Sifting the legends from History: a second look at Ŋɔtsie - Blagodzi Agamasu

Sifting the legends from History: a second look at Ŋɔtsie - Blagodzi Agamasu

The story of the Ewe state of Notse, just like any other oral history, is that of beans mixed with pebbles. As oral tradition descends from generation to generation, it inevitably ends up embellished with myths and legends, and the passage of time only adds to these accretions. Most people in society swallow these traditions with all the innovations, without seriously questioning any aspect of the narration. Ultimately, they cook the beans along with all the pebbles. There are a few at the extreme end of the spectrum who reject outright the entire narration because of these embellishments. They, thus, throw away the entire beans because of the pebbles and are nowhere closer to the truth than their counterparts at the other extreme. 
The job of any credible historian is an attempt to pick out as many pebbles as possible without losing any of the beans. By critical examination of sources and evidence, it is possible to peel away layers of untruth until we arrive at what is plausible. It is to this arduous but rewarding task of historians that I shall commit myself in an attempt to reconstruct a more plausible picture of Notse through an analysis of the oral, written and archeological records

Once Upon A time…

Notse, to the common Ewe, evokes memories of tyranny, suppression and escape. The story is told about how all Ewes once lived in one city under the rule of a king who eventually became a tyrant. The alleged tyranny of Agokoli is legendary and includes but is not limited to the assassination of all elders, forcing his people to build a wall, mixing broken bottles with mortar for his subjects to use and even forcing people to look at the sun with their naked eyes. Eventually, the Ewes devised a plan in which the entire community escaped overnight: men, women, children, elderly and the sick left the city, without the knowledge of the king or his inner circle. The prison break included the wetting of portions of the wall until it was soft enough to be broken and walking backwards in order to create the impression of people entering the city. The core of these stories were transcribed by the German priest Jakob Spieth [1] and later popularized by Pastor Kwakumeh [2].


Given that these interesting historical claims occurred about three centuries ago, it is only natural to probe the extent to which they mirror reality: Was there ever a walled city called Notse? Is there evidence for Notse beyond the Ewe oral traditions? Was Notse known to the Europeans on the Slave Coast of West Africa? If so, how well? How big was Notse, and how could all Ewes living together in one town? What do the archeological records say about Notise? Did Togbe Agokoli exist? Were the walls built by Togbe Agokoli? Did all Ewes leave Notse at the same time? In order to answer these questions as honestly as possible, we shall resort to the written records of historians, archeological excavations and even some mathematical and statistical considerations.    

Notse outside the Ewe sources

Some corroboration for the existence of Notse exists in the traditions of some non-Ewes. Chief among them are the Adangme. According to their own historical reckoning, they Ada made a stop-over in the ancient city of Notse during their migrations and witnessed the reign of Togbe Agokoli [3]. One etymology of Ada even claims that the name was given to the group by togbe Agokoli himself. The cultural exchange between the two groups, in particular the adoption of Ewe names by some Ada, strongly suggests that these two groups once coexisted. It may be argued, however, that there is cross-cultural exchange between Peki and Akwamu but that does not prove that Pekis were once at Nyanoase with the Akwamus. Hence, such exchanges could be traced to latter coexistence in the Volta basin and not necessarily a town in southern Togo. The Ada corroboration in itself then, may be a supplementary but not sufficient.
We then turn to the written records. After, if Notse indeed exists, we would expect a mention by one or two travellers to West Africa. Sure enough, Notse is mentioned by a few European historians. Elbee (1667), a French traveller who visited Africa in the mid seventeenth century, spoke of Notse and compared it with Paris in terms of size and population [4]. Robertson (1819) also made mention of Notse and Tado as large settlements and even named a king of Notse [5]. Sandra E. Greene, in her essay on Notse, concludes that Notse was known to Europeans on the coast [6]. Putting together, these indigenous and Western sources provide ample evidence for the existence of a town called Notse.  

The verdict of Archeology

The confirmation of Notse’s existence only answers a few of the many questions and we literally need to dig deeper to answer the rest of the questions. Archeological excavations provide one of the strongest evidence for historical claims. Indeed, archeology may be to history what experiment is to science. Since the town of Notse exists, the best way to verify these claims would be through observations and excavations of Notse. Casual observations of Notse by any tourist would reveal remains of age-old walls attributed to the ancient era. This claim of an entire city encompassed by a great wall as verified by excavations carried out by Dr. Angele Aguigah. These, combined with ethnological research by Prof. Posnansky, revealed Notse to be a thriving metropolis bursting with economic activity. Furthermore, the excavations have enabled a mapping of the size and extent of the walls themselves (See fig. 1). 
The perimeter of the walls as 14.45 kilometers and enclosed an area of 1470 hectares [7] (In comparison, the great walls of Benin City were 6 km in perimeter) [ibid]. Gayibor identifies 36 quarters within Ancient Notse. Some of these include Dakpodzi (named for Da, founder of the kingdom), Gbedekodzi and Wotsigbeme. 
Detailed studies of artifacts further revealed the similarities between the walled city of Notse and those of Yoruba land, further confirming the link between these people. For instance, the design potsherd pavements found at the Notse excavations bore striking semblance to those found in other ancient walled cities such as Owu and Benin [5]. This again confirms the oral history of migration from Yoruba. Indeed Ketu, a Yoruba city reputed to be the origin of the Gbe people, was a walled also a walled city. 

Living in Notse

From the foregoing, it has been concluded that there was a walled city called Notse. . We can now examine the claim that about three centuries ago, all Ewes lived in this walled city. How is it possible for all Ewes to live one town? We must keep in mind, however, that Ewes are not alone in making claims of common descent. Akans are said to have come from Bono and All Yoruba point to the town of Ife as their origin. But the truth or otherwise of those claims does not make a case for Notse, and we need to investigate the latter on its own merits. In doing so, shall perform two tasks: (i) find a good estimate for the population of Ewes in the 18th century (ii) determine if this population can fit comfortably into a town of 1470 hectares. A bit of statistical and mathematical analysis would help in answering these questions.

 Estimate of Ewe population in the eighteenth century.

Population dynamics tend to follow exponential pattern overtime. An example may be seen in the case of Ghana. The population of Ghana in 2020 is 31 000 0000 . A hundred years ago, the population of the Gold Coast was 2 million [8]. This means that the entire population of Ghana in 1920 could have lived in Accra! We see from the example of Ghana that a population increased by 15.5% over a hundred years from 1920 (or shrunk by 15,5% going back from 2020, whichever way you view it).
Since we know that it is possible for a population to change by 15% over a century, we can use this as a guide to work backwards and see how a population of 31 000 000 would like three centuries ago. We simply keep dividing by a factor of 15.5%as shown below:

2020…………………………………………………………………31 000 000
                                            divide by 15.5
1920 ………………………………………………………………... 2 000 000 
                                              divide by 15.5
1820 ……………………………………………………………….. 129 032
                                              divide by 15.5
1720 …………………………………………………………………… 8 325

(For the Maths geeks, this is the same as using the geometric progression formula y = ar^n where y is the population we are looking for, r is our common ratio = (1/15.5), n = 3 ).
Even though our model is oversimplified, it shows that a population of 31 000 000 in 20020 could have been 8324 in the year 1720, 3 centuries years ago
We can apply this to the case at hand. The population of Ewes in Ghana and Togo is about 5 000 0000. Let us assume 2 000 000 in the diaspora, making 7 000 000. Let us add the non-Ewe tribes who also claimed to have been in Notse and this puts our total number at 10 000 000. Using the same model, after 3 centuries, we arrive at 2 865. 
Even if we think 15.5 is too high and we use a reduced factor of 10, we arrive at 10 000 people in the city of Notse. 
An alternative analysis would be to consider the observation of Elbee, that Notse could field five thousand soldiers [4] Given that men form approximately half of any population, we would assume the men to be 50% of Notse’s population. And since every able-bodied youth could fight in an army, we would expect 30% of this 50% to be men in this warrior class (Assuming 20% were very old men or very young children). The warrior class of Notse, thus, would be about 30% of the population. If Elbeee estimates that this warrior class is about 5 000, then, using ratio and proportion, we can put the population of Notse at ((100%/30%) x 5 000) = 16 666.
It must be emphasized that, these models are not accurate but they give us a rough picture of the possible Ewe population three centuries ago. We can therefore conclude that even before the collapse of the kingdom somewhere in the early in1720, Nostie's population could not have been more than 20 000 people.

 Do the Ewe and non-Ewe Populations fit into Notse?

Granted that the Ewes could have been 20 000 at the most in in the early 17th Century, the other question is, could 10 000 people have lived in the city?
Already, archeology has mapped out the city as 1470 hectares. There are six plots in a hectare, hence, Notse enclosed some 8 820 plots of land. Let’s assume only 5 000 of these plots were used for habitation and that the other 4 200 plots made up streets and open spaces. If each family was given one plot and there are an average of three people in each household, that would be 3 x 4 000 = 15 000. Hence, At least 15 000 people could have lived in the city of Notse.
We must also bear in mind that the Notse today is a reduced version of the ancient boundaries established by archaeology [5]. And yet this reduced Notse still held a population of 20 000 in [ibid]. 
Another point worth mentioning is that Notse as a city would likely have satellite villages and constituting the greater Notse state. Hence, we may see the town proper, Agbogbome, as the political and economic centre of the larger state of Notse. This notion is strengthened by the fact that the Priest of Mawu, who had the duty of crowning the Homefia, was from another town called Tegbe. Ewes in Tegbe, while not coming from the walled city of Notse, can still be rightly considered as coming from the Kingdom of Notse.

Homefia versus Yovofia

As a result of a tradition that allowed for kings to rule for only a few years, Notse probably had a staggering number of kings. These kings were addressed as Homefia (kings of the room), because they were mostly confined to their rooms and were rarely seen by their subjects. As priest-kings they did not only reign but also mediated between the gods and people, performing rituals as and when necessary. Other titles for the kings are Mawufia or Anyigbafia. Some of the notable Homefias of Notse are as follows:

 Da (The founder of the Settlement 1400?)
 Atorble (He reigned when a section of Ewes called Dogbos arrived in Notse)
 Akorli (Son of Agor, Alias Ago-korli the last king before the migration 1700?) [4]

The kings ruled through the Komefia (sub chiefs appointed by the clans) and had dumegawo, a council of elders which advised him. Details of Notse’s political administration may be found in Gayibor (1997).
After the mass exodus, Notse was reduced to a small towns, till ruled by the Homefia until1884, when the German colonial government established a puppet chief who usurped the authority of the priest-king and caused the original dynasty to fade away [5,7]. The last Homefia of Notse as Togbe Alidjinou who ruled from 1962 to 1990. These straw chiefs who became known as Yovofia because of their colonial origins, have used the stool name Agokoli in order to give some legitimacy to their reign, and are seen by some as archetypical of the undue interference of colonial power in African tradition.

Agokoli’s Legend

The controversy around Agokorli has nothing to do with his existence. Indeed, he was the most (in)famous of the kings of Notse and one of the few mentioned outside Ewe oral tradition. On History clearly shows Akorli, son of Agor, as the last king of the Notse kingdom. What is not so clear is the extent to which the stories about him are true and the motivation for his alleged tyranny. It is here that the history Notse is more likely to have metamorphosed into myth.
Gayibor (1995) describes Agokoli as a cultural revolutionary who clashed ideologically and perhaps engaged in a power struggle with the more conservative elders and leaders of the land. This in itself was enough to create disaffection for the king from his people. However, the ignition may be found in a popular tradition narrated by Dotse [ibid].
 Agokoli’s relative was accused of having killed a Dogbo man. By the law, the king’s relative as also killed. It was later realized that the said Dogbo man as actually alive and that they had tricked the council into killing Agokorli’s son. This became the last straw that broke Agokorli’s back and he lapsed into a state of cruelty and vindictiveness. If true, then this story does not depict a tyrant but a principled king whose respect for law was used against him. This then provides a context from which we may view or even judge the actions of Agokoli.
Among the many legends is that he made his subjects build walls as a punishment. Archeology has, however, shown this part of the story as a probable accretion since the wall of Notse predated Agokoli himself [5]. In fact, the older wall, Agbogbvi, was said to be built by the first King Da. As the settlement outgrew the first wall, there was need for a second. The wall, thus, may not have been sanctioned by Agokoli but by his predecessors as a part of the ongoing fortifications of the city in a time when wars and slave raids were common. That the vengeful Agokorli may have imposed repair works on the wall as punishment on enemies is certainly possible though. 
Moreover, the idea that all Ewes migrated out at the same period of time has been seriously challenged by historians. Rather than a single French leave, the facts point towards a wave of migrations spanning several years in which various groups left at different times [7]. Those who had offended Agokorli no doubt quickly left first to avoid further repercussions but even afterwards, there was a sizeable number of people in the city. Other migrations probably occurred later as the town inevitably approached its carrying capacity due to population explosion and as droughts attendant famine made it impracticable for such a huge population to remain in one place. This view is postulated by Gayibor [ibid] and seems to find some anchor in the oral folktales of Ewes. As a child, I could not help but notice that famine was an integral part of most Ewe folktales (Egli). In fact, the following was part of the opening line in most Ewe folktales in Ewedome:
Story-teller: Gbedeka dor to! (One day there was was famine)
Listeners: Wo to wo to (severe famine!)
The prevalence of the aforementioned lines in the folklore of most Ewes indicates that the fabrication of such folktales was influenced by some conditions experienced by the people, probably hile they were all together.

The plausible historical picture of Agokoli is that of a revolutionary who came into sharp conflict with the prevailing order and customs of his land, as well as a king whose respect for law was used against him for which reason he became a vindictive tyrant. The ensuing power struggle, overpopulation, famine and Agokoli’s severe retaliations, culminated in the dispersal of Ewes from Notse over several years. With time, stories evolved and became ingrained so much so that the only memory of this otherwise great and wonderful civilization was the cruelty of its last king.


 1. Spieth J. Die Ewe Stamme (1906). Translated by Tsatsu F. et al.
 2. Kakumeh R.P (1948). Précis d 'histoire du peuple éwé.
 3. Ada West District Assembly. District Medium Term Development Plan 2014-2017
4. Dotse K (2011). The Origins and Brief History of the Ewe People.
 5. Quarcoopome N. O(1993). Notse's Ancient Kingship: Some Archaeological and Art-Historical Considerations. African Archeological Review. Vol 11.
6. Greene S.E (2002). Notse Narratives: History, Memory and Meaning in West Africa. South Atlantic Quarterly. Vol. 101(4).
7. Gayibor (1997). Histoire des Togolaise des Origines a 1884.
 8. Ghana Statistical Service (2005). Population Data Analysis Report.
 9. Figure: The extent of the ancient city of Notse. Source Aguigah.
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