Civilisations Culture Gender Equality History Kingdoms Military People Politics

Kingdom of Dahomey: Could an all female army defeat men?

The Kingdom of Dahomey or the Fon kingdom of Dahomey was a small kingdom in western Africa (now in the southern region of Benin). It was developed on the Abomey Plateau amongst the Fon people in the early 17th century and became a regional power in the 18th century by conquering key cities on the Atlantic coast. It was an absolute monarchy with a strict hierarchy of royalty, commoners and slaves. It was a society where women were both respected and feared. Women were responsible for oversight of male employees working in each sector and played advisory roles to the king. The domestic economy was stable due to impeccable implementation of central administration and taxation with revenues mainly from slave and ivory trade with European countries and conquest with its organized and powerful military. It declined after two wars with France after which the area became a French colony. The Fon were also called the Fon nu or the Agadja.

Origin and Rise to Power

According to tradition, there were 3 princes in line for the throne for the kingdom of Allada, a rich and powerful state, built on the economy of slave trade. This led to a faction war between the three brothers. When one brother Kokpon took control of Allada, the other two left with their factions and armies and founded Porto-Novo and Abomey. The brother who founded Abomey was Do-Aklin, and Abomey was the beginning of the Dahomey Kingdom. Their brother Te-Agdanlin founded Little Ardra, which became Ajatche, then finally became Porto-Novo (Portuguese for New Port). They all paid tribute to the powerful Yoruba kingdom of Oyo to the east, which involved sending male captives.

dahomey 1724 unesco
Image rights: UNESCO

Do-Aklin’s descendants were very good statesmen, and equally good military leaders. Under them Abomey started to prosper, and went from a small city state to a powerful kingdom. Of these descendants, the most powerful one was Do-Aklin’s great-grandson, Agaja (1708-32).

Agaja realised the power of modern weaponry and wanted to amass an armoury of advanced European weaponry, mainly from the traders on the Gulf of Guinea. To this end he waged war on the previous sister states founded and ruled by his own kin, Do-Aklin’s brother’s descendants. He succeeded in capturing both the kingdom of Allada (which existed from the 13th to the 18th century) and Whydah, where European forts already existed. This gave him access to a massive armoury of advanced weaponry uncommon in the modern-day Benin region.

This expanded state, consisting of provinces of Allada, Whydah and Abomey was called Dahomey, and that was the birth of the Kingdom of Dahomey.

Thriving on the sale of slaves to the Europeans, the Kingdom of Dahomey prospered and acquired new provinces under kings Tegbesu (1732–74), Kpengla (1774–89), and Agonglo (1789–97).

King Adandozan (1797–1818) was crowned king after his father Angonglo, but he was a very unpopular ruler, and was soon overthrown in a coup by his brother, the great Ghezu (1818–58). Under the rule of Ghezu, Dahomey reached the high point of its power and fame, capturing most of its neighbours and demanding tribute from the rest.

dahomey 1727 - 1890
Image rights: UNESCO

Equal opportunities army

dahomey - majority female army
Image rights: UNESCO
dahomey - amazone by Élisée Reclus 1905
Amazone by Élisée Reclus

Areas under rule and the administration of the Kingdom of Dahomey

dahomey_map
Dahomey in Modern-day Benin Republic. Image rights: public domain

Dahomey started off with just one city state, Abomey. However at the peak of its power, Dahomey ruled over a large area from the coasts of Gulf of Guinea to far north till the shores of the river of Oueme.

The administration of Dahomey was strictly centralised under an absolute monarchy. The king, surrounded by a magnificent and diverse court of ministers, was the unchallenged ruler of a rigidly segregated society of royalty followed by commoners, and then slaves. He governed through a centralized government, staffed by commoners who could not threaten his authority.

Unique to Dahomey in that era, not just in Africa, but almost across the world was its respect of women. Each male official in the field had a female counterpart at court that monitored his activities and advised the king. They were treated with the same dignity and respect as their male counterparts.

Conquered territories were assimilated through intermarriage, uniform laws, and a common tradition of enmity to the Yoruba. This bred a feeling of unity in the whole kingdom that led to loyalty for their king.

Housing

The main climate in the Kingdom of Dahomey was hot and humid, with two dry and rainy periods. The rains weren’t particularly violent, and it shows in the housing of the Dahomey people. Their houses were mainly built straight out of mud and thatch, with little reinforcing with stone. Near the coasts the mud walls gave way to a little more solid contraction of stones, but still with palm thatch leaves.

Achievements

Military

The economy of the kingdom of Dahomey became predominantly dependent on the slave trade which gained traction in the 18th century due to the increased exchange of slaves with the European countries for gold, ammunitions and fibre. This was solely possible due to the formation of one of the most terrifying military force formed which was used to wage war to gain captives so that they could be used as slaves. Even though the military lacked in numbers but it was made up with discipline and weapons.

The Dahomey military had specialisation. Huntresses were called Gbeto, riflewomen were Gulohento, archers were Gohento, reapers carried 45cm knives in both hands and were called Nyekplohento, and gunners were called Agbarya.

Unlike the other neighbouring kingdoms, under King Agaja the military used advanced European weaponry such as muskets instead of the traditional weapons. The soldiers were trained from, as young as, the age of seven where they trained under senior soldiers and joined the army after sufficient training and experience.

The king also had a separate group of elite female warriors who were called the Amazons by the Europeans due to their sheer skill and strength in warfare. The “Amazon” corps served as the royal guard when not in battle.

The greatest military achievement of the kingdom was when they threw off the centuries long shackles of the Yoruba, when the Great Ghezu and his armies battled and defeated the Oyo kingdom, and annexed it.

Equality

The Kingdom of Dahomey believed in absolute equality of men and women. There was a female counterpart for each male official serving the king. This ensured that women were given the respect they deserved.

Also one of the most feared battalion of the Dahomey was the “Amazon” corps, which consisted of only female warriors. These warriors were often instrumental in battles, and were rumoured to have been the killing blow in the battle against Yoruba. They also served as the only royal guards during times of peace, again showing the need to respect women.

Decline

Under the rule of the Great Ghezu, Dahomey reached its peak, both economically and territorially.

After about 1840, however, the kingdom’s fortunes began to change as Britain succeeded in taking control of a large part of the Atlantic Ocean. The British, in an effort to undo the slave trade which they had contributed to for 250 years, put heavy restrictions on the overseas slave trade. Unfazed by this, Ghezu accomplished a smooth transition to palm oil exports, and slaves, instead of being sold, were kept to work palm plantations. However palm oil was far less lucrative than slaves and an economic decline followed under Gezu’s successor, Glele (1858–89).

During this economic slide, the main thing affected was the frightening Dahomey military. They couldn’t afford the advanced weaponry they had been using till then and had to regress. Since the only thing holding Dahomey in power was its military, the collapse of the kingdom soon followed.

The French, soon saw the opportunity in the weakening of the Dahomey, and in a series of attacks managed to secure Porto-Novo and Cotonau, which were 2 of the 3 major trade ports of the Dahomey.

Once these ports were lost, the trade at Whydah collapsed, as the French began to draw a major part of the trade to its ports.

The succession of Behanzin (1889 – 94) was the mark of the last true Dahomeyan king. He managed to hold the French back for 5 years, but a depleted treasury and the might of the French navy proved too much for him, and a French expedition under Col. Alfred-Amédée Dodds defeated the Dahomeyans and Behanzin was deported to the West Indies. The bulk of 3,000 men fielded by French army were askari from Senegal and Gabon led by white officers and legionnaires.

dahomey - french troops scramble for africa
French expedition under Col. Alfred-Amédée Dodds. Illustration by UNESCO.

Benhanzin was followed by Angoli-Agbo, who was a puppet installed by the French to smooth the transition from Dahomey being an independent kingdom to being absorbed into the French Empire, with the capital of the colony at Porto-Novo. There ended the Kingdom of Dahomey.

Kings’ list

King Start of Rule End of Rule
Ganyihessou 1620 Unknown
Dakodonou 1620 1645
Houégbadja 1645 1680
Akaba 1680 1708
Agaja 1708 1740
Tegbesu (Tegbessou) 1740 1774
Kpengla 1774 1789
Agonglo 1790 1797
Adandozan 1797 1818
Guézo 1818 1858
Glèlè 1858 1889
Béhanzin 1889 1894
Agoli-Agbo 1894 1900

Royal Palace

dahomey - Palace of King Houegbadja 1645-1680 pic1
Royal Palace of King Houégbadja (1645-1680). Illustration by UNESCO.
dahomey - walls of palace of king Houegbadja 1640-1685
Walls of palace of king Houegbadja (1645-1680) Pictures: Lynne Ann Ellsworth Larsen, University of Iowa.
dahomey - plan of palaces of king guezo and king gbele
Plan of palaces of king Guezo and king Glele (1818-1890). Sketch: Lynne Ann Ellsworth Larsen, University of Iowa.

Global impact of slave-raiding by European, Arab and African states

Between 1500 AD and 1890 AD, over twenty-two million (22,000,000) Africans were sold into slavery (R.A. Austen 1979). Seven million (6,856,000) were sold east, 3,956,000 were sold across the Sahara and 2,900,000 across the Red sea and the Indian Ocean (R.A. Austen 1979). Fifteen million (15,000,000) were sold who crossed the Atlantic. 70% of all Africans sold into slavery in the Americas were transported by Portugal and Britain. The median income for the United Kingdom for the tax year 2017 (6 Apr 16 – 5 Apr 17) was £27,300 (UK Office of National Statistics, 2018). The average life expectancy of a slave in the Caribbean was 9 years (D. Olusoga, 2016).

When slavery was abolished between 1834 and 1900, slave owners in Europe and the United States were compensated for each slave they freed. In the UK, slaves were forced by law to work up to 4 extra years free, to prepare them for freedom as labourers on “farms”. Assuming nine years of work and an annual salary of £27,300, importing 15,000,000 slaves was equivalent to a cash injection unpaid labour costs of £3.7 trillion over nine years (or $5.2 trillion). 22 million slaves exported was therefore equivalent to £5.4 trillion over nine years or $7.6 trillion over nine years.

dahomey - major west african trade centres
European-West African Atlantic Trade Centres. Image: R. Austen (1987).

Concluding remarks

The rises and fall of the kingdom of Dahomey provides lessons for reflection:

  • Women could be as brilliant as men in government
  • Women could be as effective as men in battle. Did Dahomey inspire the Black Panther dora milaje?
  • Given the Spartan training of women, skill and modern weapons could achieve more than numbers
  • No state that profits from injustice against its neighbours – raiding its neighbours, and selling captives as slaves – will attract military support from them in the time of trouble.
  • Sustainable economies are not built on short-sighted exports
  • Sale of arms to morally dubious states destabilizes the region

In this article, I have tried to be honest about the achievements and moral failures of Dahomey, judging by today’s morals. What do you think we can learn from Dahomey?

Bibliography

Alpern, Stanley B. (1998). “On the Origins of the Amazons of Dahomey”. History in Africa.

“Dahomey and the Slave Trade: Reflections on the Historiography of the Rise of Dahomey”. The Journal of African History.

Bay, Edna (1998). Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics, and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey. University of Virginia Press.

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