Mirroring Abeokuta: From Nigeria to Jamaica

By: Marcella Phillips-Grizzle

Abeokuta, Nigeria, is the largest city in the Ogun State, which is located in southwest Nigeria.  It is also the capital of the Ogun State and is situated by the Ogun River.  Abeokuta, which literally means “underneath the rock”, or symbolically, refuge among the rocks, is famous for its most prominent landmark, a massive outcrop of granite rocks, which is called the Olumo Rock and means “built by the Lord”.  ‘Other historians maintained that the meaning of Olumo is “Oluwa Fimo” meaning, “God put an end to our hostility against the Egbas and their suffering”.’

The history of Abeokuta points to the early settlers being refugees of the Egba nation.  Their leader, Lisabi, a resident of Igbehin, liberated the Egbas from the sovereignty and tyranny of the lordship of the Alafin of the Oyo Empire sometime between 1775 and 1780.  Between 1780 and the late 1820s the Egba people settled in the Egba forest, until the leadership of the Egbas was handed down to Sodeke (Shodeke), who migrated with his people to fertile lands known as Abeokuta.  Abeokuta was already settled by an Iloko chief named Idowu Liperu, and subsequently by three hunters who dwelt in the nearby caves.  In 1830, however, Sodeke founded the city of Abeokuta, which was eventually surrounded by mud walls.  Soon, other Yoruba peoples began to populate the recently founded city, and later still (in the 1840s), Sierra Leone Creoles and missionaries (Baptist and Anglican) settled in the city.  The inhabitants of Abeokuta eventually ‘constituted themselves into a free confederacy’ of many distinct groups, each preserving the traditional customs, religious rites and even the names of their original villages.

Over time, the Olumo Rock came to redefine the settlement pattern of the different waves of migrants that came to inhabit its immediate vicinity.  Importantly, the rock – which is filled with many caves – served as a fortress to villagers who fled the slave hunting activities of the Dahomey and Ibadan people in the early 19th century.  Present day tours of the Olumo Rock feature holes dug into the rock by the refugees, an area known as the Egba War Hide Out, and significantly, the Main Shrine.  There are priestesses of the Yoruba spiritual tradition who live and practice their customs within the recesses of the Rock.  Just outside the premises of the Olumo Rock is the ancient Itoku market which serves as a space for showcasing traditional Yoruba craftsmanship, such as sculpture, musical instruments (talking drum and the sekere), as well as clothing and accessories, including tie-and-dye products (known as adire), beads and bracelets.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (online), Abeokuta’s success as the capital of the Egbas, and its important link in the Lagos-Ibadan palm oil trade, led to wars with Dahomey (now Benin) in 1851.  Aided by the missionaries and armed by the British, the Egbas of Abeokuta were able to defeat the jealous King Gezo’s Dahomeyan army of women in the Battle of Abeokuta in 1851, and again, in 1864 when they were attacked once more.


Nago woman with mortar and pestle, Westmoreland, 2006

During the period 1845 to 1854, many of the Yoruba-based peoples of Nigeria migrated to Jamaica as indentured labourers.  Civil wars may have directly contributed to this move, as the economic stability of the Yoruba people was severely affected.  In western Jamaica, the oral tradition of the descendants of these African migrants not only claims Yoruba ancestry, but specifically, Nago heritage.  According to research, Nago is referred to as ‘both the general language of the Dahomey region and a separate smaller group.  ‘The word in its earlier form, Anago, was used by a small Yoruba group in West Africa, and the word was likely extended from there to refer to a larger population.’   According to New World Encyclopedia, the words, “Nago,” “Anago,” and “Ana,” are derivatives of the name of a coastal Yoruba sub-group in the present-day Republic of Benin.  Alternate names are Ede Nago and Nagot.

Situating the ethnic Nago people in Benin (formerly Dahomey), as opposed to Abeokuta, Nigeria does require in depth research into why it is that Jamaicans of Yoruba descent claim Nago heritage.  Was it that their ancestors came from the coasts of Benin and not Nigeria?  If so, how then did they come to associate themselves with Abeokuta, which is situated in Nigeria?  Were these people captured from Abeokuta (by Dahomeyan slave raiders) and taken to the coasts of Benin, or did the Nago people originally dwell in Benin, migrate to Abeokuta, Nigeria, and then emigrate to Jamaica during the Abeokuta wars with the King of Dahomey?  Whatever the case, Jamaica has its own settlement known as Abeokuta.

Abeokuta, Jamaica, is described as a Nago settlement located in the hills of the Waterworks district in southern Westmoreland.   The community is named after its counterpart in south-west Nigeria and also boasts its own Olumo Rock.  Important to the narrative is that the Jamaican Nago is considered a Yoruba-based cultural retention practised among a community of people who claim direct descent from the Yoruba slaves that were brought to Westmoreland.  Abeokuta in Waterworks, also known as “Abekitta” and “Beokuta”, is believed to be the ancestral home of the Nago people who were able to retain, amidst slavery, Yoruba attitudes toward the upbringing of children, as well as Yoruba cooking and eating styles.  Up until the 1970s older residents of Abeokuta knew Yoruba words and songs that were sung at death ceremonies – such as set-ups on the ninth and 40th night following a person’s death – and other events where their ancestral spirits were invited.


Nago people engaged in traditional dance, Westmoreland, 2006

The Nago people exhibit similar traits to and identify with the Ettu people of Hanover.  However, the word ‘Ettu’ does not refer to a sub-ethnic group, but rather to a cultural practice (Etutu) steeped in ancestor veneration, which is noted for the custom of arranging rituals to assist departed spirits to find rest.  Along with the “Bele” and “Wake”, Nago is the strongest cultural music and dance form in Westmoreland.  Unfortunately, the lifestyle of the Nago in Westmoreland was severely affected by the 1979 floods that caused the Nago people to disperse.

In January 2003, the Abeokuta Private Nature Park was opened as a heritage, health and eco-tourist attraction located in Dean’s Valley, Westmoreland.  Its counterpart in Nigeria is a major tourist attraction that features tour climbs of the Olumo Rock, museums, restaurants, and other tourist-friendly amenities, including the nearby Itoku market.  The success of Nigeria’s Abeokuta community is arguably its ability to have the ancient co-existing with the modern.


Lewin, Olive, Rock It Come Over: The Folk Music of Jamaica, with Special Reference to Kumina and the Work of Mrs. Imogene “Queenie” Kennedy. University of the West Indies Press. 2000.

March, 2015: