The Story of an American Mercenary Who Fought on the Side of Egba in Yoruba ancient war
At that moment in the war between the Ibadans and their Remo allies on one side and the Egbas on the other, the Ibadans tenuously held on to their war camps in and around the town of Iperu. The besieged town was nominally in the hands of the Egbas, but lately, they had partially withdrawn to a higher ground to the west of the town.
The Ibadans had then moved their own men into the half of the town vacated by the Egbas. They left the remainder of their forces in a half circle to ring the town in from the south and east. For they planned a strategy that would finally dislodge the entrenched Egbas and push them back toward the border of Remo with Egbaland.
But the conflict had gone longer than the Ibadans had anticipated. More and more, it was becoming clear that this was not the quick campaign the Balogun had promised his men when they set out from Ibadan three months earlier. Their supplies in food and ammunition were running out, and morale was low. This part of Remo was not an agricultural country, and food was scarce.
The Ibadans had hoped for a quick victory so they could go home to celebrate the annual Oloolu festival, which had now come and gone. Many of them, especially the captains and warlords, had their wives, slaves, and even children with them in their camps. In those days of permanent conflict, families often followed the master of the house to battle.
The Egbas, at the beginning of the campaign, had occupied the town after they had driven away its inhabitants. But by the time Solesi and the Ikenne men arrived, the Egbas had withdrawn from most of their entrenched positions within the town.
Solesi knew nothing about military strategy. Later, he would come to recognize the advantages to the Egba commander of the strategic withdrawal, which now placed his men partially outside the beleaguered town. His men could now snipe at the enemy with their guns and arrows from the cover of the bush and the safety of the hills. If they had not moved out when they did, the Egbas would by now have found themselves completely ringed in by the experienced Ibadans, who would then cut their line of supplies for provisions and reinforcements.
When Solesi and the other Ikenne warriors moved into the quarters allocated to them by the Ibadan commander, they found the town of Iperu, which they knew from more peaceful times to be totally deserted by its residents.
There were no gossiping women in the village square. They saw no playful half-naked children chasing a stray dog along the narrow streets that led to the market. And not a single goat could be seen rummaging in the bush along the dirt roadways.
The center of the town around the market square had been the scene of a deadly hand-to-hand combat a week before the men of Ikenne arrived. A few stiff, bloated corpses lay around. They were blackened with soot from half-hearted attempts by the Ibadan men to burn the bodies to prevent disease.
The center of the town had been seized by the Ibadans after that engagement. So the surrounding dwellings and compounds, including the oba’s palace, were now occupied by Ibadan war chiefs. But the Egbas, driven into the periphery of the town and the surrounding forest, kept up a constant harassment. Thus it was that the Ibadan commanders soon began to regret their lordly accommodation in the oba’s palace.
In the days after their arrival, Solesi witnessed firsthand the deadly nature of these incessant attacks by the dislodged Egbas, who launched sorties, sometimes several times a day, to harass the Ibadans and their Remo allies. In addition, Egba sharpshooters, hidden in trees in the small hills overlooking the town from the west, constantly sniped at the Ibadans as they moved about in their camps, picking off the men at will.
In this last enterprise, the Egbas had a deadly ally. He was a young man foreign to Yorubaland. And how did this young warrior come thousands of miles away from his home across the ocean to fight among a people whose language he barely understood?
Solesi would later hear the story of this man
His name was John Pettiford, a black American and former slave, who, at the beginning of the war between the States, had run away from his master’s plantation in South Carolina to join the Union forces in Boston, Massachusetts. On conscription into the Union Army, he knew he would become a free man by the proclamation of President Lincoln himself.
Pettiford joined the all-black Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Infantry Regiment, which was commanded by Colonel Robert Shaw, an idealistic young white man from Boston. This was how Pettiford, a former slave, took part in the invasion of his old native state of South Carolina in a brazen attack on the rebel-held garrison of Fort Wagner, which lay at the entrance to Charleston Harbor.
Pettiford and other former slaves who had enlisted in the Union Army knew the risks they were taking by fighting with the Yankees against their former masters. If they were captured, they would expect no mercy from Southern soldiers, who viewed all freed slaves as “contraband.”
Thus, in that famous battle under the guns of Fort Wagner not far from Charleston Harbor, Pettiford and the other black conscripts gave no quarter, for they expected none. They paid dearly for it. Only half of these ex-slaves returned from that battle, in which their beloved young white commander, Colonel Shaw, lost his life. Pettiford was one of the few who survived.
He emerged a hero. He had killed three rebel soldiers—the first time he would ever kill a man. It gave him a strange, savage satisfaction to thrust his bloody bayonet into the chests and bellies of those white Southern soldiers as the fight degenerated into a desperate hand-to-hand combat.
Many months later, Pettiford would tell his shipmates one night on board the merchant vessel Pocahontas, on which he served as a sailor hunting whales in the northern Atlantic Ocean, “I never looked at the faces of those men I killed during the war. But for all I cared, those three rebel soldiers could well be the kinsmen and nephews of my cruel former slave master in South Carolina.”
Pettiford would not clearly remember afterward how he managed to survive not just the battle, but also the bitter retreat back to the North. But he knew even then that this was the singular experience in his life that would make him a man.
But before his regiment could regroup and be replenished before being sent back to the front lines, Pettiford deserted the Union Army. He threw everything he had away and buried his uniform in a forest somewhere in Maryland. He kept only his blue-gray forage cap, which he kept hidden in an old rucksack he found in a barn outside the village of Pikesville.
He trekked to Baltimore, where he stowed away on a whaling ship, which he learned was about to put out to sea. After a few days, he emerged from his hiding place.
After first giving him a flogging for embarking on his ship without permission, the captain of the Pocahontas put Pettiford to work on deck among his men. The ship was shorthanded due to the war, and the men were glad for any help they could get, especially from this tall well-muscled young Negro, who everyone suspected was a Union Army deserter.
Pettiford told the men on board the ship that he was a runaway slave, a “contraband.” He hated the word “deserter.” He also hated his slave name, Pettiford, but he kept it anyway. Only now, he insisted that everyone, especially his white shipmates, call him Mr. Pettiford.
It was in this way that John Pettiford sailed before the mast all over the Atlantic. He harpooned whales and cut them up for blubber. When at last he put to shore in Bristol, England, he told himself he was tired of life as a seaman.
His life at sea had actually been quite profitable. Not only had he saved all his earnings, but he was a free man. Most importantly, he had learned to see white men as his equal. And he had learned to read and write. He had become literate through the efforts of the boatswain, Mr. Billy, a quiet Englishman from Liverpool.
Pettiford was now able to think leisurely about his next voyage, which he was determined would be his last before he departed this world.
He was determined to get to Africa, the land from which his grandfather had been taken away as a slave a half century earlier. The legend in his family was that his grandfather spoke a language known as Inago.
But to get to his African homeland, Pettiford had to make another voyage by sea. Paying his way as a cabin passenger, he sailed from Bristol to Lisbon. From there, he booked a passage to the Guinea coast on a Portuguese schooner that traded along the West Atlantic seashore for native gold, palm oil, and elephant tusks.
Pettiford came ashore for good at Whydah and never went back to sea. He was determined to follow the trail of what he remembered of the tales told in his family of his Yoruba ancestral land.
By way of Badagry, he followed the British missionary Henry Townsend to Abeokuta. In this bustling capital of the Egbas, he found that the war skills he had gained at the battle of Fort Wagner came in great demand in a Yorubaland in turmoil. So it was that though he could hardly speak a word of Yoruba, Pettiford became a henchman of the Balogun of the Alake of Abeokuta.
With his military skills, he was a favorite in the Egba war camps. He would put on his old battered Union Army forage cap and smoke tobacco from a curved brown-stemmed pipe as the men gathered around him.
The Egba men stared in admiration at the calm, cool-paced audacity of their black-skinned mercenary. And indeed, he was a strange sight to behold. Pettiford always dressed like the other men in traditional Yoruba dashiki and sokoto, but he always had that strange old Union Army forage cap perched low over his eyebrows.
Pettiford spoke little to those around him. For he was laconic by nature. But he was an indispensable ally. First, he helped the Egbas push back the Dahomey raiders who, before then, had devastated the countryside around Abeokuta, destroying farms and carrying away men and women as captives.
Then he went to war with the Egba warriors as they confronted their old nemesis, the Ibadans—first in the disastrous Ijaiye War, where he taught the men who came with him from Abeokuta to shoot their muskets straight, and now in this punitive expedition to Remoland.
He was the only Egba warrior at the battle of Iperu with a modern functioning rifle. The other men had muskets. Pettiford’s weapon was an 1853 Enfield rifle, which he had brought with him from Europe. Made by the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, England, it was a single-shot, muzzle-loading rifle adapted from an older musket design. It was the most accurate long-range weapon of the time.
With this weapon, Pettiford was a deadly marksman. He found himself working mainly as a sniper for the Egbas. With the sights of his Enfield carefully adjusted, he found he could hit his target accurately up to five hundred yards, which was more than the distance any of the ancient and unreliable muskets of his opponents could reach. Besides, he was so far away that the enemy was confused. They never knew where the shots were coming from.
Pettiford’s role at the battle of Iperu was to shoot down from a distance as many of the Ibadan war chiefs as he could. For this, he kept himself hidden all day long in a tree on the hillside overlooking the Ibadan positions in Iperu from the west.
His companions noted with wry amusement and admiration that even in the midst of battle, his strange blue-gray cap was always perched on the back of his head. And clamped between his teeth, they would see his old brown tobacco pipe, from which he would puff a small cloud of smoke from time to time. Then he would sight another target below and, with cool, but careful nonchalance, squeeze the trigger of his Enfield rifle.
Solesi watched with horror as Pettiford, the deadly foreign-born marksman, picked off the Ibadan war chiefs one by one. He learned from his hosts that many high-ranking Ibadan commanders had already fallen to the deadly sniper fire of this foreign adventurer, whose name they all knew.
Solesi learned that the casualties of Pettiford’s sniping had already included the osi balogun and the seriki. Even the valiant soldier and warlord Ogunmola, the otun balogun, had only escaped within an inch of his life. His tall hat was blown off his head as he scrambled into cover.
Largely as a result of the activity of the deadly Mr. Pettiford, the Ibadan soldiers had now become disenchanted. They no longer had the stomach for this profitless war. After all, they were not fighting to defend their own turf or farmlands. And there was little promise of war bounty in slaves and treasures to be had, even if they prevailed and eventually won the war.
Many Ibadan warriors, some of them seasoned campaigners, began to press their warlords to take them back home to their wives and their farms back in the land of Oluyole. Soon, this pacifist sentiment and disillusionment with the war among the soldiers in Iperu filtered back to Ibadan.
The family of the Balogun of Ibadan was related to the Alaafin in Oyo. The Alaafin was still recognized as the supreme leader of the Yorubas even though his empire was a shadow of its former glory. The Alaafin was prevailed upon by the Ibadan leaders to craft a plan to save the face of Ibadan, his consistently reliable supporter and ally.
Stating that he wanted to forge peace among his Yoruba subjects, the Alaafin, therefore, sent the chief priest of Sango from Oyo-Atiba to Iperu, with a royal command for all sides to cease hostilities.
Thus, it was with some relief that Solesi and the other tired and disillusioned young warriors in Iperu heard that the priest of Sango had arrived in Iperu with a mission of peace from the nominal emperor of the Yorubas, the Alaafin of Oyo.
As Solesi listened to the older warriors talk about this message of peace, he heard them refer to the instigator of that message, the Alaafin as the foremost oba in Yorubaland.
“Iku, Baba, Yeye,” they called him. There was a note of awe in their voices.
Death, Father, Mother. “What did this mean?” Solesi asked an older warrior from Ibadan. But even he did not know. Solesi was left to his own devices to make sense of this strange appellation of the Alaafin.
Regarding death, Solesi said to himself, “This is all around us on this exhausted battlefield.”
“But Father and Mother?”
He remembered his own parents—Adeuja, the former Warrior from Ife, and his mother, the doting Efupitan. He was confused.
The Sango priest sent by the Alaafin from Oyo made a great impression on Solesi. He was a tall gaunt figure, with a shaven head and a face heavily scarred with smallpox. His only covering was a thin white robe tied at the waist. This left his upper torso bare. The exposed part of his body was covered with a thick paint of white chalk. His feet were unshod. And everywhere he went, he carried the emblem of his office before him. This was the wooden double ax sacred to the god Sango.
This priest was accompanied by two sullen boys of Solesi’s age. They wore red robes tied at the waist, which also left their torsos bare. Their faces, necks, and bodies were painted with the same esoteric white chalk. They were acolytes from the Sango shrine in Oyo-Atiba.
Solesi wondered how these boys had managed to walk all the way from Oyo, which, in his mind, must be a faraway place indeed. It would be almost as far away as walking from the moon, he surmised. Since he did not see the priest and his acolytes on horses, Solesi assumed they had walked all that distance from Oyo to get to Iperu.
The war commanders on both sides agreed immediately to hold a peace conference, which would be mediated by the emissary of the Alaafin.
This meeting, which took place in a small house in the center of Iperu, went on for several hours that evening. News of the deliberation came back in bits and pieces to the common soldiers on both sides of the conflict, who waited anxiously in their camps. It told of how the commanders on both sides sat down, exchanged pleasantries, and talked to each other like long-lost friends. They listened politely to the messenger of the Alaafin and nodded their heads in agreement. After this, they all agreed to stop the fighting.
It was as if the madness of war was forgotten, for a few hours at least—replaced by the ancient Yoruba ethos for diplomacy and compromise. These were attributes that some of the older warriors told Solesi were hallmarks of the Yoruba people, now seemingly lost in an age of relentless war.
This peace agreed upon by all sides was remarkable news indeed to Solesi and everyone else who heard it. Just a few hours earlier, those same chieftains who had put their consent to this agreement, and the warriors carrying out their orders, had been trying to kill each other in all manner of ways with swords, guns, and arrows.
The reality was that both sides were tired of a war that had provided no clear advantage to any side. There were no victors or vanquished. Everyone was simply glad at the chance to leave the battleground and go home. They would leave the Remos to go back to their farming and trading.
As day broke, the war camps were struck, and bugles for cessation of fighting were sounded on all sides. Even the truculent Egbas seemed tired of fighting a profitless war and were ready to go home.
The captains and commanders of both armies mounted their horses and pointed their noses homeward. The foot soldiers trudged slowly behind them. And Iperu once more became a quiet and peaceful market town.
But when the exhausted Remo warriors returned to Ikenne, young Solesi was not among them. Someone said he had been captured by the Egbas. Everyone in Ikenne cursed the treachery of the Ibadan in not protecting him.
The truth was that Solesi had not been captured by the enemy. Despite the cease-fire, the Egba snipers were still at work even as the Ibadan warriors struck camp and prepared to leave. A ball from Mr. Pettiford’s sniper’s rifle had grazed young Solesi’s head, and he had fallen into a swoon.
Seeing him fall, one of the Ibadan chieftains, who had been the actual target of the shot, picked Solesi up and placed him on his own horse. Not finding any Ikenne warriors nearby, for they had all gone, he had set off for Ibadan with the young drummer boy in tow.
When Solesi came to, they were already past Abanla village and were deep inside Ibadan territory. Going back home was impossible. Tears of rage ran down his cheeks.
It was the warlord Ogunmola, the Otun Balogun of Ibadan, who had rescued Solesi. He treated the young Ikenne drummer boy with kindness. He had his servant bind the young man’s head wound and give him food and water.
And when he questioned the boy and got to know who he was, Ogunmola remembered his father, Solaru, who had fought with him at Osogbo. From that time on, Ogunmola treated Solesi like a son.
Years later, Solesi told his daughter Efunyemi, my grandmother, what happened to him when they got to Ibadan. The warlord Ogunmola had the boy’s cheeks carved with the tribal marks special to the people of Ibadan. This was not an abuse, as Solesi himself knew and explained to Efunyemi. In that time and age, it was a sign of distinction, indicating Solesi’s acceptance as a citizen of Ibadan.
Since he had been adopted by Ogunmola, young Solesi was now an Ibadan subject and would not be allowed to go back to Remo. The understanding was that he could come and go as he pleased, but only within the walls that defined the boundaries of the city of Ibadan.
Not long afterward, the tides of war changed. Even though Remo continued to oppose the encroaching Egbas, they were no longer allies of Ibadan. The Ibadans were now fighting all the Ijebus, who now allied with Ife, Ondo, and Ekiti to confront Ibadan near the small town of Oke Mesi in yet another conflict that would be known as the Kiriji War. Being allowed to return home now became impossible for Solesi, the war boy from Ikenne.
Later, Solesi came to understand more deeply why Ogunmola had had his onikola give him the Ibadan tribal marks. Ogunmola had recently lost his only son. The gesture of the infliction of Ibadan marks on the face of Solesi was the warlord’s rite of adoption of the captured war boy as a replacement for his son. Ogunmola wanted Solesi to accompany him to his battles and attend him as his omo ogun. Having the tribal marks identified Solesi as an Ibadan warrior. If he was captured in battle, he would be returned to Ibadan in exchange for whatever negotiated price or ransom his warlord was willing to pay on his behalf.
Thus it was that Solesi became a favored protégé of the famous Ibadan warlord. In this position, Solesi would remain by the side of Ogunmola for the next six years until the Ibadan leader passed away.
We do not know exactly what happened to that mercenary of the Egbas at the battle of Iperu, the deadly African American marksman John Pettiford. We know from the Old Woman that many stories were told about him. His bravery and marksmanship with the rifle were well-known. His odd, laconic, and quiet ways were also legendary. It was also true he had learned Yoruba, but he never spoke it much.
The stories that came down to us also tell us that he never took a wife. The winsome maidens of Abeokuta could not entice him with their soft eyes or their swinging hips adorned with colorful beads. Nor could they win him over with their naked breasts exposed when they went to the stream to bathe.
Pettiford kept to himself in the camps. Even though he was a protégé of both the Balogun and the Alake, he refused to be made a chief or a war commander in the Egba army.
And even though the Egbas learned from the English missionaries in Abeokuta that his first name was John, he insisted that everyone, especially white men, call him Mr. Pettiford. As a runaway former slave in America, he had been disrespected by white men too many times in his life. Being addressed by white men as Mr. Pettiford was his way of asserting his manhood.
What eventually happened to Pettiford is not very clear. A version of the story says he was captured by a band of Dahomey ahosi female warriors and tortured to death. Another said he caught malaria and died of fever in Abeokuta, cared for by an iya olorisa who lived on the banks of the Ogun River.
Whatever became of him, his effect on my family’s history was very strange indeed. Because of him, my great-grandfather Solesi of Ikenne came to sojourn in Ibadan—a Remo boy with Ibadan tribal marks carved incongruously on both cheeks.
Excerpt from A NEW AGE, ‘Itan – Legends of the golden age,’ Book 3 by Oladele Olusanya. Available from Amazon and other online booksellers worldwide
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