By the eighteenth century, the Yoruba had distinguished themselves by their well-established traditions of sacred kingship, urbanism, and sculptural arts. These aspects of Yoruba culture are epitomized by in historical development of Ile-Ife (Ife) and Oyo. However, besides these famous kingdoms, other states flourished in Yorubaland. The most notable among these were established among the Ijesa, Ekiti, Egba, Ijebu, Igbomina, Ibolo, Awori, Ondo, Akoko, and Okun Yoruba-speaking dialectal groups. Many of these states achieved varying degrees of power and influence in the Yoruba country before the nineteenth century. The earliest of these was the kingdom of Owu, which grew to such prominence that it competed with Oyo for the dominance of central and northern Yorubaland, until the reign of the third alafin (king), Sango, who broke Owu’s stranglehold over Oyo and effectively terminated its temporary paramountcy in northern Yorubaland. The next to achieve prominence was the kingdom of Ijesa in east central Yorubaland. Established by Ajibogun, a son of Oduduwa and father of the Yoruba people, Ijesa grew to incorporate several polities east of Ile-Ife, such as Ilemure, ruled by the Ita, and Ilesa, ruled by the Onila. Under the reign of Atakunmosa (c.1500) and the series of warlike Owa who succeeded him, the kingdom expanded to the Osun, Ekiti, and Igbomina areas.
South of Oyo and west of Ife lay the country of the Egba people, who did not form a united kingdom. Instead they were organized into a loose confederacy of four autonomous but interdependent groups. These were the Egba Gbagura, ruled by the agura based in Ido; the Egba Oke Ona, ruled by the osile based at Oko; the Egba Ake ruled by the alake headquartered at Ake; and finally the Egba Ageyin headed by the ojoko of Kesi. The most powerful of these rulers was the alake, who, after absorbing the Agbeyin group, was on his way to emerging as the paramount ruler when the Egba came under the imperial control of Oyo empire in the late seventeen century. Under the leadership of Lisabi, the Egba successfully asserted their independence of Oyo during the closing years of the eighteenth century.
To the west of the Egba was the kingdom of Ijebu. Established by three successive waves of migrants from Ile-Ife, Ijebu was known to European visitors by the fifteenth century. Though large in size and homogenous in culture and dialect, the Ijebu were not fully integrated politically before the nineteenth century. While the majority recognized the paramountcy of Awujale based at Ijebu Ode, a group known as the Remo instead acknowledged the akarigbo of Ofin Sagamu as their leader. By virtue of its location, Ijebu had to fight continuously for its independence from the imperial designs of Oyo and Benin. Along the Atlantic Coast and south of Ijebu were the kingdoms of Lagos and those of the Ikale and Ilaje people. Established like Ijebu by successive waves of Awori-Yoruba migrants from central Yorubaland, Lagos soon came under the imperial tutelage of Benin. This imperial connection, however, did not prevent its emergence and prosperity as a major entrepot of the transatlantic slave trade.
In western Yorubaland, a number of kingdoms flourished before the nineteenth century. The most notable of these were Ketu, Sabe, and Idaisa; of these, Ketu became the most important. Located between hostile and more aggressive neighbors, Ketu had to contend for its independence for much of its history. Its massive and impressive fortifications notwithstanding, Ketu came under Oyo’s imperial rule some time during the eighteenth century. In 1789, a rampaging Dahomey army invaded and sacked the town, taking most of its inhabitants into slavery. South of Ketu lay the country of the Egbado. Loosely organized into numerous and autonomous mini-states such as Ilobi, Erinja, Ado, Ipokia, Igan, Egua, and Aiyetoro, the Egbado were soon conquered by Oyo, whose economic and strategic interests led it to reshape the political map of this region from the seventeenth century on.
The rugged topography of the land of the Ekiti, in eastern Yorubaland, allowed for the emergence and proliferation of several centers of power, many of which eventually developed into kingdoms. Of the 16 traditionally accorded primacy in oral traditions, the most notable were Ado, Ijero, Otun, Aye, and Akure. All these kingdoms claimed royal ancestry from Ile-Ife, while their proximity to Benin brought them at different times and to varying degrees under the imperial and cultural dominance of the Benin empire. Southeast of the Ekiti were the kingdoms of Owo and Ondo, whose locations in a cultural frontier zone opened them to considerable cultural and political influences from Benin and other Yoruba groups. The establishment of Owo by a prince of Ile-Ife involved the conquest and integration of several preexisting groups, the most notable of these were the seven autonomous settlements of Idasin, ruled by the Alale, as well as Iyare and Iso. Similarly, the emergence of Ondo occurred at the expense of the indigenous groups, namely the Idoko, Oka, and Ifore, who had to be subdued and forcibly integrated into the nascent state.
North of Ekiti and east of Oyo lived the Ibolo, Igbomina, and Okun-Yoruba groups. By the early eighteenth century, many independent state structures could be identified in this region. Among the Igbomina these included Ila, Ajase, Omu, Aran, Isanlu-isin, Iwo, Oro Ora, and Igbaja. The Ibolo states included Ofa, Igosun, Ijagbo, Ipee, and Igbonna. Peopled by migrants of diverse origins, including the non-Yoruba speaking Nupe, Edo, and Igala, the Okun-Yoruba were divided into five major subgroups—namely, the Owe, Yagba, Bunu, Ijumu, and Oworo. Alhough considerable interaction occurred between them, and while the Orangun of Ila and the Olofa of Ofa were accorded some respect, none of these groups ever formed a single political entity. Apart from a few notable exceptions, the sociopolitical organization was characterized by the mini-states, made up of independent villages in which no right or authority was acknowledged beyond the confines of each of the autonomous settlements. This decentralized sociopolitical existence rendered these northeastern Yoruba groups particularly vulnerable to constant military pressures, imperial conquest, and human depredations by their more powerful and imperious neighbors, such as Oyo, Nupe, and Benin, who did not hesitate to make short work of their nebulous independence.
See also: Benin Kingdom: Nineteenth Century.
Adediran, Biodun. The Frontier States of Western Yorubaland, circa 1600-1889. Ibadan, Nigeria: French Institute for Research in Africa, 1994.
Afolayan, Funso, “Kingdoms of the Yoruba: Socio-political Development before 1800,” in Culture and Society in Yorubaland, edited by G. Ogunremi and Abiodun Adediran. Ibadan, Nigeria: Rex Charles, 1998.
Ajayi, J. F. A. and Robert S. Smith. Yoruba Warfare in the Nineteenth Century. London: Cambridge University Press, 1971.
Biobaku, Saburi O. The Egba and Their Neighbours, 1842-1872. Ibadan, Nigeria: University Press PLC, 1991.
Johnson, Samuel. The History of the Yorubas Yorubas from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate (1921). Reprint, Lagos: CMS 1973.
Pemberton, John, and Funso S. Afolayan. Yoruba Sacred Kingship: A Power like That of the Gods. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.
Smith, Robert S. Kingdoms of the Yoruba. London: James Currey/Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.