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Spotlight: Unearthing the Origins of Empire

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Spotlight: Unearthing the Origins of Empire

Date Published:
Friday, October 29, 2010

UNC Charlotte Chair and Professor of African Studies Akinwumi Ogundiran is digging deeper into an important part of Africa’s past to unearth the origins of an empire whose influence can be felt today in the language and cultural practices of people from Brazil to South Carolina.

The Egyptian Empire is among the most well-known African empires, but it was the Oyo Empire, founded by the Yoruba people in the 15th Century, that captured Ogundiran’s imagination.

“What is fascinating is growing up in Nigeria I read about the Oyo Empire, but years later I realized that there’s a big gap in the empire’s historiography,” Ogundiran said. “We don’t know how the empire began. Historians have focused on the period when it was richest.”

Ogundiran is researching why and how the empire spread from a small city state into one of the largest political units in West Africa, south of the Sahara.

Drawing from anthropology, archeology and historiography, Ogundiran has peeled back layers of misconception about the empire and its origins, revealing a complex polity with fully developed and firmly entrenched civic, cultural and economic structures.

His current study focuses on one strategy of empire formation – colonization. “When we study empires we tend to study the metropolises. To understand how an empire developed, you have to go to the peripheries,” he explained.

Archeology bears witness to the past: That once upon a time, children roamed these overgrown alleys, and that there were shouts of joy and sorrow in the everyday cycle of life.
Akinwumi Ogundiran

Ogundiran began an excavation of Ede-Ile, likely the first successful colony established by the Oyo to advance their imperial ambitions. Evidence of widely varied forms of commerce are visible at Ede-Ile, but the colony might have served another distinct purpose — to protect Oyo citizens from the slave trade, even while the Oyo participated in the trade by selling citizens from conquered lands.

“The state was financed through commerce,” Ogundiran said. “This structure made it necessary to engage in more and more trade. Financing for the military and a whole retinue of government functions came from the slave trade.”

When Britain outlawed the slave trade in the 1820s, the decision touched off an economic crisis in the empire that contributed to its eventual collapse.

“Over a period of 300 years, 500,000 Yoruba people were enslaved. As soon as the empire collapsed the protections the citizens enjoyed were no longer available; in just a 50-year period, from 1800 to 1850, half a million Yoruba people were enslaved and brought to the United States, Brazil and Cuba,” Ogundiran said.

These late arrivals brought their rich heritage and traditions to the Americas, many of which are still alive today in the lyrics of Brazilian pop music, in the practice of Santeria and even in the governance of Oyotunji (“Oyo Rises Again”), a village located in South Carolina. The Oyo Empire collapsed, but its culture was transplanted to the New World.

With funding from the National Science Foundation-Missouri Research Reactor Center Research, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Ogundiran traveled to Africa last summer to conduct the next phase in his research.

Ogundiran hopes to extend the opportunity to participate in fieldwork in Africa and laboratory analysis on campus to UNC Charlotte students. However, he warns, you can’t be afraid of snakes, or very big bugs, if you’re going to dig deep into the lives of traders, kings and cavalry men.