One of the most prominent examples of a West African people claiming an origin in the East comes from the Yoruba whose tradition has intrigued those who have seen influences from ancient Egypt in Yoruba art, customs, and religious practice. According to Yoruba myth, the national origin is traceable to Ife where Oduduwa, a prince of Mecca, came seeking refuge from Muslim persecution and remained to live among the local people. Oduduwa's children became the progenitors of the several Yoruba nations, including the Oyo who later became the founders of a large and powerful empire.

What can be inferred from this tradition is that there were invasions of the forest country from the north, one of these being associated with the name of Oduduwa and occurring about l000 A.D. at a site called Ife. It is very probable that there were people already living in the forest and that the intruders came in a series of discrete waves, deferring to Ife as the spiritual source of the Yoruba people but granting it no political primacy. That Ife was an important center may be inferred from the splendid art she produced at this early period, but there could have been no genuine unity among the Yoruba who never even provided themselves with a national name--the term, Yoruba, originating during the nineteenth century, applied not by the Yoruba themselves but by outsiders to describe a series of city-states where variations of the same language were spoken.

Tradition began to give way to historical fact with the formation and development of the state of Old Oyo. Founded according to tradition by Oranmiyan, a son or grandson of Oduduwa, it probably dates from the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century A.D., after which it quickly became politically predominant throughout Yorubaland, its authority extending at its height during the eighteenth century north to the Niger, south to the sea, east as far as Benin, and west to include the kingdom of Dahomey. The Oyo empire was not a centralized monolith but consisted rather of layers of states with varying loyalties to the center. Most closely connected was metropolitan Oyo, which was directly administered. Next came provinces closely allied with Oyo, then provinces with considerable local independence where Oyo exercised only suzerainty, and finally autonomous states, which had been conquered by Oyo and were forced to pay tribute.

Clearly, this empire functioned as effectively as its system of communication, the vigor of its rulers, and the efficiency of its army. At the head of the state was the alafin of Oyo, a powerful monarch but by no means a thoroughgoing autocrat. Surrounded by a complex of palace and state officials, the alafin was considered sacred, but was in important respects the creature of the people, or at any rate, of those who wielded political power. These were the Oyo Mesi, the aristocratic leaders of the seven wards of the capital city who formed a council of state and were responsible for selection of each new alafin. This enormous authority also worked in reverse for the Oyo Mesi could condemn a deficient king to death by suicide, thus placing a powerful check on any tendency toward royal tyranny. Furthermore there was the Ogboni, a secret society of religious and political leaders who had the power to review decisions of the Oyo Mesi, including the repudiation of the alafin. In the provinces were obas, or princes, drawn from the local ruling lineages and exercising considerable autonomy provided it was accompanied by regular payment of tribute.

That the Oyo empire remained virile until late in the eighteenth century is tribute to the ability of numerous kings who, like the legendary Sango or Ojigi, the eighteenth century conquerer of Dahomey, were able to govern effectively despite the customary limitations placed upon their rule. There were other factors contributing to imperial strength, however; for example, the tradition that decreed death to defeated generals, a strong system of administration at least within metropolitan Oyo, a steady stream of revenue in tribute and taxes to feed the treasury, and a certain degree of cultural and linguistic cohesion among the people living near the capital.

Despite their imperial status, the people of Oyo lived simply. Their mud houses were roofed with foliage and modestly furnished. Dress was rudimentary, although personal cleanliness was scrupulously observed, and whenever a dirty or unkempt person was encountered it was sure to be a sign of mourning. The people were of an unassuming and virtuous disposition; crime was consequently rare and submissiveness to one's superiors was a standard rarely violated. Being compliant by nature, the Oyos were more diplomatic than forceful, even appearing in extreme circumstances to lack straightforwardness. This characteristic was accompanied by an ambiguity in speech as well as a shrewdness in commercial dealings for which they were widely renowned.

It was during the seventeenth century that the Oyo empire began to develop on a large scale, and under the warlike alafin, Ajagbo, reached out toward the coast. With the eighteenth century came the conquest of the kingdom of Dahomey when Dahomey attempted to dispute Oyo's coastal outlets. Under Ojigi (c.1698 c.1732) and his successors, first the slaving center of Allada and then Dahomey proper were invaded and devastated, but Oyo was unable to occupy the enemy territory and had to be content with tribute which consisted of men and women as well as military supplies and cash payments in cowries. Apparently at the height of her powers, Oyo was in fact already overextended and began to lose strength when the royal line came under the domination of Gaha, the bashorun, or head, of the Oyo Mesi, who seized power in 1754 and held it until he was overthrown about 1774. Although with Alafin Abiodun (1754-1789), the royal line had managed to re-establish itself and to maintain domination over an increasingly restive Dahomey, the Egba subgroup of the Yoruba successfully asserted their independence toward the end of the eighteenth century as did others including the Bariba people of Borgu, and the Nupe. By the opening of the nineteenth century, Oyo was facing a protracted civil war which was to sap the energies of the Yoruba throughout the century, and which was brought to an end only with the British intervention in Yorubaland in 1893.

Though there were complex factors at work, the decline of Old Oyo was the result of basic weaknesses within the Yoruba community. In the first place, the empire had become too unwieldy and its lines of communication and supply overextended, thus inviting revolt in the provinces. Such defections might have been off set by strong leadership within Oyo itself but in fact it was at this very time that internal dissension robbed the administration of its essential vigor. The rule of Gaha seriously weakened the web of authority around the alafin, and this in turn meant indecision within the government and a decline in the effectiveness of the army. Other pressures took their toll. For example, there was the rise of coastal trade, particularly in slaves, which swung the center of economic gravity southward away from Oyo; another factor was the growing influence of Islam in the north, but essentially the fault was internal. In the final analysis, as they were to demonstrate during their nineteenth-century civil wars, the Yoruba had little internal cohesion and were incapable of living and working together in peace.

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