Friday, August 31, 2018

Rise and Fall of the Dahomey Kingdom

In the west coast of Africa, a kingdom rose that defied European ideas of African civilization as disorganized, chaotic, and unsophisticated. The Kingdom of Dahomey left us the Royal Palaces of Abomey as a testament to its achievements as a kingdom – powerful, artistics, and wealthy. Wealth powered by men and women sold to slavery and shipped to the New World powering the Triangular Trade of the Atlantic.
Victims for Sacrifice in
The History of Dahomy, An Inland Kingdom of Africa, 1793

Foundation of Dahomey

Dahomey emerged in the environs of African savanna. Its hot and humid climate made life an everyday struggle from a people called the Fon who survived through maize and root crops. From the Fon people and the harsh environment of the lands now known as Benin rose the Kingdom of Dahomey.

Dahomey traced its roots around the 1620’s when the Kingdom of Allada descended into civil war between 3 brothers. Kokpon, one of the 3, won and became King of Allada. A second brother, Te-Agdanlin fled in exil and founded the city that later became known as Porto-Novo. And finally, Do-Aklin, found refuge in a plateau called Abomey and set a city.

From Do-Aklin, the Aladaxonu Dynasty ruled the Abomey, strengthen it, expanded it, elevated it to a kingdom, and provided 12 Kings of Dahomey starting with Wegbaja who ruled from 1645 until 1685.

Rise of the Dahomey Kingdom

Wegbaja’s successors continued with the expansion of Dahomey, especially during the reign of King Agaja (r. 1708 – 1732). He marched the Dahomey army and conquered the Kingdom of Allada in 1724 and the coastal city of Whyda or Ouidah in 1727, opening up the Kingdom to the Atlantic trade. Agaja’s expansion utilized covert operation by using a spy network called the Agbajigbeto. Besides spies, gunpowder weapons bought from Europeans gave Dahomey the firepower it used to defeat its enemies.


The slave trade financed Agaja’s weapons for war. Dahomey bartered with Europeans with the former giving slave to the latter that provided weapons. Human trafficking became a state enterprise providing the life line of the Dahomey Kingdom. So vital slavery to the prosperity of the Kingdom, from 1680 up to 1730, Dahomey sold a total of 20,000 slaves annually. Thousands of Africans sent to slavery in the Americas powered Dahomey’s prosperity and expansion.

Prisoners of war made up most of the slave sold to the Europeans. War to Dahomey became more than just territorial expansion but collection of captives for shipment as slaves to Europeans. Thus, war became a means of survival for Dahomey.


Due to constant warfare, the Dahomey people turned into a militarized society. Rulers of Dahomey expected men and women to fight. Conscription based from a population census provided the manpower of the military.
A Leader of the Amazons
Surprisingly, even the wives of the Kings created military units. Westerners amazed by the women in the Dahomey military and dubbed them as Amazons, based from the mythical fearless warriors of ancient Grecce.
Dahomey Female Soldiers
Dahomey Stopped

Through the fighting men and women, the Kingdom of Dahomey expanded its domains until the year 1730 when a devastating defeat grounded everything to a halt. Dahomey clashed with a powerful kingdom of Oyo in its west. The Kingdom failed to subdue its western neighbor and even pushed back until it faced defeat. It suffered the humiliation of paying tribute to the Kingdom of Oyo degrading them into a tributary state. For hundreds of years, Dahomey faced humilitation of having the Oyo Kingdom as overlords.

Pinnacle of Dahomey Kingdom

Though Dahomey fell to a status of a tributary state, its martial spirit remained with its people. After about a hundred years of humiliation, a Dahomey King, Gezo (r. 1818 – 1858) revived the glory of the Kingdom and brought it to its pinnacle.
King Gezo
In 1823, King Gezo fought against the Oyo Kingdom. By the war’s end, Oyo failed to crush Gezo’s ambitions and Dahomey broke free from its status as tributary state. Following its freedom, Dahomey once again embarked in expanding its domains again.

Dahomey Society and Government

As Dahomey reached its apex, the King of the Dahomey Kingdom stood ever stronger at the top of society. He held absolute power with authority over political and religious affairs of the country. A religion based on ancestral worship, the King presided over an elaborate annual ceremony that involved human sacrifices. In political matters, he chaired a council of official that resembled a modern cabinet. The council included a Migan (Chief Minister), a Meu (Finance Minister), a Yevogan (Trade Minister), and a Tokpo (Agriculture Minister). A To-no-num (Chief Eunuch), an Agan (Army General), and an Adjaho (Head of Police) also joined the council meetings.

While commoners manned the government bureaucracy, the King had the power to appoint and remove governors who oversaw 6 provinces of the Kingdom. Women played also a part in the government becoming Nayes or those who monitored the activities of men holding government positions, especially the King’s Council. They had the trust of the King to whom they reported their findings.

Slaves occupied the lowest sector of Dahomey society. However, Dahomey slavery differed from the brutal concept of the west. In Dahomey, a slave had the chance to be free either with the death of his or her or of the master. Also a slave’s offspring did not inherit the parent’s status, thus making slavery isolated to an individual and even temporary.

Dahomey Culture

With wealth from slavery and power from its military and conquest, the Royal Palace of Abomey glorified the Kings of the Kingdom and displayed its culture. The Palace exhibited the resourcefulness and artistic skills of the Dahomey people. The Palace Complex of 1-storey mud brick buildings showed decorations of bas reliefs and sculptures depicting the power of the King as well as animals seen in the savanna environs.

Decline and Fall

The fall and decline of the Dahomey Kingdom came along with the abolition of slavery. In 1840, Great Britain abolished the practice and began to enforce it across the Atlantic, which included Dahomey. As a result of the ban, Dahomey lost its foreign market and with it, its source of wealth and energy. King Gezu attempted to shift the economy’s focus from slavery to agricultural produce, in particular, palm oil.

The landscape of Dahomey changed as palm tree plantations grew to produce more oil to match the lost income from slavery. In the end, however, even with slave labor, the project failed to equal the profits from slavery. Slowly, with the loss of the slave trade, war and raiding became less important as men and women focus in maintaining the palm tree plantations.

The loss of Dahomey power became evident when it failed to annex a neighboring kingdom of Abeokuta. The conflict also showed the growing influence of the Europeans in the regions as Britain supported Abeokuta and the French posturing to enter the region. Following Gezo, Dahomey continued its descent.

Between 1863 and 1865, the French began to make its presence felt in the Bight of Benin. It placed Porto-Novo under its sphere of influence by declaring it its protectorate. Dahomey and French relations soured as both laid claim control over the port of Cotonou that laid between French controlled Porto-Novo and Dahomey controlled Ouidah.
King Behanzin
The powder keg of tension between France and Dahomey finally exploded in 1892. King Behanzin (r. 1889 – 1894) declare war against the French in 1892. Within 2 years, the Dahomey army stood no match to the industrialized military of the French. By 1894, France deposed the Behanzin and declared a protectorate over the Kingdom. Finally in 1904, the Kingdom of Dahomey transformed to a fully fledged colony of the French empire. Dahomey just became a part of Europe’s scramble for Africa.

See also:

Law, Robert et. al. "Benin." In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 31, 2018. URL:

The Editors of Encyclopedia. "Dahomey." In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 31, 2018. URL: 

General Reference:
Alimi, Shina. "Dahomey." In African Kingdoms: An Encyclopedia of Empires and Civilizations. Edited by Saheed Aderinto. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2017.

Browne, Dallas. "Aja-Speaking Peoples: Dahomey, Rise of, Seventeenth Century." In Encyclopedia of African History. Edited by Kevin Shillington. New York, New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005.


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