The Kingdom of
Dahomey (/dəˈhoʊmi/) was an African kingdom (located
within the area of the present-day country of Benin) that existed from
about 1600 until 1894, when the last king, Béhanzin, was defeated by
the French, and the country was annexed into the French colonial
Dahomey 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.
For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Kingdom of
Dahomey was a
key regional state, eventually ending tributary status to the Oyo
Empire. The Kingdom of
Dahomey was an important regional power that
had an organized domestic economy built on conquest and slave
labor, significant international trade with European powers, a
centralized administration, taxation systems, and an organized
military. Notable in the kingdom were significant artwork, an
all-female military unit known as the
Dahomey Amazons, and the
elaborate religious practices of Vodun with the large festival of the
Annual Customs of Dahomey.
2.1 Kings of Dahomey
2.2 Rule of
2.3 Rule of Tegbesu (1740- 1774)
2.4 End of the kingdom
3.1 The king
3.2 The royal court
3.3 Relations with other states
5.1 Domestic economy
6.1 Royal ancestor worship
8 In popular culture
9 See also
11 Further reading
12 External links
The Kingdom of
Dahomey was referred to by many different names and has
been written in a variety of ways, including Danxome, Danhome, and
Fon. The name Fon relates to the dominant ethnic and language group,
the Fon people, of the royal families of the kingdom and is how the
kingdom first became known to Europeans. The names Dahomey, Danxome,
and Danhome all have a similar origin story, which historian Edna Bay
says may be a false etymology.
The story goes that Dakodonu, considered the second king in modern
kings lists, was granted permission by the Gedevi chiefs, the local
rulers, to settle in the
Dakodonu requested additional
land from a prominent chief named Dan (or Da) to which the chief
responded sarcastically "Should I open up my belly and build you a
house in it?" For this insult,
Dakodonu killed Dan and began the
construction of his palace on the spot. The name of the kingdom was
derived from the incident: Dan=chief dan, xo=Belly, me=Inside of.
History of the Kingdom of Dahomey
History of the Kingdom of Dahomey and Kings of Dahomey
The Kingdom of
Dahomey was established around 1600 by the Fon people
who had recently settled in the area (or were possibly a result of
intermarriage between the
Aja people and the local Gedevi). The
foundational king for
Dahomey is often considered to be
1645–1685), who built the Royal Palaces of
Abomey and began raiding
and taking over towns outside of the
Kings of Dahomey
Start of Rule
End of Rule
Victims for sacrifice - from The history of Dahomy, an inland Kingdom
of Africa, 1793.
King Agaja, Houegbadja's grandson, came to the throne in 1708 and
began significant expansion of the Kingdom of Dahomey. This expansion
was made possible by the superior military force of King Agaja’s
Dahomey. In contrast to surrounding regions,
Dahomey employed a
professional standing army numbering around ten thousand. What the
Dahomey lacked in numbers, they made up for in discipline and superior
arms. In 1724,
Agaja conquered Allada, the origin for the royal family
according to oral tradition, and in 1727 he conquered Whydah. This
increased size of the kingdom, particularly along the Atlantic coast,
and increased power made
Dahomey into a regional power. The result was
near constant warfare with the main regional state, the Oyo Empire,
from 1728 until 1740. The warfare with the
Oyo empire resulted in
Dahomey assuming a tributary status to the Oyo empire.
Rule of Tegbesu (1740- 1774)
Tegbesu, also spelled as Tegbessou, was King of Dahomey, in
present-day Benin, from 1740 until 1774. Tegbesu was not the oldest
son of King
Agaja (1718-1740), but was selected following his
father’s death after winning a succession struggle with a brother.
Agaja had significantly expanded the Kingdom of
his reign, notably conquering Whydah in 1727. This increased the size
of the kingdom and increased both domestic dissent and regional
Tegbessou ruled over
Dahomey at a point where it needed to
increase its legitimacy over those who it had recently conquered. As a
result, Tegbesu is often credited with a number of administrative
changes in the kingdom in order to establish the legitimacy of the
kingdom. The slave trade increased significantly during Tegbessou's
reign and begun to provide the largest part of the income for the
king. In addition, Tegbesu's rule is the one with the first
significant kpojito or mother of the leopard with
Hwanjile in that
role. The kpojito became a prominently important person in Dahomey
royalty. Hwanjile, in particular, is said to have changed dramatically
the religious practices of
Dahomey by creating two new deities and
more closely tying worship to that of the king. According to one oral
tradition, as part of the tribute owed by
Dahomey to Oyo,
Agaja had to
give to Oyo one of his sons. The story claims that only Hwanjile, of
all of Agaja's wives, was willing to allow her son to go to Oyo. This
act of sacrifice, according to the oral tradition made Tegbesu, was
favored by Agaja.
Agaja reportedly tells Tegbesu that he is the future
king, but his brother Zinga is still the official heir. 
End of the kingdom
The kingdom fought the
First Franco-Dahomean War and Second
Franco-Dahomean War with France. The kingdom was reduced and made a
French protectorate in 1894.
In 1904 the area became part of a French colony, French Dahomey.
French Dahomey became the self-governing colony called the
Republic of Dahomey
Republic of Dahomey and gained full independence in 1960. It was
renamed in 1975 the People's Republic of Benin, and in 1991 the
Republic of Benin. The
Dahomey kingship exists as a ceremonial role to
Early writings, predominantly written by European slave traders, often
presented the kingdom as an absolute monarchy led by a despotic king.
However, these depictions were often deployed as arguments by
different sides in the slave trade debates, mainly in the United
Kingdom, and as such were probably exaggerations. Recent
historical work has emphasized the limits of monarchical power in the
Kingdom of Dahomey. Historian John Yoder, with attention to the
Great Council in the kingdom, argued that its activities do not "imply
that Dahomey's government was democratic or even that her politics
approximated those of nineteenth-century European monarchies. However,
such evidence does support the thesis that governmental decisions were
molded by conscious responses to internal political pressures as well
as by executive fiat." The primary political divisions revolved
around villages with chiefs and administrative posts appointed by the
king and acting as his representatives to adjudicate disputes in the
Ghezo displayed with a royal umbrella
Main article: King of Dahomey
King of Dahomey (Ahosu in the Fon language) was the sovereign
power of the kingdom. All of the kings were claimed to be part of the
Alladaxonou dynasty, claiming descent from the royal family in Allada.
Much of the succession rules and administrative structures were
created early by Houegbadja, Akaba, and Agaja. Succession through the
male members of the line was the norm typically going to the oldest
son, but not always. The king was selected largely through
discussion and decision in the meetings of the Great Council, although
how this operated was not always clear. The Great Council
brought together a host of different dignitaries from throughout the
kingdom yearly to meet at the Annual Customs of Dahomey. Discussions
would be lengthy and included members, both men and women, from
throughout the kingdom. At the end of the discussions, the king would
declare the consensus for the group.
The royal court
Key positions in the King's court included the migan, the mehu, the
yovogan, the kpojito (or queen-mother), and later the chacha (or
viceroy) of Whydah. The migan (combination of mi-our and gan-chief)
was a primary consul for the king, a key judicial figure, and served
as the head executioner. The mehu was similarly a key administrative
officer who managed the palaces and the affairs of the royal family,
economic matters, and the areas to the south of
Allada (making the
position key to contact with Europeans).
Relations with other states
The relations between
Dahomey and other countries were complex and
heavily impacted by the Gold trade. The
Oyo empire engaged in regular
warfare with the kingdom of
Dahomey was a tributary to Oyo
from 1732 until 1823. The city-state of Porto-Novo, under the
protection of Oyo, and
Dahomey had a long-standing rivalry largely
over control of the Gold trade along the coast. The rise of Abeokuta
in the 1840s created another power rivaling Dahomey, largely by
creating a safe haven for people from the slave trade.
The last known slave ship that sailed to the United States of America
to port in Mobile, Alabama brought a group of 110 slaves from the
Dahomey Kingdom, purchased long after the abolition of the
international slave trade.
Thomas Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting
Importation of Slaves into law on March 2, effective Jan 1, 1808.
The story was mentioned in a newspaper "The Tarboro Southerner" in
July 14, 1860. On Monday, July 9th, 1860, a schooner called "The
Clotilda," captained by William Foster arrived in the bay of Mobile,
Alabama carrying the last known shipment of slaves to the US from the
Dahomey Kingdom. In 1858, a man known as Capt. Timothy Meaher made a
wager with acquaintances that despite the law banning the slave trade,
he could safely bring a load of slaves from Africa.
Describing how he came in possession of the slaves, Captain William
Foster wrote in his journal in 1860, "...from thence I went to see the
King of Dahomey. Having agreeably transacted affairs with the Prince
we went to the warehouse where they had in confinement four thousand
captives in a state of nudity from which they gave me liberty to
select one hundred and twenty-five as mine offering to brand them for
me, from which I preemptorily [sic] forbid; commenced taking on cargo
of negroes [sic], successfully securing on board one hundred and ten."
A notable descendant of a slave from this ship is Ahmir Khalib
Thompson (American music artist known as Questlove). Mr. Thompson's
story is depicted in the PBS Television show Finding Your Roots
[Season 4, Episode 9].
The military of the Kingdom of
Dahomey was divided into two units: the
right and the left. The right was controlled by the migan and the left
was controlled by the mehu. At least by the time of Agaja, the kingdom
had developed a standing army that remained encamped wherever the king
was. Soldiers in the army were recruited as young as seven or eight
years old, initially serving as shield carriers for regular soldiers.
After years of apprenticeship and military experience, they were
allowed to join the army as regular soldiers. To further incentivize
the soldiers, each soldier received bonuses paid in cowry shells for
each enemy they killed or captured in battle. This combination of
lifelong military experience and monetary incentives resulted in a
cohesive, well-disciplined military. One European said Agaja’s
standing army consisted of, “elite troops, brave and
well-disciplined, led by a prince full of valor and prudence,
supported by a staff of experienced officers.”
In addition to being well-trained, the
Dahomey army under
also very well armed. The
Dahomey army favored imported European
weapons as opposed to traditional weapons. For example, they used
European flintlock muskets in long range combat and imported steel
swords and cutlasses in close combat. The
Dahomey army also possessed
When going into battle, the king would take a secondary position to
the field commander with the reason given that if any spirit were to
punish the commander for decisions it should not be the king.
Unlike other regional powers, the military of
Dahomey did not have a
significant cavalry (like the Oyo empire) or naval power (which
prevented expansion along the coast). The
Dahomey Amazons, a unit of
all-female soldiers, is one of the most unusual aspects of the
military of the kingdom.
Dahomey female soldiers
The Dahomean state became widely known for its corps of female
soldiers. Their origins are debated; they may have formed from a
palace guard or from gbetos (female hunting teams).
They were organized around the year 1729 to fill out the army and make
it look larger in battle, armed only with banners. The women
reportedly behaved so courageously they became a permanent corps. In
the beginning the soldiers were criminals pressed into service rather
than being executed. Eventually, however, the corps became respected
enough that King
Ghezo ordered every family to send him their
daughters, with the most fit being chosen as soldiers.[dubious –
The economic structure of the kingdom was highly intertwined with the
political and religious systems and these developed together
significantly. The main currency was
The domestic economy largely focused on agriculture and crafts for
local consumption. Until the development of palm oil, very little
agricultural or craft goods were traded outside of the kingdom.
Markets served a key role in the kingdom and were organized around a
rotating cycle of four days with a different market each day (the
market type for the day was religiously sanctioned). Agriculture
work was largely decentralized and done by most families. However,
with the expansion of the kingdom agricultural plantations began to be
a common agricultural method in the kingdom. Craft work was largely
dominated by a formal guild system.
Herskovits recounts a complex tax system in the kingdom, in which
officials who represented the king, the tokpe, gathered data from each
village regarding their harvest. Then the king set a tax based upon
the level of production and village population. In addition, the
king's own land and production were taxed. After significant road
construction undertaken by the kingdom, toll booths were also
established that collected yearly taxes based on the goods people
carried and their occupation. Officials also sometimes imposed fines
for public nuisance before allowing people to pass.
Left: Dance of the Fon chiefs during celebrations. Right: The
Abomey (1908). Veteran warriors of the Fon king
Béhanzin, son of king Glele.
The Kingdom of
Dahomey shared many religious rituals with surrounding
populations; however, it also developed unique ceremonies, beliefs,
and religious stories for the kingdom. These included royal ancestor
worship and the specific vodun practices of the kingdom.
Royal ancestor worship
Main article: Annual Customs of Dahomey
Early kings established clear worship of royal ancestors and
centralized their ceremonies in the Annual Customs of Dahomey. The
spirits of the kings had an exalted position in the land of the dead
and it was necessary to get their permission for many activities on
earth. Ancestor worship pre-existed the kingdom of Dahomey;
however, under King Agaja, a cycle of ritual was created centered on
first celebrating the ancestors of the king and then celebrating a
Annual Customs of Dahomey
Annual Customs of Dahomey (xwetanu or huetanu in Fon) involved
multiple elaborate components and some aspects may have been added in
the 19th century. In general, the celebration involved distribution of
gifts, human sacrifice, military parades, and political councils. Its
main religious aspect was to offer thanks and gain the approval for
ancestors of the royal lineage. However, the custom also included
military parades, public discussions, gift giving (the distribution of
money to and from the king), and human sacrifice and the spilling of
Dahomey had a unique form of
West African Vodun
West African Vodun that linked together
preexisting animist traditions with vodun practices. Oral history
recounted that Hwanjile, a wife of
Agaja and mother of Tegbessou
brought Vodun to the kingdom and ensured its spread. The primary deity
is the combined Mawu-Lisa (Mawu having female characteristics and Lisa
having male characteristics) and it is claimed that this god took over
the world that was created by their mother Nana-Buluku. Mawu-Lisa
governs the sky and is the highest pantheon of gods, but other gods
exist in the earth and in thunder. Religious practice organized
different priesthoods and shrines for each different god and each
different pantheon (sky, earth or thunder). Women made up a
significant amount of the priest class and the chief priest was always
a descendent of Dakodonou.
Zoomorphic representation of
Béhanzin as a shark
The arts in
Dahomey were unique and distinct from the artistic
traditions elsewhere in Africa. The arts were substantially supported
by the king and his family, had non-religious traditions, assembled
multiple different materials, and borrowed widely from other peoples
in the region. Common art forms included wood and ivory carving,
metalwork (including silver, iron and brass, appliqué cloth, and clay
The king was key in supporting the arts and many of them provided
significant sums for artists resulting in the unique development, for
the region, of a non-religious artistic tradition in the kingdom.
Artists were not of a specific class but both royalty made important
artistic contributions. Kings were often depicted in large
zoomorphic forms with each king resembling a particular animal in
Suzanne Blier identifies two unique aspects of art in Dahomey: 1.
Assemblage of different components and 2. Borrowing from other states.
Assemblage of art, involving the combination of multiple components
(often of different materials) combined together in a single piece of
art, was common in all forms and was the result of the various kings
promoting finished products rather than particular styles. This
assembling may have been a result of the second feature, which
involved the wide borrowing of styles and techniques from other
cultures and states. Clothing, cloth work, architecture, and the other
forms of art all resemble other artistic representation from around
Much of the art work revolved around the royalty. Each of the palaces
at the Royal Palaces of
Abomey contained elaborate bas-reliefs
(noundidė in Fon) providing a record of the king's
accomplishments. Each king had his own palace within the palace
complex and within the outer walls of their personal palace was a
series of clay reliefs designed specific to that king. These were not
solely designed for royalty and chiefs, temples, and other important
buildings had similar reliefs. The reliefs would present Dahomey
kings often in military battles against the Oyo or Mahi tribes to the
Dahomey with their opponents depicted in various negative
depictions (the king of Oyo is depicted in one as a baboon eating a
cob of corn). Historical themes dominated representation and
characters were basically designed and often assembled on top of each
other or in close proximity creating an ensemble effect. In
addition to the royal depictions in the reliefs, royal members were
depicted in power sculptures known as bocio, which incorporated mixed
materials (including metal, wood, beads, cloth, fur, feathers, and
bone) onto a base forming a standing figure. The bocio are religiously
designed to include different forces together to unlock powerful
forces. In addition, the cloth appliqué of
royalty often in similar zoomorphic representation and dealt with
matters similar to the reliefs, often the kings leading during
Dahomey had a distinctive tradition of casting small brass figures of
animals or people, which were worn as jewellery or displayed in the
homes of the relatively well-off. These figures, which continue to be
made for the tourist trade, were relatively unusual in traditional
African art in having no religious aspect, being purely decorative, as
well as indicative of some wealth. Also unusual, by being so early
and clearly provenanced is a carved wooden tray (not dissimilar to
much more recent examples) in Ulm, Germany, which was brought to
Europe before 1659, when it was described in a printed catalogue.
In popular culture
The poster announcing the London premiere of
In Dahomey at the
Shaftesbury Theatre, 1903
The Kingdom of
Dahomey has been depicted in a number of different
literary works of fiction or creative nonfiction.
In Dahomey (1903)
was a successful Broadway musical, the first full-length Broadway
musical written entirely by African Americans, in the early 20th
century. Novelist Paul Hazoumé's first novel Doguicimi (1938) was
based on decades of research into the oral traditions of the Kingdom
Dahomey during the reign of King Ghezo. The anthropologist Judith
Gleason wrote a novel, Agõtĩme: Her Legend (1970), centered on one
of the wives of a king of
Dahomey in the late 18th century, who
offends her husband who sells her to slavery in Brazil; she makes a
bargain with a vodu (deity), putting her son on the throne of Dahomey
and bringing her home. Another novel tracing the background of a
slave, this time in the United States, was The Dahomean, or The Man
Dahomey (1971), by the African-American novelist Frank Yerby; its
hero is an aristocratic warrior. In the third of George McDonald
Fraser's Flashman novels, Flash for Freedom (1971), Flashman dabbles
in the slave trade and visits Dahomey.
The Viceroy of Ouidah
The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) by
Bruce Chatwin is the story of a Brazilian who, hoping to make his
fortune from slave trading, sails to
Dahomey in 1812, befriending its
unbalanced king and coming to a bad end. The book was later adapted
into the film
Cobra Verde (1987) directed by Werner Herzog. The main
character of one of the two parallel stories in Will Do Magic for
Small Change (2016) by
Andrea Hairston is Kehinde, a Yoruba woman
forced into the Dahomean army; she struggles with divided loyalty, and
after the fall of Behanzin, joins a French entertainment troupe who
intend to exhibit her as an Amazon at the Chicago World's Fair.
Behanzin's resistance to the French attempt to end slave trading and
human sacrifice has been central to a number of works. Jean Pliya's
first play Kondo le requin (1967), winner of the Grand Prize for
African History Literature, tells the story of Behanzin's struggle to
maintain the old order. Maryse Condé's novel The Last of the African
Kings (1992) similarly focuses on Behanzin's resistance and his exile
to the Caribbean. The novel Thread of Gold Beads (2012) by Nike
Campbell-Fatoki centers on a daughter of Behanzin; through her eyes
the end of his reign is observed.
Blockade of Africa
^ a b Heywood, Linda M.; John K. Thornton (2009). "Kongo and Dahomey,
1660-1815". In Bailyn, Bernard & Patricia L. Denault. Soundings in
Atlantic history: latent structures and intellectual currents,
1500–1830. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
^ Polanyi, Karl (1966).
Dahomey and the Slave Trade: An Analysis of an
Archaic Economy. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
^ a b c d e Bay, Edna (1998). Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics,
and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey. University of Virginia
^ a b c d e Monroe, J. Cameron (2011). "In the Belly of Dan: Space,
History, and Power in Precolonial Dahomey". Current Anthropology. 52
(6): 769–798. doi:10.1086/662678.
^ Houngnikpo, Mathurin C.; Decalo, Samuel, eds. (2013). Historical
Dictionary of Benin. The Scarecrow Press, Inc. p. 131.
^ Harms, Robert (2002). The Diligent. New York: Basic Books.
^ Alpern, Stanley B. (1998). "On the Origins of the Amazons of
Dahomey". History in Africa. 25: 9–25. doi:10.2307/3172178.
^ a b Law, Robin (1986). "
Dahomey and the Slave Trade: Reflections on
the Historiography of the Rise of Dahomey". The Journal of African
History. 27 (2): 237–267. doi:10.1017/s0021853700036665.
^ Bay, Edna (1998). Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics, and
Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey. University of Virginia Press.
^ "A Note on the
Abomey Protectorate". Africa. 29: 146–155.
^ a b c Yoder, John C. (1974). "Fly and Elephant Parties: Political
Polarization in Dahomey, 1840-1870". The Journal of African History.
15 (3): 417–432. doi:10.1017/s0021853700013566.
^ a b c d e f g h Herskovits, Melville J. (1967). Dahomey: An Ancient
West African Kingdom (Volume I ed.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern
^ Law, Robin (1997). "The Politics of Commercial Transition: Factional
Dahomey in the Context of the Ending of the Atlantic Slave
Trade". The Journal of African History. 38 (2): 213–233.
^ United States (1850). The Public Statutes at Large of the United
States of America. Charle C. Little and James Brown.
^ "Season 4 Episode Guide About Finding Your Roots". pbs.org.
Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved 27 February 2018.
^ Harms, Robert (2002). The Diligent. New York: Basic Books.
p. 172. ISBN 0-465-02872-1.
^ Labat. Voyage du chevalier Des Marchais. pp. I:XII.
^ Dash, Mike (September 23, 2011). "Dahomey's Women Warriors".
Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved February 4, 2018.
^ Duignan, Peter; L.H. Gann (1975). "The Pre-colonial economies of
sub-saharan Africa". Colonialism in
Africa 1870-1960. London:
Cambridge. pp. 33–67.
^ a b c Blier, Suzanne Preston (1988). "Melville J. Herskovits and the
Arts of Ancient Dahomey". Anthropology and Aesthetics. 16:
^ a b c d Livingston, Thomas W. (1974). "Ashanti and Dahomean
Architectural Bas-Reliefs". African Studies Review. 17 (2): 435–448.
^ a b Pique, Francesca; Rainer, Leslie H. (1999). Palace Sculptures of
Abomey: History Told on Walls (PDF). Los Angeles: Paul Getty
^ a b Blier, Suzanne Preston (2004). "The Art of Assemblage: Aesthetic
Expression and Social Experience in Danhome". Res: Anthropology and
Aesthetics (45): 186–210.
^ Willett, Frank (1971). African Art. New York: Thames & Hudson.
pp. 164–165. ISBN 978-0-5002-0364-4.
^ Willett, 81-82
^ Encyclopedia of African Literature (Gikandi, Simon ed.). London:
Alpern, Stanley B. (1999). Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors
of Dahomey. New York: New York University Press.
ISBN 0-8147-0678-9. In-depth description of the fighting
methods of these warriors.
Bay, Edna G. (1999). Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics, and
Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey. Charlottesville: University of
Virginia Press. ISBN 978-0-8139-1792-4. A historical study
of how royal power maintained itself in Dahomey. Bay and Alpern
disagree in their interpretation of the women warriors.
Bay, Edna G. (2008). Asen, Ancestors, and Vodun: Tracing Change in
African Art. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.
ISBN 978-0-2520-3255-4. Dahomean artistic and cultural
history seen through the development (up to the present day) of a
single ceremonial object, the asen.
Law, Robin (2004). Ouidah: The Social History of a West African
Slaving ‘Port’, 1727-1892. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
ISBN 978-0-8214-1572-6. An academic study of the commercial
role of Ouidah in the slave trade.
Mama, Raouf (1997). Why Goats Smell Bad and Other Stories from Benin.
North Haven, CT: Linnet Books. ISBN 0-2080-2469-7.
Folktales of the Fon people, including legends of old Dahomey.
Pique, Francesca; Leslie H. Rainer (2000). Palace Sculptures of
Abomey: History Told on Walls. Los Angeles: Getty Publications.
ISBN 978-0-8923-6569-2. Heavily-illustrated volume
describing the royal palace in
Abomey and its bas-reliefs, with a lot
of information on the cultural and social history of Dahomey.
"Museum Theme: The Kingdom of Dahomey". museeouidah.org. Retrieved
Coordinates: 7°11′08″N 1°59′17″E / 7.18556°N