If you thought Ahebi Ugbabe was the only woman to befriend colonial agents and possibly help expand their hold on her community, think again. I present Alaba Ida, a royal wife of Ketu (a Yoruba kingdom in present day Benin Republic) who later in her life became a “queen” to the French.
Born around 1854, Alaba Aduke as she was known earlier in her life was apparently so beautiful the king had to marry her. As the aya oba (royal wife) of Alaketu Ojeku, she had two children and remained in the palace until he was slain in the 1886 war between Ketu and Dahomey. Alaba was captured and taken to the Dahomey capital where she remained for seven years before France defeated Dahomey. With the defeat of Dahomey, Alaba was able to return to her home in Ketu, this time with an unshakeable loyalty to the French. Back in Ketu she resumed her role as aya oba, this time with the new Alaketu Onyegen*. Alaba Aduke took the position of ida (senior wife) and from then on became known as Alaba Ida.
As ida, Alaba was a strong supporter of the French colonial administration. When a visiting colonial interpreter George Mensah was murdered in Ketu, it was Alaba that lead the investigation. She did not only uncover the plot behind the murder but acted as a key witness in the case against the suspect. Her loyalty took on a more official capacity after Onyegen started going blind. As the assistant chief of Ketu, one Abimbola Otupepe was more or less ineffective, Alaba assumed most of the duties of a district chief. She was in charge of military and labour recruitment, taxation and supervising other village heads. Although she was never given the formal title, the French colonial administration did recognise her efforts and referred to her by her title Ida, which they translated as “Queen”. One Frenchman described Alaba as alert despite her age, very authoritarian with an intelligent and lively spirit.
At this same period there was another woman who the French called queen. She was born Akanke Owebeyi Aduke but later in her life was known as Ya Segen. Ya Segen held considerable power as the iyalorisa (head priestess) of a deity, Ondo. While wielding the power that came from her religious role, Ya Segen also worked for the French. Unlike Alaba Ida, Ya Segen did not accompany the colonial authorities on their travels as it was a taboo for followers of Ondo to ride in hammocks. As such, it was the French that would travel to meet her, sometimes accompanied by Alaba.
In the colonial capacity, Ya Segen was almost an assistant district head. She watched over certain villages and used her influence to support colonial laws. Like Alaba Ida, Ya Segen’s administrative title was never stated. The French colonial administrators saw both women leaders as crucial allies in an environment that was tense for them. At a time when women were calling for equal rights in France, colonial authorities in West Africa justified the positions Alaba Ida and Ya Segen held by insisting that women’s power was integral to Ketu culture. They would eventually claim the opposite when they decided that both women were no longer useful but more on that later.
Naturally, the people blamed Alaba Ida and Ya Segen for the colonial laws they helped implement including taxes and recruitment drives. They resented the orders Alaba Ida in particular, gave on behalf of the French and this eventually led to her decline. The French needed labourers and porters during the first World War and the people of Ketu were not having it. Entire villages would pack up and move across the border to British-controlled Nigeria despite French warnings. As Alaba Ida and Ya Segen were never explicitly backed by the French, they imposed colonial demands either in person or through messengers.
In 1915, Alaba Ida fled Ketu to the French colonial station in Zagnanado fearing that her life was in danger. Hundreds of hunters had gathered near Ketu claiming they wanted to perform a ceremony to honour Ogun, the orisa of hunters. When the colonial governor of Dahomey went to Ketu to investigate, Alaketu Onyegen and prominent village elders denied the existence of any plot against Alaba Ida. Although the governor was unconvinced and got weapons destroyed and men arrested, he revealed his lack of support for Alaba Ida when he referred to her as a “mere agent” for her husband.
Nonetheless Alaba Ida remained loyal, even as the French decided that she was an ineffective intermediary. (This was when they rejected the premise of female rule as untraditional for Ketu.) Alaba Ida and Ya Segen remained in power for years after they were dismissed as colonial go-betweens. Both continued to retain messengers, give commands, advise and administer punishment.
While the first blow to Alaba Ida was public disapproval, the finale came after the death of Onyegun. Usually when the Alaketu died, his senior and favourite wives were expected to “disappear”, that is commit suicide. However, the French colonial authorities refused to permit this after Onyegun passed away. They tried to send Alaba Ida to another town for her safety but she was turned back so they installed her in a building on the outskirts of Ketu. Eventually Alaba Ida went to live with her son but again fled fearing that her guards were trying to kill her. From then on she lived in exile, moving about in the forest where she apparently fed on wild birds and would occasionally emerge to steal food from the cooking pots of households. Alaba lived this for two decades before she eventually died alone and near a garbage heap.
Today in Ketu it is denied that wives of the king advised him in any capacity. Lorelle D. Semley makes mention of an elderly woman who claimed that wives of the king were supposed to help govern but “they have changed everything now”. It is likely that even if wives of the king helped him with his duty, it would have been hidden from public view, known but not acknowledged. Royal wives were supposed to remain unseen, it was not just them as even the king was traditionally shrouded in mystery.
Alaba Ida stood out as a royal wife because she did not abide to customs. She constantly left the palace, visiting the French officer posted to Ketu and accompanying the French administrator to visit Ya Segen. This suggests that she was ambitious. Alaba Ida may have even attempted to appropriate the hammock, shoes and drums associated with the office of the Alaketu.
As with other well-known women from Yoruba history, the collective memory of Alaba Ida is unkind. Some say she killed many people and that she was barren and childless. It seems this is the fortune of Yoruba women in history who attained power. In addition to this, women who were elderly and had considerable wealth, influence and character tended to be labelled witches. Alaba Ida’s final years, where she was said to live in the wild cements the idea that she became a witch.
*It is tradition for the new king to inherit the wives of his predecessor
What I read
Lorelle D. Semley (2010), Mother is Gold, Father is Glass: Gender and Colonialism in a Yoruba Town
Yoruba women, 1890s, Nigerian Nostalgia