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Though the Rev. Samuel Johnson is dead, he will continue to be remembered by many historians. His name is constantly invoked whenever anyone endeavours to unravel Yoruba’s past.  He becomes a colossus with a foot of steel in Yoruba historical scholarship because of his monumental book, The History of the Yorubas from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate published in 1921, twenty-four years after the manuscript was written.  He was the first to write a comprehensive account of Yoruba history which despite the antilogies of reservations and  criticisms that it provoked and the proliferation of books, pamphlets and articles that have accompanied it, has remained till today a standard reference on Yoruba history, a work of great scholarship, and an inspiring book with which to take off for research work on any aspect of Yoruba civilization.  Why did he write the book? What were his sources and methods? Of what relevance is the book to us? And what are the major deficiencies of this book? These are some of the problems explored in this brief paper.
Patriotism was the driving urge for the writing of this book.  The last quarter of the nineteenth century was a period of ‘cultural nationalism’ in Yorubaland.  There was a general and widespread reaction to the imposition of British authority and culture in Lagos and a few of the educated elite wanted to assert their cultural values and institutions.  This was why some of them changed their English names and dresses to Yoruba and started to explore the history of their fatherland with the purpose of showing to the world the history of a long well established Yoruba state with complex political, social, religious and economic institutions.  though Johnson did not appear to have been influenced by this contemporary intellectual revolution which launched a partial war against the Europeans, nevertheless, he realised that there was an urgent necessity to record Yoruba history in order to preserve it for posterity. He stated his mission as:
a purely patriotic motive, that the history of our fatherland might not be lost in oblivion, especially as our old sires are fast dying out.  Educated natives of Yoruba are well acquainted with the history of England and with that of Rome and Greece, but of the history of their own country they know nothing whatever! This reproach it is one of the author’s objects to remove.
With this aim in mind, he proceeded to write this first comprehensive historical account which focused on nearly all the parts of Yorubaland.  His emphasis broke down the barriers created by the various kingdoms. Hitherto, the form of Yoruba oral history had a limited geographical boundary, often restricted to the town or kingdom of the chroniclers.  The Arokin, for example, was trained on the history of Oyo and a few of its neighbours. Johnson made a radical departure by looking at all the groups that made up Yorubaland. He appeared to have benefited from the widespread belief of a Yoruba nation current in his days.
Johnson’s sources comprises eye-witness accounts, oral traditions and a few written materials.  He made an extensive collection of oral data for this book. He informed us as to his sources: “with respect to the ancient and mythological period he has stated the facts as they are given by the bards, and with respect to the history of comparatively recent dates, viz, from the time of King Abiodun downwards, from eye-witnesses of the events which they narrate, or from those who have actually taken part in them”.  A number of factors aided and facilitated his getting source-materials for this study. In the first place, he was educated in the western sense meaning that he could read and write and was, therefore, in a position to record many traditions. Secondly, he was a well known pastor, a popular descendant of Alaafin Abiodun and a friend to many popular Yoruba figures of his time. He mentioned, for example, David Kukomi ‘the patriarch of the Ibadan Church’, who fought in the Yoruba wars, Josiah Oni, ‘an active and intelligent observer who was well acquainted with almost every part of the country and Oba Lagunju,’ ‘the renowned Timi of Ede… a gifted and trusty historian of the Yoruba.’  Finally, he was a living witness of the Yoruba wars of the second half of the nineteenth century. In fact, he was an active participant in the Yoruba wars, serving as a liaison between the Ibadan military generals, Oyo Chiefs and the British administrators up to 1893. These three factors enabled him to collect adequate information which he then meshed together to present his story as best as he could. He did not stop at mere collections but endeavoured to arrange his materials in a logical way and to sythetise them together to form an intelligible account. He thus divided his book into various chapters, each dealing with different topics. Each chapter was handled to the best of his ability, the most interesting being the section dealing with the nineteenth century Yoruba wars.  He discussed many aspects of Yoruba civilization and though he faced the problem of knitting them together he no doubt, exhibited a mastery of many of the institutions and episodes, which he described. His critics often forget that he received no formal training to become a historian, yet he displayed such a high skill to cope with the gigantic task before him.
Johnson’s book is significant in many aspects.  In the first place, Johnson provided many pieces of information relating to Yorubaland.  It is a comprehensive book covering not only the history of the Yoruba but their language, customs, laws, geography and religion.  It is indeed an indispensable book on the history of the growth of the old Oyo empire, the nineteenth century revolutionary wars, the history of the growth of Ibadan, and the establishment of the British protectorate in Yorubaland.  He also passed many documents to posterity. They are mostly found in the Church Missionary Society’s parsons and in the British Public Record Office London. He divided his book into forty chapters in addition to a long appendix and introductory remarks on his aims, the Yoruba language and grammar.  In the introductory part, he briefly touched on a few aspects of the economic geography and the nature of the Yoruba people. “Love of independence”, says Johnson, “a feeling of superiority over all others, a keen commercial spirit, and of indefatigable enterprise, that quality of being never able to admit or consent to a defeat as finally setting a question upon which their mind is bent, are some of those qualities peculiar to them, and no matter under what circumstances they are placed, Yorubas will display them.4  He went on to write on the Yoruba language and though Yoruba orthography has changed considerably he provided a lot of information vital to a study of the development of Yoruba language.  in fact, Johnson appears to be a Jack of many trades and master of many. How many historians today are as good as Johnson when it comes to the language and grammar of the people they study?  How many of our linguists are as good as Johnson when it comes to Yoruba history?
His first two chapters grappled with the problem of origin.  He could not deal thoroughly with this. All what he did was to narrate the various versions of a legend.  However, he informs his readers as to the difficulty of his task: The origin of the Yoruba nation is involved in obscurity.  Like the early history of most nations the common received accounts are for the most part purely legendary. The people being unlattered, and the language unwritten all that is known is from  traditions carefully handed down”.5  In fairness to Johnson, explaining the origin of a people is a difficult task and up till now no one has come up with a more convincing alternative though Johnson has been refuted.  One still sees elements of Johnson’s ideas even in works written long after him. Lucas, Morgan and Professor S.O. Biobaku all still, like Johnson, look on the east to explain the origin of Yorubaland.
His chapter on religion is stimulating.  He discussed the gods and godesses of and the spread of Islam and Christianity in Yorubaland.  Ironically, Johnson devoted only thirty eight lines to the religion of Christianity which he professed.  His long chapter on the Yoruba system of government was mainly on that of Oyo with only four pages for the other kingdoms or what he referred to as the provincial governments of Oyo.  This is understandable because his conception of Yorubaland was one with a central government headed by the Alaafin.
Other things discussed in part of this book touched on nearly all aspects of Yoruba culture; their towns and villages, names, attitude to land, social polity, facial marks, foods, dressing, marriages and burial institutions.  He also talked on certain aspects of their economic history, trades and professions, the Iwofa system, wealth, wealthy personages, etc. These are interesting details most of which have been accepted by subsequent writers.
The second part of the book, comprising five chapters in what he designated as the first and second period is essentially on the history of the foundation and growth of the old Oyo empire.  He obtained most of the information on this section from the Arokin and the pattern of his narration followed closely the oral methods. Details are arranged and pieced together on the basis of succession of Kings.  He wrote the history of this period by discussing each of the Alaafin in turn.
His third and fourth periods deal with the Yoruba wars.  Here, he was at his best and the details he provided covered almost five hundred and forty pages.  He described each of the major wars with a great deal of mastery. Scholars who have done extensive research on this aspect of Yoruba history, in spite of their interpretation and re-interpretation, still recognize the immense contributions, which Johnson had made.
Another thing worthy of note is that he transformed numerous memorised oral traditions into a written account.  It is true that the Yoruba people were conscious of their history and did try to transmit and preserve their oral traditions as much as possible.  However, the absence of writing imposed certain limitations on the verbally transmitted traditions. However, with the introduction of literacy, a person like Johnson was able to collect from many informants events and episodes relating to the past of his people.  He retrieved many of the information which might have been lost.
As a corollary to that, Johnson had access to and recorded many traditions, most of which may not be available to us today.  He belonged to the 19th century Yorubaland and he made use of men of his age.  Johnson actually extended the boundary of our knowledge of Yoruba’s past not only to the 19th century but into the far remote period.
His work has also been transformed into the ‘Authorized version’ of many logical histories.  Most people who claim to be knowledgeable in Yoruba history today only narrate Johnson. It is, therefore, not easy to ‘go beyond him’ to collect a large body of fresh information since the problem of feedback automatically crops up.  Even most of the accounts from a few of the local chronicles written after him mainly supplement his book. A notable example is I.B. Akinyele’s Outline History of Ibadan where the author relied exclusively on Johnson’s.
Another legacy is that Johnson’s work provoked and generated further discussion on Yoruba history.  Many literate people such as Losi, Ajisafe, Oyerinde, Abiola, Ojo, Akinyele, etc., were to follow Johnson’s example.  He inspired a lot while others wrote to debunk some of his assumptions. Yoruba history has been tremendously enriched by these local chronicles.6
The book is not without its faults.  His intention to write a history of Yorubaland arose out of a purely natioinalistic ambition.  Though his patriotic motive did in act accommodate Christianity and European rule, he could not resist the temptation of glorifying the past of his fore-fathers.  He idealised a few aspects of Yoruba history. For instance, he thought that he could convince his readers as to the richness of Yoruba culture by linking it to the east, usually seen as the home of civilization.  “That the Yorubas came originally from the East”. Johnson writes, “there cannot be the slightest doubt, as their habits, manners and customs, etc., all go to prove.”7  To the people of this age, the east was the home of civilization and any link with it meant sharing the glory of that culture.
Another effect of his patriotic motive lies in seeing his accounts as a way of fostering Yoruba unity, which had been badly affected by the prolonged wars.  He held the view that the Yoruba country was one, united politically under the Alaafin before the wars terminated this and that it is still possible to integrate Yorubaland together under a common rule.  Professor Ajayi has pointed out that Johnson’s collection of materials on Oyo history “deepened his respect for Oyo institutions. it encouraged in him the erroneous idea that the Yoruba country used to be a single kingdom with a spiritual head at Ife and a political head at Oyo and that unity could best be restored by ‘reviving’ the cultural supremacy of the Oni and the political paramountry of the Alaafin throughout the Yoruba country.8
This was why Johnson went on to narrate the history of Yorubaland with a particularistic bias for the Old Oyo empire.  He saw Oraniyan as the most important among ‘Oduduwa Children’ because it was he who founded the Oyo empire. He whittled down the importance of Oyo in a favourable light.  For instance, writing on the Ijebu, he said among other things that “they were the most addicted to human sacrifices… the most exclusive and inhospitable of the whole of the tribes.”9
He saw the Ijesa as ‘…proverbially deficient in wit as they are remarkably distinguished for brutal strength”10 and as slaves used for human sacrifices by the Ife people.  The Ondo were seen to have been civilized by the Oyo. On the whole, the emphasis in this book is on the Oyo-Yoruba or what he termed the Yoruba-‘proper’, and how it had at one time controlled the rest of Yorubaland, how it lost that hegemony and why it should be the centre of a new centralized government which should be set up by the British.  Johnson’s belief as to the role of Oyo within the larger Yoruba community was, in fact, stated while he was concluding on the reign of Alaafin Abiodun: “The end of this reign” says Johnson, “marked an important epoch in Yoruba history. With the death of Abiodun ended the universal and despotic rule of the kings that held the different parts of the kingdom together in one universal way and with him ended the tranquility and prosperity of the Yoruba country.  In a word, with Abiodun ended the unity, of the Yoruba kingdom.”11  In  addition to this misconception, his emphasis on the Oyo-Yoruba later generated criticisms and attacks on his work by other Yoruba local chroniclers.  Johnson did not succeed in avoiding whatever would cause needles offence to anyone, or irritate the feelings of those specially interested in the narrative” as he originally set out to do.
Two theories underlying his moral and philosophical presuppositions detracted from the level of objectivity.  The first was his belief in Jesus Christ and the Christian religion. He was a pastor and was for a very long time under the influential David Hinderer, the C.M.S. missionary at Ibadan, who might have exited a lot of influenced on him.  Hinderer had a great respect for Yoruba laws and customs and was particularly interested in the history of Oyo and Ibadan while he had a deep-rooted bias for the Ijebu, Ijesa and Egba. Johnson was to inherit this from his mentor. The second theory related to his conviction that the British were ordained by God to capture and rule the Yoruba country. He was, therefore, enthused by this and strove to help the British to achieve this aim.  Most of his interpretations revolved around these two theories. He constantly evoked the peripatetic heads of God to justify any misfortune or fortune that befell his people. Commenting on the establishment of the British protectorate, Johnson, for example, remarked that “… a new era dawned upon the country, the next result will be a distinct gain to the country. But that peace should reign universally, with prosperity and advancement, and that the disjointed   units should all be once more welded into one under one head from the Niger to the coast as in the happy days of ABIODUN, so dear to our fathers, that clannish spirit disappear, and above all that Christianity should be the principal religion in the land-paganism and Mohammedanism having had their full trial – should be the wish and prayer of every true son of Yoruba.12  Commenting on the ‘reign of terror’ launched by Ibadan on her colonies, Johnson gives the explanation to the effect that it was a divine ordained by God to”… use a certain nation or individual as the scourge of another.”13 This idea recurs throughout the book.  The emphasis on the divine being as the most crucial factor in the historical process is hardly convincing and it diverts history from the realm of men to that of the supernatural.
Johnson’s work has another deficiency in term of sources and method.  He relied solely on oral traditions and though he endeavoured to piece them together, it is doubtful whether he possessed the necessary skill with which to evaluate them.  He did not appear to have undertaken critical textual comparisons of oral evidence. He often narrated two or more version of an event of accepted and recorded the one, which appealed to him.  For instance, in narrating the accounts of the 19th century wars, he sometimes collected information from a few people in one state to the exclusion of their rivals.  In addition, it appears as if Johnson collected most of his information from biased people who participated in the wards of the side of the Oyo-Yoruba.  The few names he gave are Oyo-Yoruba and he did not recognized the danger involved in relying solely on the information they supplied.
As far as chronology is concerned, Johnson followed the traditional pattern of associating events with regional lengths. He did not make any attempt at giving precise dates before 1830.  However, there is an order in his work, which gives a relative form of chronology.
Despite all the criticisms highlighted above, Johnson wrote an excellent work.  It is no exaggeration to describe him as the best among the chroniclers and as a pioneer of Yoruba studies.  He was not a trained historian but did approach his work with a thorough regard for scholarship, hard work and painstaking search for sources.  He lacked the facilities and tools available to us today, yet he did endeavour to collect as many evidence as possible and to cross-check them with a few written materials.14  With a few of the faults highlighted above, it is possible for us to locate where the book is deficient and make appropriate allowances accordingly.  However, we should be ready to supplement or cross-check his accounts with information from the other local chronicles, contemporary written sources and where possible, look for fresh oral traditions.


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