THE STORY OF ISRAEL RANSOME-KUTI
Although Lisabi is generally regarded as the national father of the Egba people, it was the hero, Sodeke who led them into exile from the ancestral homes around the site of present Ibadan and founded the city of Abeokuta in 1830. Sodeke called this new settlement ‘Abe-okuta’ under the rock, due to the protection afforded to the settlers by the Olumo rock.
One of the young warriors of the Egba Alake who followed the triumphant Sodeke to Abeokuta was a man named Sopitan. Despite the hardship of the journey, he had brought along with him all the way from Orile-Itoko a young woman who was his betrothed. She was already pregnant by the time they got to Abeokuta. When the baby was born, his parents saw this as an omen of propitious times ahead in their new land. They named their first-born son Likoye. He was also called Kuti. When Likoye Kuti himself reached marriageable age, he asked for his father’s blessing and paid the bride price for a young maiden who had caught his eye. The girl’s name was Ekidun Efupeyin. Soon after their betrothal, Ekidun became pregnant and gave birth to a boy. At birth, the baby was named Sopitan to honor his grandfather.
However, his pagan father soon made a decision that changed the history of his family. Likoye Kuti met the English missionary, Henry Townsend and became a Christian. In 1859, when his son was four years old, Likoye allowed the missionaries to perform the rites of baptism on him. At this ceremony, the boy was given the Biblical name Josiah, after the famous king of the Old Testament. The name of the English missionary who performed the baptism was Ransome. Young Josiah grew up to be a staunch believer in the Christian faith. Later in life, he also gave himself another name - Jesse, after the father of David, his hero from his avid reading of Bible stories. When he was 12 years of age, Josiah was enrolled by his parents at the newly established training institution of the Church Missionary Society in Ake to train as a catechist and a teacher. Then in 1871 at the age of 16, he made the arduous trip to Lagos to complete his studies at the Church Missionary Society Training Institute on the island.
Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti, as he now liked to be known, adopted the name of the English missionary who baptized him. In a grand flourish, he added the name ‘Ransome’ to the Yoruba name of his father as a hyphenated appendage. The adoption of English names by newly converted Christian Yorubas had become a common practice among the educated classes in Abeokuta as well as Lagos. After returning from his studies in Lagos, he became a teacher at the St. Peter's School in Ake. He was glad to be back in the familiar surroundings of his native town, but he soon missed the intellectual activity and opportunities of Lagos. He therefore seized the chance when he was offered the opportunity to teach music at the CMS Girls School, Lagos in 1879. It was there that one of his pupils caught his eye. Soon after she graduated, they were engaged. This girl’s name was Bertha Anny Erinade Olubi. But while everyone else called her Bertha, to him, she was always Erinade – the smile of the crown.
Encouraged by Erinade, Josiah returned to Abeokuta in 1891. He had been made the catechist at the Gbagura Church Parsonage. It was that same year that their first son was born. The child was baptized in that same church at Gbagura where Josiah taught the Scriptures. The baby was given the name Israel. His mother, Erinade insisted that a Yoruba name be added. This was Oludotun. Thus, it was with the formal sounding name of Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti that this young man would make his mark on the world. As expected, Oludotun followed the footsteps of his renowned father into the dual career of teaching and the ministry. Like his father, he loved music, especially the traditional songs of this native Egbaland. His heart swelled with pride anytime he heard the lines of that famous song he had been taught by his father, which later came to be regarded as the Egba national anthem.
Lori oke o'un petele
Ibe l'agbe bi mi si o,
Ibe l'agbe to mi d'agba o
Ile ominira. Maa yo, maa yo, maa yo o
Maa yo, maa yo, maa yo o
On the rocky summits and the level ground
This is where I was born,
This is where I was bred and grew up
The land of liberty
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice
On the Olumo rock;
Rejoice, rejoice, and rejoice
On Olumo Rock.
At an early age, Oludotun knew that with his pedigree, he had high standards to live up to. But how was he going to equal in fame or achievement an illustrious sire who had single-handedly founded the Gbagura Church, where he converted the pagan Egbas of Abeokuta to the Christian faith through his versatility in rendering English gospel hymns into indigenous gospel songs, had been ordained a priest of the Church of England, appointed district judge in Ake, and had become canon of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos, very close to becoming the first African bishop of the diocese of Lagos? Famous for his genius and creativity in music, Josiah was the first Nigerian to release a music album. A recording of Josiah’s Yoruba language hymns was made into a gramophone record that was played and replayed on turntables in Abeokuta, Ijebu Ode, Lagos and all over Yorubaland in the 1930’s. His were large shoes to fill, but young Oludotun proceeded to fill them admirably.
Oludotun was born a year before the Imagbon War that began that process of the white man’s control and domination over the whole of Yorubaland. It was a new world that greeted his young bright eyes. But he was a bright child, a chip off the old block. He took to the white man’s learning like duck to water. After a brilliant career at both the CMS Grammar School in Lagos and the newly established Abeokuta Grammar School, he went to another colony in British West Africa, in Sierra Leone, to attend the already famous Fourah Bay College. This was the first institution for higher learning in all the British colonies of west Africa, that in that time stretched from Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone to Gambia. Oludotun could have become anything he wanted. But in that time, place and age, his career was chosen for him by his pedigree as the first son of Josiah Ransome-Kuti.
His goals were set out early for him. He would be the beacon that would spread the light of knowledge to the children of Yorubaland in a new age where the knowledge of the white man’s language was the passport to a good job and advancement in society. He would become a minister of the Church and an educator. Like his father, he was a man of music, in which he was creative and prodigious. He lived and taught all over Yorubaland during his remarkable life. But he was a man of the world, at home both in the white man’s world and among his Yoruba brethren. He was the first modern Yoruba hero of the new age. He visited England. He did not like the strange, unspiced food or the cold wet climate. He found it strange that he could never keep himself warm even though he kept himself covered with overcoat, gloves, mufflers and scarves. He was consecrated a priest of the Church of England by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and he came back home determined to spread the word of the new universal deity, sweetened by music and buttressed by his wide-ranging knowledge and love for books. He played an important role not only in the formative years of the Grammar School at Ijebu-Ode, but also in the establishment of the University of Ibadan, which was the first university anywhere in the British colonies of West Africa.
He was the father of three famous sons, Olukoye, Fela and Beko, to whom he passed his talents and interests in education, public activism and music. Their mother, his famous and controversial wife, Funmilayo, was also a great and remarkable personality in her own right. A noted political leader, social activist and pioneer feminist, she was the first Yoruba woman to own and drive a motor car.
PHOTOGRAPH: Rev Ransome-Kuti with wife Funmilayo and children, circa 1950
Excerpt from A NEW AGE, Book 3, ‘Itan – Legends of the golden age,’ copyright Oladele Olusanya 2019. May be copied or shared with permission of the author.