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Beyond Diversity: Women, Scarification, and Yoruba Identity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 May 2014

Olatunji Ojo
Brock University


On 18 March 1898 Okolu, an Ijesa man, accused Otunba of Italemo ward, Ondo of seizing and enslaving his sister Osun and his niece. Both mother and daughter, enslaved by the Ikale in 1894, had fled from their master in 1895, but as they headed toward Ilesa, the accused seized them. Osun claimed the accused forced her to become his wife, “hoe a farm,” and marked her daughter's face with one deep, bold line on each cheek. Otunba denied the slavery charge, claiming he only “rescued [Osun] from Soba who was taking her away [and] took her for wife.” Itoyimaki, a defense witness, supported the claim that Osun was not Otunba's slave. In his decision, Albert Erharhdt, the presiding British Commissioner, freed the captives and ordered the accused to pay a fine of two pounds. In addition to integrating Osun through marriage, the mark conferred on her daughter a standard feature of Ondo identity. Although this case came up late in the nineteenth century, it represents a trend in precolonial Yorubaland whereby marriages and esthetics served the purpose of ethnic incorporation.

Studies on the roots of African ethnic identity consciousness have concentrated mostly on the activities of outsiders, usually Euro-American Christian missions, repatriated ex-slaves, and Muslims, whose ideas of nations as geocultural entities were applied to various African groups during the era of the slave trade and, more intensely, under colonialism. For instance, prior to the late nineteenth century, the people now called Yoruba were divided into multiple opposing ethnicities. Ethnic wars displaced millions of people, including about a million Yoruba-speakers deported as slaves to the Americas, Sierra Leone, and the central Sudan, mostly between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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