The Kingdom of Dahomey, also called 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. A society where women were both respected and feared, they 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 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.
Although we find the Kingdom of Dahomey interesting for its view on the role of women, it also had a questionable side which involved an economy based on supplying the Atlantic slave trade.
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 won 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. They all paid tribute to the powerful Yoruba kingdom of Oyo to the east.
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 Allada and Whydah, where European forts already existed. This gave him access to a massive armory of advanced weaponry uncommon in all of Africa.
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 his rule Dahomey reached the high point of its power and fame, capturing most of its neighbours and demanding tribute from the rest.
Areas under rule and the administration of the Kingdom of Dahomey
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. This amounted roughly to 10,000 square kilometres (or 3,900 square miles)
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.
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 more solid constructions of stones, but still with the use of palm thatch leaves for roofs.
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. What the military lacked in numbers but it made up for this with discipline and weapons. 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 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 (as he is remembered) and his armies battled and defeated the Oyo kingdom.
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. They also served as the only royal guards during times of peace, again showing the need to respect women. During the Egba-Dahomey war in 1851, among the three thousands of Dahomey soldiers who were killed, the Yoruba found many women.
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 police the slave trade after the Slave Trade Act of 1807, created a West Africa Squadron branch within the Royal Navy which had the remit to suppress the Atlantic slave trade and patrol the coast of West Africa. Britain targeted the ships of slavers from the United States, France, Spain, Portugal, Holland, West Africa, Arabia and from 1822 Brazil. The West Africa Squadron freed 150,000 slaves and captured 1,600 slave ships during a 52-year period after its creation in 1808. Although, Britain did not outlaw slavery in its colonies until 1833 with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. From 1833 onwards the market for slaves started to shrink.
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.
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. This ended the Kingdom of Dahomey around 1904.
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.