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Jun 18, 2019

African Heroes of Freedom: Queen Moremi Ajasoro

As we continue to uncover more about the ancient African world, Anoba will highlight figures who had a profound impact on early Africa’s development. 

We know less about the history of ancient  and medieval Africa than any other region of the world. Much of what we know about early Africans today has been uncovered in just the last five decades. In fact, the more archaeology reveals about life in ancient and medieval Africa, the less we seem to agree with many of our long-held assumptions about the continent and its people. For instance, historians used to believe that ironwork was first discovered in Turkey around 1500 BC, but new evidence proves that ironwork was in wide use around the same period—or even as early as 1800 BC—in central Africa.[1] We also know that early eastern African tribes were building sophisticated structures about the same time the ancient Greeks were building the Parthenon, contrary to the widespread belief that early Africans only lived in huts without civilization.

These sorts of revelations are why it is necessary not to make assumptions about how early Africans lived, and definitely not about their philosophical way of life. Each African tribe and community can be radically different from others in terms of social structure and values. But we can isolate and study specific communities, tribes, and significant individuals to give us a better understanding of such group’s or individual’s social and philosophical values. In this series, we will revisit how unsung African heroes contributed to the survival and prosperity of their tribes. Since these individuals will be drawn from ancient and medieval African history, I will rely on archaeological references, folkloric accounts, and sometimes on the role of spiritualism in African life. In this first study, we will learn of the remarkable story of Queen Moremi Ajasoro—Africa’s lady liberty—from the medieval Kingdom of Ile-Ife (also called Ife) in modern-day Nigeria.[2]

Moremi and the Yoruba People

Moremi made significant contributions to African freedom but her life has received little scholarly attention. She was a queen of the Yoruba tribe, which is one of the most famous and influential black tribes in history. Moremi’s exploits helped preserve the commercial life of her people and freed them from oppressors. Today, there are over 41 million ethnic Yorubas who live predominantly in sixteen countries in West Africa, although, because of the transatlantic slave trade, large Yoruba communities have taken root in countries like Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and other parts of the Americas. There are also Yoruba communities in many European countries—most having migrated in the immediate decades after the end of colonialism in the 1970s and 1980s while fleeing economic and political instability in their home countries. But the Yorubas would have never survived to become a prominent black ethnic group in the 21st century if it were not for the bravery of some of its early heroes, among which is the remarkable Queen Moremi.

Unfortunately, there are hardly any original written documents to validate most of the things we know about Moremi. We must rely on folkloric accounts passed down over generations by the Yoruba themselves—which is a common limitation when studying ancient and medieval African history. Although accounts of Moremi’s exploits are now sparsely documented in popular culture, the Yorubas have always considered folklore (called ‘Aroba’ in the Yoruba language) the strongest medium for teaching and preserving history, rather than written documents or wall-carvings. This medium of preserving history is a feature common to many Sub-Saharan Africa tribes. We also do not know for certain exactly what year Moremi was born or when she died owing to the absence of written evidence. But we do know that she was a princess from the town of Offa[3] and was later married to the Ooni (king) of Ile-Ife. Her husband was either Ooni Obalufon Alayemoye II[4] or Ooni Oranmiyan—both direct descendants of Ooni Oduduwa, the legendary founder of the Yoruba tribe and the first Ooni of Ile-Ife.[5] There are also claims that she was married to both Oonis at different times.[6]  To figure out when Moremi most likely lived, we can consider the dates of some related entities. For instance, the Copper Mask of Obalufon II—first introduced to the world in 1937 by Ooni Adesoji Aderemi in Ile-Ife—is believed by archaeologists to have been created around 1300 CE while Obalufon II was still alive. We can peg Moremi’s lifetime to around this period since she was likely married to Obalufon II. Even if she was actually married to Oranmiyan, who succeeded Obalufon II, the timeframe of her life would not be much further from circa 1300. This is because Moremi’s hometown of Offa was founded in 1359 by a crown prince (Olalomi Olofa-gangan) from one of the older kingdoms (Kingdom of Oyo) founded by Oranmiyan. 

Since Offa is an offshoot town of the Kingdom of Ife, Ife is the spiritual home of Moremi just as it is for any contemporary of Yoruba origin. Spirituality has a huge influence on the story of Moremi. The original religion of the Yoruba people, which is practiced in Ile-Ife and throughout the old Yorubaland, was the Ifa Religion—a divination system that considers the world controlled by Olodumare (the Supreme Being) through spiritual energies.[7] Ifa practitioners—including Moremi and the early Yoruba people—communicate with Olodumare through the Orishas (gods) and the Irunmoles (deities).[8] Moremi’s quest for freedom was informed by this spiritualism. But the popularity of Moremi started while she was still a young princess in Offa. She was well-known throughout the town and its neighboring territories as a beautiful woman and is still revered today as one of the most beautiful Yoruba women that ever lived.

Ugbo Invasions and Moremi’s Classic Spy Plot

There is a gap in history between Moremi’s youth and when she moved to Ile-Ife where she married the Ooni. We do not know what influenced her thought process while growing up or what might have influenced her zeal for freedom. But we know that while she was a queen in Ife, the kingdom was greatly troubled by raiders who occasionally looted the market in Ife and abducted citizens of the kingdom into slavery. These raiders also often stole properties, staple foods, and domestic animals. They are believed to be from a neighboring community called Ugbo.[9] Although the people of Ile-Ife were furious about these raids, they did not have the means to defend themselves. This is because the Ugbo invaders are seen as spirits by the people of Ife. Yoruba masquerades are always dressed in cotton robes but the Ugbo raiders—who appeared as masquerades—were completely covered in raffia leaves.[10] Out of all the atrocities of the raiders, Moremi could not stand two in particular: the disruption of the Ife market and the enslavement of captured Ife citizens. The market in Ife was the mother of all markets in Yorubaland due to its location within the sacred Kingdom of Ife and its commercial vibrancy. Furthermore, citizens of Ife were direct descendants of Oduduwa and the Orishas. Having them in enemy captivity could have led to divine retribution on Ife. Moremi believed that despite the mystique surrounding the identity of the Ugbo raiders, there must be a way to stop them. To find answers, she consulted an Orisha at the Esimirin river. The consultation of an Orisha while contemplating major decisions is cardinal to the Ifa religion. In early Yorubaland, the Orishas were the conductor of the forces of nature and an individual will hardly take a definitive course of action in life without consulting an orisha either personally or through a Babalawo (Ifa priest).

Esimirin offered to help Moremi deliver her people from oppression but demanded an offering as a payment after Moremi’s request was met. Moremi agreed and went home to work on a classic spy plan. She would pose as a trader on the next market day[11] and allow herself to be captured by the raiders. Once in captivity, she planned to infiltrate the Ugbo leadership with her beauty and magic in the hope of finding a weakness that the people of Ife could exploit.

As planned, during the next raid Moremi allowed herself to be captured and she was taken to Ugbo along with other captives. When the captives were put on parade before the leader of Ugbo, Moremi’s beauty captured his attention and he ordered she be brought to his court as a wife. Moremi spent some time in Ugbo studying the people’s way of life with a specific interest in the raffia-dressed masquerades. Eventually, she lured the leader of Ugbo into revealing the nature of the masquerades and their weakness. The leader told Moremi that the raffia masqueraders were not spirits but that they were humans disguised as such to intimidate the people of Ile-Ife into submission during raids. He also revealed that since the masquerades were dressed in dried raffia leaves, they would not survive the slightest touch of fire. Moremi kept this revelation to herself and soon made her way back to Ile-Ife.

When in Ile-Ife, she tipped the Ooni about her discovery and advised that on the next market raid, some people should be on the standby with Igita (short hard tree branch) and Oguso (a ball of the middle layer of a palm kennel font). She explained that the Oguso should be lit when the marauders were in the market and that the burning Igita be used to torch the masquerades. They did exactly as she advised. On the next market day, the torch-bearing people of Ife—many of who were market women—cast their burning torches at the Ugbo raiders. The prospect of being burned alive by the torches terrified the raffia-dressed Ugbo masquerades. The raids ended and Ife was victorious. The Yoruba people were successfully liberated by both the torch and the Moremi’s heroic plan.

But the spiritualism that guided Moremi’s plot will have a final role to play in her story. After the Ugbo raids had stopped, Moremi visited the Esimirin River to pay her offering. The river god demanded she sacrifices her only son, Oluorogbo to fulfill her end of the bargain. The demand was inconceivable for Moremi and she pleaded with the god for a less terrible offering. But in the end, she kept her promise and paid the price.[12] The offering of Oluorogbo to the river god grieved not only Moremi but the whole kingdom of Ife.[13] The Yoruba people consoled Moremi by offering to be her eternal children—-a promise kept until today.

Africa’s Lady-Liberty Lives On

Although spiritualism and African voodooism are key to this liberation of the Yoruba people, they do not in any way deprive Moremi’s heroics of intellectual significance, especially as there are a few correlations between her exploits and the classical liberal idea of self-determinism. We see this first in how central the marketplace is to the Moremi story. Ile-Ife was a prosperous trading city and the Ife market was a critical part of the cultural structure of the Yoruba people. It was a melting pot for innovators, medicine men, hunters, farmers, traders, beauticians, soldiers, artists, and every other social stratum that makes up Yoruba culture. Any attack on this structure would affect all expect of everyday life. Thus Moremi’s liberation of the Ife market can be considered a struggle for the preservation of the Yoruba way of life itself, the struggle for self-determinism. Additionally, although a form of servantry was in existence among the early Yorubas, Moremi still risked her life to free her people. Her non-tolerance for the enslavement of the people of Ife underscores her contribution to Africa’s foundation of individual freedom. More significantly, Moremi’s remarkable exploits also put to bed the general preconceived notion that women are inherently silent in African history. Women played critical roles in the construction and richness of the history of ancient and medieval Africa.

There are not many individuals in African history with the freedom and fearlessness of Queen Moremi. Centuries before the Statue of Liberty was built in New York City Harbor, Queen Moremi lifted a blazing torch of liberty and courage. As such, Moremi is almost always portrayed today as a beautiful black woman dressed in the finest Aso Oke (Yoruba robes) and adorned in Ileke (beads) with a mighty torch of Oguso held high in her right hand. The city of modern Ile-Ife in Osun State, southwest Nigeria honors her sacrifice and heroics with the Edi festival where people dress in raffias and are chased around by those bearing the torch of Oguso.


[1]Duncan E. Miller and N.J. Van Der Merwe, ‘Early Metal Working in Sub Saharan Africa’ Journal of African History 35 (1994) 1–36; Minze Stuiver and N.J. Van Der Merwe, ‘Radiocarbon Chronology of the Iron Age in Sub-Saharan Africa’ Current Anthropology Vol. 9, No. 1 (February, 1968), pg. 54-58

[2] Ile-Ife is the cradle of the Yorubas. It is the spiritual and most significant Yoruba city as it is home to the Ooni of Ife, the paramount ruler of the Yoruba ethnic group and the most senior of all Yoruba kings. Moremi made her way into African history in Ife just as most Yoruba heroes. It was an independent city-state until the amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914. Ife was part of the old Oyo state until the creation of Osun State 1991 and has since retained the status of the most significant city in Osun besides the state capital, Osogbo.

[3] Offa is an old Yoruba town in Kwara state, west-central Nigeria. It was founded by Olalomi Olofa-gangan who was a crown prince from the ancient city of Oyo around 1395. It is among the oldest Yoruba settlements known for its commercial significance, especially in Agriculture and cloth weaving.

[4] See “The Ìkálẹ̀ (Yorùbá, Nigeria) Migration Theories and Insignia” in History in Africa Vol. 34 (2007), pg. 461-468 and Suzanne Preston Blier’s Art, and Suzanne Preston Blie’s Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Power, and Identity, c. 1300 (Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 2015) pg. 140. Both authors claim Moremi was among the wives of Obalufon Alayemoye II, not Oranmiyan.

[5] Oduduwa was the progenitor of the Yoruba tribe. He was the first Ooni of Ile-Ife. After Oduduwa’s death, his sons and grandsons left Ife to establish new kingdoms while they held onto the values of Ife. These kingdoms are some of the most respected Yoruba cities today. For a detailed analysis of the status and role of Oduduwa in Yoruba history, see R. C. C. Law’s “The Heritage of Oduduwa: Traditional History and Political Propaganda among the Yoruba” in The Journal of African History Vol. 14, No. 2 (1973), pg. 207-222, and A.G.A. Ladigbolu’s The origin of Oduduwa and position of Ile-Ife and other Yoruba cities and towns in history (Lagos: Lichfield Communications, 2004)

[6] For claims of Moremi’s marriage to Oranmiyan or her marriage to both Oonis, see Suzanne Preston Blier’s other account in “Kings, Crowns, and the Rights of Succession: Obalufon Arts at Ife and Other Yoruba Centers” in The Art Bulletin Vol. 67, No. 3 (September 1985)pg. 383-401

[7] Ifa is the original religion of the Yoruba people and according to history, its practice dates back over eight thousand years ago.  It is a system of divination that revolves around spirits and energies by communicating with Olodumare (supreme being) through the Orishas (humans turned immortal gods) and the Irumoles (deities). Some Yorubas in the Carribean and the Americas have inculcated Ifa beliefs with some tenets of Roman Catholicism, which forms the foundation of religious practices such as Santeria, Candomble, and Palo Mayombe. For a broader understanding of the Ifa divination system, see Baba Ifa Karade’s Finding Soul on the Path of Orisa: A West African Spiritual Tradition (Massachusetts: Weiser Books, 1994).

[8] Irunmole and Orisha are central to the Ifa religion. Although their definition and role are often combined as one, they are different entities. According to renowned Ifa priest, Chief Olayinka Adewuyi,  “Irunmole are entities created directly from Olodumare who represent eternity. They cannot taste the bitterness of death nor suffer any consequence of their acts or actions because they always operate on the level of the divine laws of life. Both their names and natures are divine or holy from the moment of their creation.” On his definition of the Orishas, Adewuyi believes “they are were once human beings but through their extraordinary works and activities in the physical plane…they turned into great messengers of God and they were later revered and adored by the people.” Some well followed Irunmole in Ifa religion includes Ogun, Orunmila, Obatala while some Orishas include Osossi, Oya, Osun, and Ewa.

[9] The Ugbo raiders are most likely from the Ilaje town of Okitipupa in modern-day Ondo State in Nigeria. The Ugbos are also often mistaken for the Igbo tribe of eastern Nigeria. J. Ọmọṣade Awolalu made the case for a clear distinction in his book Yorùbá Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites (Athelia Henrietta Press, 1996) pg. 26; for more reason for this distinction, see Ebenezer Aiku Sheba’s “Ìkálè̥ Masquerade Traditions and Artifacts” published in 2002 by the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society in 2002.

[10] Masquerades in Yorubaland have usually dressed in heavy Aso Oke clothing—-a local woven cloth—-but the raffia used in the clothing of the Ugbo masquerades are used to barricade shrines and sacred forest of the Orishas in Yorubaland.   For a moving entity to appear in such clothing in broad daylight would be unusual and scary hence the belief that they must indeed be spirits.

[11] In most accounts, this specific market in Ife where this invasions mostly happened is called the Oroorun Market  (market observed in five days intervals).

[12] Offerings to the gods in the ifa religion is often determined by the enormity of the problem a human asks the orisha to solve. In the early centuries of the religion, offerings usually range from the sacrifice of staple foods or domesticated animals like goats, dogs, and fowl. Although there are stories that some orisha have demanded human sacrifice. Generally today, offerings are usually in money or animals.

[13] Some accounts believe that Oluorogbo did not die or did die but was resurrected by Olodumare (the supreme being in the Ifa religion).

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