The ancient Kingdom of Egbema is politically split into the present day Edo and Delta States of Nigeria. Egbema Kingdom is bounded on the north by the Olodiama of Edo State and the Itsekiri of Delta State, west by the Arogbo Kingdom of Ondo State, east by Gbaramatu Kingdom and the Itsekiri of Delta State and South by the Ilaje of Ondo State and the Atlantic Ocean.
The Egbema people are the most likely Ijo sub-group to which the allegation of Ijo piracy on the Benin River could have made. The only other sub-group with access to the Benin River are the Gbaramatu.
Egbema traditions, in fact, give indirect evidence of their predatory activities in the region of the Benin River. While they refer to the Oba of Benin as Ugbo Pere (lord of the Lands), the priest king of Egbema was Bini Pere (lord of Waters). Apart from cultural and other relations with other Ijo groups, therefore, Egbema history was affected by relations with the Benin Empire to the North, and with the Itsekiri to the south and with white traders in slaves on Benin river and its estuaries.
The dual relationship with the Edo and the Itsekiri is now reflected in the demarcation of the Egbema into the administrative areas of the Benin Division and Warri Division.
Origin and Settlement:
According to G.O Tiemo (2006), there are nine traditional towns in Egbema known as Egbema Isenabiri, namely – Ofiniama, Ajakurama, Abere, Gbeuba, Jamagie/Abadigbene, Opuama/Polobubo, Ogbinbiri, Ogbudu-Gbudu and Jamagie. In addition there are over one hundred and fifty villages and hamlets. The people are fishermen, hunters, canoe builders, distillers of local gin and farmers.
Alagoa (1972) states that the earliest settlement of Ofiniama was founded by two traders Alopomini and Opiti from the Mein town of Gbekebo in the Western Delta. They used to stop at the site to shoot birds (ofini) for food on their way to Ukuroama, Iko, Eko or Lagos.
The founders of Ajakurama, Gbeoba, Abere and Polobubo first lived at Ofiniama for some time before they settled in their present site. The fifth settlement, Gbolukangan, was founded by settlers from Gbeoba. A new group of immigrants came from Operemo in the Western Delta and founded the settlement of Jamagie. The founders of Opuama, Ogbudugbudu and Ogbinbiri were also migrants from the Western Delta – apparently from Amatu in Iduwini ibe. The only unifying force in Egbema tradition was the common worship of Egbesu (Alagoa 1972:42-46).
Egbesu was the symbol of the unity of all Egbema and the Pere served as the human embodiment of that unity. But the very importance of Egbesu resulted in disputed over the control of the shrine and over the priesthood. Such disputes were avoided among sub-groups with traditions of common origin, where there was a recognised seniority among the towns, and within the town founded by the common ancestor, the lineage of that ancestor would be accorded right to the priesthood.
In Egbema, Ofiniama acquired de facto primacy as the most ancient settlement. But the founders of Ofiniama (Alopomini and Opiti) were never priests of Egbesu. Even the shrine, said to have been originally sited at Ofiniama is now at Ajakoroama.
According to the Pere Obula, the original location of Egbesu in Egbema was Beleu-Jamagie from where it was removed, first to Ogun-Ode at Ofiniama and finally to Ajakuroma. It was never “stolen” but carried to these places by agreement of all Egbema because of threats by first Olomu of the Itsekiri and later of his son Nana, to steal Egbesu and wage war against the Egbema.
The Egbema collaborated in the installation of a Pere. Ofiniama put the scared chalk on the new Pere (tori up), the chief of Ogboinbiri served the wine (wuru tua) and was next in status to the Pere. This need for a wide consensus must have helped to produce long periods without a Pere. It may be noted that the national god of the Mein (from whose territory Ofiniama was founded) is Mein Dirimegbeya, and not Egbesu, and that it is at Ekeremo of the Operemo from where Jamagie migrated that an Egbesu is to be found. These facts suggest that the Egbema may represent a case where political power and ritual authority were separated. That is, that although the temporal rulers of Ofiniama and its related settlements held political power, the source of ritual authority appears to have come originally from elsewhere; although the ritual centre was eventually moved to Ajakoroama, an offshoot of Ofiniama (Alagoa 1972).
Trade and External Relations:
Egbema traditions give prominence to trade and contact with neighbouring groups and even the traditions of origin characterise the founders of Ofiniama as traders to Ukuroama or Iko. Ofiniama, like Arogbo, is situated on the modern route from the Western and Eastern Delta to Lagos. The traditions names two commodities used by the Ofiniama in this trade, namely camwood (Isele) and big canoes. Egbema traditions recorded at Ofiniama speak of early contact with Benin. Inabiri, son of Opiti, one of the founding fathers, was already a rich slave, owner when contact was establish with Benin. It was slaves of Inabiri’s slave, Okitia, who met some men from Udo. Inabiri’s men made friends with the men of Udo, and soon Inabiri’s himself went by way of Udo to Benin where the reigning Oba gave him medicine that helped him get his first child. The road through Udo was closed, for some unknown reason, but a second route to Benin was opened in the life time of Inabiri. A third road through Ikisanghan in Olodiama became the normal route until the colonial period. This third route is to be identified with the road referred to by the records of European visitors.
Unlike the relationships between the Pere of Olodiama at Ikoro and the Oba of Benin, the rulers of Egbema were apparently, not required to pay special respects in services or presents to the Oba of Benin. The Egbema claim to have dealt directly with the White traders on the coast and to have supplied Edo traders with foreign goods (cannons, guns, matchets, coral beads). Egbema traditions refer to sailing ships bringing goods to them on the coast, but refer the crew men as dark white men (Dirimo Bekewei), thus implying mulattoes or people of mixed white and black ancestry, but apparently Sierra Leonians or Liberians.
Egbema claims to pre-eminence on the coast and on the Benin River support Itsekiri (and European) reference to Ijo interference with their trade in this area. Traditions of the Egbema in the Benin River area do, in fact, contain accounts of wars and treaties with Itsekiri settlements such as Jakpa, Itebu and others.
Egbema king lists and genealogies do not take their traditions beyond the early eighteen century, but elements in their traditions refer to earlier times.
The official accounts recorded by Alagoa (1972), for example, gave the name of the Oba who administered medicine to Inabiri as Kaladiren, the son of Ogiso. Benin traditions give the name of the son of the last Ogiso ruler Benin variously as Ekaladerhen and Kaladerhan. These Benin traditions say Ekeladerhan never became Oba, but was exiled South to found the town of Ughoton or Gwato. In any case, the date of about 1170 at which the Ogiao dynasty gave place to the current dynasty is rather early for the Ijo migrations JD to this corner of the Niger Delta. Other Egbema privately give the amen of the Oba who made medicine for Inabiri as Ewai. If this name is identified as Oba Ewuare the Great, who was also a maker of charms and magic according to Benin tradition, it would give us a date for Egbema migrations in the late fifteenth century. It may be noted in addition, that the route to Benin through Ughoton (Kadaderhan’s town) was the last known of the Egbeme, and since the Egbema claim to have supplied European goods to the Edo, this must refer to a period after the European factories at Ughoton were removed to locations in the Delta in the mid-seventeenth century. Accordingly, we may date Egebma settlement of the Western Delta limit between the end of the fifteenth and middle of the seventeenth century (Alagoa 1972).
Accounts of early European (Portuguese) trade with some Egbema villages like Arbo, Uloli and Boededoe (Benidodogha or Beninidodoa) provide a basis for claims to Egbema settlement prior to the seventeenth century.
Extract from the book: “The Izon of the Niger Delta” Chapter 18 – by E.J Alagoa, E.A Kowei, B.J Owei & J.B Dunu