Dahomey

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This article is about the kingdom from 1600 until 1900. For the republic from 1958–1975 (now known as Benin), see Republic of Dahomey.
Kingdom of Dahomey
Kingdom, vassal state of the Oyo Empire (1740–1823)
c. 1600–1904


Flag

Capital Abomey
Languages Fon
Religion Vodun
Government Monarchy
Ahosu (King)
 -  c. 1600 – c. 1625 Do-Aklin
 -  1894–1900 Agoli-agbo
History
 -  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
 -  Disestablished 1904
Area
 -  1700[1] 10,000 km² (3,861 sq mi)
Population
 -  1700[1] est. 350,000 
     Density 35 /km²  (90.6 /sq mi)

Dahomey (/dəˈhmi/) was an African kingdom (located in the area of the present-day country of Benin) which lasted from about 1600 until 1894, when the last king Behanzin was defeated by the French and the country was annexed into the French colonial empire. 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.[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.

Name[edit]

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. The names Dahomey, Danxome, and Danhome all have a similar origin story, which historian Edna Bay says may be a false etymology.[2] 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 dan, xo=Belly, me=Inside of.[3]

History of the Kingdom of Dahomey[edit]

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.[2]

Rule of Agaja (1708–1740)[edit]

King Agaja, Houegbadja's grandson, came to the throne in 1708 and began significant expansion of the Kingdom of Dahomey. This expansion was made possible by the superior military force of King Agaja’s Dahomey. In contrast to surrounding regions, Dahomey employed a professional standing army numbering around ten thousand.[4] What the Dahomey lacked in numbers, they made up for in discipline and superior arms. 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.[5] The warfare with the Oyo empire resulted in Dahomey assuming a tributary status to the Oyo empire.[6]

Politics of the Kingdom[edit]

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.[6][2] Recent historical work has emphasized the limits of monarchical power in the Kingdom of Dahomey.[3] 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.[8]

The king[edit]

King Ghezo displayed with a royal umbrella
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.[9] The king was selected largely through discussion and decision in the meetings of the Great Council, although how this operated was not always clear.[2][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[edit]

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).

Relations with other states[edit]

The relations between Dahomey and other countries was complex and heavily impacted by the Gold 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 Gold 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.

Military[edit]

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. Soldiers in the army were recruited as young as seven or eight years old, initially serving as shield carriers for regular soldiers. After years of apprenticeship and military experience, they were allowed to join the army as regular soldiers. In order to further incentivize the soldiers, each soldier received bonuses paid in cowry shells for each enemy they killed or captured in battle. This combination of lifelong military experience and monetary incentives resulted in a cohesive, well-disciplined military.[10] One European said Agaja’s standing army consisted of, “elite troops, brave and well-disciplined, led by a prince full of valor and prudence, supported by a staff of experienced officers.”[11]

In addition to being well-trained, the Dahomey army under Agaja was also very well armed. The Dahomey army favored imported European weapons as opposed to traditional weapons. For example, they used European flintlock muskets in long range combat and imported steel swords and cutlasses in close combat. The Dahomey army also possessed twenty-five cannons.


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.[8] 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[edit]

Main article: Dahomey Amazons
Dahomey female soldiers

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.

Economy[edit]

The economic structure of the kingdom were highly intertwined with the political and religious systems and these developed together significantly.[8] The main currency for exchange was cowries, or shells for exchange.

Domestic economy[edit]

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).[8] Agriculture work was largely decentralized and done by most families. However, with the expansion of the kingdom agricultural plantations begun to be a common agricultural method in the kingdom. Craft work was largely dominated by a formal guild system.[12]

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.[8] 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.[8]

Religion[edit]

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[edit]

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.[8] 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.[3]

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.[3] 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.[3]

Dahomey Cosmology[edit]

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.[8] 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.[2]

Arts[edit]

Zoomorphic representation of Béhanzin as a shark

The arts in Dahomey were 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.[13]

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.[14] Artists were not of a specific class but both royalty made important artistic contributions.[13] Kings were often depicted in large zoomorphic forms with each king resembling a particular animal in multiple representations.[15]

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.[13] 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.[16]

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.[15] 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.[14] 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.[14] 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.[16] 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.[14]

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.[17] 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.[18]

In popular culture[edit]

The poster announcing the London premiere of In Dahomey at the Shaftesbury Theatre, 1903.

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).

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 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.[19]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Heywood, Linda M.; John K. Thornton (2009). "Kongo and Dahomey, 1660-1815". In Bailyn, Bernard & Patricia L. Denault. Soundings in Atlantic history: latent structures and intellectual currents, 1500–1830. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Bay, Edna (1998). Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics, and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey. University of Virigina Press. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Monroe, J. Cameron (2011). "In the Belly of Dan: Space, History, and Power in Precolonial Dahomey". Current Anthropology 52 (6): 769–798. doi:10.1086/662678. 
  4. ^ Harms, Robert (2002). The Diligent. New York: Basic Books. p. 172. 
  5. ^ Alpern, Stanley B. (1998). "On the Origins of the Amazons of Dahomey". History in Africa 25: 9–25. doi:10.2307/3172178. 
  6. ^ a b Law, Robin (1986). "Dahomey and the Slave Trade: Reflections on the Historiography of the Rise of Dahomey". The Journal of African History 27 (2): 237–267. doi:10.1017/s0021853700036665. 
  7. ^ a b c Yoder, John C. (1974). "Fly and Elephant Parties: Political Polarization in Dahomey, 1840-1870". The Journal of African History 15 (3): 417–432. doi:10.1017/s0021853700013566. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h Herskovits, Melville J. (1967). Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom (Volume I ed.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. 
  9. ^ Law, Robin (1997). "The Politics of Commercial Transition: Factional Conflict in Dahomey in the Context of the Ending of the Atlantic Slave Trade". The Journal of African History 38 (2): 213–233. doi:10.1017/s0021853796006846. 
  10. ^ Harms, Robert (2002). The Diligent. New York: Basic Books. p. 172. ISBN 0-465-02872-1. 
  11. ^ Labat. Voyage du chevalier Des Marchais. pp. I:XII. 
  12. ^ Duignan, Peter; L.H. Gann (1975). "The Pre-colonial economies of sub-saharan Africa". Colonialism in Africa 1870-1960. London: Cambridge. pp. 33–67. 
  13. ^ a b c Blier, Suzanne Preston (1988). "Melville J. Herskovits and the Arts of Ancient Dahomey". Anthropology and Aesthetics 16: 125–142. 
  14. ^ a b c d Livingston, Thomas W. (1974). "Ashanti and Dahomean Architectural Bas-Reliefs". African Studies Review 17 (2): 435–448. doi:10.2307/523643. 
  15. ^ a b Pique, Francesca; Rainer, Leslie H. (1999). Palace Sculptures of Abomey History Told on Walls (PDF). Los Angeles: Paul Getty Museum. 
  16. ^ a b Blier, Suzanne Preston (2004). "The Art of Assemblage: Aesthetic Expression and Social Experience in Danhome". Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics (45): 186–210. 
  17. ^ Willett, 164-165
  18. ^ Willett, 81-82
  19. ^ Encyclopedia of African Literature (Gikandi, Simon ed.). London: Routledge. 2003. 

Sources[edit]

  • Bailyn, Bernard & Patricia L. Denault (2009). Soundings in Atlantic history: latent structures and intellectual currents, 1500–1830. Harvard: Harvard University Press. p. 622 pages. ISBN 0-674-03276-4. 
  • Alpern, Stanley B. (1999). Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey. New York: New York University Press. p. 288 pages. ISBN 0-8147-0678-9. 
  • Willett, Frank, African Art, Thames & Hudson, World of Art series, 1971, ISBN 9780500203644

Further reading[edit]

  • Edna G. Bay, Wives of the Leopard, University of Virginia Press, 1998, p. 376.

External links[edit]

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