Human sacrifice was an integral part of the Yorùbá culture and the late 18th century was a major period that saw a spike and eventual decline of human sacrifices especially in Ondo and Ile-Ife, two of the areas most notorious for human sacrifices. At a meeting with Ondo chiefs in 1877, a delegation composed of Christians and Lagos-Ondo residents requested that a stop be put to the practice of human sacrifice. According to these people who had embraced the whiteman’s religion, these gory sacrifices attracted divine anger against the town.
When it was time for the Ondo chiefs to respond, they did not deny that they sacrificed criminals and offending slaves but they insisted they were not engaged in senseless destruction of lives and denied any cruelty to their slaves. For the Ondo chiefs, the sacrifices were nothing but judicial punishments that were properly codified in the constitution.
In Ondo Kingdom, sentencing to death by crucifixion (this method remains a subject of debate) or drowning was the penalty for murder, burglary, kidnapping, incest, robbery or adultery with the wives of the Osemawe (King). Thus, whenever a death sentence was passed, the convicts were typically reserved for sacrifice and in a situation where the chiefs were also the court judges and the prominent òrìṣà priests, there were rooms for judicial corruption as killings during funerals or ancestral rites were conveniently given the religious paint. That is the reason why sacrificial victims, no matter their level on the social ladder, were all tagged clearly as religious offerings.
Although the British would later intervene with force, it is very pertinent to remind everyone that the initial protests against slavery and human sacrifice came from the victims themselves – the slaves. Then other locals, Christian missionaries and some African chiefs added their own voices as well. So the call for abolition stemmed from local reform initiatives long before the interventionist colonial regimes decided to commence battle against the practice. There was local opposition to slavery and human sacrifice particularly from the slaves but the curious thing is that many of the slaves did not really call for a total abolition of the practice but they wanted a piecemeal package that involved the reduction in the brutality of the cruel methods employed and a considerable slashing of the frequency and the number of slave victims slaughtered.
Some of the slaves did not also wait to be killed like rats, they simply negotiated with their feet with many of them running away to Okeigbo – especially after 1840. But why Okeigbo because Okeigbo was also a site of major funerals and allied sacrifices? There was a reason for this. Okeigbo was established as a farmstead but with time it became the site of refuge for fugitive slaves and criminals that escaped from Ife and Ondo. In 1845, the place became really popular after it received Ondo King Arilekolasi’s rebellious slaves, many of whom were former soldiers and victims of the Ilorin-Oyo wars. After 1870, Lekki and Lagos, which were the bases of the British colonial government, became a much more preferred destination for the fleeing slaves.
Over time, the British became increasingly more involved in the anti-slavery/human sacrifice as more slaves poured into Lagos. In 1875, following the steady influx of fugitive slaves into Lekki, the local Christian Missionary Society (CMS) agent, David Hinderer, told the slaveholders to cease their ruthless treatment of the slaves or the flights to Lagos would not cease.
Apart from the locals mentioned above that pushed for reforms and abolition of the entire system of human sacrifice, Christian missionaries (many of whom were former slaves themselves) also contributed by piling pressure on the advocates of human sacrifice. In 1870, Ondo received the first set of Christian missionaries and British officials. But the Ondo chiefs had a different agenda in mind, they welcomed these ‘outsiders’ because they expected a boost in their commercial fortune and needed political allies to assist them fight their numerous enemies. They were shocked when the ‘outsiders’ started giving them long lectures on the need to stop slavery and human sacrifices. As the Christians and British colonialists sought to cage the customs, the Ondo chiefs were like:
The CMS launched a ballistic crusade against the òrìṣà s and was very vocal about the condemnation of human sacrifice with meticulous records and proper documentation of all known cases of the practices. The Ondo chiefs were getting worried. The continued presence of the CMS missionaries in Ondo kingdom meant that cases of human sacrifice could no longer be hidden as prompt reports were made to the colonial government in Lagos. The Christian representatives also took the pain to warn the local communities in Lagos of the colonial government’s decision to enforce the abolition of human sacrifice and the readiness to use sheer military power to do so.
Many of the Ondo people did not find the new development humorous in any way and by the early 1880s, Ondo Christians were seen as British spies and moles planted to watch over happenings in the kingdom. Therefore, whenever the chiefs were about to carry out human sacrifice, their standard method was to do everything possible to hide it from the clergy but in a case where the information leaked, profuse pleas were offered in a bid to stop the report from reaching Lagos. A powerful connection between the Ondo Christians and the political and commercial heavyweights in Lagos also deepened their influence and authorities – an alliance that the chiefs also benefitted from commercially.
In cases where the chiefs were not towing the line, the missionaries swiftly issued threats to restrict them from the lucrative Lagos commercial sector. A good example was between 1876 and 1880 when Edun, more than the Osemawe (King), frequently questioned the activities of the CMS. An angry Lisa Edun (traditional Prime Minister) insisted the deletion of human sacrifice was not part of the agreement that Ondo had with the Lagos government.
At another time, Kabiyesi Manuwa of Itebu, whose son would later become a priest, wailed in 1887 that he was no longer on good terms with the British because he had allowed human sacrifice at the funeral of his brother in March 1887. He pleaded saying he could not control his subjects leading to his authority being questioned by the anti-sacrifice camp. But the truth was that kings like Manuwa and Osemawe Ajimekun had had their powers severely eroded during the nineteenth century and could not fully exercise full control over their subjects.
But from the 1860s (Britain made Lagos its colony in 1861), the British government decided to project more decisive and forceful attacks against human sacrifice. They started handling the Yorùbá hinterland as an extension of the Lagos colony with the people in the region herded together as one ‘nation’. The Ondo chiefs were not ready to stop what their ‘forefathers’ had been doing, they loved the human sacrifices and it had come to signify and represent the survival of their elite class. The stage was set for a confrontation.
After the refusal to implement the numerous Lagos-Ondo anti-sacrifice agreements between 1869 and 1880, the British colonial government dispatched Consul Edward Hewett on a reconnaissance trip in November 1880. His task was to sniff out those trafficking arms into Yorùbá land and see how this had helped in the intensification of the Yorùbá wars. The second part of his job was to drop a reminder for the Ondo chiefs of their several promises to abolish human sacrifice. On that mission, a new treaty was signed on the 9th of December, 1880 and it went thus:
‘….it shall be deemed a criminal act (for) any subject of Ondo to aid or abet others, or perform or to participate in any ceremony at which human beings shall be sacrificed. Offenders shall be fined, imprisoned or punished by forced labour. Signed – Osemowe, Adaja, Ojomu and Sara.’
But the agreement did not yield any fruitful outcome. All attempts to end human sacrifice were stoutly attacked by the chiefs. They argued loudly that there was absolutely no reason for the practice to cease. Ooni Aderinsoye, the King of Ile-Ife and Okeigbo who was one of the most vocal supporters of human sacrifice took the argument further when he stated that human sacrifice conferred several benefits and advantages to his communities. Ooni Aderinsoye also added that the responsibility for the killing of the sacrificial victims was the headache of the gods (òrìṣà ) and not the priests. He attempted to shift the ultimate blame on the deities. The Ooni of Ife elaborated by saying that without the regular spilling of human blood, the prime position that Ife occupied as the fountain of knowledge and the origin of mankind would be exterminated. He painted a doomsday picture when he said the mercies of the òrìṣà on them would also be terminated if the practice of human sacrifice was halted.
Others from Ekiti and Ijesa agreed with him as the chiefs from these areas also listed out what they considered to be benefits of human sacrifice. When the British representative insisted the practice had to stop, the Yorùbá chiefs demanded for more time and promised to reach a conclusion after the end of the Yorùbá wars as that was when they would be able to hold consultations with their people.
For the Ondo chiefs, their stubbornness over the matter no be hia at all. They did not hide their disdain for Christianity as they defended human sacrifice. They said the human sacrifices in their traditional religion had tangible and visible advantages such as divine protection, abundant harvests, absence of epidemics and so on. The chiefs lambasted Christianity saying it was a faith lacking human sacrifice and thus could not serve them the same way their gods of old have done. From 1881 to 1893, there were back and forth discussions held between the Ondo and Lagos governments and they focused on the resultant effects that could follow the abrupt cessation of the practice.
The chiefs lamented the loss of communal welfare and also made it clear that they were also going to incur very personal losses. A good example is the fact that virtually all of the chiefs were not really opposed to ending funeral sacrifices but they were very reluctant to end their usual human sacrifices to Èṣù and Oramfe. They felt that refusing to dish out these iron-rich offerings to the gods meant unleashing the gates of Hell with diseases, starvation, wars, deaths and violent slave rebellions raining upon them. For a deeply superstitious people, it was a really convoluted matter convincing them to drop the idea of slaughtering fellow humans for idols.
While arguing over the matter in 1887, the Odunwo who was the fourth ranking chief, connected the sudden death of Osemawe Ajimekun (anti-sacrifice King) in December 1886 to the refusal to carry out human sacrifice during the previous festivals. The late king had issued a fresh royal decree that substituted slaves with animals – to the bewilderment of some chiefs who felt the deities were being offered what was clearly unacceptable. The Adaja also supported this position and he also backed up his own assertion with the case of his predecessor who gave up the ghost after a nasty chieftaincy title fight. Rumours were thick in the air that the late Chief was bewitched and the new Adaja was afraid of also dying suddenly and placed his faith in human sacrifice to ward off and neutralize all attempts to eliminate him.
Another issue that led to the monarchs and chiefs remaining incorrigible on the matter was that they were going to incur major personal losses because slave trading was a very reliable source of revenue for them. As an illustration, the Osemawe or the Lisa received one slave for every slave that was slaughtered during burials while the Osora got an unspecified gift while the Adaja got the gift of a live goat for each funeral. So for this reason alone, the Osemawe saw the abolition of human sacrifice as locking the tap of his own income thus he refused to support the call from the British. Okay, let me put it like this: the king and the chiefs were making cool money from the entire thing, it was also business for them and they were in no hurry to end it.
But as it eventually happened, the noisy opposition was not able to drown the voice of the abolitionists and they kept gaining ground daily. As at 1877, human sacrifice was already becoming a secret activity. Unlike what obtained before, the victims were no longer paraded publicly and most of the killings were carried out within the confines of privacy far from prying eyes and the number of the victims tumbled significantly.
In 1886, the military was involved when the British colonial office in Lagos sent a combat-ready mission led by Captain Higgins and Smith with an escort of 50 Hausa soldiers, 2,500 ball cartridges, a hefty seven-pounder gun and a rocket launcher with the primary aim of scattering the Yorùbá military camps. While snaking its way up into the hinterland, the military convoy passed through Ondo and demanded without mincing words that the Ondo leaders implement the 1880 anti-human sacrifice agreement. Governor Evans later said that the troops deployed to the area were not to intimidate the Yorùbás but to provide safety for the commissioners.
But the people saw it differently. After a century of conflicts and the British occupation of Lagos, the Yorùbás were war-weary and many saw the advancing military commission as the first stage to the impending British conquest of Ondo. And guess what? It worked! On the night before the arrival of the military mission, a charged debate over human sacrifice led to factional fighting and there were two camps at the end of the day.
On one side was Osemawe the King, Oba Ajimekun, some chiefs, Christians and palace slaves who all agreed to stop human sacrifice without wasting a minute. The other side was ready to die promoting the culture and in this camp were the military chiefs and expectedly, the priests of Èṣù and Oramfe. For the traditional battle commanders, they were specifically against the abolition of the sacrifices to the two deities. The Ondo military decided to tear whatever little was left of the friendship with Lagos and they moved to commence military mobilization and of course, human sacrifice. It was a very dicey moment for the king who was eager to see an end to the tradition. The Ondo military chiefs lampooned their king and accused him of being a weakling who was being manipulated by the white government in Lagos.
To make things worse for the anti-sacrifice party, they lost one of their most prominent allies in the person of Osemawe Ajimekun when he died in December 1886. With the anti-sacrifice Osemawe gone, the human sacrifice lovers found the perfect opportunity to remobilize and intensify their lobby. There was no human sacrifice at the funeral of the late king in January 1887 but there was another problem when the time came to select a successor to the throne.
The senior chiefs preferred someone they could easily control while the warrior aristocrats desired a warmonger as a king but the royal slaves and their Christian allies simply wanted a monarch who will oppose slavery and sacrifice with all his might. The chiefs decided to prolong the interregnum and delay choosing a successor for as long as possible. The military chiefs were also fine with this decision as it gave them more time to shop for a pliable monarch who would assist in pushing their agenda. At this point, much of the Ondo leadership was already seeing the British as a threat not only to their political power but also their own religion.
Eventually a new king was chosen and it was none other than Osemawe Ajilobioje, a monarch who loved human sacrifice with great passion. Kabiyesi Ajilobioje promptly gave his support for the rÈṣùmption of human sacrifice at the two annual festivals. It was a major setback for supporters of the late king Ajimekun and they opposed the new king, some of the chiefs even vowed to boycott the palace.
At this stage, the drama became more enchanting with the role carried out by the royal slaves. The late king found eager supporters in the royal slaves (the eunuchs) and these slaves made it very clear to the new king that they were not ready to die for any monarch. Seven months later, on the eve of the Oramfe festival, the royal slaves once again confronted Osemawe Ajilobioje and told him bluntly that they (royal slaves) were not going to reverse the decision of their late king. The trouble here was that the slaves were indispensable and if they had boycotted the palace, the traditional palace rituals would be severely undermined thus dealing a severe blow to the authority of not just the chiefs but the king himself.
The abolitionists won gradually and by 1887-1889, there was a clear end to funeral sacrifices. But following an outbreak of smallpox and a war with Ikale, there was a hurried return to human sacrifice in 1891. On the eve of the sacrifice, some aggrieved slaves set fire to the house of the deputy priest of Oramfe. It was a shock and a change – the slaves were ready to fight back and attack the representatives of the gods.
As all these were happening, more slaves headed southwards to Lagos. One story that speeded up the abolition was the tale of Petisei, an Akoko-Yorùbá slave who overpowered and killed the Osora. He thereafter donned the priest’s regalia but he could not proceed with the other rituals associated with the òrìṣà . But because he had already worn the costume, he was made the Sora and his lineage since then were called Osora Akoko (meaning the Osora from Akoko).
The final nail on the coffin of the pro-abolition movement came when the British adopted another radical change in policy towards the Yorùbá interior. They started with the bombardment of Ijebu in May 1892, then they followed it up with the occupation of Ibadan, which was then the Yorùbá military capital in 1893.
These actions led many Yorùbá s to believe that the imperialists were fully capable and ready to impose colonial rule on them all – some researchers believe the Yorùbás had overestimated the power of the British but many people were also tired of the century-long wars and really wanted peace. Governor George Denton’s letter to the Osemawe concerning the 1893 sacrifice described the incident as:
‘…detestable, abhorrent, disgraceful, cruel and revolting’
And he ended it with a cold warning saying:
‘…if you continue in it (human sacrifice), it is impossible for Lagos government to recognize you in any way.’
Following the fall of Ijebu after it came under European gunfire, the Ondo authorities decided to finally agree to put an end to human sacrifice so as not to be the next victim of British bombs. Most of the citizens were overjoyed upon hearing the news but the Osora was not happy. He wanted the human sacrifices to continue. Lijadu provided a detailed account of the final reaction against human sacrifice. In July 1892, a goat was substituted for the woman due for Èṣù and a sheep was prepared for Oramfe in September. A drama ensued as the Osora refused to accept the sheep and he insisted on the proper victim, with his fiery gaze set on an Ikale war captive.
At that point, Chief Sasere Oyegbata told him that Ondo town could no longer maintain the human sacrifices just to please Oramfe and that they could not afford to jeopardize their relationship with Lagos. He then dropped the bombshell for the shocked priest saying if he wanted a human being, ‘he should go to Ikale (Ondo had just finished a war with its southern neighbour) to get his victims.’ Interestingly, when Oyegbata himself died, two slaves were killed at his funeral in July 1893 but the motives remain unclear as he died a Christian and Ondo’s consul to Lagos.
After the series of threats and punishment (a few Yorùbá chiefs who had disobeyed the colonialists were arrested and exiled) from the British government, internal rebellions from the slaves and the dawning of the new realities, the Ondo rulers finally agreed to end human sacrifice once and for all. A pleased Governor Denton then sent the sum of £4 (four pounds) as ‘compensation for the social cost of abolition’.
THANKS FOR YOUR TIME,
- Olatunji Ojo, Slavery and Human Sacrifice In Yorùbá land: Ondo, c.1870-94, The Journal of African History, Volume 46, Number 3 (2005), pp. 379-404, Cambridge University Press
- 10 Years of Royal Goodness