Kingdom of Dahomey

Kingdom of Dahomey, African kingdom in what is now the southern part of Benin. Dahomey was founded during the 1600s on a plateau 60 miles inland from the African Slave Coast. The plateau was in the Dahomey Gap, a break in the rain forest where savanna grasslands extend to the sea. Eventually, European traders came into contact with Dahomey when it expanded from the plateau to the coast. To the south, Dahomey was bordered by the Lama swamp, impassable during the rainy season. Rivers to the east, northeast, and west formed other natural boundaries for the kingdom.

The kingdom grew wealthy in the 1700s as

The kingdom grew wealthy in the 1700s as a result of slavery. When slavery declined in the 1800s Dahomey began to produce and export palm oil to Europe.

By the mid-1800s court life flourished

By the mid-1800s court life flourished in Dahomey, enhanced by the works of artisans employed by the royal family. In the 1890s Dahomey had fallen victim to European rivalries for colonies in Africa, and the kingdom succumbed to an invasion by France. In 1900 France abolished the kingdom and incorporated it into the French colony of Dahomey. By 1960 Dahomey gained its independence. It changed its name to Benin in 1975.

Political History

The Alladahonu who migrated north from

The Alladahonu who migrated north from the coastal kingdom of Allada became the founders of Dahomey. Making alliances with chiefs on the Dahomey plateau, the Alladahonu newcomers overpowered many small towns and kingdoms in the area. By the beginning of the 1700s, the Alladahonu and their followers had conquered most of the plateau and set up their capital at Abomey.

Dahomey`s first king

Dahomey`s first king, Wegbaja (ruler from 1645 to 1685), established many of the laws and traditions of Dahomey, including the imperative that each king make Dahomey ever greater. During Wegbaja`s reign, slaves were traded through middlemen and embarked from a number of different outposts along the Slave Coast. Longboats ferried slaves to ships anchored offshore.

The warrior king Agaja (ruler from 1708

The warrior king Agaja (ruler from 1708 to 1740) led the kingdom`s expansion southward. His army conquered the kingdom of Allada in 1724 and Whydah in 1727. Under Dahomean control, Whydah became an important coastal slave trading port.

Among his administrative reforms

Among his administrative reforms, Agaja established the principle of rule by a regnum, a man and woman who led the kingdom. However, the two members of the regnum were not married. Rather, the woman was a wife of the king`s father, but not his biological mother. Agaja`s regnum partner was a common woman who represented the previous rulers of Dahomey before the arrival of the Alladahonu. For the remainder of its history, Dahomey was led by a royal Alladahonu man and a common woman, symbolizing the unity of royal and commoner, as well as newcomers and indigenous peoples.

Agaja`s motive for his conquests to the

Agaja`s motive for his conquests to the coast has been disputed. Some historians believe that he wanted to trade directly with Europe, while others maintain that he wanted to end slavery. Regardless, the Agaja regnum and its close followers profited from the slave trade. Wealthy persons gave imported goods to their followers, thereby cementing links with clients and fostering the distribution of European products throughout society. Prosperity from the trade allowed the consolidation of the conquests of Agaja under the reign of his successor, Tegbesu, who ruled from 1740 to 1774.

Tegbesu became king with the help of a

Tegbesu became king with the help of a powerful woman in his father`s household, Hwanjile, who was his regnum partner. Religious institutions organized early opposition to Tegbesu. To counter the opposition, Hwanjile set up a male-female pair of gods under her control who were paramount over all others. Hwanjile confirmed priests of congregations with other gods, and financial support for religious groups was provided from the royal treasury.

Wealthy titled persons offered soldiers

Wealthy titled persons offered soldiers for warfare. These personal forces joined the king`s standing army to form a massive force armed with guns purchased from Europe and swords created by local smiths. However, they were no match for the Oyo cavalry that yearly invaded Dahomey. The Dahomeans eventually agreed to pay annual tribute to Oyo. Freed from constant attack, Dahomey set up an administration over its newly conquered lands, integrating diverse peoples into its population. Peace and safety were assured for Dahomean citizens, for no Dahomean was allowed to be traded overseas.

By the time of Tegbesu`s death in 1774

By the time of Tegbesu`s death in 1774 slavery had diminished. The loss of income created political instability for nearly five decades. The three kings who followed Tegbesu had relatively short reigns, and two of them were ended violently by factions seeking power.

Stability and a degree of prosperity returned

Stability and a degree of prosperity returned with the rule of Gezo, who ruled from 1818 to 1858. The Gezo regnum`s first major accomplishment was ending the tributary relationship with Oyo. By the 1820s civil wars raged in Oyo`s former provinces and they were no longer a threat to Dahomey. As a result, in the 1830s and 1840s Dahomey added thousands of war victims to its population.

Dahomey waged war annually under Gezo`s

Dahomey waged war annually under Gezo`s reign. Prominent people continued to provide their private armies to the king for war. A standing army of women was created parallel to that of the men. Women recruits came from the population at large and from war captives, raised from a young age to be elite soldiers. Warfare increasingly became a central preoccupation of the court as militarism increased. War alternated with ceremonies in honor of the royal ancestors. Advancement at court, particularly for women, became linked to valor in war, and all courtiers were technically warriors.

By the 1840s the dynasty encouraged the

By the 1840s the dynasty encouraged the cultivation of oil palms as a substitute for slavery. The labor-intensive work of processing palm oil was increasingly done by slaves on plantations. Thus the end of the overseas slave trade did not end slavery, but transformed Dahomean slavery in part into an institution similar to plantation slavery in the American colonies.

It became clear during the reign of Glele

It became clear during the reign of Glele (ruler from 1858 to 1889) that the export of oil palm products could not replace the enormous profits of slavery. Unable to continue to support the numbers of followers that previous kings had maintained, Glele appointed his own siblings to high offices, thus violating the spirit of the regnum. Laws became stricter and taxes more demanding as the royal family attempted to maintain its wealth at the expense of common people.


Meanwhile, European imperialism began to threaten Dahomey. As early as the 1850s, the French tried to protect their interests in palm oil by demanding control over the port of Cotonou. The Dahomeans played European interests against each other, as the French, British, and Portuguese alternately tried to position themselves to exert influence over the kingdom.

By the time Behanzin became king in 1889

By the time Behanzin became king in 1889, the French had declared a protectorate over the kingdom of Porto Novo. They claimed sovereignty over Cotonou on the basis of treaties signed with Glele. When the Dahomean army raided areas that the French considered to be part of their Porto Novo protectorate, the French felt justified in making war.

In 1892 a force of about 200 French officers

In 1892 a force of about 200 French officers with several thousand African soldiers moved up the Weme River into Dahomean territory. Fighting a series of battles, they advanced overland to Abomey. When negotiations for a truce failed, Behanzin burned the palace and retreated to the north. After more than a year, epidemics and the futility of resistance brought most of the king`s entourage back to Abomey. By the time Behanzin gave himself up in early 1894, the French had proclaimed his brother king. However, the new king, Agoliagbo, refused to act as a French puppet and was deposed in 1900.


The major slave trading partners of Dahomey

The major slave trading partners of Dahomey were the British, French, and Portuguese. Other goods traded included cowry shells, iron and other metals, cloth, beads, guns and powder, alcohol, tobacco, and gold.

Slaves were drawn from an area that stretched

Slaves were drawn from an area that stretched 250 miles inland from the coast. The vast majority were peoples from two related language families, Yoruba and Gbe. The language of Dahomey, Fongbe, was a Gbe language. Slaves were captured in war or sold in payment of debts. They were traded by African middlemen down to the coast. There, they entered the overseas trade through negotiations regulated by Dahomey and other states that controlled access to the sea.

Dahomey`s domestic economy was agriculture

Dahomey`s domestic economy was agriculture based. Cowry shells were the medium of exchange. Dahomeans went to market to buy or sell such staples as millet, corn (maize), yams, cassava, and beans. Sauces eaten with staples were made of vegetables, fish, and meats of various kinds: poultry, beef, pork, and occasional game meats. Many fruits were available. Dahomeans drank palm wine and distilled alcohol, and kola nuts, a mild stimulant, were chewed socially. Cotton and palm oil were processed to be sold internally, while artisans created iron tools, pottery, baskets, woven cloth, and other goods. European manufactured goods could also be bought at major markets.


Dahomeans measured wealth in the number

Dahomeans measured wealth in the number of people attached to an individual or family. Slaves, especially female slaves, were welcome additions to families because they provided farm labor and increased a family`s wealth. The children of slaves were normally considered members of the families of their owners, and over several generations the stigma of slavery tended to be lost.

Dahomean society practiced polygamy. Marriage

Dahomean society practiced polygamy. Marriage was expensive since a husband had to give gifts to the family of the bride (bridewealth) and perform labor for her parents (brideservice). Wealthy women also might marry other women or acquire slaves. Women and men who wanted to rapidly expand the numbers of their dependents would find a mate for some of their wives or slaves. The children of such relationships were considered to be children of the husband, the person who had legal authority over the wife or slave, regardless of the biological parents.

Social and family relations were hierarchical

Social and family relations were hierarchical, based on age. Each person within a family had a unique place based upon the moment of his or her arrival in the family. Wives held seniority depending upon when they had moved into the household; older children outranked younger ones regardless of gender; and even twins were ranked according to the time of birth.

Cross-cutting the kinship system and respect

Cross-cutting the kinship system and respect for elders were social distinctions based on wealth. Individuals might become wealthy in service to the king. They would be honored with a title that gave them rank in their lineages that rivaled the authority of the lineage heads. The royal family thus undercut the independence of lineages.

Religion in Dahomey involved the worship

Religion in Dahomey involved the worship of gods or Vodun (known derogatorily as voodoo in the Western Hemisphere). There were two kinds of Vodun: popular Vodun (gods associated with natural forces and mythic figures) and royal Vodun (deified members of the royal family). In the 1800s the category of royal Vodun was extended so that people of common birth who were closely allied with royalty could also see their ancestors deified.

Kingdom of Dahomey 1 | Kingdom of Dahomey 2 |

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