When the author of Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, Donald Jordan, said “history is an aggregate of half-truths, semi-truths, fables, myths, rumours, prejudices, personal narratives, gossip and official prevarications”, he may have been frustrated by the historical contradictions of his time.
And such inconsistencies have been the fate of history from time immemorial, making Karl Marx to observe that it first repeats itself as a tragedy, and later as farce.
While these observations rightly mirrored the status of past events, whether documented or oral, they nonetheless, didn’t dismiss the instructiveness of history. The latest debate on those who founded Lagos is yet another repetition of history, which gives room to distortion to suit interests and times.
Such a situation re-echoes the author of The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred, Niall Ferguson, who said oral history is a recipe for complete misrepresentation.
The American scholar added that when it comes to oral history, almost no one tells the truth, even when they intend. That is a case of the Lagos question, which seems to have birthed many later-day historians, whose conceptions and interpretations contradicted generally accepted narratives on the subject. Since the storyline dates back centuries gone, the witnesses to that history are now history themselves, but there are those who qualified as custodians of that history. One of them is Her Royal Highness, Erelu Kuti IV of Lagos, Erelu Abiola Dosunmu, a direct descendant of the progenitors of Lagos kingship.
Her bloodline alone makes her side on the origin of Lagos more authoritative than anyone else.
In this interview, which was conducted when the same controversy came up a few years back, Erelu Dosunmu narrated the story of Lagos as handed down by her ancestors. The current debate was provoked by the Oba of Benin, Omo N’ Oba N’ Edo, Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II, who restated what others had said in the past.
Oba Ewuare on a visit to Lagos said: “I cannot help but say that it is in history books that Benin founded Lagos. But when some people hear it now they go haywire that ‘what is the Oba saying?’ But it is true . Go and check the records. Maybe not all of Lagos as we know it now but certain areas in Lagos – maybe the nucleus -was founded by my ancestors. The Oba of Lagos will say so.”
Just as the monarch anticipated, the remark has reignited the controversy over who founded Lagos.
Are you not concerned about the controversy over the true aborigines of Lagos?
I would not say I am concerned because I know the truth. The history of Lagos is not obscure, it is very clear. If people are going to say the truth, we all know what the truth is.
A friend was saying to me if I was not sure there is no third party trying to take the rights of Lagos through this raging controversy. We all know the story of Lagos from childhood. Even a play was staged about the beginning of Lagos last year. I just know that the truth will surface after this raging controversy because a lot of the gladiators are being miserly in some of their discussions.
Can you give clarity on some of the things you consider not to be factual among those that have been said so far?
The territory of Lagos has always been an extension of the Benin Kingdom in the sense that they used it as a passage to the port for their trading and interaction with foreigners. We all know that foreigners visited the Benin Empire long before colonialism and signing of the treaty of Lagos.
This is their passageway and hunting ground. As soon as strangers came to settle down, they would pounce on them and make them pay royalties. Like all human beings, when you settle in a place for a long time, it is expected that you will have the right of ownership. And the foreigners were not ready to be subservient and refused to pay Isakole (royalty) and the Benin king did not take kindly to that. He sent an expedition and subjugated the foreigners and set up his own administration in form of a kingdom.
Therefore, when I say that we are purely and predominantly Benin, it is the truth. The royalty of Lagos is predominantly Benin. But we have all intermingled and have since inter-married with people from Yoruba land and people from other places. And we are enjoying the two cultures. We are even enjoying more because we now have Igbo, Hausa and other tribes settling in Lagos. We are not enjoying the Yoruba influence alone, we are also enjoying other influences.
Prior to the institution of the royalty with Oba Ado as the first king, who were the people that the Benin met on the ground?
The Benin has always known about Lagos because they considered it as part of their territory and they used it for many purposes. And when the Awori came from Ife to settle in the areas of Lagos, the Benin quickly got them to pay royalties. Benin was landlocked but, as Benin Empire, they were interacting with people from other parts of the world. It was Benin Empire and, when the Portuguese and others came, they also had to pass through the Kuramo waters to get there.
They had already laid claim to the land called Lagos. Whether they gave it a name or not, it was an extension of their playground. And when another group of people came to settle there, the Benin said they already had authority over the palace. That was what informed their decision to make the Awori pay royalties. And after paying the Isakole for a while, they (Awori) decided not to pay anymore. That made the Benin to decide not to leave a vacuum anymore and set up an administration.
That is why I am saying that there is no ambiguity in the history of Lagos if we are going to tell the truth. All these people, who have been talking, never mentioned that they paid Isakole but we all know that. It is written in books that they paid Isakole. That was the main reason the Benin came and took Olofin away. He refused to be subservient to them. The Benin came here because it is their territory.
There is evidence that an expedition was sent from Benin, there is evidence that they were conquered because there was an obaship in place. Even if they did not have anything and just sent an expedition to conquer, when someone conquers, he takes over the land and property of the conquered territory. Now, we want to unify our views and have a consensus so that those people, who are trying to take our rights away, can be confronted to see if we can get some kind of compensation for our children.
This is not the first time such controversy is raging, what do you think is responsible for its recurrence?
What I did at NIIA was to state that Oba Dosumu was an unsung hero. It was to state that the treaty for which he was being castigated was a masterstroke. He was a forward-looking king who had the interest of his people at heart. He did not allow his position to go into his head by allowing his subjects to be destroyed in a meaningless battle. He found a way to a roundtable discussion and was able to retain integrity for his kingdom, while still retaining the friendship of the colonial people.
There are many countries in Africa where people don’t remember their culture but he found a way to get a concession by which he was allowed to remain a king and sustain the culture and pride of his people as independent human begins. And the people actually enjoyed the benefits because they were able to carry British passports and get scholarships to study abroad. That is why a lot of early educated people were the indigenous people of Lagos. For example, people like the late Justice Elias, Justice Junaidu, and Prince Ajose were among the early educated people. Our fathers and grandfathers were all products of King’s College; they were either great bankers or doctors or pharmacists, etc. It is wrong to think that Lagos people are lazy. It is not the indigenous people of Lagos who are lazy, it is those who come from other places.
This kind of controversy happened before and it is here again. In the light of that, how can the issue be resolved because oral history is easily distorted and told to suit individual and group interests?
If you don’t talk about issues, solutions may not be found. I think it is appropriate that we should discuss it. There should be this kind of conversation going on but, at the end of the day, a superior argument will carry the day. It is okay to take a story from wherever, but it is right to take it from the beginning and analyse it in a sensible way based on what our ancestors told us, what other people have written and what we learnt from our research. That is the best way instead of the jaundiced way it is being done now. We will get there. It is healthy that conversations will be going on, at the end of the day we will sit at a roundtable and harmonise our views. And whatever that is not clear, we will address it and come up with a consensus. We have had this kind of issue before on the story of the Eyo. The story is so clear but when the conversation started, people were attributing it to a princess from Badagry, but, at the end of the day, it was confirmed that the fetish came from the palace of the father of Queen Olugbani, wife of King Ado of Lagos.
But the colourful Aga is a creation of Oba Akisemoye of Lagos, the fetish was to protect them from the curious gaze of the people of Lagos. Strong young men in the neigbourhood were clad in white and given a stick to ward off anybody that wanted to interfere and they were called the Laba. That is why the Laba will always say that they are the head of the Eyo because they were the ones guarding the fetish until the early 1950s when the fetish felt they were not guarded properly by the Laba. Otherwise, Eyo, in the past, instead of the yellow Aga, was always red.
They were protecting the fetish but when the fetish felt the Laba was not protecting them anymore, they started having their own people to protect them with different colours of Aga. From there it expanded to the palaces of the white chiefs who started having their groups. It also expanded to groups formed by the Eyo Omo Oloku because, whenever there is an Eyo, it is always to honour departed obas.
The Eyo Omo Oloku can also come out in subsequent Eyos. So it kept getting bigger and definitely more colourful but it was a creation of the Oba of Lagos. The fetish was what was brought and the first Eyo was performed at the funeral of Queen Olugbani from where the fetish came from. But before we settled that matter, people told different stories. I believe this one will be resolved. The problem is even not with the indigenous people of Lagos, it is being caused by people who want to claim ownership by default. They are the ones who are actually fueling the controversy.
The Benin Kingdom is always a central factor in the history of Lagos and Oba Akiolu even acknowledged the place of the kingdom recently. Are there still some cultural activities that take place between the Lagos royalty and Benin royalty?
There is nothing stringent but there are still some courtesies that are exchanged between the two kingdoms. And if a new king is being crowned in Benin, the Oba of Lagos will have a vantage position as a son of the soil within the context of the ceremony. Apart from that, everybody is independent in his own right but we enjoy a lot of goodwill. Whatever is between us now is ceremonial and more of courtesies.
Since all these started, have you reached out to the dramatis personae?
I decided to talk because many people have called that, as the person who seems like a custodian of history and culture of Lagos for over 40 years, I should make a statement and reach out to everybody. I am talking because I want us to speak with one voice and not allow other people to take advantage of the situation. I am reaching out and hope that my views will throw more light on the issues. We are going to reach out to more people and iron these out behind closed doors rather than on the pages of newspapers.
On Oral History…
When people talk about oral history, they also have to think of logic because if people rely on what they hear, they can never have a consensus. But logic must prevail. Time must also prevail because things are time-bound.
If, for instance, they are saying that a certain people were paying royalties to the Benin Kingdom and others said they had been there centuries before the Benin came, but the same person who was said to have landed first was the same person that the Benin captured, how many centuries can that be? How long do human beings live? If they are saying the same person who came the first time was captured by the Benin and then returned, how long can it be? A lifetime! Okay, he came as a young man and was captured as an old man? How many years are we talking about? I have read stories where they said some had been here for centuries and they are talking about the same original settlers. Therefore, common sense and time factor should also come into play when saying things based on oral history.