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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
During this time the French empire was expanding into Africa, and African artifacts were being brought back to Paris museums. The press was abuzz with exaggerated stories of cannibalism and exotic tales about the African kingdom of Dahomey.

Dahomey was the name of a country in Africa now called the Republic of Benin. The Kingdom of Dahomey was a powerful west African state founded in the seventeenth century which survived until 1894. From 1894 until 1960 Dahomey was a part of French West Africa. The independent Republic of Dahomey existed from 1960-1975. In 1975, the country was re-named Benin after the Bight of Benin (not the unrelated historical Kingdom of Benin) since "Benin", unlike "Dahomey", was deemed politically neutral for all ethnic groups in the state.


The origins of Dahomey can be traced back to a group of Aja from the coastal kingdom of Allada who moved northward and settled among the Fon people of the interior. By about 1650, the Aja managed to dominate the Fon and Wegbaja declared himself king of their joint territory. Based in his capital of Agbome, Wegbaja and his successors succeeded in establishing a highly centralized state with a deep-rooted kingship cult of sacrificial offerings, including a heavy emphasis on human sacrifices in large numbers, to the ancestors of the monarch. Human sacrifices were not only made in time of war, pestilence, calamity, and on the death of kings and chiefs, they were also made regularly in the Annual Customs, believed to supply deceased kings with a fresh group of servants. Four thousand Whydahs, for example, were sacrificed when Dahomey conquered Whydah in 1727. Five hundred were sacrificed for Adanzu II in 1791. The sacrifices for Gezo went on for days. Human sacrifice was usually done by beheading, except in the case of the king's wives, who were buried alive. Visitors to the historic site of Dahomey today can still see a throne built on human skulls, a mass grave dedicated to one of the king's wives, and two temples with mortar mixed with human blood. All land was owned directly by the king, who collected taxes from all crops that were produced.

Economically, however, Wegbaja and his successors profited mainly from the slave trade and relations with slavers along the coast. As Dahomey's kings embarked on wars to expand their territory, they began using rifles and other firearms traded with French and Spanish slave-traders for young men captured in battle, who fetched a very high price from the European slave-merchants. Under King Agadja (ruled 1708-1732) the kingdom conquered Allada, where the ruling family originated, thereby gaining direct contact with European slave traders on the coast. Nevertheless, Agadja was unable to defeat the neighbouring kingdom of Oyo, Dahomey's chief rival in the slave trade, and in 1730, he became a tributary of Oyo. This means that Dahomey had to pay a yearly duty of heavy taxes, but for the rest remained pretty much independent.

Even as a tributary state, Dahomey continued to expand and flourish because of the slave trade and later through the export of palm oil from large plantations that emerged. Because of the economic structure of the kingdom the land belonged to the king who had a virtual monopoly on all trade.

As one of West Africa's principal slave states, Dahomey became extremely unpopular with neighbouring peoples. The kings of Dahomey sold their war captives into transatlantic slavery, who otherwise would have been killed in the Annual Customs. Historian Walter Rodney estimates that by c.1770, the King of Dahomey was earning an estimated £250,000 per year by selling captive Africans to the European slave-traders. Most of this money was spent on British-made firearms (of very poor quality) and industrial-grade alcohol. Dahomey was finally conquered by France during the Second Franco-Dahomean War (1892-1894). Most of the troops that fought against Dahomey were native African, and it has been surmised by several historians that neighbouring tribes, particularly the Yoruba, were only too happy to bring about the Kingdom's collapse in favour of liberal French rule.

In 1958, Dahomey became an autonomous republic, and from there, it would gain full independence in 1960. The Republic of Dahomey changed its name to Benin in 1975.

In 1971, American novelist Frank Yerby published The Man From Dahomey, a historical novel set partially in Dahomey, which does a good job of unfolding Dahomean culture to the reader.

References and notes

1. The Ewe-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa, A.B. Ellis, Benin Press, 1965, pp. 177-138.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Dahomey" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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