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.
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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.
The Beginnings of a Global Trade
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 and copper.
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 durable texture”.
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, including cloth.
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 slaves.
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.
Cotton Exports in the Colonial Era
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.
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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 region.
Ishan Cotton Today
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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