When the topic of battle comes into question, there is a type of misinformation as to the roles of women in conquest. It is often perceived that African women took lesser roles in wars. Well, the story of Queen Idia might interest you and shatter that notion. Queen Idia is often credited as the first African woman to fight in a war in the 15th century.
Queen Idia was born in Uzeghudu (modern-day Edo State) and was married to King Ozolua, Benin’s 15th Oba. Their marriage was blessed with an only son called Prince Osawe popularly known as Esigie.
Following the death of Oba Ozolua, the path to the succession was marred by some hostile contention between Idubor and Esigie. Idubor was the son of the King’s first wife Ohonmin. He was also known as Arhuaran. There was a bit of conflict on who was supposed to be the eldest between the two. In reality, Ohonmin had given birth to Idubor a few hours before Idia brought out Esigie. Nevertheless, Idubor was muted at birth. Thus, Esigie who had his first cry earlier was reported to the king. He was proclaimed as the first son before Idubor had sparked the attention.
Idubor was more or less an outcast. He was troubled by the negligible treatment he had from his father. What bemused him was the knowledge of him being the eldest but not in any way close to attaining his birthright. It was the tradition of the Benin people for the first son to be crowned an Oba. Idubor won’t be enjoying what was supposed to be his right. Therefore, Queen Idia raised his betrothed Esigie to be the heir to the throne.
Idubor was sent to Europe to receive western education and familiarize himself with the Eurocentric way of life. Esigie remained in the kingdom, orientating himself on traditional wisdom and his mother’s teachings. By the time Idubor had returned to his fatherland, he was unrecognizable. He met the humongous and agile Esigie heading their father’s court. Because of Esigie’s knowledge of state matters and traditional medicine, he was highly ticked for the throne.
CLASH BETWEEN BROTHERS
Idubor was defiant of his brother’s authority. He had wanted to usurp the authority of Esigie by establishing Udo as the capital of the Benin kingdom with himself Oba. A threatened Esigie instantly disagreed and proclaimed himself the traditional ruler. This sparked enmity between the two brothers. War was imminent. They both summoned a small army poised for conquest. Queen Idia was significant in all of these.
As the late Oba’s wife and the potential queen mother of the Oba-in-waiting, Idia made sure that Esigie was crowned Oba. This included physical and spiritual moves. She was crucial in assisting Esigie to rally an army. With her help, he conquered Idubor, and Esigie became Benin’s 16th king.
QUEEN IDIA’s WAR
Like a protective mother hen towards her chicks, Queen Idia stood by Esigie throughout the raging storm. She acted as a supervisor to her son in matters of the leadership of the kingdom. Queen Idia is regarded as the founder of many inventions still present in the history of the Benin kingdom. The so-called Idah battle of 1515 could not have succeeded without the courageous leadership and control of Queen Idia. Disguised as a man, she fought alongside Esigie and ensured that the battle was won. She also saved her son from the various assassination attempts carried out by his rivals.
Devastated after his downfall, Idubor committed suicide by drowning in the Udo lake. Before jumping into the abyss, he left his necklace hovering from a tree branch. That necklace was the symbol of power in Benin land. As Esigie was the Oba, and it was customary for him to possess such a valuable asset, he happily wore it. However, Esigie was mysteriously struck with a mental ailment the sooner he had it on his neck. He was immediately rushed back to Benin.
Queen Idia, hasty to find a remedy for her son’s illness found a Yoruba Babalawo who eventually cured the Oba’s illness.
When Queen Idia died in 1550, it left poor Esigie downhearted. He ordered sculptors to carve a figure in honour of a very reputable woman who multitasked till the end. She was not just a mother, but a fighter, a priestess, an advisor, and a popular figure in ancient arts and culture.
In today’s popular culture, Queen Idia is portrayed through an Ivory Mask, which served as the logo for the 2nd World Black and African Feast of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Lagos State, Nigeria, in 1977.