The Esan people history from the Bini Kingdom in Nigeria. The word Esan is a Bini word meaning “they jumped away, or they have fled.” The name became the accepted name of the group of people who escaped from the reign of Oba Ewuare of Benin in the middle of the 15th century. During the 15th century, the Oba Ewuare of Benin had two sons that both tragically died on the same day. Oba Ewuare then declared for mourning the death of his sons to the whole kingdom that there shall be no sexual intercourse in the kingdom; no washing, sweeping of the houses or compound, drumming or dancing; and making of fire in the land. Oba Ewuare insisted that these laws be strictly adhered to for a period of three years as a mark of respect for his dead sons.
Many natives fled the Bini Kingdom unable to abide by these rules to join previous groups that had already migrated out of the kingdom years before (notably, the groups that had earlier formed Irrua, Uromi, and Ekpoma). Soon after, the Oba summoned a meeting of his subjects from various quarters and to his amazement, noticed that they had greatly diminished in numbers. When the Oba asked where his subjects had went to, he was told, “Ele san-fia” (“They have fled”). This later turned into E-san-fia and then Esan. When Oba Ewuare saw that his kingdom was quickly becoming depopulated, he revoked his laws but the migrations continued. Oba Ewuare tried to wage war against the migrants but this failed.
According to Jacob Egharevba, author of A Short History of Benin, the Oba conquered 201 towns and villages but he had to use diplomacy for many of the other scattered towns and villages in the forest in order to bring them under Benin rule. Thus, Oba Ewuare invited Esan leaders or their representatives to Benin for a truce. He enticed them with the idea of having an attachment to Benin City and of their having the honour of being called “Onojie”, which means king. The future of Esan rested on the Esan who went to Benin and took the title of Onojie. It was not an easy decision for the Esan leaders to decide whether or not to go. Many feared Oba Ewuare but also did not want more military attacks against them. To reduce their fears, Benin promised military support for the Onojie to enforce authority over insubordinate subjects (Eweka, 1992: pp. 83-84). Only three leaders actually went to Benin in person.
All three were apparently men who had nothing to fear from the Oba due to various reasons. The first was Ekpereijie, the son of Oba Ohen’s daughter and a sister to Oba Ewuare. The sister had been given to the leader of Irrua. Ekperejie came without fear because relations must have been cordial between Irrua and Benin.