The history of Nigeria’s pre-colonial societies isn’t just about conquerors, treaties, and mass movements. It’s also about ordinary communities living off their commerce and linking up with the world through trade. The people of those times weren’t very different from us, at least in one sense: their occupations mattered as much to them as our businesses do to us today.
This was true for the Esan
people of Edo State, who for several centuries were masters of cotton and
textile production. If we were to go back 500 years to one of their cotton-growing
districts, we would find a thriving community of cotton farmers and textile
spinners, hard at work on their fields and looms.
From these simple settings, the Ishan cotton cloth was
supplied to neighboring towns, such as Benin and Agbor. And when the Europeans
came, they too joined the trade in the material. This trade formed the basis of
closer contact between the Portuguese and the ancient Benin Kingdom.
It’s hard to tell when cotton production began in the Esan
region. But it’s clear that the crop was already being grown when the Europeans
first made contact with Benin in the 15th century. Accounts from shortly after
this time speak of trade in the ‘Benin cloth’; the Benin Empire was selling
locally-made textile to Portuguese merchants in exchange for items like brass
The ‘Benin cloth’ was in fact made in Esan territory. The
material made its way to Benin via Esan traders and was in turn sold to the
Europeans. The records they kept contain clues for understanding why they were
keen on the Ishan cotton cloth. One person writing in the 19th century
described the material as “admirable”. Another said that it had a “strong
The early foreign interest in the product was also fueled by
a need to satisfy growing demand in Europe. Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch commercial
fleets sailed across the world in search of new territories to reap resources
from, or to trade with. Benin offered some of the goods that they needed,
However, the story of the trade was not unblemished. While
the Portuguese and Dutch merchants bought large amounts of the Ishan cotton
cloth, they sold a fair amount of it elsewhere in West Africa in exchange for
It’s worth noting that the clothes sold to these foreign
merchants were surplus to what was locally used. Most of the cotton fabric made
by Esan households were purchased by people within the Esan communities, and by
consumers in neighboring cities and kingdoms.
When the British gained control of the region, they sought to exploit its status as a cotton-growing area. They did this by persuading local farmers to export their cotton (instead of selling finished cotton cloth). But they also introduced cotton seeds from America and Egypt and asked the farmers to grow them alongside their local variety.
This new cotton export business boomed for a while. There
was good demand for the commodity from Europe, and the prices on offer seemed
decent. This lasted from the early 1900s till about 1914. As long as they
reaped returns on their produce, the farmers continued to grow the crop.
By the time of the First World War, cotton exports had
waned. This happened due to a number of factors: the local markets were getting
flooded with foreign textile, European customers were offering lower prices for
cotton, and a pest infestation had done widespread damage to farms in the
Ishan cotton continues to be produced for domestic use. It’s priced as a fabric from which certain traditional clothing is made. Although production has shrunk over time, many families still earn a living off the sales of the cloth. On occasions where it’s used, it reminds the Esan people of a past in which their economic and cultural realities were more closely intertwined.
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