1902 Encyclopedia > Yoruba


YORUBA, (or YARIBA), a country of west Africa, occupying the eastern half of the Slave Coast region in 6° -9° N. lat. And 3° -7° E. long. Taken in its widest sense, so as to include the whole domain of the Yoruba race and speech, the Yoruba country stretches from the Bight of Benin northwards in the direction of the unexplored region of Borgu, and from the ill-defined eastern frontier of Dahomey to the Niger and its delta, which enclose it on the north-east, east, and south-east. Within these limits it covers an area of at least 40,000 square miles, with a population roughly estimated at over 2,000,000. but since 1820-21, when the old Yoruba empire was broken up by the Fulah invaders, the northern part, comprised between the Niger and the water-parting of the streams flowing north to that river and south to the Gulf of Guinea, has been included in the Fulah state of Gando. This water-parting, which constitutes the main physical feature of the land, is formed by the eastern continuation of the mountain range which in the Mahi country, north of Dahomey, appears to rise to over 6000 feet (Skertchley), but which in Yoruba gradually falls to considerably under 2000 feet. But towards the east, about the upper course of the river Oshun, the system again rises to what is described as a "a very mountainous country" (Higgins and Smith). The city of Llorin, near the northern slope of the divide, stands at an elevation of a little over 1300 feet, which is probably about the average height of the range in Yoruba. Gerhard Rohlfs, who in 1867 traversed the whole region from Rabba on the Niger to Lagos on the Gulf of Guinea, describes the section north of the water-parting as an open, gently sloping, and highly cultivated plain, to which the profusion of flowering plants gives the aspect of a vast garden. Here abundant crops of cereals, cotton, yams, ground-nuts, and kola nuts are raised. South of the divide the land, which is intersected by the nearly parallel courses of the rivers Ogun, Omi, Oshun, Oni, and Oluwa, falls in continuous undulations down to the coast, the open cultivated ground gradually giving place in the same direction to forest tracts, where the most characteristic tree is the oil-palm. Flowering trees and shrubs are here also plentiful, while the chief cultivated plants are corn, yams, plantains, bananas, tobacco, cotton, okro, ground-nuts, and ata-ile yielding a yellow dye (Higgins and Smith). As the sea is approached, the wooded tracts merge almost everywhere in a broad zone of dense primeval forest, completely separating the arable lands of the interior from the coast lagoons.

These lagoons, lying between the outer surf-beaten beach and the inner shore line, form a navigable highway of still waters, which in many places is several miles in extent. During the dry season the rivers discharging into the lagoons are unable to force a passage seawards; but after the rains they find an outlet, now at one point now at another, while here and there the natives themselves often excavate passages for their boats between the inner and outer waters. Of all the lagoons the most extensive are those of Leckie in the east and Ikoradu (Lagos) in the west. At its northern extremity the later receives the discharge of the Ogun, the largest river in Yuroba, whose current is strong enough to keep the seaward channel open throughout the year. Hence the great importance of the British port of Lagos, which lies in smooth water at the inner entrance of this channel.

From Lagos which, besides Badagry (about 40 miles farther west), is the only station actually occupied by England on this coast, the British Government exercises a sort of benevolent suzerainty over the whole of the Yoruba country. In 1886 it dispatched to the inland tribes two commissioners (Higgins and Smith) for the purpose of bringing to a close the intertribal wars by which the country had for years been wasted, and also of inducing the chiefs to give up the practice of human sacrifices, which, as in Dahomey and Ashantee, though to a less degree, has always prevailed throughout this region. The commissioners obtained and embodied in their reports (Blue Books, 1887) a considerable amount of information regarding the present political and social condition of he Yoruba peoples. Since the dismemberment of their empire by the Fulahs (1820-21) the country has been divided into a number of semi-independents states, chieftaincies, or kingdoms, hanging loosely together, or rather constantly at war, and with a feeble sense of common nationality. The direct representative of the old Yoruba power is the "alafin" or king of the Yoruba country proper, occupying the northern and central parts of the whole region. Round about this central state are grouped the kingdoms of Llorin, Ijesha, Ife, and Ondo in the east, Mahin and Jebu in the south, and Egba in the west. The alafin resides at Oyo, on a headstream of the Oshun, a place which as metropolis of the Yoruba nation has succeeded the older capitals, Bohu and Katunga, lying farther north and destroyed during the wars with the Fulahs. Oyo has an estimated population of 70,000 or 80,000; but it is greatly exceeded in size by several other places in Yoruba Land, where for mutual protection the inhabitants have mainly grouped themselves in large walled towns. Thus have sprung up the great cities of Abeokuta (200,000?), capital of Egba, on the Ogun, due north of Lagos; Ibadan (150,000), on a branch of the Omi, 30 miles south of Oyo, Ilorin (200,000?), one of the great markets of West Africa, capital of the Llorin state: Ogbomosho (60,000), between Oyo and Llorin: Ejigbo (40,000), Ilocu (60,000), and Ikirun (60,000), following successively nearly due east from Oyo, Ilesha (40,000), Oshogbo 960,000), and Ede (50,000), following each other due west in the Ilesha state; Ipetumodu (40,000), in Ife; Ode Ondo (60,000), capital of Ondo; Jebu Ode (60,000), Epe (40,000?), and Lagos (75,000), in the Jebu state and British protectorate. The constitution of some of these great urban groups is most remarkable. Thus Abeokuta, dating from 1825, owes its origin to the incessant inroads of the slave-hunters from Dahomey and Ibadan, which compelled the village populations scattered over the open country to take refuge in this rocky stronghold against the common enemy. Here they constituted themselves a free confederacy of some sixty distinct tribal groups, each preserving the traditional customs, religious rites, systems of government, and even the very names, of their original villages. Yet this apparently incoherent aggregate has since held its ground successfully against the powerful armies often sent against the place both by the king of Dahomey from the west and by the people of Ibadan from the east. The different tribes are clearly distinguished by their several tattoo markings, usually some simple pattern of two or more parallel lines, disposed horizontally or vertically onboth cheeks or other parts of the face.

Notwithstanding their political feuds, the Yoruba people are distinguished above all the surrounding races for their generally peaceful disposition, love of industry, friendliness, and hospitality towards strangers. Physically they resemble closely their Ewe and Dahomey neighbors, but are of somewhat lighter complexion, taller, and of less pronounced Negro features. Their superior intelligence is shown in their greater susceptibility to Christian and Mohamedan influences, their capacity for trade, and their remarkable progress in the industrial arts. Although the bulk of the nation is still pagan, Islam has made great advancement since the cessation of the Fulah wars, while Protestant and Roman Catholic missions have been at work for many years at Abeokuta, Oyo, Ibadan, and other large towns. Samuel Crowther, the first Negro bishop, who was distinguished as an explorer, geographer, and linguist, was a native of Yoruba, rescued by the English from slavery and educated at Sierra Leone.

Although agriculture is the chief industry, such useful arts as pottery, weaving, tanning, dyeing, and forging are practiced in all the towns. The people make their own agricultural implements, extract a palatable wine from the Raphia vinifera, and weave a stout cotton fabric, which was formerly exported to Brazil, but which can now scarcely stand the competition of cheaper Manchester goods even in the home market. But as builders the Yorubas know no rivals in Negroland. The houses of the chiefs, often containing as many as fifty rooms, are constructed with rare skill, and tastefully decorated with carvings representing symbolic devices, fabulous animals, and even scenes of war or the chase.

Before the introduction of letters the Yorubas are said to have employed knotted strings, like the Peruvian quipus, for recording events of historic interest. Their language, which has been reduced to writing and carefully studied by Crowther, Bouche, Bowen and other missionaries, is spoken with considerable uniformity throughout the whole of the Yoruba domain, and has even penetrated with the enterprising native traders as far east as Kano in the Haussa country beyond the Niger. The best-known dialectic varieties are those of Egba, Jebu Ondo, Ife, Llorin, and Oyo (Yoruba proper, called also Nago); but the discrepancies are slight, while the divergence from the conterminous linguistic groups (Ewe in the west, Ibo, Nupe, and others in the east) appears to be fundamental. The most marked feature is a strong tendency towards monosyllabism, which has been produced by phonetic decay, and which, as in the Indo-Chinese family, has given rise to the principle of intonation, required to distinguish words originally different but reduced by corruption to the condition of homophones. Besides the tones, of which there are three,- high, low, and middle,- Yoruba has also developed a degree of vocalic harmony, in which as in Ural-Altaic, the vowels of the affixes are assimilated to that of the root. Inflexion as in Bantu, is effected chiefly by prefixes; and there is a remarkable power of word-formation by the fusion of several relational elements in a single compound term. The Bible and several religious treatises have been translated into Yoruba, which as a medium of general intercourse in West Africa ranks in importance next to Haussa and Mandingan. (A. H. K.)

The above article was written by: Augustus Henry Keane, F.R.G.S., Emeritus Professor of Hindustani, University College, London; late Vice President, Anthropological Institute; author of Stanford's Asia, Africa, Ethnology; Man, Past and Present; etc.

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