Archaeological work on Yoruba settlements has shown that the oldest cities may date back to around A.D. 800. This includes Ife, a city in South-West Nigeria of huge importance to the Yoruba. According to Yoruban religion, this is thought to have been the place of origin of the Yoruban people and their culture. Additionally, it was once a major political and artistic centre.
Despite being located on periphery of Yorubaland, Oyo is another crucial Yoruban city-state. Thought to have been founded sometime between the 10th – 14th centuries, it became a crucial trading centre, managing to expand all the way to the coast by the 1700’s.
Whilst Benin City – not to be confused with the Republic of Benin – is located to the South-East of Nigeria, tradition states that it was brought together with Ife and the other Yoruban states when a Benin princess married a king from Ife. Their son became the first king – known as an ‘Oba’ – of Benin, thus symbolising the control of Benin kingship by the Yoruba.
Contact by Europeans was first made by the Portuguese in 1472. Whilst this was initially for the purpose of trading commodities such as peppers and ivory, it was soon replaced by trade in slaves. The burgeoning slave trade was aided by the establishment of a number of ports in traditionally Yoruba areas, such as Lagos and Badagry.
The Atlantic slave trade, a crucial element in the so-called three-cornered trade between Europe, West Africa and the eastern seaboard of the Americas, flourished from around 1500 to 1800 and resulted in the forced migration of at least 11 million people. The removal of such a huge number of able-bodied people had catastrophic consequences on the cultural, political, and economic stability of West Africa. With regards to the Yoruba states, all were somehow involved and affected by the slave trade; states were either capturing slaves, dealing in slaves, suffering from the instability which resulted from slave-raiding or becoming debilitated by the reduction in productive population, both male and female, which slave-raiding brought about.
Like much of Africa, the Yoruba continued to suffer the hugely detrimental effects of European contact into the 19th century, when their states were divided during Europe’s ‘Scramble for Africa.’ In the case of the Yoruba, it was British and French colonialists who took over their lands.