The History of Esan Warfare, Nigeria

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There are a lot of reasons, whether logical or illogical for why wars occur. These reasons are a justification for parties involved in the warfare. However, if men can control their ego, pride, and aggression, they could survive without wars. Although ancient wars in Esanland were fought for justice up to the 1900s, the war against British colonialism was an exception. Join our Content Creation Academy

However, the real reason behind most of the wars in Esanland was beyond justice, rather, the major thing responsible for the wars could be the weakness in human nature.

The cultural and geographical aspects of Esans

Before we move to the warfare of Esan, it’s good to get acquainted with the Esanland’s geography. This would help us evaluate the locality of different wars.

Esanland has a total landmass of almost 2987.52 sq. km. It is within 70 301 east, 50 301 longitudes, and 50 301 latitudes of Benin City, the Edo State capital.

The people of Esan speak Esan language. Although the Esan language comes under the category of Edoid languages that belong to the eastern sub-branch of the Niger-congo’s Kwa group, the cultural practices of these people differ from those of the Benin people.

In fact, they are called Esans for their common cultural practices that reflect in their language, belief, dressing, norms, and values.

How did they begin?

Esan communities initially began as an agrarian settlement of four centers including Ekpoma, Irrua, Ugboha, and Uromi, however, by 1900, the Esan landmass had thirty identifiable communities. Although all these communities were not at war at the same time, they all experienced conflicts or one form of war up to the 1900s.

The Military Organization of Esanland

The ancient military organization of Esanland is based on “natural organization”.

Now, what is a natural organization?

Did you ever notice the organizational skills of ants? That’s where the idea of natural organization is derived from; means “they exist to serve a defined purpose”. The military organization of Esanland was an ad hoc arrangement instead of having a standing army. The imminent challenges provoked the emergence of the army to respond spontaneously.

Although no standing army was esterified by the ancient people of Esan, the organization of the society made it quite simple to quickly organize the people in the emergence of war.

This was because of the organization of the society itself: (people were stratified into different age groups). So, it was easy to call upon the able-bodied men whenever there was a need to defend the land.

Which Weapons Did They Use?

When it comes to war, the first thing that appears in mind is the battlefield – the soldiers holding different kinds of weapons and fighting. The Esan warfare was no different. The weapons used in Esanland were akin to heavy machetes, metal weapons, cross-bows and cudgels, and poisoned arrows.

On the other hand, the traditional fortification against the gunshot, poisoned arrow, and machete effect was given to the soldiers through antidotes, armlets, and charms by men of Esan medicine.

Also, the ironsmiths deserve credit for providing most of the war weapons not only in Esanland but in the whole of the Edoied. Africans and Esan people have been smithing irons for as far as we can remember and when it came to wars, they equally fabricated weapons with irons.

And what’s more interesting is that some of the weapons of the Esanland war were the same as those used by the soldiers in Medieval Europe including axes, arrows, lances, pikes, two-edged swords, and mounted arrows.

This further shows how the Esan warriors were able to stand up against the British in 1899, despite their limited supply of weapons and other logistics.

Main Causes of Esan Warfare

The series of hostile threats and armed conflicts over the decades is due to three main causes; human nature, the ungovernable nature of the international system, and the behavioral pattern of states.

As far as human nature is concerned, an interesting perception is the incapacity of man to control aggression. For example, in Esanland, arson, divorce, kidnapping, murder, and the struggle for political power remain the major causes of war. However, this can be summarized as the use of aggression in resolving most disputes is all about human nature and its concern to protect ego and public image.

On the other hand, the ungovernable nature of the international system and behavioral pattern of states are always in contention over particular deficient resources, thus the conflict of interest becomes inevitable. In such cases, war becomes the instrument for the states to acquire their national desires.

Categories of Esan wars

The ancient Esan wars are grouped into two categories. One with the issues related to women, and the other with the struggle for political pride.

1.    Category one

The first war on the issue related to women was fought in 1870 – Udo-Ewatto War. This war was brought to being when one of the wives of Ojie-Udo King walked out of the matrimony at Ewatto to her father’s family. The king decided to take his wife back at any cost and this ego of the king provoked the war.

The second such war was fought in 1884 – the Ebelle-Ogua War when the Ogua people kidnapped the maternal sister of Onojie without any conflict. They did this just to showcase their pride, but this worked up the temper of Onojie and he was soon in the war part.

Other wars on the issues relating to women were Illeh-Akho War (1890), Irrua-Uromi War (1892-1893), Ewohimi-Ubiaja War (before the 1900s), and Idumebo-Usugbenu War (1902).

2.    Category two

These wars took place in the struggle for authority and political power. The first war was fought from 1503-1502 – The Uzea War due to the patriotic zeal of Agba to renege the peace deal of his father. This made him stop the homage and yearly tribute to the Oba of Benin under the leadership of Oba Ozolua thereby declaring the war.

The other such wars fought in the Esanland were Irrua-Opoji War (1845-1850) and Uromi-British War (1901).


War is one of the most stupid enterprises ever embarked upon by humans. Its cost on material resources and human life is beyond quantification. Yet despite its cataclysmic effects and dangerous consequences, men still go to war, even when it can be avoided simply by keeping their ego and pride aside.

We have discussed the Esan warfare, its history, and the main causes. Although the main causes of Esan wars were women and the struggle for political power the number of wars due to issues related to women were still more than the latter.

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