In Nigeria, the tallest statue is dedicated to the legendary Queen Moremi. The Queen Moremi Statue of Liberty is also the fourth tallest in Africa, standing at an impressive 45 feet it was erected at the Ife palace in November 2016 by the Ooni (king) of Ife, His Imperial Majesty Adeyeye Ogunwusi, a descendant of the famous freedom fighter Queen Moremi Ajasoro. Moremi has been immortalised in several ways including the statue, she is memorialised in books and public places named after her. With very few written sources which relate to her, Moremi’s story has largely been passed down through the generations as local folklore. In this post we aim to look deeper into her story.
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Her story goes that she was the wife of Oranmiyan, the heir to the King of Ife and the founding father of the Yoruba tribe, Oduduwa. Their tribe was suffering at the hands of the Ìgbò, who were also known as the Forest people. One day she visited the Esimirin River, to speak with the spirit of the river and vowed that she would make the greatest sacrifice possible if she was able to discover the Forest people to save her kinsmen. To do this she allowed herself to be captured by the Ìgbò when they were raiding one of the Yoruba villages and she was taken to become a slave. Her beauty soon came to the attention of the Ìgbò king who made her his anointed queen. In this new position she was able to win both the affection and the trust of the King and the Ìgbò people, this trust was vital for her to discover the secret to their army’s success – in preparation for battle, the Ìgbò tribe would cover themselves in Ekan grass and bamboo fibres to scare their enemy, but if this came into contact with a flame it would quickly light.
After discovering their secret, Moremi escaped back to her people in Ile-Ife and revealed to them how to use this information to finally defeat the Ìgbò people in battle.
Once the Ìgbò raids had stopped and her people were safe, Moremi returned to the Esmirin River in order to do as she had promised. The river god demanded that she sacrifice her only son, Oluorogbo to fulfil her end of the bargain. Moremi pleaded for the god to take anything else but in the end she kept her promise and paid the price set by the god. The whole kingdom of Ife grieved the loss of Oluorogbo and the Yoruba people consoled Moremi by offering to be her eternal children, a promise that is still kept to this day. Today, there are over 41 million ethnic Yorubas who live predominantly in sixteen countries in West Africa, The transatlantic slave trade has also resulted in large Yoruba communities which have taken root in countries like Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, as well as other parts of the Americas and Europe.
The Yoruba are one of the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, they are concentrated in the southwestern area of the country but smaller, scattered groups can be found in Benin and northern Togo. Historically, the Yoruba were primarily farmers, growing cocoa and yams as cash crops planted in a three-year rotational system.
The Yoruba have a pantheon of gods including around 400 deities and they believe that when they pass on from this life they will join the realm of the ancestors and interestingly, the status of a woman in the Yoruba is dependent on their own position in their marketplace rather than that of their husband. Within their marketplace, women control much of the complex system which encourages the arts. The Yoruba are known for their craftsmanship which is widely considered to be the most skilled and productive in all of Africa. Traditionally, they worked at such trades as blacksmiths, leather working, weaving, glass making, and ivory and wood carving.
In 1914, Nigeria became a British Colony, with this colonisation came Christianity, a practice which led to a slow dissolution of many traditional Yoruba religious practices. Following the Second World War, public sentiment in Nigeria turned against the British colonisers and began to rally for an independent state. On October 1, 1960 Nigeria was declared independent of British rule. Greater Yorubaland was subsumed into the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Because Moremi’s extraordinary story has been passed down from generation to generation we are not able to know exactly when she was born, or when she died. Her story does however tell us that shewas a princess from the town of Offa and married the Ooni of Ile-Ife. Her husband was either Ooni Obalufon Alayemoye II or Ooni Oranmiyan, both of whom were direct descendants of Ooni Oduduwa, the legendary founder of the Yoruba tribe and the first Ooni of Ile-Ife. From this information we are able to begin to piece together an idea for the time that she was alive. The Copper Mask of Obalufon II for example, is believed by archaeologists to have been created around 1300 CE while Obalufon II was still alive. In the 13th and 14th centuries Yoruba bronze casting using the lost-wax method reached a peak of technical excellence never subsequently equalled in western Africa.
If Moremi was actually married to Oranmiyan, who succeeded Obalufon II, the time frame of her life would not be much further from circa 1300, because Moremi’s hometown of Offa was founded in 1359 by a crown prince (Olalomi Olofa-gangan) from one of the older kingdoms, the Kingdom of Oyo which was founded by Oranmiyan.
Today, Moremi is recognised by the Yoruba people for her bravery and selflessness and she is celebrated in the Edi Festival for giving up her son for her people. She is held in high esteem, above any other woman in the kingdom and her people still mourn with her. It was her refusal to tolerate the enslavement of her people which contributes to her remembrance but it is also important to note that her story helps to show the contribution and critical role that women themselves have had in the medieval history of Africa. Unfortunately, while her contributions to her people’s history has been significant, she has received little scholarly attention. Something that we can hope is rectified in the coming years.