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Kingdom of Dahomey

In modern times, Beninese political leaders have drawn inspiration and legitimacy from the old Dahomey kings and the mythology that surrounds them. One recurring example is the calabasse trouée, King Guézo's metaphor for state power: a gourd with many holes in it, which can only remain effective if all the people of the kingdom contribute to holding it together.

However, this image of popular solidarity contrasts sharply with the spectacular brutality with which Guézo and the other kings of Dahomey actually ruled. For hundreds of years, Dahomey was essentially a military dictatorship supported by the profits of the slave trade and legitimized by the king's mystical claims to divine power. As with Louis XIV, the king embodied the state, and he maintained order by eliminating all enemies.

However, when the end of slavery in the mid-1800s removed its chief source of financing, the Dahomey kingdom began a rapid decline, which ended with the French conquest and exile of the last king, Behanzin, in 1895. Ironically, the French chose to name their new colony Dahomey in honor of the destroyed kingdom.

The kingdom of Dahomey, like those of Benin and Ashanti, is an instance of a purely African and pagan state, endowed with a highly organized government, and possessing a certain amount of indigenous civilization and culture. Its history begans about the commencement of the 17th century. At that period the country now known as Dahomey was included in the extensive kingdom of Allada or Ardrah, of which the capital was the present town of Allada, on the road from Whydah to Abomey.

Allada became dismembered on the death of a reigning sovereign, and three separate kingdoms were constituted under his three sons. One state was formed by one brother round the old capital of Allada, and retained the name of Allada or Ardrah; another brother migrated to the east and formed a state known under the name of Porto Novo; while the third brother, Takudonu, travelled northwards, and after some vicissitudes established the kingdom of Dahomey.

The word Dahomey means "in Danh's belly," and is explained by the following legend which, says Sir Richard Burton, "is known (1864) to everybody in the kingdom." Takudonu having settled in a town called Uhwawe encroached on the land of a neighboring chief named Danh (the snake). Takudonu wearied Danh by perpetual demands for land, and the chief one day exclaimed in anger "soon thou wilt build in my belly." So it came to pass. Takudonu slew Danh and over his grave built himself a palace which was called Dahomey, a name thenceforth adopted by the new king's followers.

About 1724-1728 Dahomey, having become a powerful state, invaded and conquered successively Allada and Whydah. The Whydahs made several attempts to recover their freedom, but without success; while on the other hand the Dahomeyans failed in all their expeditions against Grand Popo, a town founded by refugee Whydahs on a lagoon to the west. It is related that the repulses they met with in that quarter led to the order that no Dahomeyan warrior was to enter a canoe. Porto Novo at the beginning of the 19th century became tributary to Dahomey.

The Dahomey "Customs," which gave the country an infamous notoriety appear to date from the middle of the 17th century, and were of two kinds: the grand Customs performed on the death of a king; and the minor Customs, held twice a year. The horrors of these saturnalia of bloodshed were attributable not to a love of cruelty but to filial piety. Upon the death of a king human victims were sacrificed at his grave to supply him with wives, attendants, &c. in the spirit world. The grand Customs surpassed the annual rites in splendour and bloodshed. At those held in 1791 during January, February and March, it is stated that no fewer than 500 men, women and children were put to death.

The minor Customs were first heard of in Europe in the early years of the 18th century. They formed continuations of the grand Customs, and "periodically supplied the departed monarch with fresh attendants in the shadowy world." The actual slaughter was preluded by dancing, feasting, speechmaking and elaborate ceremonial. The victims, chiefly prisoners of war, were dressed in calico shirts decorated round the neck and down the sleeves with red bindings, and with a crimson patch on the left breast, and wore long white night-caps with spirals of blue ribbon sewn on. Some of them, tied in baskets, were at one stage of the proceedings taken to the top of a high platform, together with an alligator, a cat and a hawk in similar baskets, and paraded on the heads of the Amazons.

The king then made a speech explaining that the victims were sent to testify to his greatness in spirit-land, the men and the animals each to their kind. They were then hurled down into the middle of a surging crowd of natives, and butchered. At another stage of the festival human sacrifices were offered at the shrine of the king's ancestors, and the blood was sprinkled on their graves. This was known as Zan Nyanyana or "evil night," the king going in procession with his wives and officials and himself executing the doomed.

These semi-public massacres formed only a part of the slaughter, for many women, eunuchs and others within the palace were done to death privately. The skulls were used to adorn the palace walls, and the king's sleeping-chamber was paved with the heads of his enemies. The skulls of the conquered kings were turned into royal drinking cups, their conversion to this use being esteemed an honor.

Sir Richard Burton insisted (A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome) that the horrors of these rites were greatly exaggerated. For instance, the story that the king floated a canoe in a tank of human blood was, he wrote, quite untrue. He denied, too, that the victims were tortured, and affirmed that on the contrary they were treated humanely, and, in many cases, even acquiesced in their fate.

It seems that cannibalism was a sequel of the Customs, the bodies of the slaughtered being roasted and devoured smoking hot. On the death of the king the wives, after the most extravagant demonstrations of grief, broke and destroyed everything within their reach, and attacked and murdered each other, the uproar continuing until order was restored by the new sovereign.

The training of women as soldiers was the most singular Dahomeyan institution. About one-fourth of the whole female population were said to be "married to the fetich," many even before their birth, and the remainder were entirely at the disposal of the king. The most favored were selected as his own wives or enlisted into the regiments of Amazons, and then the chief men were liberally supplied. Of the female captives the most promising were drafted into the ranks as soldiers, and the rest became Amazonian camp followers and slaves in the royal households.

These female levies formed the flower of the Dahomeyan army. They were marshalled in regiments, each with its distinctive uniform and badges, and they took the post of honour in all battles. Their number has been variously stated. Sir R.F.Burton, in 1862, who saw the army marching out of Kana on an expedition, computed the whole force of female troops at 2500, of whom one-third were unarmed or only half-armed. Their weapons were blunderbusses, flint muskets, and bows and arrows. A later writer estimated the number of Amazons at 1000, and the male soldiers at 10,000. The system of warfare was one of surprise.

The army marched out, and, when within a few days' journey of the town to be attacked, silence was enjoined and no fires permitted. The regular highways were avoided, and the advance was by a road specially cut through the bush. The town was surrounded at night, and just before daybreak a rush was made and every soul captured if possible; none were killed except in self-defence, as the first object was to capture, not to kill.

The season usually selected for expeditions was from January to March, or immediately after the annual" Customs." The Amazons were carefully trained, and the king was in the habit of holding "autumn manoeuvres" for the benefit of foreigners. Many Europeans have witnessed a mimic assault, and agree in ascribing a marvellous power of endurance to the women. Lines of thorny acacia were piled up one behind the other to represent defences, and at a given signal the Amazons, barefooted and without any special protection, charged and disappeared from sight. Presently they emerged within the lines torn and bleeding, but apparently insensible to pain, and the parade closed with a march past, each warrior leading a pretended captive bound with a rope.

Such was the state of affairs at the accession of King Gezo about the year 1818. This monarch, who reigned forty years, raised the power of Dahomey to its highest pitch, extending greatly the border of his kingdom to the north. He boasted of having first organized the Amazons, a force of women to whom he attributed his successes. The Amazons, however, were state soldiery long before Gezo's reign, and what that monarch really did was to reorganize and strengthen the force.

In 1851 Gezo attacked Abeokuta in the Yoruba country and the center of the Egba power, but was beaten back. In the same year the king signed a commercial treaty with France, in which Gezo also undertook to preserve " the integrity of the territory belonging to the French fort " at Whydah. The fort referred to was one built in the 17th century, and in 1842 made over to a French mercantile house. England, Portugal and Brazil also had "forts" at Whydah — all in a ruinous condition and ungarrisoned. But when in 1852 England, to prevent the slave-trade, blockaded the Dahomeyan coast, energetic protests were made by Portugal and France, based on the existence of these "forts." In 1858 Gezo died. He had greatly reduced the custom of human sacrifice, and left instructions that after his death there was to be no general sacrifice of the palace women.

Gezo was succeeded by his son Glegle, whose attacks on neighboring states, persecution of native Christians, and encouragement of the slave-trade involved him in difficulties with Great Britain and with France. It was, said Earl Russell, foreign secretary, to check "the aggressive spirit of the king of Dahomey " that England in 1861 annexed the island of Lagos. Nevertheless in the following year Glegle' captured Ishagga and in 1864 unsuccessfully attacked Abeokuta, both towns in the Lagos hinterland.

In 1863 Commander Wilmot, R.N., and in 1864 Sir Richard Burton (the explorer and orientalist) were sent on missions to the king, but their efforts to induce the Dahomeyans to give up human sacrifices, slave-trading, &c. met with no success. In 1863, however, a step was taken by France which was the counterpart of the British annexation of Lagos. In that year the kingdom of Porto Novo accepted a French protectorate, and an Anglo-French agreement of 1864 fixed its boundaries. This protectorate was soon afterwards abandoned by Napoleon III., but was re-established in 1882.

At this period the rivalry of European powers for possessions in Africa was becoming acute, and German agents appeared on the Dahomeyan coast. However, by an arrangement concluded in 1885, the German protectorate in Guinea was confined to Togo, save for the town of Little Popo at the western end of the lagoon of Grand Popo. In January 1886 Portugal—in virtue of her ancient rights at Whydah—announced that she had assumed a protectorate over the Dahomeyan coast, but she was induced by France to withdraw her protectorate in December 1887. Finally, the last international difficulty in the way of France was removed by the Anglo-French agreement of 1889, whereby Kotonu was surrendered by Great Britain. France claimed rights at Kotonu in virtue of treaties concluded with G16gl6 in 1868 and 1878, but the chiefs of the town had placed themselves under the protection of the British at Lagos.

With the arrangements between the European powers the Dahomeyans had little to do, and in 1889, the year in which the Anglo-French agreement was signed, trouble arose between Glegle and the French. The Dahomeyans were the more confident, as through German and other merchants at Whydah they were well supplied with modern arms and ammunition. Glegle claimed the right to collect the customs at Kotonu, and to depose the king of Porto Novo, and proceeded to raid the territory of that potentate (his brother).

A French mission sent to Abomey failed to come to an agreement with the Dahomeyans, who attributed the misunderstandings to the fact that there was no longer a king in France! Glegl6 died on the 28th of December 1889, two days after the French mission had left his capital. He was succeeded by his son Behanzin. A French force was landed at Kotonu, and severe fighting followed in which the Amazons played a conspicuous part.

In October 1890 a treaty was signed which secured to France Porto Novo and Kotonu, and to the king of Dahomey an annual pension of £800. It was unlikely that peace on such terms would prove lasting, and Behanzin's slave-raiding expeditions led in 1892 to a new war with France. General A.A.Dodds was placed in command of a strong force of Europeans and Senegalese, and after a sharp campaign during September and October completely defeated the Dahomeyan troops. Behanzin set fire to Abomey (entered by the French troops on the 17 th of November) and fled north. Pursued by the enemy, abandoned by his people, he surrendered unconditionally on the 25th of January 1894, and was deported to Martinique, being transferred in 1906 to Algeria, where he died on the 10th of December of the same year.

Thus ended the independent existence of Dahomey. The French divided the kingdom in two—Abomey and Allada— placing on the throne of Abomey a brother of the exiled monarch. Chief among the causes which led to the collapse of the Dahomeyan kingdom was the system which devoted the flower of its womanhood to the profession of arms.

Whydah and the adjacent territory was annexed to France by General Dodds on the 3rd of December 1892, and the rest of Dahomey placed under a French protectorate at the same time. The prince who had been made king of Abomey was found intriguing against the French, and in 1900 was exiled by them to the Congo, and with him disappeared the last vestige of Dahomeyan sovereignty.

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Page last modified: 20-04-2017 18:43:14 ZULU