The Day the ‘White Man’ entered Abeokuta

The Egba people were peaceful forest dwelling members of the Yoruba nation of whom nothing was known until their 18th century uprising against the central authority of the Oyo Empire.

The liberation took place around the year 1780 under the leadership of Lisabi, a resident of Igbehin, who was born in Itoku, who freed the Egba by organizing the simultaneous killings of the Ajele or the Ilari in all Egba towns, starting from Igbehin. In all, more than 600 of them were wiped out in one day.

Ilaris were the representatives of the Alaafin and collectors of the tribute paid to the treasury of the Alaafin from all territories under the Oyo Empire.

These Ilaris behaved like an Army of Occupation in the places they administered. Their oppressive rules mark them out as instrument of oppression and suppression of the people. It was the reckless lifestyles of these Ilaris in Egbaland that threw up Lisabi and his colleagues who resolved to bring an end to the evil rule at all cost where they killed the Ilaris in their midst.

Image of Olumo Rock, Abeokuta
The Olumo Rock, Abeokuta, 1826/LitCaf.

As soon as the news reached metropolitan Oyo, the Balogun wasted no time in dispatching an Army to crush the Rebellion. However, the Egba anticipated the revenge and had factored it into their plan. The Army of vengeance was defeated and the freedom of the Egbas from the yoke of the Alaafin was sealed.

Movement to Abeokuta

About forty-nine years later, in 1829, Lamodi of Igbehin, who was also the Balogun of the Egba, living in Maye’s camp in Ibadan, decided that the Egba should find a way of escape from Maye’s harrasment. The Egbas had heard about Abeokuta earlier on, in their quest for a place with good security to settle in. They sent Sobookun, the Chief of Ilugun, and others to bring a handful of earth and the result was fruitful.

It should be pertinent to note that the Egbas did not get to Abeokuta at the same time in 1830. The first batch to arrive Abeokuta consisted of Egba Alake, Oke Ona, and Gbagura, in that order. Later, Olufakun led the Owu to Abeokuta. Lamodi lost his wife in an epic battle while trying to prevent his first son, Osota, from being captured by Maye’s army, who were pursuing the Egba. But before he died, he handed over the mantle of leadership to Sodeke, the Seriki of the Egba.

It was Sodeke, who led the Egba Alake into Abeokuta. Balogun Olunloye led Egba Oke-Ona while Oluwole Agbo led the Gbagura to Abeokuta.

Abeokuta

It was revealed that an Iloko chief named Idowu Liperu had earlier been living in the settlement. He had crossed the Ogun River and settled on a farmland, where three hunters, namely Jibulu, Ose and Olunle joined him. Unlike Liperu who erected a house with the assistance of the then Olubara Lafa, the three hunters lodged in caves under the Olumo Rock. It was them who told the Egba delegates, who came to take soil samples, about the Rock.

Later, a farmer named Adagba and others moved to Olumo to join Liperu and the three hunters, who had settled there. Adagba was a brave man, who had his farmland located very close to the Olumo. The settlement was called “Oko Adagba (Adagba’s farm),” the other name for Abeokuta.

“Olumo means built by the Lord.” However, historians maintained that the meaning of Olumo is “Oluwa fimo” meaning God put an end to our hostility against our enemies and their sufferings.”

Abeokuta is also known as “Abe Olumo”. Abeokuta means “Under the rock.”

Between 1830 and the turn of the century, the settlers in Abeokuta were forced to fight several wars mostly for the survival of the emerging settlement.

In 1832, the Ijebu-Remo people provoked the new settlers into taking arms against several Ijebu-Remo towns in the Owiwi war.

In 1834, an attempted Ibadan invasion also challenged them into a war which resulted in the heavy defeat of the Ibadan army at the Battle of Arakanga which manifested the potency and indispensability of the warriors of the Owu settlers who had only recently been convinced by Sodeke to settle with them in order to boost the new settlement’s defences.

The Arrival of the White Man

In 1839, just nine years after the founding of Abeokuta, the Egbas (who had been liberated in the slave trade and settled in Sierra Leone where they received the education of the Europeans and became Christians) began to move to, firstly Badagry, Lagos and then to Abeokuta (when they heard that their people had left the Egba forests).

On December 19, 1842, Reverend Henry Townsend (1815-1886) landed in Badagry. He had been sent by the Christian Missionary Society (CMS) in England to garner more information about the Yoruba country and especially the Egba people who had desired the presence of the missionaries in Abeokuta.

Image of Reverend Henry Townsend
Reverend Henry Townsend (1815-1886).

When Townsend got to Badagry, he discovered he had been preceded by “Messengers of Peace”, the Methodists led by Reverend Thomas Birch Freeman had established a mission in Badagry. In fact, Freeman had visited Abeokuta on December 11 at the invitation of Sodeke and had just returned to Badagry when Townsend arrived and the account Freeman gave of his reception in Abeokuta encouraged Townsend.

On Wednesday, January 4, 1843, Townsend reached Abeokuta. A party of horsemen was sent to welcome him and it was a grand reception. Many of the Egba indigenes left their markets and homes to catch a glimpse of the ‘white man’ as they greeted him in English: “How do you do, white man? How do you do, you that are coming?”

Image of  Thomas Birch Freeman

The Reverend Thomas Birch Freeman (1809-1890) was the first foreign missionary to enter Abeokuta. He was of mixed ancestry (black father and white mother). He started the Methodist Church (Ìjọ Elétò) in Nigeria/Wikipedia.

Since Townsend’s coming had already been predicted by Ifa, Sodeke received him warmly and made the clergy sit on his lap, a sign of sincere acceptability and hospitality. His four wives were also present.

Other chiefs who played hosts to the guest were Okukenu, Ogundipe, Osundare, Ogundeji and Ogunsona. Since Ake meant several things to the Egbas, it was decided that the august visitors be quartered there and they were given three acres of land to build on.

On Sunday, January 8, 1843, the first Church service was held in Abeokuta and the message was preached by Townsend from the Bible book of Luke 14:12-24. The service was held in Chief Sodeke’s house and Andrew Desalu Wilhelm (c.1820-1866), the Egba ex-slave who was already a catechist and had accompanied Townsend from Badagry, served as the interpreter.

One week later on Tuesday, January 10, 1843, Reverend Henry Townsend had to go back to England via Sierra Leone for his ordination and Sodeke gave him gifts which included an elephant tusk, a big white goat and twenty cowries in a covered calabash.

While he was away, Wilhelm oversaw the work in Abeokuta and Christianity grew tremendously.

Townsend returned briefly to England to get prepared for the mission work in Abeokuta. He was joined in August 1846 by a native and one of the Sierra Leonean freed slaves, Reverend (later, Bishop) Samuel Ajayi  Crowther (c.1809-1891).

The activities of the missionaries touched the people in many ways. Apart from the social rejuvenation encountered, the people had started profiting in ginnery and cotton exportation, which commenced in 1849. Human sacrifice and slavery was also suppressed.

The first newspaper in Nigeria, Iwe Irohin, was published in 1859 in Abeokuta and the Bible was first translated into the Yoruba language in 1862.

In order to demonstrate the effectiveness of legal trade, missionaries facilitated the admission of European merchants to Abeokuta. Nobles of the town started to cultivate good etiquettes through examples of these foreigners. Other neighboring towns, hearing of the prosperity of Abeokuta, invited missionaries into their midst which led to the opening of stations at Oyo, Ibadan, Iseyin, Ife, Ilesa and other Yoruba towns.

Sources

Townsend, Henry: Dictionary of African Christian Biography

LitCaf Encyclopedia

Tucker, Sarah (1853), Abbeokuta; Sunrise Within the Tropics. Pg. 84-93.

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