Esanland (Esan: Otọesan), or the Edo Central Senatorial District is a cultural region and senatorial district located in southwestern Nigeria. It is composed of five Local Government Areas in Edo State. Esanland lies west of the banks of the Niger River. It is bordered by Kogi State, Delta State, Edo South Senatorial District, and Edo North Senatorial District. Esanland covers about 2,800 square kilometers and is home to over half a million people. The Esan people and culture of Esanland are generally homogenous.
Esanland has been inhabited since the late Iron Age, by hunter-gatherers from the Nok culture. The hunter gatherers formed a society in northern Esanland until the 12th century, during which some citizens moved south, creating the Benin Empire. In the 15th century, refugees from the Benin Empire moved to Esanland and renewed Edo-Esan cultural bonds. Esan nations often worked either in tandem or subordination towards the Benin Empire, sending soldiers to the Benin army and treating their rulers as dukes to the Oba of Benin.
Trade with the Portuguese brought modern innovations such as Dane guns and spoons, and new crops.
Independent rule in Esanland continued into the 1800s, until the British claimed the entire region for the Royal Niger Company as part of the colony Nigeria. Local opposition to the conquest was vocal, and enijie such as Ogbidi Okojie of Uromi banded together their soldiers in an unsuccessful attempt to fight British rule. After the British takeover, independence movements sprung up. Leaders in Esanland such as Anthony Enahoro successfully campaigned for independence, which was granted to the whole of Nigeria. Since independence, Esanland has suffered from poor infrastructure and an attempted takeover in the Nigerian Civil War by Biafra.
Esanland originates from the term E san fia or they have fled in Edo language, referring to the flight of refugees from the Benin Empire to the surrounding forest that make up the original Esans.
According to archaeological and linguistic evidence, humans have resided in the savannah-forest ecotone in Esanland for at least 3000 years. These people were likely associated with the Nok people and came from the savannahs in the north to the southern forests. To this day, northern Esan dialects have more in common with Northern Edo languages such as Etsako and Owan than southern Esan dialects do, which happen to be closely related with Edo. These "proto-Edoid" peoples grew yam, oil palm and vegetables, but also hunted and gathered.
Starting from 500 AD to 750 AD, these hunter-gatherers started to colonize the savannah-forest ecosystem of Esanland and the forest ecosystem of the Benin Empire. They created a pre-Esan, pre-Edo society that built advanced structures such as moats and walls around family properties. These enclosures were, at maximum, three to five kilometers in diameter, and demarcated residential and agricultural property. Those properties enlarged to become villages, and by 800 AD, these village coalesced to form kingdoms with hierarchies. Modern-day digs in the region have found that these walls were situated in the eastern Benin Empire and northern Esanland. Settlements were close to permanent springs on the northern plateau, but never next to intermittent springs. For currently unknown reasons, polarization occurred and many moved from this society to the western forests, eventually creating the Benin Empire during the late 12th-mid 13th century.
Esanland's culture, language and growth were majorly influenced by the mass exoduses to Esan territory from all adjacent polities Communities on Esanland's southern and eastern fringes (Ewohimi, Ewatto, Ekpon, Amahor) were heavily populated by Igbos and Igalas (into Uroh); from the north came the Emai into Ukhun, Idoa, and Amahor and the Etsako into Irrua); and from the south came the Itsekiri (into Ekpon) and Urhobo (into Ujiogba).
The biggest influence on Esanland came from the Benin Empire. In 1460, Oba Ewuare passed laws of mourning that prohibited sexual intercourse, bathing, drumming, dancing, and cooking. These laws proved too restrictive for many citizens, and these citizens fled the kingdom to Esanland. This exodus shaped Esanland's modern cultural identity and gave rise to the term "Esan," or "refugee." Oral tradition has heavily supported this theory. Prominent Esan and Edo historians have collected stories about this migration.
Esan kingdoms had a varying degree of autonomy, but were ultimately controlled by the Benin Empire. The Oba approved the enijie of Esanland, and Esan kingdoms paid tribute to Benin. Yet, several wars between Esan kingdoms and Benin were recorded. This was due to the Oba, at ascension on the throne, sending white chalk to the Esans as a term of friendship. If the chalk was rejected, then the Oba would try to invade Esanland. The varying political stabilities of Benin and the Esan kingdoms also led to warfare. Such warfare was so common that there is no recorded history of peace between all of the Esan kingdoms and Benin.
Esanland was extensively involved in world trade. Benin's sovereignty over Esanland enabled it to send long-distant traders, or ekhen. Ekhen procured cloth, ivory, peppers, and slaves for European merchants in Yorubaland, Esanland, and Afenmai. Portugal primarily received blue cloth, or ukpon ododo from Esanland in exchange for tobacco, brandy, mirror, beads, and firearms, primarily through ekhen.
During the 16th century, the Uzea War occurred. This war was between the Uromi Kingdom and the Benin Kingdom. The war lasted from 1502 to 1503, and resulted from a refusal of friendship from Oba Ozolua of Benin by Onojie Agba of Uromi. The war ended at the town of Uzea, when both leaders were killed. However, in peaceful times Esan kingdoms would loan soldiers to the Benin Kingdom, such as during the Idah War of 1515-1516, and the sacking of Akure in 1823.
During the nineteenth century, northern Esanland was continually attacked and sacked by the Muslim Nupe people in the hunt for slaves and converts to Islam, having previously taken over the Kukuruku peoples’ lands. Many Esan kingdoms from the south helped in the battle to fend off the Nupes. The battles came into the Esans’ favor; several Nupe and Etsako warriors were brought into Esan cities where their posterity reside today. From the south, the Benin Empire also took slaves from Esanland, in order to fuel the Transatlantic slave trade that occurred in the 18th century between Europe and Africa. The nineteenth century brought increasing influence of Europe on Esanland, as the English demanded palm-products.
In 1897, the British sacked the Benin Empire, effectively leaving the Esans free from British rule. In 1899, the British led an invasion into the Esan kingdoms that lasted for seven years. Esanland proved to be harder to conquer than the Benin Kingdom because of its strong autonomy: Kingdoms chose to keep fighting the British even if its neighbors fell. Fallen Benin chiefs like Ologbosere and Ebohon were still resistant to British rule inadvertently guarded Esan soil from the west, by establishing military camps and blocking roads. This lasted from 1897 to April 22. 1899, where Ologbosere surrendered at the border village of Okemue.
The first kingdom to be attacked by the British was the Kingdom of Ekpon. Ekpon launched a fierce resistance against the British invasion on April 22, which nearly destroyed the kingdom. After the near genocide of Esans at Ekpon, the kingdom of Ekpon led an ambush of the British camp at Okueme, on April 29. This led British forces to retreat, consolidate their power, and kill Ologbosere in May. Subsequent attempts by the British failed as well: conquests into Irrua, for example, led to an adoption of a guerrilla warfare strategy followed by a retreat; this method was so successful that other Esan kingdoms adopted it and the British did not invade Esanland until 1901.
On March 16, 1901, the Kingdom of Uromi, headed by the old, yet intelligent Onojie Okolo, was attacked by the British. The Uromi resistance, led by Prince Okojie, was swift and employed guerrilla warfare. After a short time, British forces overtook the village Amedeokhian, where Okolo was stationed, and murdered him. This angered Prince Okojie so much that he killed the Captain of the British troops before reinforcements were brought in. The British then realized that Uromi was nigh impenetrable without native help, and contact local sympathizers such as Onokpogua, the Ezomo of Uromi. This succeeded in napping Prince Okojie out of the forest and deported to the British offices at Calabar.
This process was duplicated in most of the kingdoms that fought with Britain: guerilla warfare was excessively used by the Esans, resulting in prolonged battle time in spite of inferior weapons, and reinforcements from Benin City for the British. Even when villages were conquered, internal resistance was fierce: continued geurilla warfare in Uromi forced the British to release Prince Okojie. However, excessive cruelty on Britain's part razed many villages and displaced many people. Finally, in 1906, Esanland submitted to British rule, and the thirty-four kingdoms became the Ishan Division.
Esan kingdoms were structured in a way that eguares, or cities, were headed by enijies, singular onojie. Eguares were subdivided into villages, which were subdivided into idumu or quarters. Villages and idumu are headed by the oldest man in said village/idumu, the edionwele (plural odionwere).
Esanland is 2814.347 km square miles total. It is dominated by the Ishan-Asaba Plateau in Midwestern Nigeria. This plateau is the source of many streams in the region.