Akin Ogundiran



Gendered Cosmology of Merchant Capital Revolution in the Yoruba World


A persistent problem in the historiography of Africa is the incongruity between the epistemology of methods and conceptual framework for writing African history on one hand and the ontology of historical subjects’ lived experience on the other. This problem is more glaring in the study of Africa’s deep-time history. Here, the disciplinary boundary markings that define the practice of history have made it difficult to effectively realize the potentials of a truly modern historiography: that every way of being must be explained by its own theory of knowledge. As a result, many have called the question about using African epistemology to explain African ontologies but empirical studies that answer this question are far-between. I want to take on this challenge for the history of the Yoruba world during the early modern period, what many have also called the Atlantic Age. This was a period during which the Yoruba became entangled in the merchant capital revolution, and co-created the shared experience of early modernity.

I want to explore two themes in this endeavor: (1) the Yoruba lived experience of merchant capital revolution; and (2) the methods and conceptual framework for studying that experience. I emphasize how the ancestral Yoruba used gendered relations to mediate their experience of merchant capital revolution, and how their cosmology was significantly transformed as a result of that experience. My goal is to write a history of meaning for the Yoruba lived experience during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The historiography of Africa is rich with the facticity of what happened, who did what, when, how it happened, and why it happened. However, the very questions that are posed about causatives are often restricted to the kinds of answers that colonial archives can provide, and these have been based on the assumptions that only seek to understand the world from the narrow prism of Western rationalities. This is not surprising. One of the shortcomings of the Western social science is its inability to appreciate what it cannot measure or recognize and which lies outside the realm of its logic and instincts. As a result, the Western social science as the source of theory, method of inquiry, and model of explanation has been ill-prepared to account for the rationalities of thoughts, aspirations, and purposefulness that shaped the lived experience of African historical agents. A limitation of the historiography of Africa therefore is its inattentiveness to the meaning and meaningfulness of the lived experiences of historical agents, and the alternative ways of knowing that are consistent with the agents’ theories of knowledge.

To overcome this limitation, it is imperative that we place indigenous forms of representation at the forefront of historical inquiry. There is no other way of achieving this goal outside the Yoruba mythos and Orisa epistemology, the very substance of ancestral Yoruba communicative interactions, knowledge building, and process of becoming. Although this substance has generally been elided from the core of Yoruba historiography, it is a necessary tool for writing a decolonized deep-time history of the Yoruba. In this regard, I turn to the archives of Orisa mythos as the source for writing about the Yoruba experience of merchant capital revolution during the early modern period. I am concerned with how the Yoruba culturally translated the experience of the early modern merchant capital revolution into the everyday cultural and social lives. These myths are the most intimate transcripts and fabrications of experience of time. They gave meaning, purpose, and context to the contingency of social life. They not only draw our attention “to those practical verities in which the members of the community all believe and live,” they also bear the psychological and higher metaphysical truths of historical experiences at different junctures of time (Mali 2003: 4-5). Therefore, the ancestral Yoruba created and revised their ontologies of being and becoming with the Orisa intellectual corpus. This is the same corpus they used to define their reality; validate, critique, and negotiate power, social inequality, individuality, morals of accumulation, and social valuation; as well as the processes of self-realization and self-reproduction. The Orisa corpus provided the contexts in which ancestral Yoruba sought the meanings and meaningfulness of the time in which they lived.

The merchant capital revolution was more than a commercial eventfulness that transformed the relations of production, distribution, and consumption. It was also a process of far-reaching sociopolitical consequences that affected gender relations and forced the development of a new cosmological order. All of these have left us with bold imprints of new meanings and symbols. I will use the biography of three or four Yoruba deities: Osun, Yemoja, Olokun, and Esu to explore these transformations. These Orisa biographies allow us to dig deep into the meanings and meaningfulness of merchant capital revolution because they are the discursive and intellectual project that guided the experience of that revolution. By bringing the Orisa biographies under the microscopic lenses of historical analysis, we shall realize that these deities are part of the processes and products of time rather than relics of the fossilized past. They give us a great insight into how the intellectuals of the Yoruba community of practice created gods and goddesses in their image and based on their experience; and how these deities, and the ideas they represent, (re)created the historical agents who are the subject of this study. As one perceptive observer of Yoruba culture put it: the Orisa “are immersed in the everyday Yoruba world” with every generation projecting its needs, aspirations, and anxieties onto them (Belasco 1980: 97). Therefore every deity in Yoruba pantheon has elaborate biographies that are compounded accretions of multiple layers of time. These projections involve using the deities as vehicles for expressing the realities of the quotidian and new experiences, tensions, conflicts, compromise, and the resolution of challenges of both local and external origins. For this reason, the Yoruba deities are imbued with cultural categories that are contingent and are also products of social practices that have been continuously assembled, dismantled, and reconstituted at different periods based on the articulation of local/regional politics/cultures with the political economy of global historical processes. Therefore, as products of history, the structures, meanings and components of the rituals, representations, and narratives of the Òrìsà (cultural biographies) are mutated products of actions and experiences of persons, groups, and modes of life whose points of reference encompassed local, regional and global contexts. This perspective then opens the way to view and interpret the cultural biographies of Osun, Yemoja, Olokun, and/or Esu as historical texts. Using the cultural biographies of these Òrìsà, the concern is to examine how the integration of Yoruba mainland into the Atlantic commercial exchange shaped gender/power relations; the position of women in the political economy of Yoruba society; and cosmology during the early modern period?

I will juxtapose these Orisa biographies with the sociality and itinerary of objects, whether as things or as imageries, that made the merchant capital revolution a global phenomenon. This is necessary because the insertion of merchant capital into everyday social lives transformed the Yorùbá community of practice into an “object-centered” and an object-created emotional” world (Cetina 1997: 9). Not only that, the Yoruba world became a consumption society. Similar to Grant McCracken’s second stage in the development of English consumer culture, this was characterized by “a heightened propensity to spend” and “an increased frequency of purchases” since most people consumed what they did not produce and produced less of the totality of what they consumed (Friese 2000: 7). But the capital that was used to finance this consumption society was sourced from the slave trade. Contradiction, dislocation, and unequal power relations therefore defined the experience of merchant capital revolution. The gendered cosmology that developed during the seventeenth century was an assemblage of ideas that sought to normalize this abnormality and disruption, integrate the exotic into the everyday lives, and domesticate the experiences of foreign origins.

I hope to conclude that the merchant capital revolution laid the foundation for Yoruba modernity, and therefore that the Yoruba were a co-creator of Atlantic modernity, not a recipient of it. In other words, the Atlantic Yoruba modernity was not defined by the factity of Euro-American modernity but by the debate among the Yoruba about their merchant capital revolution experience, and the symbols and ideas that they used to represent it.

Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question: 

I am broadly interested in the long-term cultural experience that resulted from entanglements in the global processes of time– that is, time of eventfulness, material, landscape, metaphysics, etc. My specific interest focuses on how the Yoruba of West Africa have defined and experienced time and how that experience has led to cultural translations and invention of new ideas and practices over the past 2,200 years.

I work outside the disciplines in as much as I am not loyal to only one but these command my attention: archaeology, history, and cultural anthropology but I also have interest in art history, religion, and performance studies.

I am comfortable with 800-1500 AD and 1500-1830 AD.

The Yoruba ontology and epistemology shape my theoretical curiosity but I find it rewarding when I place these in comparative conversation with social theories, dominated of course by Western thoughts. For political economy, I find the Marxist intervention the most insightful. For culture, I am interested in the hermeneutic project(s).


Provisional sketch of essay

The Yoruba Atlantic: Gendered Cosmology of Merchant Capital Revolution in the Empire Age, ca. 1590-1830 The merchant capital revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was global. The European and American manifestations of the revolution, and the entanglements of the Pacific and East Asia in the merchant capital network are well represented in the historiography and anthropological literature. The focus on Africa has generally focused on the Atlantic slave trade and its local memories. I seek to take a different approach by focusing on how a West African regional history intersected with the global through the intellectual history of merchant capitalism. In this case, I will examine how the entanglement of the Yoruba in the web of merchant capital revolution not only wrought significant changes in economic lives and political geographies but also stimulated Yoruba cosmological revisions. I hope to show how the Yoruba principles of complementary gendered dualism were mobilized, as an intellectual project, to make sense, interpret, contemplate, and negotiate this entanglement in the merchant capital revolution. This will serve to demonstrate that the Yoruba community of practice, dominated at this time by Oyo Empire, was not a mere recipient of this global phenomenon but a co-creator of it, both in ideas and practice