Wallace G. Mills Hist. 316 7 Dahomey


- see the excerpt from Herskovits, “The King of Dahomey and his Court”.

- the kingdom of Dahomey had its origins in the 17th C as Abomey,but the conquest of 2 coastal kingdoms in the 1720s (Allada in 1724 and Whydah in 1729) really established the kingdom (see map of Dahomey); however, Dahomey was subordinate to Yoruba Oyo in Nigeria until early in the 19th C. The small dotted line on the accompanying map indicates the approximate boundaries of the Kingdom of Dahomey at its maximum in the 19th C; as you can see,the kingdom was only a small part of the French colony created at the end of the 19th C.

- Dahomey was built on the slave trade; kings used profits from the slave trade to acquire guns with which they were able to expand their kingdom by conquest and incorporation of smaller kingdoms.Dahomey deliberately isolated itself from European factors (the agents for European companies) who had to remain at the main port,Whydah, at the coast; only a very few privileged Europeans were allowed to journey inland to visit the capital and see the king.

- most of the slaves were acquired either by trade into the interior or by raids to the north and west into Nigeria. During the Yoruba wars (this is when Dahomey ended its subordination to Oyo), many slaves were acquired by trade with one or other of the sides in that essentially civil war.

- Dahomey was very reluctant to give up the slave trade in the 19th C and continued to carry on a clandestine trade past the mid-19th C.

- Dahomey was probably the most highly centralised state in Africa;it was an almost perfect example of absolute monarchy—beyond France under Louis XIV.

- the kingdom gained great notoriety for 2 features:

  1. human sacrifices at the annual ‘customs’;
  2. the ‘Amazons’—regiments of women soldiers.

    Annual ‘Custom’

- each year for a number of days, there was a series of rites and celebrations centred on the king’s court involving rites and ceremonies for the king’s ancestors; thus, it was part of the ancestor cult of the royal clan, but because of the importance of the royal clan to the kingdom, the ancestor cult of the royal clan had many dimensions of a national religion.

- this much was common in Africa; the great notoriety arose from the fact that a prominent component of these activities, known as the ‘custom’, was the execution of a number of people(dozens or ever hundreds) in a context that made them sacrifices.Thus, ‘human sacrifice’ sent a shudder of horror and fascination in European audiences.

- it appears that most of the victims were people who had been condemned to death for crimes; executions were saved for the annual‘custom’.

- some of the victims were slaves, but they were executed for some crime; slaves were valuable items for the slave trade so they were not killed lightly.

- while not excusing this action, it is well to recall that public executions were still the norm in Europe and N. America until the 2nd half of 19th C., that the death penalty was imposed for a multitude of offenses (many of them relatively minor or even trivial—one could say that many of these victims were sacrifices to the god ‘Order’ as in ‘Law and Order’) and that torture was used in many places until near the end of 18th C; at present, many executions are semi-public still in the U. S. of A at the end of the 20th C!


- women had been used originally as a deception in a battle(women had been dressed as soldiers in rear formations to make it look as if the Dahomean army was bigger than it was); however,they had been formed into a real regiment which was used primarily as a reserve in battle. Later, they had come to serve as a personal guard for the king. This caused great amazement for early generations of European visitors.

- by the time of its conquest in the 1890s by France, Dahomey was made up of 7 provinces; each had its own governor and assorted officials. Government was based on territorial divisions.

    - these male officials were not chosen from the royal family in order to avoid potential challenges to the king; in fact male relatives were excluded from almost everything; however, some female relatives did have important roles.

    - below these were regional & village officials, all of whom were appointed by the king; even though there was a tendency for village chiefs to be hereditary, the king could set aside the succession.

    - the village chiefs acted as arbitrators rather than judges between family heads of those who made up the village.

    4 Classes

  1. Intermediate—children of slaves; these people were not free, but they could not be sold, especially. in the international (i.e., trans Atlantic) slave trade.

  2. Free citizens—farmers, artisans, soldiers.

  3. Privileged classes —members of royal clan, political officers, high ranking religious leaders (heads of cults).

- most decisions of village chiefs were appealable to higher levels if the participants were dissatisfied and all important cases went to the king.

- there was an astonishing degree of control exercised by the king:

- there were some checks on the absolutism of king—he had high level advisors or ministers (for war, treasurer, etc.);although the king was not bound to accept their advice, mostly it was wise for him to do so.

- as a check on the bureaucracy and ministers, the king had a kind of shadow cabinet from within the king’s household—often from among his wives or sisters.

- each one kept an eye on the activities of the official to whom she was assigned to ensure that the official did not get out of hand, cheat or threaten the king.

- the king maintained a system of relay runners—‘halfheads’(their heads were shaved on one side)—who carried messages& instructions to all parts of the kingdom. Messages and orders could be transmitted anywhere in the kingdom within 2-4 days.

- officials had to give reports several times a year; in fact,higher officials (e.g., provincial governors) had to spend much of their time at the royal court—deputies in the provincial capitals did much of the actual administration.

- Dahomey had a monetary system: cowry shells were the basic currency, but trade goods were used also—guns, bolts of cloth etc.

- Europeans tried to take advantage of this currency; they brought so many cowry shells that the shells lost value (inflation). As a result, European trade goods became the basic currency used in the purchase of slaves.

- farming was very important; agriculture was mostly carried out by men, usually in communal gangs of young men; this was different from most of the rest of Africa where women did most of the agricultural work. However, there were many artisans also who made products in addition to farming.

- the market economy mostly involved producers selling to consumers,but some women acted as middlemen. The latter would travel from market to market buying and selling goods.

- all trade with Europeans was a royal monopoly and guarded jealously by successive kings; kings never allowed Europeans to bypass and trade directly with people in the kingdom. As a military, predatory state, the costs of government and the military were high; thus,the king needed all the revenue from taxes and the profits of trade that he could get.

- Europeans and their influence were confined to one port on the coast—Whydah.

- permission to go inland, especially to the capital, was given only infrequently and as a special favour; because so few Europeans were allowed in, there were only a limited number of eyewitness accounts in spite of the long history of trade and contacts; no missionaries were allowed in.

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