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Murderous Rebellion ! 17th Century Yoruba Action and Drama

Murderous Rebellion ! 17th Century  Yoruba Action and Drama

The following is  a true story of subterfuge and rebellion staged in the West African land of the Yoruba, during the unsettled  17th century period of heightened suspicion and disharmony. By this time  the rest of West africa had been the feeding ground of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade for  2 – 3 centuries, and the Trans Saharan Slave Trade since the 8th century.  However, it is said that the Yoruba didn’t come into the  Trans Atlantic Slave Trade  in large numbers until the 18th century. The event below was among the series of wars and clashes that triggered  the watershed.image

Lisabi  Agbongbo Akala was an Egba man who lived in the 17th century in the Egba community of the  Yoruba speaking people of West Africa. He was born in Itoku and lived in Igbehin.

Lisabi set up  a mutual aid society which he called Egbe Aaro . But this was no ordinary cooperative society. They didn’t discuss pricing  or collective bargaining power.  Their secret aim was freedom. Liberation from the firm grip  and tribute payment  in the form of humans and goods to the Oyo empire.

 

Yoruba men 1970s Photo Credits Eliot Elisofon SI website
Yoruba men 1970s Photo Credits Eliot Elisofon SI website

The Alaafin  of the Oyo Empire, which by virtue of acquired  cavalry and ammunition maintained a stranglehold over all of Yoruba land and beyond to the West and slightly North, had  groups  of his men known as the Ilari engaged all over the land. They were his enforcers, his eyes and ears stationed  in the tributary communities.

The Ilari in the Egba community were infamously oppressive and had established themselves as a nuisance to the peace of the people. The King’s messengers were known as Ilari or Are. Ilari wore a special hairstyle with most or half of the hair shaved off . William Fagg captured this image, and has published many photographic books on Yoruba art.

Kings’s messenger, “are”. Shaki. Photo by William Fagg, 1959. Ilari wore a special hairstyle with most or half of the hair shaved off . William Fagg captured this image
Kings’s messenger, “are”. Shaki. Photo by William Fagg, 1959.* 

 

Why or how Lisabi came to take it upon himself to eradicate the Ilari problem of the Egba people is not clear. He was not a king or a leader at the time, the Egba were famous for not having a king. There is a famous saying  “Egbas have no King, they are all of them like masters”.

But one day, under cover of his cooperative society Egbe Aaro, Lisabi and the other members hatched a plot.

The mission? To rise up and kill every single Ilari messenger of the Alaafin’s on Egba land. Absolute secrecy , unquestionable faith in each participant’s ability to perform his , or her, role must have been necessary. Precise timing, and death defying commitment to the mission. There would only be one chance to get it right.

Yoruba elders attending gelede performance Photo credits : Eliot Elisofon 1970s SI Website
Yoruba elders attending gelede performance Photo credits : Eliot Elisofon 1970s
SI Website

At a time when the Yoruba had no single agreed form of written communication ( individuals were known to share codes between themselves) , one can only imagine what method was used to agree the moment to strike, and to share that clue throughout the land undetected by the intended victims.

And to do the deadly deed, what means? Were the men lured into women’s bed chambers and dispatched in their moments of vulnerability? Were they invited to dance dramas  of  which they were the finale? Were they treated to deliciously prepared meals loaded with poison?

What’s sure is that  on that day in 1780,  Lisabi and his men showed uncommon planning acumen, communication skills and efficiency.  Because not only were the murders executed swiftly in Igbehin, but the success of the mission in Igbehin town was replicated simultaneously throughout all the Egba towns in synchronised attacks. An army of 600 or more Ilari were murdered by the townspeople in one fell swoop across Egba land!

Even the army of vengeance sent urgently from Oyo by the Alaafin to quash the insurgency was cut down mercilessly by the ready ranks of Lisabi and his men!

In the Egba forests,  circa 1780 , the Alaafin’s army was humiliated and the Egba freedom from evil oppression of Oyo Empire was won….

Was this the end of oppression and evil for the Egba? Sadly it was not. There followed many decades of war in the 18th century, as the disintegration of the Oyo Empire and the boom of the slave trade exposed the Egba to frequent attacks from neighbours far and near, and led to the founding of Abeokuta as an Egba refuge from war which later became the sprawling town we see today.

 

View of Abeokuta. Photo credits Naijatreks
View of Abeokuta. Photo credits Naijatreks

 

 

 

 

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