Itsekiri History

Itsekiri modern history dates from the late fifteenth century when the Itsekiri people adopted a prince from Benin Kingdom as their monarch. Prior to this time, Itsekiri lived independently in different communities that included Irigbo, Ureju, Omadino and Ugborodo. With the arrival of the prince and adoption of the monarchy. These communities coalesced to become a Kingdom.

History reveals that in several waves of migration before the 15th Century, and some a little later, groups from Igala in Nupe country came in through the creeks; Yoruba from ljebu-Ode, Akure and Owo found their way into parts of the Kingdom and a group from Aboh also came in. Some along the coast came in through Gulani/Amatu.

Historically, the ltsekiri have a monarchy, over 500 years old, and which, as a rallying point in their society, remains its supreme government. From 1480 to now, there have reigned 19 Olu of Warri: five Olus of the pre-Christian era; 1480 – 1597: eight Roman Catholic Olus from 1597-1735, and six Olus of the post-Roman Catholic Christian era. Atuwatse I, baptized as Dom Domingo reigned between 1625 and 1643, having studied in Coimbra University in Portugal for eleven years where he obtained a degree. The first-ever church monastery built in what today is Nigeria was erected in Big Warri (Ode-ltsekiri) before 1700 and was christened Saint Anthony (today, the site is known as Satone). As an ethnic nationality, the Itsekiri people are a micro-minority in Delta State. Estimated at over 450,000, Itsekiri is one of the five distinct ethnic nationalities in Delta State, Nigeria.

The Itsekiri ancient Kingdom of Warri dates back to the 15th century. Their 1,520 square mile homeland, known over time in history as Iwere or Awyri, Warree, Aweri and Wari etc, had diplomatic, Christian and trade relations with Medieval Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries. It became a prominent trade centre within the Oil Rivers Protectorate.

Obaro Ikime, a prominent historian described the Itsekiri homeland as follows: “The Itsekiri inhabit the North Western extremity of the Niger Delta in area bounded approximately by latitudes 50 20 and 60 N and longitudes 50 5 and 50 40 East. Their neighbors are Bini to the North, the Ijaw to the South, the Urhobo to the East and the Yoruba of Ondo province to the North – West.” ( Obaro Ikime Phd Merchant Prince of the Niger Delta, 1968).

The following also appeared in the footnote of Professor Allan Ryder’s, book, Benin and Europeans 1485-1897 {page 108. “A.S.C. Scritture originali vol. 249 F328} – many varieties of the spelling of Iwere (Itsekiri word) appear in European documents. In the twentieth century English version – Warri has become the most common and will be used in future for the Kingdom of Itsekiri”.

A highly cultured people, over the centuries they had impressive trade and cultural links with different people and these ties helped to broaden and enrich their cultural life. The Itsekiri were among the first to have contact with the Portuguese traders in the 16th Century. Traditionally, the ltsekiri are fishermen and traders.

The promotion of economic activity was a major pre-occupation of the ltsekiri monarch from the 16th Century. The fact that there existed a kingdom was important in the decision of the Europeans to do business with the ltsekiri. (Europeans tended to go to areas, which had a political system that could guarantee peaceful trade). The early contacts of the Itsekiri with medieval Europe, especially Portugal, helped to foster a conservative Christian education and civilization in Itsekiriland and the people remain proud of this historical circumstance.

The coastal location of the kingdom and accessible waterways and rivers did not only lead to the early contacts of the Itsekiri with medieval Europe, especially Portugal and foster a conservative Christian education and civilization, but it led to its significant prosperity between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries as trade with neighboring ethnic groups and Europeans flourished.

These interactions also led to an Itsekiri prince, christened Domingo, going to study in Portugal for eleven years in the seventeenth century and returning as the first Itsekiri to graduate from college. Itsekiri prosperity proved to be a fertile environment for the emergence of prominent Itsekiri leaders like several kings or Olu. They include, Diare, Olomu and Nanna. The latter three all serving as Governors of Benin River.

However, unlike in the past when prosperity from their homeland propelled the Itsekiri people to glorious heights, recent riches have paradoxically become bane to them. Not only has exploitation of crude oil in the area debilitated the ecosystem and destroyed local trades and economies, from 1997 to 2003, Itsekiri were victimized by some of its violent neighbors.

PRINCE GINUWA
THE BENIN PRINCE WHO FOUNDED WARRI KINGDOM

Prince Ginuwa was the Crown prince of Benin Empire, his father Oba Olua was the younger brother of the Shortest reigned Oba of Benin, Ezoti whose father is well remembered as Oba Ewuare I, prince Ginuwa was not only the Crown prince he was the only son of his father, Oba Olua. Oba Olua is recorded in Benin history as the most kindhearted of all the monarchs that have reigned before him and arguably after him, well to the oral history it was also his Achilles heel, he was frowned at, his people mocked him for being too kindhearted, his chiefs hated him for that because they were not the gainers of his baronial benevolence. On a day of so much thoughts of the ungratefulness of his people, Oba Olua invited his only son to guide him on what he will do if he was the King of Benin, Prince Ginuwa gave a very harsh advice of killing all these ungrateful people to put a deterrence to other probable people who wishes to tow this ungrateful path.

The Benin Chiefs heard about the harsh advise the crown prince gave to his father, so they all envisaging the impending doom in the future as they were all guilty of such calumny against their Lord, they resolved that on no account will Prince Ginuwa become the Oba in Benin, Oba Olua learnt of this skirmishes against his only son, he thought to himself if he cannot be in King in his father’s land he can as well establish his own Kingdom. According to the book WARRI: A FOCUS ON THE ITSEKIRI, “As described so far, at a time out of memory, Itsekiri city-states had been established, and although they had little or no contact with one another, they all spoke a dialect of the Yoruba- the language spoken in their original home. About 1473, a Bini prince, Ginuwa, accompanied by seventy sons of Benin Chiefs (Ojoye) departed home to establish a Dukedom in the riverine territory of the Benin Empire.

 On his trip, he encountered the Ureju people, who performed certain rites for his safe journey – rites which are part of Ureju tradition till today. Ginuwa got to Amatu, where he sojourned, and then moved on to Oruselemoand married an Ijaw woman, Derumo. He certainly must have had his two son, Ijijen and Iramen, by this womanbecause there is no account of a wife who accompanied him from Benin. Ginuwa ultimately moved to Ijala, where he died, and his senior son Ijijen subsequently established the Itsekiri monarchy in Ode-Itsekiri. The story is that Ijijen’s majestic appearance, acco,panied by a large retinue (Urogho) in richly elaborate apparels, commanded Irigbo people’s instant attention and obeisance. Gradually and over time they, under their leader, Itsekiri, acknowledged Ijijen as Olu. Before long the other communities accepted him as head and thus a kingdom was established. And the links between it and the mother-kingdom have spanned the vast areas of royalty, chieftaincy, language, rituals, music, and dancing to dynastic relationships”.

From the excerpts above three fundamental things can be derived:
1). Before the advent of our prince Ginuwa, Itsekiri people were not organized it took our son coming from a kingdom of over 1400 years of organized administrative system to organized this people, coincidentally a sub Yoruba group that our forebears, Ekaladerhan (Oduduwa) also organized about 600 years earlier in Ile-Ife.
2). Itsekiri’s are not Benins but their monarch and their nobles (Sons of the Seventy Chiefs) are Benins and some Okere aboriginals etc.
3). The line of Olu’s of Warri is the crown prince Ginuwa lineage, however the Benin throne precedes the Warri throne and as such every Olu of Warri is either a son or younger brother to every Oba of Benin just like Alaafin of Oyo is to the Oba of Benin. This is not superiority ideology but a statement of fact.