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Kingdom of Dahomey

the predecessor of modern-day Benin

Oral tradition holds that the foundations of the Kingdom of Dahomey were laid by the Kingdom of Allada, the capital of which was situated on the road between Whydah (now Ouidah) and Abomey. When the King of Allada died, a succession struggle led one of his sons, Do-Aklin, to move a large population onto the Abomey Plateau, an area already inhabited by the Gedevi people. When Do-Akin died, his son Dakodonu became the leader of the group and was given permission by the Gedevi chiefs to continue living on the plateau. When Dakodonu requested even more land from a prominent chief named Dan, the chief responded sarcastically "Should I open up my belly and build you a house in it?" Dakodonu responded by killing Dan and building his palace on the spot. The name "Dahomey" comes from this incident; Dan-homey means "stomach of Dan."

Dakodonu's grandson Houegbadja (reigned ~1645-1685) began the expansion of Dahomey by raiding and taking over towns outside of the Abomey Plateau. He was succeeded by Akaba (1685-1708), who was in turn succeeded by Agadja (1708-1732). The latter expanded the kingdom by conquering Allada in 1724 and Whydah in 1727. This expansion was made possible by King Agadja's army, which, unlike those of surrounding regions, consisted of professional soldiers. The army was also very well disciplined, and its weapons were far superior to those of its "competitors." It was after the conquest of Whydah that the kingdom became known as Dahomey. The increased size of the kingdom, particularly along the Atlantic coast, made Dahomey into a regional power. That power led to war with the Oyo Empire (in what is now Nigeria), which ended after twelve years with Dahomey assuming a tributary status to the Oyo.

Control of the Atlantic coast also put Dahomeyans in contact with European slave traders, and the kingdom prospered thanks to it providing an almost endless supply of slaves to those traders. The kingdom continued to prosper and expand under Tegbessou (1732-1774), Kpengla (1774-1789), Agonglo (1789-1797), and Abandozan (1797-1818). King Abandozan was overthrown by Ghezo (1818-1858), and it was during his reign that the Kingdom of Dahomey reached its greatest extent of territory, power, and fame. He heightened the splendor of the court, encouraged the arts, and refined the bureaucracy, and his armies freed Dahomey from the humiliation of paying tribute to the Oyo.

the Kingdom of Dahomey at its greatest extent

Dahomey's fortunes began declining after Great Britain abolished the overseas slave trade in the 1840's, but Ghezo was able to transition most of the kingdom's economy to the export of palm oil, using captured slaves to work the palm plantations. In 1851 he signed a commercial treaty with the French in 1851 that allowed them to maintain a fort at Whydah, which also provided some income for the kingdom.

Palm oil proved far less profitable than slaves, and Dahomey's fortunes were still declining when Gherzo was succeeded by Gélélé (1858-1889). King Gélélé made matters even worse by frequently attacking Dahomey's neighbors, persecuting Christians, and encouraging a revival of the slave trade. To check his aggressions, Great Britain annexed Lagos (Nigeria) in 1861. In 1863, the French signed a treaty of commerce and friendship with the King of Porto Novo, the boundaries of which were fixed by a treaty with Great Britain in 1864. In 1868, Gélélé signed a treaty giving France the right to establish themselves at Cotonou, even though the local chiefs would have preferred British protect ion, and ceding control of Agoué and Porto Seguro to France. In 1883, France consolidated Porto Novo, Agoué, and Porto Seguro as Etablissements du Golfe de Benin (Gulf Establishments in Benin). An 1885 treaty between France and Germany gave Porto Novo and Porto Seguro to Germany, and Great Britain recognized France's right to Cotonou in 1889.

The reign of Behanzin (1889-1894) was marked by increasing hostilities with the French. On October 3, 1889, Behanzin signed a treaty recognizing France's right to protect Porto Novo and occupy Cotonou, for which the king was to receive compensation of no more than 20,000 francs a year. The treaty was widely disliked by the French and reoutinely ignored by the Dahomeyans, however. By 1892 relations between the Dahomeyans and the French had become so tense that the French launched a full-scale expedition against the Dahomeyans, led by Colonel Alfred-Amédée Dodds. Behanzin was forced to admit defeat in January 1894, and was soon after deported to the West Indies.

The Kingdom of Dahomey was allowed to continue under a puppet monarch until 1899, when it and the rest of present-day Benin were formally incorporated into French West Africa. It was granted full autonomy as the Republic of Dahomey in 1958, and full independence in 1960.

Encyclopædia Britannica

French West Africa

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This page was last updated on May 22, 2017.