The role of Agriculture in Economic Development and Inter-Group Relations in Pre-Colonial Esan Economy


Dawood Omolumen Egbefo

Department of History and International Studies, IBB University, Lapai, Niger State, Nigeria



The objective of the paper is to add to the existing literature debunking the Eurocentric view that pre-colonial Esan agriculture was backward, stagnant and merely subsistence in nature. Without doubt, during this period of our study, Esan agriculture apart from providing the needed food, raw materials for allied and basic industries and other services, it was also an instrument of inter group relations as examined in this paper. With the conscious use of oral interviews and secondary sources of existing documents, the work is divided into significant sections with an introduction; agriculture in pre-colonial Esan; land tenure system; types of agricultural practice; conceptualization of intra-intergroup relations; importance of agriculture to food and group relations; problems of agriculture in colonial Esan land among others





This paper seeks to explain the role of Agriculture in economic development and the promotion of intergroup relations in the Pre-colonial economy of the Esan people. Esan is located in the tropical zone of the northern part of the Nigerian forest region. Esan is an Edo word which refers to a people and their land situated on a plateau North East of Benin City. Esan has boundaries on the North-west with Owan and Etsako on the North East; on the South West with Orhionwon and Ika, while on the South East with Aniocha and Oshimili areas respectively. The river Niger terminates her Eastern boarders.1


For over a thousand years before the celebrated mass exodus of people from Benin in the 15th century, the organization for food had become a major pre-occupation of the ancestors of present day Esan.2 Ralph Beds has argued that “the production of sufficient food to permit the survival and reproduction of its membership” was a minimal requirement of any society.3 This factor became the propelling force towards the evolution of an agricultural base in the Esan region. Consequently, agricultural activity became a form of production in which all hands were required either in the planting, tendering or harvesting processes. To this end, the men, women and children all members of the society had their respective roles to play in the organization of food production within the primary framework of satisfying human needs and at the same time as an instrument of intra-intergroup relations in pre-colonial and colonial Esan economy.

Esan communities were made up of over sixteen kingdoms headed by kings known as Enijies.4 Among them were Irrua, Uromi, Ekpoma, Ubiaja, Ugboha, Ewohimi, Ewu, Uzea, Emu, Ohordua, Ebelle, Amahor, Okalo, Ezen, Udo and Ugbegun.5 Esan people are a component of Edo speaking peoples of Nigeria.


Esan-land is located to the north-east of Benin City, the capital of Edo state. The area, which is coterminous with the present day Central Senatorial District of Edo State, has a land mass of about 1,859.2 square kilometers. Esan is currently made up of five local government areas in Edo state. They are: Esan West, Esan North-East, Esan North West and Igueben local government areas. The area is bounded on the north by Etsako West and Akoko-Edo Local Government Areas of Edo State, on the east by Ika and Oshimili Local Government Areas of Delta State and on the south by Uhumode and Orhiomwon Local Government Areas of Edo State.6


Esan is an Edo sub-group. The people speak a language, which is also known as Esan. Esan language is a Kwa sub-division of the Niger-Congo language family. Esan people are generally believed to manifest the closest cultural and linguistic similarities to the Bini people. In the pre-colonial era, Esan was made of chiefdoms, which paid allegiance to the Oba of Benin. By the end of the 19th century, there were sixteen important chiefdoms in Esanland with their autonomous Enijie (hereditary rulers). Each chiefdom was made up of villages, which had their own systems of administration based on gerontocracy and the age-grade arrangement.7


In the colonial period, particularly after the ‘re-organization policy’ following the intelligence reports prepared from 1931 to 1936, thirty-two chiefdoms were recognized by the colonial administrators in Esan. The area was a division of Benin Province in the colonial period.8


Due to the inability of colonial officials to pronounce Esan correctly, “Isa”, Ishan” and “Isan” were at various times in the colonial period used for the people. The population of Esan, which was put at 143,069 people in 1931, consisting of 37,364 adult females and 33,325 adult males, had by 1953, risen to 194,891 of which 92,570 were male and 102,321 were females. This meant that there were about 950 males per 1,000 females. The 1991, Nigerian population census put the population of Esan at 372,122. By 2006, the population of Esan had increased to 591,534 of which 291,839 were females and 299,695 males.9


Regarding the meaning and impotance of intergroup relations, it has already been observed elsewhere that as an area of study, inter-group relations appear to be one of the recent themes in African Historiography. Curiously however, most pioneer scholars, who stimulated interest in this field would appear to have circumvented its conceptual definition, preferring instead to concentrate their forms on the analysis of its dynamism, pattern and content as well as the way and manner it manifest between groups. For example some scholars tend to conceive or perceive intergroup interactions in-terms of relations between and among groups or nations. Anything outside this may be far from intergroup relation or integrative structures of different groups. In the analyses that follow, intergroup relation would be viewed from the approach which is basically considered as functional apparatus precisely because of its conceptual elasticity and heuristic coherence in the examination of a complex and multidimensional phenomenon as inter-group relations.10 In this case, using the role of agricultural production as catalyst for economic development and intergroup relations in pre-colonial Esan kingdom of present Edo state.


Pre-Colonial Esan Agriculture

Pre-colonial Esan society depended on agriculture which provided a suitable foundation on which other economic pursuits were based and intra and inter/ethnic group co-operations consolidated. Agriculture is defined as the ‘purposeful’ tending of crops and animals, a determined attempt at transforming the natural environment through a process of exploiting the available resources.11 Esan agriculture is so ancient that it is usually associated with the beginning of the ‘world’. God, Osanobua, decided to stay with those he created and provided them with pounded yam, ema. This great God or Osanobua decided later to move into high heavens after the people had shown that they were not matured to look after themselves when they began to take more than they need for a day’s meal from the pounded yam. It was this greed that corrupted the society and God then moved into high heavens. Thereafter, every member of the society was left to cultivate what he/she needed.12 The early settlers of the Esan plateau appear to have come under the impact of an early agricultural revolution with consequences which gave it the pride of place in the history of Edo people as a major yam producing area.13 however, this primary development in agriculture came from local initiative stimulated by a desire to live a settled life in a ‘suitable’ environment. Although it is not possible to rule out external lessons (mainly from outside Africa) for agricultural development the tropical forest region from about the 15th century, the primary development rested mainly on indigenous enterprise.14


The transition from incipient cultivation of crops into a full scale agricultural practice among the Esan cannot be dated because of its historical antiquity. However, before the 15th century when large Iyala or massive earth constructions were dug in the area as revealed by Peter Darling, since then organized farming had developed to a stage whereby enough food was produced to support the people who were engaged in the gargantuan task of earth tillage.15 Moreover, such lyala had “enclosed predominantly rural settlements and were constructed so that the spoil dug from the ditch was dumped on the inside to form a bank with its steeper and most impressive slope facing outwards”.16 Thus, from the period of established large settlements or chiefdoms in the 15th century, Esan agriculture became an established institution organized as culturally accepted principles to provide for food crops, sustain intra-intergroup relations-cooperation and animal needs of the people.


Pre-colonial Esan agriculture was a dynamic institution with developments and intra-intergroup cooperation and integration which reflected the times. Esan falls into the Guinea forest zone which Afigbo believes had three major stages of crop evolution and development.17 The first of these stages marked a period of local initiative which stimulated the cultivation and adaptation of yam, palm trees, cotton and various fruit trees that were indigenous to the tropical forest. Thus this period marked the cultivation of three species of yam in the Esan region. The white yams were known as Ori and Asukhu and the yellow yam, Ikpein. The historical antiquity of yam as a stable crop of the Esan gave yam in the region the status of king of crops. Other crop innovations of the period included the Lima Beans, Ikpakpa and Pepper, Asin.


The second stage in this development emerged when certain crops regarded as the “South East Asian crop complex” were introduced into the forest region of West Africa. Among these crops were the water yarn, Obhie, water leaf, Okuokuo described as the leaf that came through the wind from Benin - Ebana hoho rere bhi Edo. The importance of this development lay in the diversification of crops for planting. However, many of these crops in Esan served to supplement an already existing agricultural accomplishment mainly in yam production.


The third, stage was when European trade and commerce linked West African economies with the Americas during the period of the Atlantic Slave Trade. “Cassava, groundnuts, maize and tomatoes were brought to West Africa from South America by the Portuguese four centuries ago”.18 Various fruits including paw-paw, mango, cocoa, rubber, pumpkin, cocoyam,, cassava, pineapple, edin-ebo, potatoes, tomatoes Itamatosi etc. were introduced into Esan agriculture by the early or late 19th century. The relatively recent origin of some of these crops in the agricultural economy of the people could be attested to by the absence of indigenous names.19


By the end of the 19th century, Esan with blend of intergroup cooperation and economic development was agriculturally rich and most of the major crops found in the region today could be produced. It was in this vein that Okojie in 1960 stressed that “Ishan is an agricultural country, everybody, man or woman being simple farmers whose main food crops are yams, corn or maize. cocoyam, cassava and beans of various types, pepper, groundnuts, melons, bananas with plantain are subsidize crops usually planted by the woman in the husband’s farm”20 With such a wide range of crop production, pre-colonial agriculture emerged as the “staff of life” and as a vibrant and well protected instrument of intra-intergroup relations before the eve of colonial rule21 for the people of Esan.


Land Tenure

Land is a key item in any economic system. The availability of suitable farm land was a crucial factor in the development of agriculture in pre-colonial Esan. Therefore, much respect was attached to its holding and usage in the overall economy. No use of land was made without the offer of a sacrifice or an oblation to the earth goddess since land belonged to a vast family made up of the ancestors, living members of the society and more members yet unborn.22 The Earth shrine was served by a priest who held his position by virtue of being the descendant of the leader of the first or earliest settlers in the land. The land priests accepted consultations from all members of the community before any land was brought under cultivation. Such priests were visited yearly with various presents including goats and palm wine before the beginning of the planting and harvesting seasons.23 Since such visitors to the earth shrine were representatives of the various clans and villages in the chiefdoms, farmland in pre-colonial Esan was communally owned. This system of communal ownership of land was demonstrated right from the time a choice of land for the farming season had to be made. According to Okojie, “Land in Ishan was strictly communal and held in trust by the Onojie for his people.”24 To this end, individual acquisition and private ownership were frowned at and discouraged in the society because the sale and harding of land was seen as one of the disintegrative elements of disunity in any society. Thus, every agricultural season witnessed a complex process of selecting a suitable farmland by the people. There were the interplay of the physical, economic, cultural and behavioral attitudes within the community. The latter refers to those assessments that affect the decisions made by the individual farmers whose voices must play an important role in the decisions to be reached. But it was not done rigidly; other opinion and voices of other farmers in the choice must also be considered.25


A very crucial determinant in the choice of land for farming therefore was the fertility of the soil. This was easily detected by the farmers through the vegetational presentation in the area under consideration. Areas of high and tall tress though tedious to clear were usually preferred to areas with grasses which mostly harboured termites and plant worms.26


Wet or moist soils were also avoided because they were considered unsuitable for agriculture. Such soils were believed to be the dwelling places of the evil spirits that must be avoided, “If one’s crops would do well”. It was in view of this culture of the Esan people who usually avoided moist soils for farming that Peter Darling emphasized that ‘the sites generally lie far from sources of water supply and necessitate labourious descents and ascents for women and children.27 Generally, moist soils were considered as unhealthy for both the crops and the farmer. Such soils provided the ideal habitat for the yaws spirochete Traponema perteneu carried by the eye gnat Hippotetes pallipes, and the swampy flood plains which provided a wide range of suitable habitats for the Acdes, Culex and Anopheles species of mosquito, which were the main vectors of yellow fever, dengue fever, malaria filiariasis and elephantiasis.28


Thus to achieve the desire for a suitable farmland for the season, the people met, first under their respective elders, Odiowele, who in turn was required to send representatives through the Okhaemon chief to the Onojie and the earth shrine priest. The Onojie’s approval was followed by the necessary offer of prayer and sacrifices to the earth goddess by the priest for a prosperous farm year. Once a reply had been conveyed to the people in the general assembly, Okoghele that the gods were not against their wish to deforest the chosen area majorly through communal labour, the farm season would commence for everyone either from that village or any other place interested in farming.29


Apart from the communal land, individuals could lay claim to land. Individual ‘ownership’ of land depended on the ability to clear a part of the virgin forest for farming or building. However, the concept of ‘ownership’ of land implied that an individual could use the land as he thought fit. Such use of land was restricted by the will of the gods or, the all pervading spirit of the ancestors whose wishes were interpreted through the priests of the earth goddess. Nevertheless, actual occupation of land by an individual, once permitted was usually regarded as conferring rights of continued use. Therefore, anyone who first deforested a parcel of land had a right to that land. This was expressed locally as ‘Ono gbe egbo yanlen egbo’. The piece of land thus acquired became a family property and could not be sold but passed from father to the first son through the generations. However, the society sanctioned the system of land lease to desiring individuals. Such lands reverted to the primary owners after a given period of time. This was deliberate to avoid some greedy families keeping land they cannot use in a particular period.30


The system of land tenure in pre-colonial Esan led to a significant development whereby different rights could be exercised over the same piece of land. The right to plant crops might be held by a certain family, in the manner described above. The right to pasture goats or cattle on the same land might be held by all the members of a much larger extended family known as the Uenlen. The right to pick the fruit of tress might belong to an individual, while rights to hunt and to gather snails might belong to a wider group. The Onojie of the chiefdom could also claim any particular land as a right especially when such an area was to be used for the benefit of every member in the community. For example, the original settlers of the present Uromi Chiefdom market site were asked by the Onojie Okolo of Uromi to evacuate the area for the purpose of sitting a ‘market there.31 The Onojie’s exclusive right over land redistribution was not exercised in isolation. He had to confer with his chiefs, his far and near counterparts and the priest of the earth shrine whose approval was necessary before the execution of any land policy Thus in theory of the Onojie as the supreme ruler only held the land in trust for his subjects.


As mentioned before now, strangers i.e. brothers and sisters from other nearby or faraway lands or countries could also be granted land on which to farm provided they obtained permission from the chiefs and their behaviour conformed with the established norms and values within the society. Such values within the society included the regular payment of tributes or presents to the priests and the Onojie. Permission was also given to ‘strangers’ to obtain land for residential purposes but the moment such an occupant vacated the land with his kins either on his own volition or at the request of the community, the land automatically reverted to the elders as the custodians of such Iand.32


Apart from the communal farmland, every family head possessed a parcel of land behind his home. Until such lands were distributed to the growing male children of the family (wherein they built their respective compounds) they remained as gardens which served as supplements to the products from the main farm. The family head with some assistance from his senior wife planted various crops in the garden at the beginning of every planting season.


Furthermore, every village had their respective burial ground usually located at the end of the central meeting place known as the Okoughele. This area was also seen as a communal property set aside for the burial of the younger members of the community. On the other hand, corpses of the elders were usually buried in front of their homes. The communal burial ground was regarded as a non-farm land and any attempt at violating this rule attracted serious penalties.


As the land was communal so also were the trees which nature planted on it. Thus, such tress like the palm and various fruit trees were communally owned. Trees like kolanut, pear and coco-nut planted by individuals were regarded as personal property inheritable by a next of kin after the death of the owner.33


With an acceptable land policy sanctioned by tradition, there was hardly any dispute over land in pre-colonial Esan. The fact was that no individual resident in Esan were without land, Agbai concluded.34 In cases of any land disputes between two persons, the elders of the village looked into such and effected settlement. If it involved two villages, the Onojie was then to settle the matter. This policy was adopted in order to avert war over land. Land boundary between two villages was usually demarcated by planting an ‘Ukhimin’ tree (Detarium Senegalese) at the boundary marked by the elders of both villages. Such boundaries marked the terminal point of expansion of both villages. Although Okojie attributed the rarity of land disputes to “the coolheadedness of Esans as a race or due to the vastness of the land”35 he also agreed that “Villages in the olden days were always wanting to live in peace with their neighbours took oaths at the Aluokoven, usually marked with an Ukhimin tree which formed the boundary between the villages”.36 Land disputes between individual members of a village were also settled at the foot of this tree. Okojie further emphasized that it was “the Okoven system” which “kept people honest and they rarely even bore false witness against one another”.37 Since this system was part of the belief in brotherhood and common descent from the same ancestors, land disputes were uncommon in the pre-colonial period as demonstrated through a liberal agricultural production which promoted intra and intergroup co-operations thus, the need to buy land could hardly arise so long as there was plenty of forest land available for the growing population. Consequently, this overall picture of the land tenure system in Esan persisted up to the advent of the Europeans and their western capitalist influences.


Land Utilization for Crops Cultivation

The year in Esans was divided into Ninety-one and a half farming weeks consisting of four working days and one day rest, every fifth day. The year was again divided into nameless moons which were tagged with farming stages such as moon for bush clearing, moon for yams, for eating fresh corn, etc.38 Although brushing and burning of bush had to be completed before the arrival of dark clouds in the sky a sign for the beginning of the new season, the first heavy rains amukpe was regarded as the commencement of a farming season. The significance of the first heavy rains amukpe and the beginning of the new agricultural year was usually a joy to the family head. He would then make a new image of his late father and offer sacrifices to the ancestors at the ‘Aluelimin’ shrine.


This was usually a private shrine possessed by every family head where members of the family could offer their prayers to their ancestors. At this period also, the Ilu-Oto or earth worship and purification was conducted by the most senior or oldest settlement of the chiefdom to ensure a successful planting season. Materials for such purification varied from one chiefdom to another and from year to year. In Ekpoma it was the Ihumidumu while Akho was responsible for the earth purification exercise in Irrua, Ehanlen-Oniha in Ewu,Egbele and Unuwazi in Uromi, Idumu-Oshodin in Ubiaja etc.39 The planting season began with the first heavy rains, and this was marked with various ceremonies. Thus agriculture was ritualized to enable all families of the villages to unite and cooperate in carrying out all the agricultural activities that season. Consultations were also held with the women who at the early stages of the season were expected to remain at home and look after the young and old members of the community. The women were advised to keep peace within the family and maintain friendly relations with other members of the community while the men were away to prepare the land for cropping trusting the gods and their ancestors that the agricultural endeavours would boost economic development and further strengthened inter-intragroup relations.40


The future yield of crops in the farm as determined by the healthy looking nature of the young plants was believed to be dependent on the acceptance or rejection of the sacrifices that had been offered to the gods and ancestors. On the, other hand, when crops failed due to insufficient rainfall or locust invasion, the purity of the Onojie and the Earth -Shrine priest as the intermediaries between the people and the gods was questioned. To avoid such incidents in the kingdoms, the palace, rguare usually had herbalists and rain-makers who ensured that all was well or else shifted blames for failure from an Onojie to his people.41


Since farmlands were usually located some several kilometers away from the villages, every male was expected to remain in the farm for about three planting weeks until the task of preparing the yam mounds was completed. A review of Esan planting methods in the early 1920s revealed that yams were still planted in small heaps of earth made by hoeing up the surrounding soil. Such mounds of earth were made from the top soils while digging to a depth of more than six inches was avoided.42 Each plot of land contained about 400 heaps which were specially reserved for the yam seedlings. Once the making of earth mounds was completed, the men usually went back to the village to wait for more rains before the actual planting could begin. A. week or two interval was given to this before the final decision to plant was taken and the women with their children did the job of transporting crops to be planted to the farm, while the men and the older boys remained to sow the yam seeds, Usually, this process of sowing the seed yams took an individual about a week of four working days per plots. The plants were grown about two yards apart and with about 1,600 plants to the acre, approximate yield per acre was about 5½ tons.43


Corn, another male crop was also planted immediately after the sowing of the yam seeds. Corn was planted in between the yam heaps, three to four grains being put into the ground close together. The weight of corn off the cob from each plant came to about 116. Taking 1,600 plants to the acre the yield would be 14cwt. There were two crops of corn every year, so the average yield per acre came to about one and a half tons.44


The male task in the planting process would be over once the planting of corn was completed. While a few weeks were given for the young plants to come out of the soil before the women began their planting, the women utilized this short period of rest to transport their crops to the farm. Thus the remaining work of planting was done by the women who planted mainly vegetable crops. In Uromi chiefdom, the women began their planting with cotton seeds. Cotton like corn was planted between the yam heaps and grew to maturity when the corn had been harvested. Other crops planted by the women included melons, Ogi, pepper, asin and lima beans, Ikpakpa. Root crops like the cocoyam which was equally planted by the women was done in a separate farmland, usually located in the garden or ‘home farm’. Various gourds for carrying water, palm-wine and for other storage purposes were also planted by the women. Although many of these crops played significant roles in the day to day living of the pre-colonial Esan people, they were none the less regarded as ‘subsidiary crops.45


After the planting was generally completed by the month of April, the women once more left the farm for their husbands and other male members of the family who began the work of tending the young plants till they were mature and ready for harvesting. This process involved the removal of growing weeds from the farm. It was a tedious aspect of the work following a gradual process of scraping the earth surface with the hoes. Such hoes were balanced, in between the expanded legs of the male who ‘then went about the farm scratching the topsoil spaces between the various crops. In this process much of the weed was removed from the crop plants. Since the process was slow and tedious, this task in the farm was usually seen as a continuous one. Every male child assisted in the weeding process while the women collected firewood. Also the women provided meals for the families in the farm. At the end of the day everyone went back home usually before dusk. The next day’s work would also begin before sun-rise and end like the previous day’s until the month of July and early August when corn cobs were removed from their stalks and new yams harvested.46 The process of transporting produce from the farm through head potterage was an all women and children affair like it was during the period of planting. The men normally would be engaged in the task of removing all the crops from the soil. Yam heads were replanted after the removal of the tubers, and by October, they matured into yam seeds which were used in the following year’s planting.


Since storage was as important as the production of agricultural produce, pre-colonial Esan developed efficient methods of storing and preserving their produce. They stored their yam in barns in dry but cool areas within the family compound. The women dried their melon and bean seeds in the sun before packing them into various gourds that had been prepared for the purpose. It was after this storage had been completed that each family head could be content over the year’s labour. Thus “from the end of the first week of December, particularly in Ekpoma, Uromi and Ubiaja area, the ancestral worship ceremonies for ending the year began”.47 Before the commencement of the ceremonies, other Esan communities yet to began their ceremonies were all invited to attend especially during the offering of prayers to the ancestors and gods among others for better harvest, good health, peaceful relationship with neighbours, family members during the agricultural season.


In most of the pre-colonial Esan chiefdoms Ihunlan or the new yam festival usually began in late October and early November each year. The period was marked with the symbolic eating of the first pounded yam and drinking of palm-wine by the elders while the youths went about entertaining people with various songs and dances. The occasion was marked each year with much festivities unless when there was a year of drought or locust invasion which resulted in a famine. Otherwise, “After harvesting yams, usually between August and October, there were little farming activities and then began a long period of relaxation... this time of the year was the time for ‘meetings’ and the few agitations that occurred in Ishan”.48 By the time these feasts were over in late December, the men would again engage themselves in the preparation and choice of farmland for the next season. Thus according to Professor Igbafe:

the agricultural year often took the same pattern. Clearing of yam plots, felling of tress and burning of the clearings usually fell within the dry season months of December to February. Hoeing commenced in March and April with the early rains and was usually complete in May.49


Labour Mobilization

The Full application of labour was another important feature in the role of agricultural production for economic development and promotion of intergroup relations in pre-colonial Esan economy. Apart from the family effort available to the farmer and others engaged in other class of agriculture provided by his households, other forms of labour complemented it which includes: the cooperative labour provision, akugbe entered into by members of the same age-set, Otu. In the Otu, a member of the group was entitled to call on other members whenever, he have a major work like clearing, cutting, weeding, planting, harvesting or conveyance of harvest to the market. The labour rendered was reciprocated when any other member of the group needed assistance also. The cooperative labour group involved a large work force for not more than four to five days. It was done with funfair where by the organizer of the farm provided food, drinks and other requirements for entertainment during the duration of the work.50 Pawnship, Iyoha, owenawor was another form of labour but provided by debtors, Oluosa who cannot pay their debt and its interest on the money or item loaned in lieu of repayment to the creditor. It was also common to give a grown-up child or any close relations of the debtor/defaultee for say a repayment. The creditor used such labour as additional work force in the farms or house.


In addition, there was the use of slave, Igbon labour before the imposition of colonial rule in Esanland pre-colonial agricultural economy. Apart from it popular use in Uromi, Ekpoma and Irrua and some parts of Ubiaja it was only mentioned as source large-size of labour in Benin kingdom and in Igboland. Slaves, Igbon were either bought or captured during wars. According to Chief Osemekhain Albert, “as a result of some wars prominent in the 16th-18th centuries, slave labour only became relevant especially in the household of the royal families and some eminent elites. Their labour in the farm land and other productive places enabled them (elite) meet up with increasing food requirements of their large household”.51


However, slaves where they existed in Esanland were not treated in the strictest sense as commodities as in the feudal states of Hausaland, Benin kingdom, Nupe kingdom, Igboland among others. One important fact is that, they regained freedom as soon as they meet up with the demand of their master/owners and oral tradition exists on how domestic slaves and other servants were integrated into the Esan economy before 1800.52


Another means by which labour was put into use in the pre-colonial Esan agricultural economy was the employment of paid labour which became evident before the end of the 19th century. The practice was copied from Yoruba migrants from Ondo state who had close contact with early European merchants who encouraged plantation farming and payment of wages to farm labour.53


Animal Rearing

A highly neglected area in the economic/agricultural history of Nigeria and Esanland in particular is animal rearing. This neglect is surprising because animals have a long history in Nigeria as beast of burden, sacrificial objects, table fares and as instruments of intergroup relations. Therefore, the history of animal rearing/husbandry showing developments in rearing animals for their various uses is an important complementary aspect of Nigerian economic and agricultural history. This aspect of the paper is therefore an attempt to expose how animal rearing in pre-colonial Esan economy and agricultural production promoted intergroup relation which to some extent is still evident today.


The animals that were reared in pre-colonial Esan were fowls, ducks, goats, pigs, dogs, sheep and cows in the closing decades of the nineteen century. Unlike northern Nigeria; cows were not common in this area. As made known to this writer by some informants cows were introduced by the Nupe of the present Niger state during the jihadic spread of Islam from Afenmai into the Esan kingdoms. They were therefore not generally reared as livestock in brgotr 19th century Esan.54


There were two ways by which a farmer or household gained ownership of livestock. One was by direct acquisition by gift or purchase. In this case, one had complete control of the animals and their offspring’s. The other was the ‘contract of agistment’, or livestock tenancy. This operated in taking care of animals for the owner and sharing the offspring’s with him or her. The advantage always rested with the owner for the sharing was always in the ratio of two for the owner and one for the caretaker. Thus, a goat which gave birth to only one offspring at a time had to produce three times before the caretaker could acquire one. The contract was always terminated either by the death of the animal or by its return to the owner. This arrangement was very popular in pre-colonial Esanland for it promoted intra and intergroup relations. Other arrangement was outright gift which was gladly practiced because it transferred ownership and other risk to the recipient at the expense of the giver. Also, only in emergencies, and if one had the money for it, did anyone go to the market to buy livestock. For those who wished to breed, the necessity to purchase was not high. For there was always a relation, friends or family friends far and near, with whom one could make a contract of agistment. Relatively therefore, the contract of agistment was the commonest means of acquiring livestock in pre-colonial Esan due to its intra-intergroup benefits. For example, every adult male reared some or all of these animals with the exception of fowls which were regarded as property for the women. Such animals were looked after by all members of the village and the owner may have no need to keep them behind bars since the society was guilded by spiritual and moral laws kept at heart by the various members to promote and sustained intra-intergroup relations. Thus, apart from the provision of sleeping places for the animals, pre-colonial animal holders in Esan left animals to the care of his relations and family friends.55


Hunting and Fruit Gathering

Hunting was another ancient agricultural activities of Esanland. Hunters were specialists and the occupation was restricted to men who allegedly had the charms to overcome the physical and metaphysical danger in the evil-infested forest. Among the specialist hunters were hunters of elephants called Ogbeni. The hunters, Orhe were highly regarded because of their diabolical power in hunting. They hunted for lion, leopard, dear, rain-dear, fish eagle, which were among other requirement used in the installation of the kings and prominent chiefs. Hunting involved a lot of risks. It was not an all comers profession as hunters went in search of wild animals in remote and dangerous forest. Besides they made use of dane-guns, osisi, charm, uhkuwu, traps, efi, cutlass, and knives etc. as weapons. Traps were set or erected for animals and birds. Hunting dogs were drugged to enhance their perception and rattles were hung on the dogs collars for them to lead the way. However, hunting was done not as much for the prestige attached to it. For examples, hunters in Uromi, Ubiaja, Ekpoma and Ewu according to oral evidence were highly celebrated because of their bravery and as captain of the state informal defense squared.56


There was also some evidence of animal husbandry of livestock such as fowls, pigs, cows, goats, sheep, rabbits, ducks, etc. kept by some of the hunters and their wives. In addition, food, fruits, snails and gathering of rare eggs of birds and reptiles were also engaged in by by women and children who sometimes go far into the forest with the hunters in search of these items for home consumption and exchange in the weekly markets.



Another supplementary occupation which encouraged intergroup relations amongst the Esan living in the banks of rivers was fishing. Because the River Niger flowed into Esan, much fishing was engaged in places like Ozigono, Idoa, Onalo, Ebelle and Ekpoma. Here people engaged in fresh water and open river fishing. It was mainly engaged in by men during the dry seasons, okai when there were no serious works in the farms. The fishes caught added to the peoples protein and others not immediately consumed were preserved by either smoking, drying or salting and sold to traders who in turn sold them to consumers. Fishing tools included, locally made hooks, oghotenhen and the weaker fish traps made from the raffia palm, poison made from foliage seeds bark and root of plants as traps.57


Agricultural Tools:

Tools for pre-colonial agriculture were simple in nature. The mid 15th century migration’58 from Benin into the Esan region led to the widespread use of iron implements for farming in Esanland. Such tools included hoe and cutlass that were later to be manufactured by the blacksmiths in various kingdoms. By the end of the 15th century, blacksmithing had developed in many parts of Esan. Among them were various iron smithing centres like Ewoyi in Uromi, Idumigun in Ekpoma, Idumua bekhae in Ugboha etc. It was from these centres that tools like the digger Aho, cutlass Opia hoe Egue and Knives Oghale of various sizes were produced to supplement the old ones and according to Chief Esegbe Odion, “these Esan communities noted for blacksmithing work became specialist and engaged in these on full-time bases thereby allowing other Esan communities concentrate in their farming activities which in several ways promoted intergroup relations”.59 These iron implements had a major and permanent impact on both the extent of land holding utilization by the individual farmer and the overall economy. With the nature of land which was relatively weed free, these implements, even through the colonial period were used in the area with little or no modification.


Other aspect of Esan Agriculture from 1900

Cash-crop Production:

Before the end of the 19th century, the cash crop production was another agricultural practice in pre-colonial Esanland which promoted economic development and group integration and cooperation.  It was rather an advance on self sufficiency. The use of good implements coupled with efficient division of labour resulted in specialization. As a result, energies put where they can be best rewarded or have comparative advantage over other areas and production can increase. The farmers were thus encouraged to produce more than they use to consume and dispose off the excess by marketing. Some farmers farmed exclusively for cash rather than use, by specializing in specific cash crop such as cocoa, groundnuts, palm produce and rubber for export.60


Commercial Agriculture:

Commercial agriculture was the next agricultural practices by the Esan. One thing perculiar with this practice is that economic crops were planted at plantation level. This was introduced into tropical Africa by the early capitalist from Europe. Their principal aim was to produce raw materials to feed their home industries. This practice involved the cultivation of thousands of hectares of land under one crop. Huge investments in money, labour and management skills were involved. The implication of this type of agriculture was that several Esan farmers took advantage of it and responded to the demand of the Europeans. Some others went into the production of food crops in order not to starve the home front which consolidated inter-intragroup economic integration.61


Moreover, this marked an advance stage of production which was dominated in West Africa and Esanland by foreign firms, some of which have now been taken over by government sponsored agencies. Plantation agriculture is suitable for cash crops such as cocoa, tea, coffee, oil palm, rubber, jute, tobacco and cotton. However these cash crop and commercial/plantation agriculture where practices were greeted with problems. Such problems included land tenure by inheritance, poor tools, low income 1evel of the farmers, lack of machine, lack of adequate education, poor marketing, poor storage facilities; poor rural development, poor communication, sociological and psychological effects of being called a farmer, problem of pest disease control and metereology and climatology.62


How the Pre-colonial Agricultural Production of Esan Economy sustained Economic Development and Intergroup Cooperation

Esan like most other countries in African communities was then industrially underdeveloped; their economies depend mainly on agriculture as examined below:


Food supply:

Food in the form of plant and animal production is/was one of the first necessities of life and agriculture is the main source of food and fibre for the ever growing urban and rural population. Plentiful food was/is necessary for the building up of a healthy reservoir of human resources needed for increased productivity in both the agricultural and industrial sectors of the pre-colonial Esan economy. It also promoted inter-intragroup relations and cooperation because food production was determined by geographical composition which was never the same naturally.63


Trade and Industry:

Many Esan people during the pre-colonial period and after were also engaged in the sale of and distribution of agricultural products. And agriculture was the source of raw materials for several domestic industries which in turn helped to extend the use of machines to which the products of farming can be put. Industry and agriculture are therefore interdependent. Industry needs the products of agriculture both as food for its workers and as source of raw materials. Agriculture on the other hand needs industry as a market as well as the products of industry for its improvement. And this was only feasible when there is cooperation and intergroup relations among those engaged in agricultural and industrial production.


Source of Income:

The sale of agricultural products, for example palm products, groundnut, cotton, cocoa, yam, cassava as well as animal and animal products, provided income in the first place for the Esan farmers which assisted in the purchase of goods and services not produced in Esanland.

Create new Rural Employment Opportunities:

Agriculture provided more than seventy percent of the rural employment opportunity in pre-colonial Esan communities.46


Encouraged the adoption of Appropriate Technologies:

Agriculture helped in the adoption of appropriate technologies. Whether labour inclusive or capital intensive, technology was detected by the level of agriculture in practice in Esan communities.


Savings and Investment:

Agriculture provided savings and investment to Esan farmers. As farmers produced and sell their products, they had surplus to save and invest or plough back for the next planting season.


Provision of General Price Stability:

Yet agriculture provided price stability as a measure of value. Products of agriculture maintain the same value and price thereby making price in the market gain stability. This goes a long way to discourage inflation, hoarding and monopoly as experienced presently.


Economic Growth and Economic Development: Esan pre-colonial agriculture provided economic growth and development through its dynamic activities. Growth in aggregate agricultural production index was strong in 1850 with 5.5 per cent growth rate and continued on the upward trend up to 1860 when it recorded a peak of 19.3 per cent from 1885. However the rate trended downward until 1912. Factors responsible for the upward performance was improved intra-intergroup relations and cooperation among the various Esan communities were the initial macro-economic policy shifted in encouraging agricultural production during the period of 1880-1899 coupled with improved weather situation and availability of input and marketing infrastructural facilities.65


Problem of Indigenous Agriculture in Pre-Colonial Esan Economy

Land Tenure by Inheritance:

In Esan kingdoms and as in West Africa in generally, land for agricultural activities is usually acquired through inheritance with the extended family system as a result, holders of capital who may desire to invest in large scale farming are seldom, able to acquire clear title to enough land for such an operation and this fact has had its influence on agricultural development throughout the region.

Low Level of Income:

Income of Esan Farmers is still low. Generally, income among farmers in Nigeria is low as a result of poor harvest as a result of lack of technical know-how and partly by high taxation imposed upon export crops. But good harvests are not always associated with income increase. There may be fall in prices as in the case of cocoa in the world market; and since many agricultural products such as pepper and tomatoes are seasonal a good harvest may lead to a glut on the market which in turn leads to poor sales and low income.


Lack of Incentive:

Even apart from temporary drops in price caused by world price fluctuations or local glut, the prices of agricultural products throughout West Africa are generally low because the internal market is limited by poverty, particularly by the low incomes of non-farmers most of’ whom are urban dwellers, poorly paid, unskilled workers. Low prices mean little incentive to the farmers to produce more efficiently or to invest with more sophisticated techniques.


Poor Tools:

Poor and inefficient tools results in low output per unit input. Many locally used tools however are well adapted to their purpose.


Lack of Education/Conservatism:

The poorly educated pre-colonial Esan agriculturalist tends to be conservative. That is unwilling to accept new ideas which do not seem to give immediate gains. They tended to mistrust the use of fertilizer, insecticides, fungicides and new tools supply because they are unfamiliar, expensive and un-appropriate to soil condition they alleged.



Apart from the export crops, the marketing of agricultural products from the farm gate to the consumer was/is still handled mainly in the traditional way. In Esanland marketing channels such as grading or storage centres were not widely developed. The transport system too was unsatisfactory and does not facilitate distribution to the whole sellers or retailers in the main population centres, especially under pressure of the harvest season. Many middle men operated between the producers and the consumers creaming off much of the farmers potentials profit.




Poor storage facilities:

Lack of good storage facilities caused terrible waste of agricultural products especially as the harvest season draws to an end. In Esanland apart from the state owned farms, individual farmers still rely on the traditional methods in the storage of produce.


Poor rural development:

Lack of rural development encouraged able men and women to migrate from the village to the cities where there are social-economic amenities such as pipe borne water, electricity, health service, centres for recreation, higher institutions among others that were supposed to be provided in the rural areas where challenges faced by Esan agriculture before colonial rule.


Poor communication:

The lack of adequate information media such as radio, cinema and television which might be used to inform the Esan farmer on time and method of fertilizer application, distribution and method of planting of high quality seedlings or prices and market for his/her products also adversely affected pre-colonial Esan agricultural products.


In conclusion, it could be said that pre-colonial Esan agriculture which developed from the interaction of the human and material resources in the region satisfied the basic desire for food by the people and the need to sustaining intragroup cooperation. It was efficient, far from being a static institution, agriculture developed to meet the demands of an ever growing population in the various chiefdoms and the people in turn provided their labour through a system of division by age and sex for the planting, tending and harvesting processes. Thus, in agriculture, every able bodied members of the pre-colonial Esan society was gainfully employed had plenty to eat and share, take to other markets in exchanged for what they could not produced.


On recommendations, government should try as much as possible to encourage the Esan farmers by providing soft loans, infrastructure, extension services, farm settlements schemes and agric-education. Land should be available and government should also help in the provision of viable seeds and agro chemicals at affordable rate to Esan farmers to encourage them because agricultural production apart from its economic benefits also promoted intergroup relations which the Nigerian nation-state is still in search of.




1.     Osakwe, A.S. (2012), “The Physical Geography of Esan Kingdom: Influences and changes”. Journal of Social Management, Vol.5, No.2, pp.23-31.

2.     Agbontean, B. (2000), Esan Migrations and Settlement Patterns; Benin City: Edobor Printing Press pp.261-268.

3.     Beads, R. (2006), Settlement Pattern and Agricultural Production in Pre-colonial West Africa States. Accra: Maxwell Academy pp.101-103.

4.     Okojie, C.G. (2009 Reprint), Ishan Native Laws and Customs; An Anthropological Study, Lagos Yaba Tech p.68.

5.     Ibid, p.69.

6.     Odion, N.B. (2013), The Sociology of Esan Kingdom, Glassgow: TABC Press Corporation p.136.

7.     Ibid, p.139.

8.     National Archives, Ibadan (NAI) Intelligence Reports – H.G. Aveling, et al. C.S.O/26/Ishan Division 2291/A, Benin Province, 1925-1926 pp.200-201.

9.     Austin, I.K. (2011), “Growth and Population of esan Kingdoms Since 1931-006”. Journal of National Development, Vol.5, No.2 p.36.

10.  Azukwe, L.S. (2014), The Sociological Perspective of Inter and Intragroup Cooperation: Contemporary Challenges and Prospects, London: McGrey Adams, p.429. See also Adigwe, S. (2012) “Redefining Intergroup Relation in Nigeria Context” An M.A. Thesis, Department of History UDUS, Sokoto, chapter 2.

11.  Idugboe, M.T. (2013), Pre-colonial Agricultural Production in Esanland”, An M.A. Thesis, Dept. of History, University of Lagos, chapter 3 p.119.

12.  Ibid, p.120

13.  Ibid, p.122

14.  Ibid p.123

15.  Darling, P.J. (1984), The Ancient and Linear Earthwork of Benin and Ishan, Britain: NewBell Series Vol.1 p.128.

16.  Ibid, p.131.

17.  Afigbo, A.E. (1981), Ropes of Sand: Studies in igbo History and Culture, Nigeria OUP p.126.

18.  Anthony, S. (2010), “Pre-colonial Economy of Esan Kingdom, 1800-1905, An M.A Thesis, Dept. of History and International Studies University of Ilroin. Chapter 3.

19.  Ibid, p.209.

20.  Okojie, C.G. (2009 Reprint), Ishan Native Laws and Custom… p.73.

21.  Ibid, p.82.

22.  Interview with Professor Anthony I. Okoduwa, 58 years lecturer Department of History and International Studies, AA University, Ekpoma 23/10/2013.

23.  Ibid

24.  Okojie, C.G. (2009 Reprint), Ishan Native Laws and Customs… p.98.

25.  Ibid, p.101.

26.  Agwedo, A.S. (2012), “Agricultural Technology and Ritualistic Practices in Pre-colonial Esan Economy”, Journal of Social and Economic Development, Vol.5, No.2, p.213.

27.  Darling, P.J. (1984), The Ancient and Linear Earthwork of Benin and Ishan… p.25.

28.  Ibid, p.31.

29.  Agwedo, A.S. (2012), “Agricultural Technology and Ritualistic Practices in Pre-colonial Esan Economy”… p.216.

30.  Interview with Pa Steven Oboh 85+, A Retired civil Servant (and Survey Unit, Ministry of Local Government, Benin City) Ekpoma 23/10/2013 and Chief Solomon Osisi 105 years a farmer.

31.  Ibid

32.  Ibid

33.  Ibid

34.  Agbai, M. (2001), Land: Ownership and Utilization in Pre-colonial and Colonial Esanland, Benin City: Artman Book Academy p.81.

35.  Okojie, C.G. (2009 Reprint), Ishan Native Laws and Customs… 109.

36.  Ibid, p.110.

37.  Ibid, p.112.

38.  Interview with Pa Iyoha Oziegbe, 93 years, a farmer and singer Ewu Village. 24/10/2013.

39.  Ibid

40.  Ibid

41.  Agwedo, A.S. (2012), “Agricultural and Ritualistic Practices in Pre-colonial Esan Economy…” p.218.

42.  Ibid, p.220

43.  Ibid p.223.

44.  National Archives, Ibadan (1985), Intelligence Report, B.C. Lawson, Crop Production CSO 23 BP, Ishan Division. 1924-24 Annual (2).

45.  Ibid, paragraph 18.

46.  Ibid, Paragraph 23.

47.  Matthew, P.S. (2010), “Foundation of Esan Agricultural Productions, 1800-1900”, An M.A. Thesis, Department of History, University of Ilroin, pp.36-43.

48.  Ibid, p.45.

49.  Quoted in Olusunle, D. (2009), The Impact of New Yam Festival in Esan Kingdoms, Lagos: Matlink Printing Press, p.18.

50.  Ambrose, E.B. (2000), “The Supply and Utilization of Labour in Pre-Colonial, Colonial and Post Colonial Benin and Esan Kingdoms”, Journal of Economic History and Social Relations, Vol.5, No.2, p.418.

51.  Interview with chief Osemekhain Albert, 68 years an Historian and School Proprietor, Uromi, 28/10/2012.

52.  Egbefo, O.D. (2016), “Intra-intergroup Integration in Pre-colonial Africa: A Study of Domestic Slavery and other Servile Institutions in Esanland, Nigeria, in Kaduna Journal of History, (Forthcoming).

53.  David, S.Y. (1999), Labour in Traditional Esan Society, Lagos; Adumi Publishers, p.38.

54.  Ehizogie, P. (1998), “Animal Rearing and Practice in Esanland”, Daily Times, Lagos, pp.10-13 and 15.

55.  Ibid, p.15.

56.  Agbazilo, I. (2015), “Hunting and Food/Fruits Gathering in Esan Economic Activities before the Eve of Colonialism”. In Spring Board Journal, Alhikmah University No.1, Volume.3. pp.109-121

57.  Interview with Chief Aziegbemhin Julius 53 years, chairman, Esan Fishing Association, Uromi 5/11/2012.

58.  Edeki, O.Z. (1987) “Indigenous Craft and Skill in Esanland 1500-1800”, An M.A Thesis Department of History, University of Benin. P.301.

59.  Interview with Chief Esegbe Odion 58 years. An Ironworker/Farmer. Ekpoma 5/11/2012.

60.  Iyoha, Patricia, M. (2001), “Historical Perspectives of Modern Esan Agriculture: Change and Continuity” A Postgraduate Seminar Paper Presentation, Department of History and International Studies, University of Ilorin. P.10.

61.  Ibid, p.14.

62.  Ibid p.15

63.  Ojo, A.L. (1999), The Impact of Agricutural Production and marketing in Precolonial Benin and Esanland: The Role f Women as a Case Study. A Ph.D Thesis, University of Ibadan pp.216-218.

64.  Ibid, p.220

65.  Ibid p.221.





Received on 07.01.2017

Modified on 28.01.2017

Accepted on 27.02.2017

© A&V Publication all right reserved

Research J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 8(2): April- June, 2017, 139-150.

DOI:  10.5958/2321-5828.2017.00020.1