The Esan people are an ethnic group of southsouth Nigeria who speak the Esan language. The Esan are traditionally agriculturalists, trado-medical practitionals, mercenary warriors and hunters. They cultivate palm trees, Irvingia gabonensis (erhonhiele), Cherry (Otien), bell pepper (akoh) coconut, betel nut, kola nut, black pear, avocado pear, yams, cocoyam, cassava, maize, rice, beans, groundnut, bananas, oranges, plantains, sugar cane, tomato, potato, okra, pineapple, paw paw, and various vegetables.
The modern Esan nation is believed to have been organized during 15th century, when citizens, mostly nobles and princes, left the neighbouring Benin Empire for the northeast; there they formed communities and kingdoms called eguares among the aboriginal peoples whom they met there. There are on the whole 35 established kingdoms in Esanland, including Ewohimi, Ekpoma, Ubiaja, Uromi, Igueben, and Ewu.
The Esan kingdoms often warred among each other. Despite the wars, the Esans kept a homogenous culture which was chiefly influenced by the Benin Empire. However, these kingdoms were colonized, along with the Benin Empire, by the British Empire during September 1897, only gaining independence 63 years later in 1960 when Nigeria became independent from British Colonial rule. After independence, the Esan people have suffered from civil war, poverty, and lack of infrastructure.
The Esans primarily speak the Esan language, an Edoid language related to Urhobo, Isoko, Edo, and Etsako. It is considered a regionally important language in Nigeria, and it is taught in primary schools in addition to being broadcast on radio and television. The Esan language is also recognized in the Census of the United Kingdom.
It is estimated that the Esan people who reside in Esanland number about one million to 1.5 million citizens in Nigeria, and there is a strong Esan diaspora. Esan-speaking communities exist in the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Canada, Spain, and Italy. Pan-Esan groups such as the Esan World Congress have kept the Esan community tight-knit.
The term Esan has been applied to the Esan people for thousands of years, and was used before contact with Europeans. It is believed by many historians that the name ‘Esan’ (originally, ‘E san fia’) owes its origin to Bini (meaning, ‘they have fled’ or ‘they jumped away’). ‘Ishan’ is an Anglicized form of ‘Esan’, the result of colonial Britain’s inability to properly pronounce the name of this ethnic group. It is believed that similar corruption has affected such Esan names as ubhẹkhẹ (now ‘obeche’ tree), uloko (now ‘iroko’ tree), Abhuluimẹn (now ‘Aburime’), etc. Efforts have however been made to return to status quo ante.
For academic purpose, Esan refers to
In the pre-colonial era, Esans carried a crow’s foot tribal scar below their eyes.
Esan myth varies over the true origins of the Esan people. In some clans, the first Esan simply fell out of the sky. In other clans, Esans are said to have come from the rivers. Nearly all Esan myths, however, point to the Benin Empire as the source.
According to archaeological and linguistic evidence, humans have resided in the savannah-forest ecotone in Esanland for at least 3000 years ago. These people were likely associated with the Nok people and came from the savannahs in the north to the southern forests. To this day, northern Esan dialects have more in common with Northern Edo languages such as Etsako and Owan than southern Esan dialects do, which happen to be closely related with Edo. These “proto-Edoid” peoples grew yam, oil palm and vegetables, but also hunted and gathered.
Starting from 500 AD to 750 AD, these hunter-gatherers started to colonize the savannah-forest ecosystem of Esanland and the forest ecosystem of the Benin Empire. They created a pre-Esan, pre-Edo society that built advanced structures such as moats and walls around family properties. These enclosures were, at maximum, three to five kilometers in diameter, and demarcated residential and agricultural property. Those properties enlarged to become villages, and by 800 AD, these village coalesced to form kingdoms with hierarchies. Modern-day digs in the region have found that these walls were situated in the eastern Benin Empire and northern Esanland. Settlements were close to permanent springs on the northern plateau, but never next to intermittent springs. For currently unknown reasons, polarization occurred and many moved from this society to the western forests, eventually creating the Benin Empire during the late 12th-mid 13th century.
Esanland’s culture, language and growth were majorly influenced by the mass exoduses to Esan territory from all adjacent polities Communities on Esanland’s southern and eastern fringes (Ewohimi, Ewatto, Ekpon, Amahor) were heavily populated by Igbos and Igalas (into Uroh); from the north came the Emai into Ukhun, Idoa, and Amahor and the Etsako into Irrua); and from the south came the Itsekiri (into Ekpon) and Urhobo (into Ujiogba).
The biggest influence on Esanland came from the Benin Empire. In 1460, Oba Ewuare passed laws of mourning that prohibited sexual intercourse, bathing, drumming, dancing, and cooking. These laws proved too restrictive for many citizens, and these citizens fled the kingdom to Esanland. This exodus shaped Esanland’s modern cultural identity and gave rise to the term “Esan,” or “refugee.” Oral tradition has heavily supported this theory. Prominent Esan and Edo historians have collected stories about this migration.
Esan kingdoms had a varying degree of autonomy, but were ultimately controlled by the Benin Empire. The Oba approved the enijie of Esanland, and Esan kingdoms paid tribute to Benin. Yet, several wars between Esan kingdoms and Benin were recorded. This was due to the Oba, at ascension on the throne, sending white chalk to the Esans as a term of friendship. If the chalk was rejected, then the Oba would try to invade Esanland. The varying political stabilities of Benin and the Esan kingdoms also led to warfare. Such warfare was so common that there is no recorded history of peace between all of the Esan kingdoms and Benin.
Esanland was extensively involved in world trade. Benin’s sovereignty over Esanland enabled it to send long-distant traders, or ekhen. Ekhen procured cloth, ivory, peppers, and slaves for European merchants in Yorubaland, Esanland, and Afenmai. Portugal primarily received blue cloth, or ukpon ododo from Esanland in exchange for tobacco, brandy, mirror, beads, and firearms, primarily through ekhen.
During the 16th century, the Uzea War occurred. This war was between the Uromi Kingdom and the Benin Kingdom. The war lasted from 1502 to 1503, and resulted from a refusal of friendship from Oba Ozolua of Benin by Onojie Agba of Uromi. The war ended at the town of Uzea, when both leaders were killed. However, in peaceful times Esan kingdoms would loan soldiers to the Benin Kingdom, such as during the Idah War of 1515-1516, and the sacking of Akure in 1823.
During the nineteenth century, northern Esanland was continually attacked and sacked by the Muslim Nupe people in the hunt for slaves and converts to Islam, having previously taken over the Kukuruku peoples’ lands. Many Esan kingdoms from the south helped in the battle to fend off the Nupes. The battles came into the Esans’ favor; several Nupe and Etsako warriors were brought into Esan cities where their posterity reside today. From the south, the Benin Empire also took slaves from Esanland, in order to fuel the Transatlantic slave trade that occurred in the 18th century between Europe and Africa. The nineteenth century brought increasing influence of Europe on Esanland, as the English demanded palm-products.
In 1897, the British sacked the Benin Empire, effectively leaving the Esans free from British rule. In 1899, the British led an invasion into the Esan kingdoms that lasted for seven years. Esanland proved to be harder to conquer than the Benin Kingdom because of its strong autonomy: Kingdoms chose to keep fighting the British even if its neighbors fell. Fallen Benin chiefs like Ologbosere and Ebohon were still resistant to British rule inadvertently guarded Esan soil from the west, by establishing military camps and blocking roads. This lasted from 1897 to April 22. 1899, where Ologbosere surrendered at the border village of Okemue.
The first kingdom to be attacked by the British was the Kingdom of Ekpon. Ekpon launched a fierce resistance against the British invasion on April 22, which nearly destroyed the kingdom. After the near genocide of Esans at Ekpon, the kingdom of Ekpon led an ambush of the British camp at Okueme, on April 29. This led British forces to retreat, consolidate their power, and kill Ologbosere in May. Subsequent attempts by the British failed as well: conquests into Irrua, for example, led to an adoption of a guerrilla warfare strategy followed by a retreat; this method was so successful that other Esan kingdoms adopted it and the British did not invade Esanland until 1901.
On March 16, 1901, the Kingdom of Uromi, headed by the old, yet intelligent Onojie Okolo, was attacked by the British. The Uromi resistance, led by Prince Okojie, was swift and employed guerrilla warfare. After a short time, British forces overtook the village Amedeokhian, where Okolo was stationed, and murdered him. This angered Prince Okojie so much that he killed the Captain of the British troops before reinforcements were brought in. The British then realized that Uromi was nigh impenetrable without native help, and contact local sympathizers such as Onokpogua, the Ezomo of Uromi. This succeeded in napping Prince Okojie out of the forest and deported to the British offices at Calabar.
This process was duplicated in most of the kingdoms that fought with Britain: guerilla warfare was excessively used by the Esans, resulting in prolonged battle time in spite of inferior weapons, and reinforcements from Benin City for the British. Even when villages were conquered, internal resistance was fierce: continued geurilla warfare in Uromi forced the British to release Prince Okojie. However, excessive cruelty on Britain’s part razed many villages and displaced many people. Finally, in 1906, Esanland submitted to British rule, and the thirty-four kingdoms became the Ishan Division.
Esan land is bordered to the south by Benin City, to the south-east by Agbor, to the north and east by Etsako, to the west by River Niger. From Ewu to Benin City, the State capital, is 100 km long. No accurate demographic data of the people is available and the various local governments in Esan appear to lack reliable information in this direction. The people populate areas such as Uromi, Ewohimi, Ewatto, Igueben, Irrua, Ubiaja, Ogwa, Ebele, Ekpoma, Ohordua and Ewu in central Edo State, South-South Nigeria. It has a flat landscape, lacking in rocks and mountains, and good for agricultural purpose.
Geographically, Esanland is on a plateau, surrounded by slopes down to the lower Niger river, the valley and wetland towards Etsako, the Kukuruku Hills and the plain around Benin city the state capital. The tableland though reddish-brown in colour, is a fertile land for farming, which is the main occupation of the Esan people. There is a dense thick forest, nutritionally rich in economic crops and herbal plants. However, it is suffering from bush burning, and wood felling for timber and as a major source of fuel (which is in high demand) for the increasing population of the Esan people.
Rubber tree (used for the production of plastic products) and palm tree rank highest among Esan trees. The land’s variety of fruits range from mango, orange (ate), grape, pineapple (edinenbo), guava, cashew, banana (oghede), plantain, black pear, avocado pear, lime to walnut and even more. Cassava, yam, cocoa yam, sweet potato, pepper, okra and rice are some of its farm produce. It has numerous streams that are too small to afford fishing.
Beyond all of the agricultural products listed above are numerous edible fruits and plants without English name. Oruru, for example, seems to belong to the berry family. Purple or violet in colour as the specie maybe, is a very delicious fruit, common at the beginning of the dry season, which formerly comes up in late September/October yearly, But due to climate change, these month are no longer guaranteed. A lot more research work is needed in the areas of available fruits and plants, animals, insects, birds, etc. in Esanland.
Despite English colonization and modernization, Esan culture has stayed consistent and rigid. Esan culture is influenced by emigration from the Benin Empire, the Igalas, and the Igbos. In turn, Esan language, performing arts, and art has diffused into the surrounding areas, particularly to the Anioma people and the Afenmai people.
The various Esan dialects are mutually intelligible. Irrua dialect, also spoken in Ewu, is used in education. Esan is an Edoid language. There are few Esan writers. Esan mythologies often concern the antics of people in the Benin Empire. Ishan mythology is part of a Southern Nigerian continuum of culture, sharing culture heroes with the surrounding Ijo, Edo, and Igbo tribes. One such hero, Agboghidi, is mentioned in the The Ozidi Saga.
Esan dance is dominated by the Igbabonelimhin, an acrobatic dance performed mostly by young males. Igbabonelimhin involves spinning and somersaulting to a timed beat. This dance was mostly performed at New Year’s. Today, the dance is taken as a unique symbol for Esans everywhere. Among music, the akpata, an African harp, is common among traditional Esan storytellers who would tell stories known as Ulogho.
Before European arrival, Esans used to build houses around a public square, referred to as ughele. The ughele contained religious shrines and meeting-houses. Residential houses were made of mud with palm-mat or leaf roofs and wooden doors and window-frames. Nowadays, it is common for houses in Esanland to be built around a village street instead. This structure is referred to as ribbon development. Houses are also built with new imported materials such as cement and corrugated iron.
The New Yam Festivals of the Esan people are celebrated from September to November and are collectively referred to as ‘’Iruenlen’’.
Esans eat the common food of Nigeria.
Esan kingdoms did not have standing armies; rather, kingdoms set up emergency programs in which all of the able bodied men in said kingdom would fight. If a kingdom was attacked, the onojie would contact the edionwele to mobilize the forces. The onojie or odionwele would then appoint a commander, or ‘’okakulo’’ to control forces. The ‘’okakulo’’ would usually be a noble, physically strong, of the ‘’Igene’’ age group and a feared medicine man and man of valour. Typical Esan weapons would include the bow and arrow, crossbow, barbed cudgel and machete, in addition to Dane guns used after the fifteenth century. War would be declared if the kingdom was attacked, if a wife was seized, or if a man was killed (if the latter two occurred, the kingdom could choose to make reprisals.)
The 14 April 2007 gubernatorial election in Edo State saw the emergence of Prof. Oserheimen Aigberadion Osunbor from Ekpoma as the next governor of Nigeria’s 22nd largest state. Before the State’s creation on 27 August 1991, Prof. Ambrose Folorunso Alli had governed Bendel State (1979–1983), making it the second Esan to govern Edo State. Unlike the Prof. Ambrose Alli mandate/victory, Prof. Osunbor’s is widely believed to be mired in controversy of widespread irregularities by the ruling party in the State. Litigation is however on and the new governor has since 29 May 2007 been sworn in for a four-year term. On 20 March 2008, the Edo State Election Tribunal declared the former labour leader, Adams Oshiomhole, governor of Edo State. Following Prof. Osunbor’s appeal, the Appeal Court’s verdict of 11 November 2008 finally laid to rest the gubernatorial dispute, as the five-man panel declared Comrade Adams Aliu Oshiomhole winner and governor of Edo State. The diminutive but vocal and resilient Etsako indigene was thereafter sworn in as governor on 12 November 2008 in a well attended ceremony at the Ogbemudia Stadium, Benin City.
Esan Day is celebrated at the Tafawa Balewa square, Lagos every December. During the occasions names of prominent Esan figures are read to loud ovation.
Esan folktales and folklore, like the igbabonẹlimhin and akhuẹ, serve as forms of learning and entertainment. The Esan have prominent traditional rulers who keep order in a society where beauty and manners are intertwined. Despite the long-term impact of Christianity, the Esan are largely traditional and a large number practice traditional beliefs in the form of worship of ancestral spirits and other gods. A large percentage of Esan are Christians, mostly Catholic and recently of other denominations. Esan has various dialects all of which stem from Bini and there is still close affinity between the Esan and the Bini, which leads to the common saying “Esan ii gbi Ẹdo” meaning, Esan does not harm the Ẹdo (i.e. Bini). There have been other translation of that saying, Esan gbe Edo which means Esan have conquered Bini.
Traditional Esan religion has many similarities to traditional Edo religion, due to the Esan migration to the northeast during the 15th century from the Benin Empire. There are many deities of the Esan religion:
The autonomous clans/kingdoms in Esan land are currently administratively arranged as follows under the current five local government areas: