Expansion of the Oyo Kingdom

The Yoruba state of Oyo, originally located in the savanna belt of northern Western Nigeria, expanded mostly south by deploying its cavalry and archers to subjugate Yoruba and non-Yoruba neighbors. Oyo grew into an empire of approximately 18,000 square miles by the end of the eighteenth century.

Summary of Event

The Oyo, a subgroup of the Yoruba, are located mainly in Western Nigeria and parts of the West African republics of Benin and Togo. Legend attributes the founding of Oyo to Oranmiyan, a son of Oduduwa, the acclaimed founder of the Yoruba nation. Oduduwa’s sons were said to have dispersed from the ancient capital of Ile-Ife in the southern Yoruba forest to establish their own states. This tradition is consistent with attempts by Yoruba states to establish mythical relationships with Ile-Ife for political legitimacy. Obalokun
[kw]Expansion of the Oyo Kingdom (beginning c. 1601)
[kw]Oyo Kingdom, Expansion of the (beginning c. 1601)
Expansion and land acquisition;Beginning c. 1601: Expansion of the Oyo Kingdom[0160]
Government and politics;Beginning c. 1601: Expansion of the Oyo Kingdom[0160]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Beginning c. 1601: Expansion of the Oyo Kingdom[0160]
Africa;Beginning c. 1601: Expansion of the Oyo Kingdom[0160]
Nigeria;Beginning c. 1601: Expansion of the Oyo Kingdom[0160]
Oyo Kingdom

Relations before the seventeenth century between the Oyo kingdom and its non-Yoruba neighbors, the Nupe and Borgu (Ibariba), were turbulent, climaxed by a rout by the Nupe in the early sixteenth century. Its capital at Oyo-Ile was abandoned, and its alaafin (king), Onigbogi, was driven into exile. The Igboho period, named after the town that served as the alaafin’s capital, witnessed a reconstruction of the state following the imposition of a new dynasty of alaafins of Borgu (Ibariba) origin, beginning with Alaafin Ofinran. The resurgent state, under Alaafin Ajiboyede Ajiboyede , won a decisive military victory at Ilayi, which freed it from further pressure from its Nupe adversaries. This made it possible for Ajiboyede’s successor, Abipa Abipa , to reoccupy the old capital of Oyo-Ile in about 1600, the prelude to the imperial phase of Oyo history.

A notable factor in the Oyo resurgence was the adoption of cavalry and the use of archers during the sixteenth century. The innovation, ascribed to an earlier alaafin, Orompoto, was owed to Oyo’s northern neighbors, especially the Nupe. It is instructive that the legendary Alaafin Shango, who is also deified as the god of thunder, is represented as a rider on horseback. The military innovation did mark a turning point in the history of Oyo and of its Yoruba and non-Yoruba neighbors by shifting the balance of power in the northern Yoruba savanna in favor of Oyo.

Another major innovation was the introduction of two important religious cults—Egungun Egungun cult (the cult of masqueraders representing the spirits of the ancestors) and Ifa Ifa cult (the god of divination)—from the Nupe country and Southern Yorubaland, respectively. These cultural institutions ensured social control and gave ideological and religious legitimacy to the state and to the alaafin.

Moreover, the population movements occasioned by the political and military reverses of the preimperial era contributed also to the reconstruction of the state in the subsequent period. First, important settlements emerged at Kusu and Igboho, successive temporary capitals of the alaafin in exile, and Ikoyi, which became the leading town outside the capital. Second, immigrants from Yoruba and non-Yoruba territories swelled the population of the state, in view of the refuge that its rising power offered, and contributed their skills and cultural capital to the development of the empire.

Territorial expansion proceeded through at least three stages, probably during the reign of Alaafin Obalokun. Expansion began with, first, the consolidation of the core of the state, which consisted of the metropolitan districts around the capital, inhabited by Oyo-speaking elements; second, the incorporation of non-Oyo Yoruba; and third, the incorporation of the non-Yoruba, such as the Nupe and the Fon (Dahomey). Beginning in the seventeenth century, Oyo subjugated the Igbomina-Yoruba communities of Ajase Ipo, Ila, Omu Aran, and Oyan; the northern Ekiti-Yoruba kingdom of Osi to the east; and the kingdoms of Ikirun, Ire, and Iragbiji on the boundary with the Ijesa-Yoruba to the southeast. To the west, Oyo expanded toward the territory of the Shabe, another Yoruba kingdom, with the Opara River forming their boundary. To the south, Oyo incorporated the Ibarapa (Yoruba) towns of Eruwa, Igangan, and Idere and marched with the Ketu (a western Yoruba kingdom) along the Oyan River and with the Egba to the east of the Ogun River. To the southwest, Oyo subdued the Egbado and incorporated the Awori kingdom of Ota to the southeast and the Anago settlements of Ihumbo, Ifonyin, Ipokia, and Takete across the Yewa River.

Although much of the territorial expansion of Oyo took place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the process had started in the sixteenth century. Oyo domination of the Igbomina and the expansion west of the Ogun River had begun or been accomplished by the latter date. After military subjugation, Oyo-Yoruba settled (colonized) those areas, especially during the seventeenth century. Thus, the Ibarapa kingdom of Eruwa is said to have been founded by an Oyo man from Igboho, an indication of the population movements and political consolidation that took place in the aftermath of the return to the ancient capital of Oyo-Ile by 1600.

Oyo expanded into non-Yoruba territories to the far west in the second half of the seventeenth century, during the reign of Alaafin Ajagbo Ajagbo . He was reputed to have created the office of Are Ona Kakanfo (generalissimo), introduced the simultaneous despatch of four expeditions, and invaded the Egun state of Weme and the Aja kingdom of Allada in 1698. These military exercises suggest that by the late seventeenth century, Oyo had already secured firm control of the northern Egbado and Anago areas, from which it ventured into Dahomey. While Oyo control over Dahomey at this time was tenuous, the magnitude of Oyo colonization of the Egbado towns of Ilaro, Ibese, and Ijanna suggests that Egbado was Oyo’s subject by the seventeenth century. Hence, the alaafin stationed colonial officials in those places to remit tribute to the metropolis.

In all, Oyo’s expansion, starting in the early seventeenth century, was owed to the military, political, and cultural reorganization that followed the reoccupation of the ancient capital. The process of expansion involved conquest, absorption, and colonization, and extended the rule of the alaafin beyond the Oyo-Yoruba core to the non-Oyo-Yoruba and non-Yoruba periphery of the emergent empire.


The rapid expansion of Oyo from its original location in the savanna in a general southward direction ensured its development. Oyo consolidated its hold on its Yoruba core and expanded in the eighteenth century into the Aja country to the southwest. This was achieved by the introduction of the cavalry corps, an innovation in Yoruba military technology and strategy, and of the ritual and spiritual institutions and practices that bolstered the power of the alaafin and the state. Military reforms, institutional innovations, and colonization helped Oyo rise to its apogee as the greatest Yoruba state by the eighteenth century.

Consequently, in the context of Yoruba history, the Oyo Empire was superseded in territorial extent only by the successor state of Ibadan in the nineteenth century. However, internal crises from the late eighteenth century and the rise of the Sokoto caliphate led to its collapse in the early 1800’. The events of the seventeenth century thus shed light on the dynamics of state formation and the evolution of political and social institutions among the Yoruba, a major nationality in Nigeria. These events also highlight the dynamics of imperial administration, intergroup relations, population movements, local and international trade, and the subsequent developments that culminated in the emergence of modern Nigeria in the twentieth century. Taken together, the expansion of Oyo in the 1600’, and its aftermath, provides insight into indigenous (pre-European) patterns of state formation, armaments, and statecraft.

Further Reading

  • Ajayi, J. F. A., and Michael Crowder, eds. History of West Africa. 3d ed. Vol. 1. London: Longman, 1985. This work contains an authoritative account of Oyo expansion and the rise of Dahomey.
  • Akinjogbin, I. A. Dahomey and Its Neighbours, 1708-1818. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1967. An authoritative, if slightly dated, text on the history of the Aja states, with sections on seventeenth century developments in Oyo.
  • Ikime, Obaro, ed. Groundwork of Nigerian History. Ibadan, Nigeria: Heinemann, 1980. This collection contains a succinct chapter on Yoruba history up to 1800.
  • Johnson, Samuel. The History of the Yorubas: From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate. 1921. Reprint. Lagos, Nigeria: CSS, 2001. This is a standard text on Yoruba, and especially Oyo, history that contains a rich corpus of oral traditions.
  • Law, Robin. The Oyo Empire, c. 1600-c. 1836: A West African Imperialism in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Oxford, England: Clarendon, 1977. An authoritative study of the imperial phase of Oyo history, with a wider focus on developments in the Nigerian hinterland and the Atlantic basin.
  • Ogunremi, Deji, and Biodun Adediran, eds. Culture and Society in Yorubaland. Ibadan, Nigeria: Rex Charles, 1998. Contains two chapters with insights into the culture and society of Yorubaland before 1700.

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