The Oyo Empire was a large West African empire founded in approximately 1300 C.E. The largest West African empire to exist in present day Yorubaland (Nigeria), it was also the most important and authoritative of all the early Yoruba principalities.
Beginning as simply the city of Oyo, it rose to prominence through wealth gained from trade with both its African neighbors as well as European nations such as Spain and Portugal. Because of its wealth of military skill, the Oyo Empire was the most politically important Yoruba state from the mid-seventeenth to the late eighteenth century, exercising control not only over other Yoruba states, but also over the Fon Kingdom of Dahomey.
The eventual collapse of the empire, which became a protectorate of Great Britain in 1888, was due to internal strife among its political leaders. An empire weakened by administrative disagreements, it lost its ability to govern, and control, its provinces who began to revolt in final years of the eighteenth century.
Discovering the exact dates for the creation of old Oyo has proven troublesome for historians, as the prevalence of oral history in the area has clouded historical fact with the gloss of creativity. Oral history has a particularly strong effect on Oyo history (much more than other contemporary West African empires ) as Yoruba cosmology focuses on an earlier kingdom Ife that provided the foundation for the Oyo Empire. Ife was considered the religious center of the world, and many Yoruba believed that Ife was the site where mankind was first created.
Rise of the Oyo Empire
Formation of the Empire
Early in the sixteenth century Oyo was a minor state, with little power against its northern neighbors. The state was led by Oranmiyan, the founder-king or first Alaafin of Oyo, who gained his position based on a strong reputation as a military leader who waged an excursion heading towards the North-east. He was stopped by the empires of Borgu and Nupe before settling at a site known as Ajaka. Oyo's earlier attempts at expansion were met with resistance, culminating in its being conquered by neighboring Nupe around 1550. When conquered by Nupe, the king (alafin) of Oyo and his senior chiefs sought refuge in Borgu, but soon returned to Oyo.
The power of Oyo began to grow by the second half of the century, when the alafin Orompoto began using the wealth derived from trade to establish a cavalry force and to maintain a trained army. In addition to militaristic expansion, the Oyo empire expanded based on its convenient trade location and ability to manipulate the markets. Located just south of the Middle Niger River the Oyo Empire was a prime position from which to control the prominent West African trade routes to Hausaland, Gao, Timbuktu, and Jenne, and flood those areas with significant amounts of Oyo textiles that were always a precious commodity, as well as with iron goods.
Limits on the power of the Alaafin
The Alaafin, while nominally the sole voice of authority, was unable to exercise complete and unquestioned power. His authority was curbed by the various political institutions of Oyo, particularly the Oyomesi. The Allafin, before making political decisions, was required to consult first with the Oyomesi, which was composed of the heads of the seven non-royal wards of the city. They guided the king in many important matters including military actions and religious festivals. Among the Oyomesi, its leader, the Bashorun, exercised the most control and in many ways rivaled the power of the Alaafin himself. For example, the Bashorun served as the commander in chief of the army and orchestrated many religious festivals, positions which granted him both militaristic and religious authority above the king. Chief among the responsibilities of the Bashorun was the the management of the the all-important festival of Orun. This festival would figure prominently in the rise of the Oyomesi over the Alaafin, as in the eighteenth century C.E. the Oyomesi acquired the power to depose the Alaafin by forcing him to commit suicide during the festival of Orun.
Another limitation on the authority of the Alaafin was the large amount of ritual restrictions that accompanied the position. For instance, he could not leave the palace, except during the important festivals, a fact which severely curtailed his ability to implement his authority outside the palace walls.
Like many political figures throughout history, the Alaafin of Oyo also was threatened by individuals vying for his throne. Most prominent among the challengers for the position was the crown prince, or the Aremo, who did not suffer under the rituals hindering the movements of the Alaafin and was allowed to leave the palace. This led Nigerian historian, Samuel Johnson to observe: 'the father is the king of the palace, and the son the King for the general public'. Often the Aremo, seeing the existing Alaafin as a roadblock to power, would take steps to bring about the demise of the Alaafin and secure the throne for himself.
In addition, the political structures that elected the Alaafin to power proved detrimental to his political authority. Of the three royal wards, the king was chosen from the Ona Isokun ward. The perpetual favoritism shown to the Ona Isokun ward often left the other two royal wards with little incentive to assist the king.
The Alaafin and the divine
The king was regarded as a representative of the spirit world. As such, he was required to devote himself to worship of Orisa. His position as a divine ruler was solidified through various rituals and religious festivals. He was spiritually guided by the chief priest, sometimes referred to as Babalawo (baba lawo, baba which means father and Awo is oracle through which can be seen a vision for the individual or the nation. In this regard, 'baba' actually means 'grand' and not 'father'). While the chief priest was not required to belong to the king's council, he was at the beck and call of the king, and could be summoned at any time to provide spiritual advice. The Babalawo was thought to be in direct communication with the spirits (Orisa) and his advice was weighted with divine knowledge.
The functions of government
The legislative function of the Oyo Empire, like the structure of the government itself, was nominally in the hands of the Alaafin with heavy influence from the Oyomesi. The same structure is also seen in the executive functions of the government, but the Alaafin was assisted in the execution of laws by palace officials, many of whom were slaves (a population that could number up to a few thousand). Regarding the judicial function of the Oyo Empire, the Alaafin acted as the supreme judge and only heard cases after disputes were first ruled on by lesser kings or local chiefs.
The height of the Oyo Empire
Layout of Oyo Ile
The two most important structures in the capital city of Oyo Ile were the Alaafin's palace and his market. Signifying the centrality of the Alaafin to the Oyo Empire, the palace featured prominently in the center of the city within a close distance of the king's market, called Oja-oba. The palace and the oja-oba were surrounded by tall earthen defensive walls. All individuals who wished to enter or exit the city were forced to pass through one of the seventeen gates, an effective method for protecting the city from invaders.
While the Oyo was particularly known for its use of cavalry, the origin of the horses is disputed, as the Nupe, Borgu and Hausa in neighboring territories also used cavalry and may have had the same historical source.  The army was commanded by the Oyomesi, with the Bashorun as the commander-in-chief. Some experts even assert that during wartime, the position of the Bashorun was higher than that of the Alaafin, as he then sat on a higher stool and was allowed to smoke in the direction of the Alaafin, which was normally strictly forbidden.
From 1650 onward, the Oyo Empire entered a period of expansion, where it would extend its rule over most communities between the Volta River in the west to Benin and the Niger River in the east. The expansion of the Empire was made possible by the adept use of calvary and the use of part-time military forces recruited from its tributary states.
The height of Oyo's militaristic expansion was in 1748, following the subjugation of the Kingdom of Dahomey, which occured in two phases (1724–30, 1738–48). The empire then began trading with European merchants on the coast through the port of Ajase (Porto-Novo).
The fall of Oyo Ile
The increase of Oyo's wealth brought conflict among the political leaders; some desired to use the wealth for territorial expansion while others believed it best to use the wealth to grow the wealth even more. A bitter civil war took place during the reign of alafin Abiodun, who after defeating his opponents pursued a policy of economic development based primarily on the coastal trade with European merchants. His sole focus on the economy weakened the neglected military, causing, in effect a weakening of the central government.
Dissension within the Oyo community weakened the empire further. The empire had experienced extensive expansion, which overtaxed the weakened governing system. Revolt in the provinces required a strong administration, which was non-existent by the end of the eighteenth century, due to its internal dissension.
Revolts within the Oyo Empire
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, rivalries began to develop between the Alaafin and and the Afonja, or chief military commander of the provincial army. In the Afonja's struggle for power, he incited Hausa slaves to rise up against their masters and join his military forces. With his army of former slaves, the Afonja began a series of wars with the northern sections of Oyo. He based his operations out of Ilorin, elevating the status of the city to a political stronghold. The series of attacks led by the Afonja resulted in chaos and political instability in Old Oyo, developments that marked the beginning of the decline of the Oyo empire. Ilorin was soon joined by other vassal states, who followed Ilorin's examples and rebelled against the political authority of the Oyo empire.
In the hope of securing the support of Yoruba Muslims and volunteers from the Hausa-Fulani north, Afonja had enlisted an itinerant Fulani scholar of Islam, Alim al-Salih, to his cause. The recruitment of Alim al-Salih, added to furthering the cause of the Afonja even after his death, eventually leading to the razing of Oyo-Ile by the Islamic Fulani Empire in 1835, once Afonja had himself been killed by Fulani.
After the destruction of Oyo-Ile, the capital was moved further south to Ago d'Oyo, accompanied with a shift of Yoruba power to Ibadan, a settlement of war commanders. Oyo never regained its prominence in the region and became a protectorate of Great Britain in 1888.
During the colonial period, the Yoruba were one of the most urbanized groups in Africa, with about 22 percent of the population living in large areas with populations exceeding 100,000 and over 50 percent living in cities composed of 25,000 or more people. This led to an index of urbanization in 1950 that was close to that of the United States (when excluding Ilorin). The collapse of Old Oyo also allowed for former protectorate states such as Ibadan, Osogbo and Ogbomoso to flourish and develop as independent entities. 
- Church Missionary Society, G.31 A.2/1888-9, S. Johnson to the Revd. J.B. Wood, 8 Nov 1887, as cited by Law R., "The Oyo Empire c.1600-c.1836" 71 (1977)
- Robin Law, A West African Cavalry State: The Kingdom of Oyo, The Journal of African History > Vol. 16, No. 1 (1975), pp. 1-15.
- William Bascom, Some Aspects of Yoruba Urbanism, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 4 (Aug., 1962), pp. 699-709.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Brooks, George E. Eurafricans in Western Africa: Commerce, Social Status, Gender, and Religious Observance from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Western African studies. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003. ISBN 9780821414859 and ISBN 0821414860
- Davidson, Basil. West Africa Before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850. London: Longman, 1998. ISBN 0582318521 and ISBN 9780582318526
- Falola, Toyin, and Dare Oguntomisin. Yoruba warlords of the 19th century. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 2001. ISBN 0865437831 and ISBN 9780865437838
All links retrieved November 18, 2022.
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