Itsekiri People

Early Records of the Itsekiri People

Professor Saburi Biobaku, the chairman of the Yoruba Historical Research in his book titled “Odu” volume 4 said “ The history of the WARRI Monarchy and the ITSEKIRI People history is one of the best documented in NIGERIA, beginning from the great YORUBA migrations of the 12th Century.” He said this, in reference to the great migration of the 9th to 12th century that saw the movement of Yoruboid speaking people and communities from various parts of what makes up the Yoruba people today to the current location of the Itsekiri people and some part of the lower Niger.

This can be substantiated from the History of Ureju, Omadino and other communities that made up what the Itsekiri people called Aboriginal communities. They all trace their migration from various Yoruba areas to their current location around the 9th to 12th century. We also have some of the Okotomu Irigbo people that trace their Origin from Igala land. This migration form the earliest records of the history that shaped what is known today as the Itsekiri history.

When these migrant moved down to their current location, did they meet anyone on ground? It is of interest to note that Sir William Moore in his book “The History Of Itsekiri” page 22 had this to say “When the Kingdom of Iwere was founded, there was no nation or tribe known as the Sobo on the coastline of Warri River, nor was there any settlement on the land besides those of Ode-Itsekiri. However, there were of course the four large Sobo towns far away in the hinterland and as already stated, Ugo, Agbassa-Oto, Iyede and Ughelli, the people of which had all come from Benin at different periods.” From the above account of William Moore and other collaborative information from the various itsekiri aboriginal communities, it is easy to come to the conclusion that the Itsekiri were the first people to settle in their current location.

For us to have a more in-depth understanding of this, let us take a peep at the records on the division of Benin Kingdom as recorded in pre colonial times. It is pertinent for us to note that the word Benin was for long used in reference to geographic location made up of various ethnic groups not an ethnicity of people.

John Leighton Wilson 1856, Page 192 in his book “Western Africa: Its History, Condition, and Prospects” has this to say about Benin “Many years since the kingdom was divided into two minor provinces, one of which is still known as Benin, and the other as Ware. the capital of Benin, covers a large extent of ground, but does not contain, according to Captain Adams, more than 15,000 inhabitants. The town and island of Ware, which is the principal sea-port and commercial depot of the kingdom, has a population of something like 5000 inhabitants.” From the above, we can deduct that Warri (Iwere, Oery, Aweri, Itsekiri) was once an important part of Benin.

Let us take a look at the account of the early Portuguese that came to that region.

In A.t.t. Livro das Ilhas (fol. 6lv.-62r. 20 March 1500) the Portuguese said “We arrived Oeyre, a port of Benin on the 6th day of March 1486.” The name of this port occurs several times in documents of this period with variant spellings that makes it clear that the Portuguese were using the local name (A.t.t . Corpo Cronologico Nov. 1516), Ovyere, Oere.

From the early record, it is easy to say with confidence, that most of the people that made up Warri Kingdom and the Itsekiri nation came from the South West of Nigeria and settled in an area later known as Benin which has Iwere (Ovyere, Oere, Oeyre) as its principal port.

The Itsekiri Language

The people we call itsekiri today, have they always spoken this same language as they do today? In the History of Itsekiri by William Moore 1936, we were told that when Prince Ginuwa left Benin to Warri, he changed the name of the people’s language to Itsekiri in honour of the leader of the people he met called Mr Itsekiri. If we were to accept this as said, it meant that the people spoke a language before Ginuwa arrived, we don’t know the name of the language but we know Ginuwa changed the language name. In order to help us identify the type of language we will have to rely on historical record from that period.

In 26-12-1640 Columbin de Nantes, Report to Propaganda Fide: proposes a mission. Father Columbin’s has this to say about the language of the inhabitants of Benin: “In this kingdom the people are very easily led to embrace the Faith, and priests can live here with greater ease than in other parts of Guinea because of the healthy climate, the fertility of the soil and because the people are more generous. Their language is simple: it is called the Licomin language and is universally used in these parts, just like Latin in Europe”. A.S.C Lettere di Germania, Francia, Fiandraea, Inghilterra, 1641. vol.83. fol. 379-80. “Licomin’ was a vague name for the inland Yoruba-speaking peoples.

Interestingly, there are still remnants of the Olukunmi (Licomin) speaking people. Their language is closely related to the Itsekiri language than the Western Yoruba language. Let us also see what an eye witness has to say about the language of Warri and Benin in the 18th century.

In Memoires du capitaine Landolpe, contenant l’histoire de ses voyages pendant trente-six ans, aux cotes d’Afrique 1820 Jean Francois Landolphe [(1747-1825)] Said “In the past, Owhère and Benin were one kingdom. ….. The language and customs of the two states are the same. There is however this difference that the king of Owhère does not make any human sacrifice that there are three classes of nobility in Benin, and only two in Owhère.”

It is important for us to note that Jean Francois Landolphe a French captain came to Warri in 1768 to set up a French colony in Warri. He had regular visit to both the king of Warri and Benin and lived in Warri up till 1789. His memo was published into the above mentioned book shortly before he died. So his accounts or Benin and Warri can be accepted as eyewitness report.

From the letter of Father Columbin’s above and the eyewitness account of Captain Landolphe, we have been able to have a better knowledge of the historical background of the Itsekiri language. We can confidently say that the Itsekiri have always spoken a language close to what they speak in this modern day, Yoruboid language.

Location of Warri Kingdom

Let us dive into historical records to see what was written about Warri Kingdom location. 1571-4 mission to Warri 1620 Pedro da Cunho: Ad limina report stated “Besides these three islands, there is a town of Christians on the continent in the kingdom of Warri, called St. Augustine, because its people first received the Faith from religious of the Hermits of St. Augustine. One of them, called Brother Franciscus a Matre Dei, baptized the present king at the time he was still a prince and successor designate. He gave him the name Sebastian, after the then king of Portugal. That religious was a truly apostolic man, and had such authority over the barbaric people that in front of them, to the great amazement of all, he destroyed a tree that was very popular for incantations and diabolic superstitions among them. For they thought it would be impossible for their gods to put up with such an insult and that the religious himself who was the author of the insult could survive unpunished, as he did. After this religious went back, the bishops of that time agreed to send a priest to the king to reside with him and exercise the work of pastor”.

Diogo da Encarnação: Appeal for priests 27-9-1584 read “There is another king in Rio Forcado [ Warri] who is already Christian, but is calling for priests, because he has none in his kingdom. The record of Diogo do SS. mo Sacramento: 14-12-1584 read “There is another king of what is called Rio Forcado, which is in alliance with the Priester John and Congo, who is already Christian. He also calls for priests so that they can do baptisms in his kingdom.”

The above are some of the earliest recorded history on this part of West Africa and everyone of them identified Warri as an independent kingdom.

Do we have idea of the boundaries of the Kingdom of Warri? The ancient boundary of kingdom of Warri covers both bank of Benin River down to river Calabar. This we can see from John Barbot 1682 and extract from Captain Landolphe Memo 1820 below.

John Barbot (1678 – 1682) A description of the coast of North and South-Guinea; and of Ethiopia Inferior , vulgarly Angola :being a new and accurate account of the Western maritime countries of Africa in six books London 1732.

In this chapter, I shall speak of the kingdom of Ouwere or Forcado, and of the coast from cape Fermosa, where the Ethiopian gulph or bight of Guinea commences, to the river of new Calabar or Calbary. Captain Okro September 1786 (Captain Okro is Chief Okorodudun, a Chief Of Ogiame Erejuwa I A.K.A Sebastiao Manuel Octobia 1760–1795). Landolphe’s memoirs “The sovereign of this state owns not only both banks of the Benin river but also all the rivers of these parts as far as the tributaries of the Calabar”.

In part two we are going to look at the foundation of the kingdom, a critical look at Prince Ginuwa from the Benin and Warri historic records, the spread of itsekiri people and the infusion of some other tribes into the Iwere race.