Eventually, the obas and bales were replaced by the Are Ona Kakamfo as leader of the provincial army. He was assisted by the Otun Kakamfo and Osi Kakamfo. The empire  proscribed severe penalities for loss battles. The Ona Kakamfo was expected to commit suicide after any loss. 

Economy


The wealth of Oyo depended on slaves captured during warfare, used on royal farmlands. Overtime, an overflow of slaves from conquest would be sold to Europeans for goods--firearms, cloth, cowries. European goods would also be traded north in Hausaland. Trade running through the empire from the coast to Hausaland would also be taxed.

Yoruba Architecture


Alafin Palace

The palace or afin of Old Oyo's Alafin, was a 640 acre or 1 square mile compound.

The Yoruba surrounded their settlements with massive mud walls. Their buildings had a similar plan to the Ashanti shrines, but with verandahs around the court. The walls were of puddled mud and palm oil. The most famous of Yoruba fortifications and the 2nd largest wall edifice in Africa is Sungbo's Eredo. It is made up of sprawling mud walls and the valleys that surrounded the town of Ijebu-Ode in Ogun state. Sungbo's Eredo is the second largest pre-colonial monument in Africa, larger than the Great Pyramid or Great Zimbabwe.






Decline


By 1750, Oyo was on the decline. Disputes arose between the alafin and Oyo Misi. Keeping the trade routes became more difficult. Vassal states took sides depending on their interest. The lack of unity weakened Oyo's authority in the territories with already weak control, especially in the forest zones where the cavalry could not adequately tread. Dahomey kept suing for independence and was able to invade Yorubaland in the 19th century. The Fulani Sokoto Caliphate in Hausaland arose bringing Nupe and Yoruba Illorin in its fold. By the early 1800s, Oyo became a diminished state tied within the boundaries of Yorubaland.


Works Cited

Davidson, Basil, Buah, F. K. ,and Ajayi, J.F. Ade(1966). A History of West Africa. Doubleday:New York, pp. Library of Congress Card #66-24317

Shillington, Kevin (2005). History of Africa. Revised 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 191,192. ISBN 0-333-59957-8

Law, Robin(1977). The Oyo Empire (1600-1836) A West African Imperialism In the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade. pp. 183-201 ISBN 0-19-822709-4.

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Tags: nigeria yoruba