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Kingdom of Dahomey

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Title: Kingdom of Dahomey  
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Kingdom of Dahomey

This article is about the kingdom from 1600 until 1900. For the French colony, see French Dahomey. For the republic from 1958–1975 (now known as Benin), see Republic of Dahomey.

Kingdom of Dahomey

c. 1600–1900
Capital Abomey
Languages Fon
Religion Vodun
Government Monarchy
Ahosu (King)
 -  c. 1600-c. 1625 Do-Aklin
 -  1894–1900 Agoli-agbo
 -  Aja settlers from Allada settle on Abomey Plateau c. 1600
 -  Dakodonu begins conquest on Abomey Plateau c. 1620
 -  King Agaja conquers Allada and Whydah 1724-1727
 -  King Ghezo defeats the Oyo Empire and ends tributary status 1823
 -  Dahomey conquered in Second Franco-Dahomean War 1894
 -  French abolish the kingdom of Dahomey February 12, 1900
 -  1700[1] 10,000 km² (3,861 sq mi)
 -  1700[1] est. 350,000 
     Density 35 /km²  (90.6 /sq mi)

Dahomey was an African kingdom (in the present-day country of Benin) which lasted from about 1600 until 1900. Dahomey developed on the Abomey Plateau amongst the Fon people in the early 1600s and became a regional power in the 1700s by conquering key cities on the Atlantic coast. For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Kingdom of Dahomey was a key regional state, eventually ending tributary status to the Oyo Empire and being a major location for the Atlantic slave trade, possibly supplying up to 20% of the slaves to Europe and the Americas.[1] The Kingdom of Dahomey was an important regional power that had an organized domestic economy, significant international trade with European powers, a centralized administration, significant taxation systems, and an organized military. Notable in the kingdom were significant artwork, all-female military units known as the Dahomey Amazons, and elaborate religious practices of Vodun with the large festival of the Annual Customs of Dahomey. The Kingdom of Dahomey serves as the context for a number of works of fiction dealing with West African ideas and the slave trade.

In 1894, the Kingdom was colonized by France and made part of French West Africa, as part of the territory of French Dahomey (which also included Porto-Novo and a large area to the north of Dahomey). French rule lasted until 1960, after which the again-independent nation became Republic of Dahomey, and later Benin in 1975.


The Kingdom of Dahomey was referred to by many different names and has been written in a variety of ways, including Danxome, Danhome, and Fon. The name Fon relates to the dominant ethnic and language group, the Fon people, of the royal families of the kingdom and is how the kingdom first became known to Europeans.[2] The names Dahomey, Danxome, and Danhome all have a similar origin story, which historian Edna Bay says may be a false etymology.[3] The story says that Dakodonu, considered the second king in modern kings lists, was granted permission by the Gedevi chiefs, the local rulers, to settle in the Abomey plateau. Dakodonu requested additional land from a prominent chief named Dan (or Da) to which the chief responded sarcastically "Should I open up my belly and build you a house in it?" For this insult, Dakodonu killed Dan and began the construction of his palace on the spot. The name of the kingdom was derived from the incident: Dan=chief, xo=Belly, me=Inside of.[4]

History of the Kingdom of Dahomey

Main article: History of the Kingdom of Dahomey

The Kingdom of Dahomey was established around 1600 by the Fon people who had recently settled in the area (or were possibly a result of intermarriage between the Aja people and the local Gedevi). The foundational king for Dahomey is often considered Houegbadja (c.1645-1685) who built the Royal Palaces of Abomey and began raiding and taking over towns outside of the Abomey plateau.[3][5]

Rule of Agaja (1718-1740)

King Agaja, Houegbadja's grandson, came to the throne in 1718 and began significant expansion of the Kingdom of Dahomey. In 1724, Agaja conquered Allada, the origin for the royal family according to oral tradition, and in 1727 he conquered Whydah. This increased size of the kingdom, particularly along the Atlantic coast, and increased power made Dahomey into a regional power. The result was near constant warfare with the main regional state, the Oyo Empire, from 1728 until 1740.[6] The warfare with the Oyo empire resulted in Dahomey assuming a tributary status to the Oyo empire.[2]

Regional Power (1740-1880s)

The Kingdom of Dahomey became a major power in the Atlantic slave trade, with slaves supplied through raids of surrounding areas. Oyo would sometimes put pressure on Dahomey to decrease their slave trade, largely to protect Oyo's own trade, which would slow the trade for a while before it increased again.[7] In 1818, King Adandozan (1797-1818) was replaced by his brother King Ghezo (1818-1858) and a Brazilian slave trader Francisco Félix de Sousa largely because Adandozan had been ineffective at maintaining stable supply for the slave trade.[8] Under Ghezo the empire reached its highest point of power with Ghezo defeating the Oyo empire in 1823, ending Dahomey's tributary status, and greatly expanding the slave trade.[2]

However, in the 1850s, much of this changes with the rise of Abeokuta (a city dedicated to protecting people from slave raids by Dahomey)[7] in the region and the imposition of a naval blockade by the British in 1851 and 1852 to halt the slave trade.[8] Ghezo was forced to stop slave raids and agreed to stop slave trading.[7] Attempts at resuming the slave trade in the late 1850s and 1860s were largely ineffective.[8]

French Colonialism

The coastal area began to be controlled by the French in the 1870s and 1880s with the French reaching agreement with the kingdom to turn the port of Cotonou into a protectorate in 1878 and reaching agreement with the leaders of Porto-Novo, a longtime rival of Dahomey, in 1883 to turn that port into a protectorate. When King Béhanzin (1889-1894) took over the throne he began raiding French protectorates and renounced the protectorate agreement regarding Cotonou.[9] The French began responding in the Franco-Dahomean wars from 1890 until 1894 which resulted in the French conquest of the kingdom and appointing King Agoli-agbo the new king. When Agoli-agbo resisted French taxation attempts, the French dissolved the Kingdom and sent Agoli-agbo into exile.[9]

The Kingdom of Dahomey retained an important legacy with the French appointing many Dahomey leaders as canton chiefs in the new administrative structure. Agoli-Agbo was allowed to return to the area for ceremonial purposes in 1910. The French colony, which included the kingdom but also Porto-Novo and a large area to the north,[9] took the name French Dahomey which lasted until 1960 when the Republic of Dahomey was created. The name Dahomey was retained until 1975 when the country's name was changed to Benin.

Politics of the Kingdom

Early writings, predominantly written by European slave traders, often presented the kingdom as an absolute monarchy led by a despotic king. However, these depictions were often deployed as arguments by different sides in the slave trade debates, mainly in the United Kingdom, and as such were probably exaggerations.[2][3] Recent historical work has emphasized the limits of monarchical power in the Kingdom of Dahomey.[4] Historian John Yoder, with attention to the Great Council in the kingdom, argued that its activities do not "imply that Dahomey's government was democratic or even that her politics approximated those of nineteenth-century European monarchies. However, such evidence does support the thesis that governmental decisions were molded by conscious responses to internal political pressures as well as by executive fiat."[7] The primary political divisions revolved around villages with chiefs and administrative posts appointed by the king and acting as his representatives to adjudicate disputes in the village.[10]

The King

Main article: King of Dahomey

The King of Dahomey (Ahosu in the Fon language) was the sovereign power of the kingdom. All of the kings were claimed to be part of the Alladaxonou dynasty, claiming descent from the royal family in Allada. Much of the succession rules and administrative structures were created early by Houegbadja, Akaba, and Agaja. Succession through the male members of the line was the norm typically going to the oldest son, but not always.[8] The king was selected largely through discussion and decision in the meetings of the Great Council, although how this operated was not always clear.[3][7] The Great Council brought together a host of different dignitaries from throughout the kingdom yearly to meet at the Annual Customs of Dahomey. Discussions would be lengthy and included members, both men and women, from throughout the kingdom. At the end of the discussions, the king would declare the consensus for the group.[7]

The Royal Court

Key positions in the King's court included the migan, the mehu, the yovogan, the kpojito (or queen-mother), and later the chacha (or viceroy) of Whydah. The migan (combination of mi-our and gan-chief) was a primary consul for the king, a key judicial figure, and served as the head executioner. The mehu was similarly a key administrative officer who managed the palaces and the affairs of the royal family, economic maters, and the areas to the south of Allada (making the position key to contact with Europeans). With increasing European contact, Agaja created the position of the yovogan ("white person director" in Fon) tasked with managing trade relations with the Europeans. The kpojito (or "queen mother") was an important position who heard religious appeals, acted as council to the king, and plead for citizens in cases before the king.[3] A final administrative position was the chacha (or viceroy) which operated to manage the slave trade in the port city of Whydah. The first chacha was created by Ghezo and was the Brazilian slave trader Francisco Félix de Sousa (whose descendents maintained the position after his death).[8]

Relations with other states

The relations between Dahomey and other countries was complex and heavily impacted by the slave trade. The Oyo empire engaged in regular warfare with the kingdom of Dahomey and Dahomey was a tributary to Oyo from 1732 until 1823. The city-state of Porto-Novo, under the protection of Oyo, and Dahomey had a long standing rivalry largely over control of the slave trade along the coast. The rise of Abeokuta in the 1840s created another power rivaling Dahomey, largely by creating a safe haven for people from the slave trade.[7] Slave trade with the Europeans began in the 1600s with contacts with the Portuguese Empire, the Dutch Empire, and the British Empire. By the 1800s, the primary trade had narrowed to the British and when the British reduced the trade this had a large impact on the kingdom, culminating with the 1851-1852 British naval blockade of Dahomey.[8]


The military of the Kingdom of Dahomey was divided into two units: the right and the left. The right was controlled by the migan and the left was controlled by the mehu. At least by the time of Agaja, the kingdom had developed a standing army that remained encamped wherever the king was. When going into battle, the king would take a secondary position to the field commander with the reason given that if any spirit were to punish the commander for decisions it should not be the king.[10] Unlike other regional powers, the military of Dahomey did not have a significant cavalry (like the Oyo empire) or naval power (which prevented expansion along the coast). The Dahomey Amazons, a unit of all-female soldiers, is one of the most unique aspects of the military of the kingdom.

Dahomey Amazons

Main article: Dahomey Amazons

The Dahomean state became widely known for its corps of female soldiers. They were organized around the year 1729 to fill out the army and make it look larger in battle, armed only with banners. The women reportedly behaved so courageously they became a permanent corps. In the beginning the soldiers were criminals pressed into service rather than being executed. Eventually, however, the corps became respected enough that King Ghezo ordered every family to send him their daughters, with the most fit being chosen as soldiers. Richard Francis Burton commented on the "masculine physique of the women, enabling them to compete with men in enduring toil, hardship and privations," and Alfred Ellis concurred that the female soldiers, "endured all the toil and performed all the hard labour."[11] The women seem to have in fact considered themselves transformed into men, socially if not physically. At a parade in 1850, in which over 2,000 female soldiers participated, one of them began a speech by saying, "As the blacksmith takes an iron bar and by fire changes its fashion, so we have changed our nature. We are no longer women, we are men."[12] About two-thirds of the soldiers were unmarried, and Burton noted a "...corps of prostitutes kept for the use of the Amazon-soldieresses."[11]

A similar gender switch occurred among some men close to the royal court. Referred to as lagredis, the boys were chosen from among high ranking families and either castrated or given "potions" to feminize them. Richard Burton referred to them as "special slaves of the king, [who] bear the dignified title of royal wives."[13] These lagredis were as entirely dependent on the king as other wives, but seem to have had more freedom of movement. Two of them reportedly accompanied any emissary sent by the king, to serve as royal eyes and ears.[13]


The economic structure of the kingdom were highly intertwined with the political and religious systems and these developed together significantly.[10] The main currency for exchange was cowries, or shells for exchange.

Domestic Economy

The domestic economy was largely focused on agriculture and crafts produced for local consumption. Until the development of palm oil, very little agricultural or craft goods were traded outside of the kingdom. Markets served a key role in the kingdom and were organized around a rotating cycle of four days with a different market each day (the market type for the day was religiously sanctioned).[10] Agriculture work was largely decentralized and done by most families. However, with the expansion of the kingdom and the importance of the slave trade, agricultural plantations begun to be a common agricultural method in the kingdom. Craft work was largely dominated by a formal guild system.[14]

Herskovits recounts a complex tax system in the kingdom where officials from the king, the tokpe, would gather data from each village regarding their harvest and then the king would set a tax based upon the level of production and number of villagers in the village. In addition, the kings own land and production were taxed.[10] With the significant road construction undertaken by the kingdom, toll booths were also established which would collect yearly taxes by people based on the good they carried, their occupation, and sometimes fines for public nuisance before allowing them to pass.[10]

Slave Trade

The Atlantic slave trade was the primary international trade from the kingdom for much of its history. The slave trade was heavily organized by the king himself and the money provided him with significant funds to purchase guns, iron, and cloth.[10] Although the king did make some money from domestic taxation, most of the funds to the king derived from the slave trade. The Dahomey coast was known in many European accounts at this time as the "Slave Coast" because of the active trade.[5] Dahomey contributed possibly as much as 20% of the total Atlantic slave trade making it one of the largest suppliers to the trade.[1] Historian Akinjogbin did contend that the entry into the slave trade by Dahomey was hesitant and that the early kings of Dahomey, primarily Agaja, were simply trying to improve the economic state of the kingdom and only engaged in the slave trade when other options did not work.[15]

The slave trade had significant impacts on the kingdom. Historian Robin Law contends that the international slave trade provided a likely justification for much of the military policies of the kingdom.[2] Similarly, when King Adandozan was unable to supply enough war captives for the international slave trade, domestic household and plantation use, and for sacrifices, he was replaced by Ghezo with the support of Francisco Félix de Sousa, a Brazilian slave trader, primarily to increase the trade.[2]

Starting in the 1840s, the British empire began trying to suppress the Atlantic slave trade. Multiple missions tried to convince King Ghezo to end the trade, but he responded that domestic political pressure prevented him from ending the trade. However, he did increase palm oil plantations in order to try and develop economic alternatives.[8] In 1851-1852, the British instituted a naval blockade on Dahomey in order to prevent the slave trade forcing Ghezo to promise to end the slave trade. Major military operations were halted at the same time.[8]


Left: Dance of the Fon chiefs during celebrations. Right: The celebration at Abomey(1908). The veteran warriors of the Fon king Béhanzin, Son of Roi Gélé
Main article: Dahomey mythology

The Kingdom of Dahomey shared many religious rituals with surrounding populations; however, it also developed unique ceremonies, beliefs, and religious stories for the kingdom. These included royal ancestor worship and the specific vodun practices of the kingdom.

Royal Ancestor Worship

Early kings established clear worship of royal ancestors and centralized their ceremonies in the Annual Customs of Dahomey. The spirits of the kings had an exalted position in the land of the dead and it was necessary to get their permission for many activities on earth.[10] Ancestor worship pre-existed the kingdom of Dahomey; however, under King Agaja, a cycle of ritual was created centered around first celebrating the ancestors of the king and then celebrating a family lineage.[4]

The Annual Customs of Dahomey (xwetanu or huetanu in Fon) involved multiple elaborate components and some aspects may have been added in the 19th century. In general, the celebration involved distribution of gifts, human sacrifice, military parades, and political councils. Its main religious aspect was to offer thanks and gain the approval for ancestors of the royal lineage.[4] However, the custom also included military parades, public discussions, gift giving (the distribution of money to and from the king), and human sacrifice and the spilling of blood.[4] Most of the victims were captives from slave raids and were sacrificed through decapitation, a tradition widely used by Dahomean kings, and the literal translation for the Fon name for the ceremony Xwetanu is "yearly head business".[16]

Dahomey Cosmology

Dahomey had a unique form of West African Vodun which linked together preexisting animist traditions with vodun practices. Oral history recounted that Hwanjile, a wife of Agaja and mother of Tegbessou brought the vodun to the kingdom and ensured its spread. The primary deity is the combined Mawu-Lisa (Mawu having female characteristics and Lisa having male characteristics) and it is claimed that this god took over the world that was created by their mother Nana-Buluku.[10] Mawu-Lisa governs the sky and is the highest pantheon of gods, but other gods exist in the earth and in thunder. Religious practice organized different priesthoods and shrines for each different god and each different pantheon (sky, earth or thunder). Women made up a significant amount of the priest class and the chief priest was always a descendent of Dakodonou.[3]


The arts in Dahomey were very unique and distinct from the artistic traditions elsewhere in Africa. The arts were substantially supported by the king and his family, had non-religious traditions, assembled multiple different materials, and borrowed widely from other peoples in the region. Common art forms included wood and ivory carving, metalwork (including silver, iron and brass, appliqué cloth, and clay bas-reliefs.[17]

The king was key in supporting the arts and many of them provided significant sums for artists resulting in the unique development, for the region, of a non-religious artistic tradition in the kingdom.[18] Artists were not of a specific class but both slaves and royalty made important artistic contributions.[17] Kings were often depicted in large zoomorphic forms with each king resembling a particular animal in multiple representations.[19]

Suzanne Blier identifies two unique aspects of art in Dahomey: 1. Assemblage of different components and 2. Borrowing from other states. Assemblage of art, involving the combination of multiple components (often of different materials) combined together in a single piece of art, was common in all forms and was the result of the various kings promoting finished products rather than particular styles.[17] This assembling may have been a result of the second feature which involved the wide borrowing of styles and techniques from other cultures and states. Clothing, cloth work, architecture, and the other forms of art all resemble other artistic representation from around the region.[20]

Much of the art work revolved around the royalty. Each of the palaces at the Royal Palaces of Abomey contained elaborate bas-reliefs (noundidė in Fon) providing a record of the king's accomplishments.[19] Each king had his own palace within the palace complex and within the outer walls of their personal palace was a series of clay reliefs designed specific to that king. These were not solely designed for royalty and chiefs, temples, and other important buildings had similar reliefs.[18] The reliefs would present Dahomey kings often in military battles against the Oyo or Mahi tribes to the north of Dahomey with their opponents depicted in various negative depictions (the king of Oyo is depicted in one as a baboon eating a cob of corn). Historical themes dominated representation and characters were basically designed and often assembled on top of each other or in close proximity creating an ensemble effect.[18] In addition to the royal depictions in the reliefs, royal members were depicted in power sculptures known as bocio which incorporated mixed materials (including metal, wood, beads, cloth, fur, feathers, and bone) onto a base forming a standing figure. The bocio are religiously designed to include different forces together to unlock powerful forces.[20] In addition, the cloth appliqué of Dahomey depicted royalty often in similar zoomorphic representation and dealt with matters similar to the reliefs, often the kings leading during warfare.[18]

A distinctive tradition was the casting of small brass figures of animals or people which were worn as jewellery or displayed in the homes of the relatively well-off. These figures, which continue to be made for the tourist trade, were relatively unusual in traditional African art in having no religious aspect, being purely decorative, as well as indicative of some wealth.[21] Also unusual, by being so early and clearly provenanced is a carved wooden tray (not dissimilar to much more recent examples) in Ulm, Germany, which was brought to Europe before 1659, when it was described in a printed catalogue.[22]

In popular culture

The Kingdom of Dahomey has been depicted in a number of different literary works of fiction or creative nonfiction. In Dahomey (1903) was a successful Broadway musical, the first full-length Broadway musical written entirely by African Americans, in the early 20th century. Novelist Paul Hazoumé's first novel Doguicimi (1938) was based on decades of research into the oral traditions of the Kingdom of Dahomey during King Ghezo. American novelist Frank Yerby published a historical novel set partially in Dahomey titled The Man From Dahomey (1971). British author George MacDonald Fraser published Flash for Freedom! (1971), the third novel in the Flashman series that was set in Dahomey during the slave trade. Bruce Chatwin's historical novel The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) is largely based around Francisco Felix de Sousa, the slave trader who helped bring King Ghezo to power. The book resulted in the film adaptation Cobra Verde (1987) by Werner Herzog. Ben Okri's novel The Famished Road (1991), which won the Man Booker Prize, tells the story of a person caught in the slave trade through Dahomey.

Behanzin's resistance to the French has been central to a number of works. Jean Pliya's first play Kondo le requin (1967), winner of the Grand Prize for Black African History Literature, tells the story of Behanzin's resistance. Maryse Condé's novel The Last of the African Kings (1992) similarly focuses on Behanzin's resistance and his exile to the Caribbean.[23]

See also



  • Willett, Frank, African Art, Thames & Hudson, World of Art series, 1971, ISBN 9780500203644

Further reading

  • Edna G. Bay, Wives of the Leopard, University of Virginia Press, 1998, p. 376.
  • A. B. Ellis, The Ewe-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa, Benin Press, 1965, pp. 177–238.

External links

  • Urbanism on West Africa's Slave Coast, J. Cameron Monroe – American Scientist, Sept–Oct 2011. Retrieved 29 11 2011.

Coordinates: 7°11′08″N 1°59′17″E / 7.18556°N 1.98806°E / 7.18556; 1.98806

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