1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Yorubas

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YORUBAS; YORUBALAND. The Yoruba, a group of Negro tribes, have given their name to an extensive area in West Africa, in the hinterland of Lagos. The Yoruba are of true Negro stock, in many respects typical of the race, but among them are found persons with lighter skins and features recalling the Hamitic or Semitic peoples. This arises, in all probability, from an infiltration of Berber and Arab blood through the Fula (q.v.). The Yoruba themselves have traditions of an Oriental origin. They are divided into many tribes, among the best known being the Oyo = Yoruba proper, the Egba, Jebu, Ife, and Ibadan. They are sometimes called by the French Nago, and are known to the Sierra Leonis, many of whom are of Yoruba descent, as Aku. A considerable proportion of the American negroes are also said to be of Yoruba origin. For a long period the Yoruba were raided by the Dahomeyans and other coast tribes, to sell as slaves to the white traders. They are both an urban and agricultural people. Pottery, weaving, tanning, dyeing, and forging are among their industries. The houses of chiefs, often containing fifty rooms, are well built, and decorated with carvings representing symbolic devices, fabulous animals and scenes of war or the chase.

The Yoruba have considerable administrative ability. Their system of government places the power in a council of elders presided over by a chief who owes his position to a combination of the principles of heredity and election.[1] The ruling chief must always be taken from the members of one of two families, the succession in many cases passing from one to the other family alternately. Primogeniture is not necessarily considered.

Before the Introduction of letters the Yoruba are said to have employed knotted strings for recording events. Their language, which has been reduced to writing and carefully studied, has penetrated as far E. as Kano in the Hausa country. The best known dialectic varieties are those of Egba, Jebu, Ondo, Ife, Illorin and Oyo (Yoruba proper, called also Nago); but the discrepancies are slight. The most marked feature, a strong tendency towards monosyllabism—produced by phonetic decay—has given rise to the principle of intonation, required to distinguish words originally different but reduced by corruption to the condition of homophones. Besides the tones, of which there are three—high, low and middle—Yoruba has also developed a degree of vocalic harmony, in which the vowels of the affixes are assimilated to that of the root. Inflexion, as in Bantu, is effected chiefly by prefixes; and there is a remarkable power of word-formation by the fusion of several relational elements in a single compound term. The Bible and several other books have been translated into Yoruba, which as a medium of general intercourse in West Africa ranks in importance next to Hausa and Mandingan. The Yoruba religion is that usually known as fetishism.

The Yoruba country extends from Benin on the E. to Dahomey on the W. (where it somewhat overlaps the French frontier), being bounded N. by Borgu and S. by the coast lands of Lagos. It covers about 25,000 sq. m . Most of it is included in the British protectorate of Southern Nigeria. The land is moderately elevated and a large part of it is densely forested. It is well watered; the rivers belong mainly to the coast systems, though some drain to the Niger. The history of Yorubaland, as known to Europeans, does not go back beyond the close of the 17th century. At that time it was a powerful empire, and had indirectly come—through its connexion with Benin and Dahomey—to some extent under European influence. There was also a much slighter Moslem influence. One tradition brought the founder of the nation from Bornu. The Yoruba appear to have inhabited their present country at least as early as a.d. 1000. In the 18th century the Yoruba were constantly engaged in warfare with their Dahomeyan neighbours, and in 1738 they captured Kana, the sacred city of the kings of Dahomey. From 1747 to the time of King Gezo (11818) the Dahomeyans paid tribute to Yoruba. It was not until the early years of the 19th century that the Yoruba came as far S. as the sea, when they founded a colony at Lagos. About 1825 the province of Illorin, already permeated by Moslem influences from the north, declared itself independent of the Yoruba, and shortly afterwards Yorubaland was overrun by Fula invaders. From this time (1830–35) the Yoruba empire—there had been six confederate kingdoms—was broken up into a number of comparatively weak states, who warred with one another, with the Dahomeyans and with their Moslem neighbours. The advent of the British at first led to further complications and fighting, but gradually the various tribes gained confidence in the colonial government and sought its services as peacemaker. A treaty placing their country under British protection was signed by the Egba in January 1893, and the subsequent extension of British control over the other portions of Yorubaland met with no opposition.

Though divided into semi-independent states, the Yoruba retain a feeble sense of common nationality. The direct representative of the old Yoruba power is the alafin or king of Oyo occupying the N. and central parts of the whole region. Round this central state, which has lost much of its importance, are grouped the kingdoms of Illorin, Ijesa, Ife and Ondo in the E., Mahin and Jebu in the S. and Egba in the W. The ruler of each of these states has a title characteristic of his office. Thus the chief of Ife bears the title of oni (a term indicating spiritual supremacy). To the oni of Ife or the alafin of Oyo all the other great chiefs announce their succession. The oni, says Sir William MacGregor, is regarded as the fountain of honour, and without his consent no chief can assume the privilege of wearing a crown. The most important of the Yoruba states is Egba, the ruling chief of which is the alake of Abeokuta (see Abeokuta).

Yorubaland is a country of comparatively large cities. The alafin resides at Oyo, on a head stream of the Oshun, a place which has succeeded the older capitals, Bohu and Katunga, lying farther N. and destroyed during the wars with the Fula. Oyo is exceeded in size by several other places in Yorubaland, where the inhabitants have grouped themselves together for mutual protection in walled towns. Thus have sprung up the important towns of Abeokuta on the Ogun, due N. of Lagos; Ibadan on a branch of the Omi, 30 m. S . of Oyo; and Illorin, capital of the Illorin state, besides several other towns with a population of some 40,000.

See A. Dalzell, The History of Dahomey (London, 1793); A. B. Ellis, The Yoruba-speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa (London, 1894); R. E. Dennett, Nigerian Studies, or the Religions and Political System of the Yoruba (London, 1910); C. F . Harford-Battersby, Niger and Yoruba Routes (London, 1895–96); and Lagos and Nigeria.


  1. R. E . Dennett states that the government is based on the rule of four great chiefs who respectively represent the phases of family life, namely, (1) the deified head of the family, called Orisha; (2) the fatherhood: (3motherhood; (4sonship. The chief representing motherhood is brother to the mother, and in the developed state has become the Balogun or war lord.