DAHOMEY (Fr. Dahomé), a country of West Africa, formerly an independent kingdom, now a French colony. Dahomey is bounded S. by the Gulf of Guinea, E. by Nigeria (British), N. and N.W. by the French possessions on the middle Niger, and W. by the German colony of Togoland. The French colony extends far north of the limits of the ancient kingdom of the same name. With a coast-line of only 75 m. (1° 38′ E. to 2° 46′ 55″ E.), the area of the colony is about 40,000 sq. m., and the population over 1,000,000. As far as 9° N. the width of the colony is no greater than the coast-line. From this point, the colony broadens out both eastward and westward, attaining a maximum width of 200 m. It includes the western part of Borgu (q.v.), and reaches the Niger at a spot a little above Illo. Its greatest length N. to S. is 430 m.
Physical Features.—The littoral, part of the old Slave Coast (see Guinea), is very low, sandy and obstructed by a bar. Behind the seashore is a line of lagoons, where small steamers can ply; east to west they are those of Porto Novo (or Lake Nokue), Whydah and Grand Popo. The Weme (300 m. long), known in its upper course as the Ofe, the most important river running south, drains the colony from the Bariba country to Porto Novo, entering the lagoon so named. The Zu is a western affluent of the Weme. Farther west is the Kuffu (150 m. long), which, before entering the Whydah lagoon, broadens out into a lake or lagoon called Ahémé, 20 m. long by 5 m. broad. The Makru and Kergigoto, each of which has various affluents, flow north-east to the Niger, which in the part of its course forming the north-east frontier of the colony is only navigable for small vessels and that with great difficulty (see Niger).
For some 50 m. inland the country is flat, and, after the first mile or two of sandy waste is passed, covered with dense vegetation. At this distance (50 m.) from the coast is a great swamp known as the Lama Marsh. It extends east to west some 25 m. and north to south 6 to 9 m. North of the swamp the land rises by regular stages to about 1650 ft., the high plateau falling again to the basin of the Niger. In the north-west a range of hills known as the Atacora forms a watershed between the basins of the Weme, the Niger and the Volta. A large part of the interior consists of undulating country, rather barren, with occasional patches of forest. The forests contain the baobab, the coco-nut palm and the oil palm. The fauna resembles that of other parts of the West Coast, but the larger wild animals, such as the elephant and hippopotamus, are rare. The lion is found in the regions bordering the Niger. Some kinds of antelopes are common; the buffalo has disappeared.
Climate.—The climate of the coast regions is very hot and moist. Four seasons are well marked: the harmattan or long dry season, from the 1st December to the 15th March; the season of the great rains, from the 15th March to the 15th July; the short dry season, from the 15th July to the 15th September; and the “little rains,” from the 15th September to the 1st December. Near the sea the average temperature is about 80° F. The harmattan prevails for several days in succession, and alternates with winds from the south and south-west. During its continuance the thermometer falls about 10°, there is not the slightest moisture in the atmosphere, vegetation dries up or droops, the skin parches and peels, and all woodwork is liable to warp and crack with a loud report. Tornadoes occur occasionally. During nine months of the year the climate is tempered by a sea-breeze, which is felt as far inland as Abomey (60 m.). It generally begins in the morning, and in the summer it often increases to a stiff gale at sundown. In the interior there are but two seasons: the dry season (November to May) and the rainy season (June to October). The rains are more scanty and diminish considerably in the northern regions.
Inhabitants.—The inhabitants of the coast region are of pure negro stock. The Dahomeyans (Dahomi), who inhabit the central part of the colony, form one of eighteen closely-allied clans occupying the country between the Volta and Porto Novo, and from their common tongue known as the Ewe-speaking tribes. In their own tongue Dahomeyans are called Fon or Fawin. They are tall and well-formed, proud, reserved in demeanour, polite in their intercourse with strangers, war-like and keen traders. The Mina, who occupy the district of the Popos, are noted for their skill as surf-men, which has gained for them the title of the Krumen of Dahomey. Porto Novo is inhabited by a tribe called Nago, which has an admixture of Yoruba blood and speaks a Yoruba dialect. The Nago are a peaceful tribe and even keener traders than the Dahomi. In Whydah and other coast towns are many mulattos, speaking Portuguese and bearing high-sounding Portuguese names. In the north the inhabitants—Mahi, Bariba, Gurmai,—are also of Negro stock, but scarcely so civilized as the coast tribes. Settled among them are communities of Fula and Hausas. There are many converts to Islam in the northern districts, but the Mahi and Dahomeyans proper are nearly all fetish worshippers.
Chief Towns.—The chief port and the seat of government is Kotonu, the starting-point of a railway to the Niger. An iron pier, which extends well beyond the surf, affords facilities for shipping. Kotonu was originally a small village which served as the seaport of Porto Novo and was burnt to the ground in 1890. It has consequently the advantage of being a town laid out by Europeans on a definite plan. Situated on the beach between the sea and the lagoon of Porto Novo, the soil consists of heavy sand. Good hard roads have been made. Owing to an almost continuous, cool, westerly sea-breeze, Kotonu is, in comparison with the other coast towns, decidedly healthy for white men. Porto Novo (pop. about 50,000), the former French headquarters and chief business centre, is on the northern side of the lagoon of the same name and 20 m. north-east of Kotonu by water. The town has had many names, and that by which it is known to Europeans was given by the Portuguese in the 17th century. It contains numerous churches and mosques, public buildings and merchants’ residences. Whydah, 23 m. west of Kotonu, is an old and formerly thickly-populated town. Its population is now about 15,000. It is built on the north bank of the coast lagoon about 2 m. from the sea. There is no harbour at the beach, and landing is effected in boats made expressly to pass through the surf, here particularly heavy. Whydah, during the period of the slave-trade, was divided into five quarters: the English, French, Portuguese, Brazilian and native. The three first quarters once had formidable forts, of which the French fort alone survives. In consequence of the thousands of orange and citron trees which adorn it, Whydah is called “the garden of Dahomey.” West of Whydah, on the coast and near the frontier of Togoland, is the trading town of Grand Popo. Inland in Dahomey proper are Abomey (q.v.), the ancient capital, Allada, Kana (formerly the country residence and burial-place of the kings of Dahomey) and Dogba. In the hinterland are Carnotville (a town of French creation), Nikki and Paraku, Borgu towns, and Garu, on the right bank of the Niger near the British frontier, the terminus of the railway from the coast.
Agriculture and Trade.—The agriculture, trade and commerce of Dahomey proper are essentially different from that of the hinterland (Haut Dahomé). The soil of Dahomey proper is naturally fertile and is capable of being highly cultivated. It consists of a rich clay of a deep red colour. Finely-powdered quartz and yellow mica are met with, denoting the deposit of disintegrated granite from the interior. The principal product is palm-oil, which is made in large quantities throughout the country. The district of Toffo is particularly noted for its oil-palm orchards. Palm-wine is also made, but the manufacture is discouraged as the process destroys the tree. Next to palm-oil the principal vegetable products are maize, guinea-corn, cassava, yams, sweet potatoes, plantains, coco-nuts, oranges, limes and the African apple, which grows almost wild. The country also produces ground-nuts, kola-nuts, pine-apples, guavas, spices of all kinds, ginger, okros (Hibiscus), sugar-cane, onions, tomatoes and papaws. Plantations of rubber trees and vines have been made. Cattle, sheep, goats and fowls are scarce. There is a large fishing industry in the lagoons. Round the villages, and here and there in the forest, clearings are met with, cultivated in places, but agriculture is in a backward condition. In the grassy uplands of the interior cattle and horses thrive, and cotton of a fairly good quality is grown by the inhabitants for their own use. The prosperity of the country depends chiefly on the export of palm-oil and palm-kernels. Copra, kola-nuts, rubber and dried fish are also exported, the fish going to Lagos. The adulteration of the palm-kernels by the natives, which became a serious menace to trade, was partially checked (1900–1903) by measures taken to ensure the inspection of the kernels before shipment. Trade is mainly with Germany and Great Britain, a large proportion of the cargo passing through the British port of Lagos. Only some 25% of the commerce is with France. Cotton goods (chiefly from Great Britain), machinery and metals, alcohol (from Germany) and tobacco are the chief imports. The volume of trade, which had increased from £701,000 in 1898 to £1,230,000 in 1902, declined in 1903 to £826,000 in consequence of the failure of rain, this causing a decrease in the production of palm-oil and kernels. In 1904 the total rose to £873,399. In 1905 the figure was £734,667, and in 1907 £853,051. By the Anglo-French Convention of 1898 the imposition of differential duties on goods of British origin was forbidden for a period of thirty years from that date.
Communications.—The Dahomey railway from Kotonu to the Niger is of metre gauge (3.28 ft.). Work was begun in 1900, and in 1902 the main line was completed to Toffo, a distance of 55 m. Some difficulty was then encountered in crossing the Lama Marsh, but by the end of 1905 the railway had been carried through Abomey to Pauignan, 120 m. from Kotonu. In 1907 the rails had reached Paraku, 150 m. farther north. A branch railway from the main line serves the western part of the colony. It goes via Whydah to Segborué on Lake Ahémé. Besides the railways, tramway lines exist in various parts of Dahomey. One, 28 m. long, runs from Porto Novo through the market-town of Adjara to Sakete, close to the British frontier in the direction of Lagos. This line serves a belt of country rich in oil-palms. Kotonu is a regular port of call for steamers from Europe to the West Coast, and there is also regular steamship communication along the lagoons between Porto Novo and Lagos. There is a steamboat service between Porto Novo and Kotonu. A telegraph line connects Kotonu with Abomey, the Niger and Senegal.
Administration.—The colony is administered by a lieutenant-governor, assisted by a council composed of official and unofficial members. The colony is divided into territories annexed, territories protected, and “territories of political action,” but for administrative purposes the division is into “circles” or provinces. Over each circle is an administrator with extensive powers. Except in the annexed territories the native states are maintained under French supervision, and native laws and customs, as far as possible, retained. Natives, however, may place themselves under the jurisdiction of the French law. Such natives are known as “Assimilés.” In general the administrative system is the same as that for all the colonies of French West Africa (q.v.). The chief source of revenue is the customs, while the capitation tax contributes most to the local budget.
History.—The kingdom of Dahomey, like those of Benin and Ashanti, is an instance of a purely negro and pagan state, endowed with a highly organized government, and possessing a certain amount of indigenous civilization and culture. Its history begins about the commencement of the 17th century. At that period the country now known as Dahomey was included in the extensive kingdom of Allada or Ardrah, of which the capital was the present town of Allada, on the road from Whydah to Abomey. Allada became dismembered on the death of a reigning sovereign, and three separate kingdoms were constituted under his three sons. One state was formed by one brother round the old capital of Allada, and retained the name of Allada or Ardrah; another brother migrated to the east and formed a state known under the name of Porto Novo; while the third brother, Takudonu, travelled northwards, and after some vicissitudes established the kingdom of Dahomey. The word Dahomey means “in Danh’s belly,” and is explained by the following legend which, says Sir Richard Burton, “is known (1864) to everybody in the kingdom.” Takudonu having settled in a town called Uhwawe encroached on the land of a neighbouring chief named Danh (the snake). Takudonu wearied Danh by perpetual demands for land, and the chief one day exclaimed in anger “soon thou wilt build in my belly.” So it came to pass. Takudonu slew Danh and over his grave built himself a palace which was called Dahomey, a name thenceforth adopted by the new king’s followers. About 1724–1728 Dahomey, having become a powerful state, invaded and conquered successively Allada and Whydah. The Whydahs made several attempts to recover their freedom, but without success; while on the other hand the Dahomeyans failed in all their expeditions against Grand Popo, a town founded by refugee Whydahs on a lagoon to the west. It is related that the repulses they met with in that quarter led to the order that no Dahomeyan warrior was to enter a canoe. Porto Novo at the beginning of the 19th century became tributary to Dahomey.
Such was the state of affairs at the accession of King Gezo about the year 1818. This monarch, who reigned forty years, raised the power of Dahomey to its highest pitch, extending greatly the border of his kingdom to the north. He boasted of having first organized the Amazons, a force of women to whom he attributed his successes. The Amazons, however, were state soldiery long before Gezo’s reign, and what that monarch really did was to reorganize and strengthen the force.
In 1851 Gezo attacked Abeokuta in the Yoruba country and the centre of the Egba power, but was beaten back. In the same year the king signed a commercial treaty with France, in which Gezo also undertook to preserve “the integrity of the territory belonging to the French fort” at Whydah. The fort referred to was one built in the 17th century, and in 1842 made over to a French mercantile house. England, Portugal and Brazil also had “forts” at Whydah—all in a ruinous condition and ungarrisoned. But when in 1852 England, to prevent the slave-trade, blockaded the Dahomeyan coast, energetic protests were made by Portugal and France, based on the existence of these “forts.” In 1858 Gezo died. He had greatly reduced the custom of human sacrifice, and left instructions that after his death there was to be no general sacrifice of the palace women.
Gezo was succeeded by his son Gléglé (or Gélélé), whose attacks on neighbouring states, persecution of native Christians, and encouragement of the slave-trade involved him in difficulties with Great Britain and with France. It was, said Earl Russell, foreign secretary, to check “the aggressive spirit of the king of Dahomey” that England in 1861 annexed the island of Lagos. Nevertheless in the following year Gléglé captured Ishagga and in 1864 unsuccessfully attacked Abeokuta, both towns in the Lagos hinterland. In 1863 Commander Wilmot, R.N., and in 1864 Sir Richard Burton (the explorer and orientalist) were sent on missions to the king, but their efforts to induce the Dahomeyans to give up human sacrifices, slave-trading, &c. met with no success. In 1863, however, a step was taken by France which was the counterpart of the British annexation of Lagos. In that year the kingdom of Porto Novo accepted a French protectorate, and an Anglo-French agreement of 1864 fixed its boundaries. This protectorate was soon afterwards abandoned by Napoleon III., but was re-established in 1882. At this period the rivalry of European powers for possessions in Africa was becoming acute, and German agents appeared on the Dahomeyan coast. However, by an arrangement concluded in 1885, the German protectorate in Guinea was confined to Togo, save for the town of Little Popo at the western end of the lagoon of Grand Popo. In January 1886 Portugal—in virtue of her ancient rights at Whydah—announced that she had assumed a protectorate over the Dahomeyan coast, but she was induced by France to withdraw her protectorate in December 1887. Finally, the last international difficulty in the way of France was removed by the Anglo-French agreement of 1889, whereby Kotonu was surrendered by Great Britain. France claimed rights at Kotonu in virtue of treaties concluded with Gléglé in 1868 and 1878, but the chiefs of the town had placed themselves under the protection of the British at Lagos.
With the arrangements between the European powers the Dahomeyans had little to do, and in 1889, the year in which the Anglo-French agreement was signed, trouble arose between Gléglé and the French. The Dahomeyans were the more confident, as through German and other merchants at Whydah they were well supplied with modern arms and ammunition. Gléglé claimed the right to collect the customs at Kotonu, and to depose the king of Porto Novo, and proceeded to raid the territory of that potentate (his brother). A French mission sent to Abomey failed to come to an agreement with the Dahomeyans, who attributed the misunderstandings to the fact that there was no longer a king in France! Gléglé died on the 28th of December 1889, two days after the French mission had left his capital. He was succeeded by his son Behanzin. A French force was landed at Kotonu, and severe fighting followed in which the Amazons played a conspicuous part. In October 1890 a treaty was signed which secured to France Porto Novo and Kotonu, and to the king of Dahomey an annual pension of £800. It was unlikely that peace on such terms would prove lasting, and Behanzin’s slave-raiding expeditions led in 1892 to a new war with France. General A. A. Dodds was placed in command of a strong force of Europeans and Senegalese, and after a sharp campaign during September and October completely defeated the Dahomeyan troops. Behanzin set fire to Abomey (entered by the French troops on the 17th of November) and fled north. Pursued by the enemy, abandoned by his people, he surrendered unconditionally on the 25th of January 1894, and was deported to Martinique, being transferred in 1906 to Algeria, where he died on the 10th of December of the same year.
Thus ended the independent existence of Dahomey. The French divided the kingdom in two—Abomey and Allada—placing on the throne of Abomey a brother of the exiled monarch. Chief among the causes which led to the collapse of the Dahomeyan kingdom was the system which devoted the flower of its womanhood to the profession of arms.
Whydah and the adjacent territory was annexed to France by General Dodds on the 3rd of December 1892, and the rest of Dahomey placed under a French protectorate at the same time. The prince who had been made king of Abomey was found intriguing against the French, and in 1900 was exiled by them to the Congo, and with him disappeared the last vestige of Dahomeyan sovereignty.
Dahomey conquered, the French at once set to work to secure as much of the hinterland as possible. On the north they penetrated to the Niger, on the east they entered Borgu (a country claimed by the Royal Niger Company for Great Britain), on the west they overlapped the territory claimed by Germany as the hinterland of Togo. The struggle with Great Britain and Germany for supremacy in this region forms one of the most interesting chapters in the story of the partition of Africa. In the result France succeeded in securing a junction between Dahomey and her other possessions in West Africa, but failed to secure any part of the Niger navigable from the sea (see Africa: History, and Nigeria). A Franco-German convention of 1897 settled the boundary on the west, and the Anglo-French convention of the 14th of June 1898 defined the frontier on the east. In 1899, on the disintegration of the French Sudan, the districts of Fada N’Gurma and Say, lying north of Borgu, were added to Dahomey, but in 1907 they were transferred to Upper Senegal-Niger, with which colony they are closely connected both geographically and ethnographically. From 1894 onward the French devoted great attention to the development of the material resources of the country.
The “Customs.”—Reference has already been made to the Dahomey “Customs,” which gave the country an infamous notoriety. The “Customs” appear to date from the middle of the 17th century, and were of two kinds: the grand Customs performed on the death of a king; and the minor Customs, held twice a year. The horrors of these saturnalia of bloodshed were attributable not to a love of cruelty but to filial piety. Upon the death of a king human victims were sacrificed at his grave to supply him with wives, attendants, &c. in the spirit world. The grand Customs surpassed the annual rites in splendour and bloodshed. At those held in 1791 during January, February and March, it is stated that no fewer than 500 men, women and children were put to death. The minor Customs were first heard of in Europe in the early years of the 18th century. They formed continuations of the grand Customs, and “periodically supplied the departed monarch with fresh attendants in the shadowy world.” The actual slaughter was preluded by dancing, feasting, speechmaking and elaborate ceremonial. The victims, chiefly prisoners of war, were dressed in calico shirts decorated round the neck and down the sleeves with red bindings, and with a crimson patch on the left breast, and wore long white night-caps with spirals of blue ribbon sewn on. Some of them, tied in baskets, were at one stage of the proceedings taken to the top of a high platform, together with an alligator, a cat and a hawk in similar baskets, and paraded on the heads of the Amazons. The king then made a speech explaining that the victims were sent to testify to his greatness in spirit-land, the men and the animals each to their kind. They were then hurled down into the middle of a surging crowd of natives, and butchered. At another stage of the festival human sacrifices were offered at the shrine of the king’s ancestors, and the blood was sprinkled on their graves. This was known as Zan Nyanyana or “evil night,” the king going in procession with his wives and officials and himself executing the doomed. These semi-public massacres formed only a part of the slaughter, for many women, eunuchs and others within the palace were done to death privately. The skulls were used to adorn the palace walls, and the king’s sleeping-chamber was paved with the heads of his enemies. The skulls of the conquered kings were turned into royal drinking cups, their conversion to this use being esteemed an honour. Sir Richard Burton insists (A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome) that the horrors of these rites were greatly exaggerated. For instance, the story that the king floated a canoe in a tank of human blood was, he writes, quite untrue. He denies, too, that the victims were tortured, and affirms that on the contrary they were treated humanely, and, in many cases, even acquiesced in their fate. It seems that cannibalism was a sequel of the Customs, the bodies of the slaughtered being roasted and devoured smoking hot. On the death of the king the wives, after the most extravagant demonstrations of grief, broke and destroyed everything within their reach, and attacked and murdered each other, the uproar continuing until order was restored by the new sovereign.
Amazonian Army.—The training of women as soldiers was the most singular Dahomeyan institution. About one-fourth of the whole female population were said to be “married to the fetich,” many even before their birth, and the remainder were entirely at the disposal of the king. The most favoured were selected as his own wives or enlisted into the regiments of Amazons, and then the chief men were liberally supplied. Of the female captives the most promising were drafted into the ranks as soldiers, and the rest became Amazonian camp followers and slaves in the royal households. These female levies formed the flower of the Dahomeyan army. They were marshalled in regiments, each with its distinctive uniform and badges, and they took the post of honour in all battles. Their number has been variously stated. Sir R. F. Burton, in 1862, who saw the army marching out of Kana on an expedition, computed the whole force of female troops at 2500, of whom one-third were unarmed or only half-armed. Their weapons were blunderbusses, flint muskets, and bows and arrows. A later writer estimated the number of Amazons at 1000, and the male soldiers at 10,000. The system of warfare was one of surprise. The army marched out, and, when within a few days’ journey of the town to be attacked, silence was enjoined and no fires permitted. The regular highways were avoided, and the advance was by a road specially cut through the bush. The town was surrounded at night, and just before daybreak a rush was made and every soul captured if possible; none were killed except in self-defence, as the first object was to capture, not to kill. The season usually selected for expeditions was from January to March, or immediately after the annual “Customs.” The Amazons were carefully trained, and the king was in the habit of holding “autumn manœuvres” for the benefit of foreigners. Many Europeans have witnessed a mimic assault, and agree in ascribing a marvellous power of endurance to the women. Lines of thorny acacia were piled up one behind the other to represent defences, and at a given signal the Amazons, barefooted and without any special protection, charged and disappeared from sight. Presently they emerged within the lines torn and bleeding, but apparently insensible to pain, and the parade closed with a march past, each warrior leading a pretended captive bound with a rope.
Bibliography.—Notre Colonie de Dahomey, by G. François (Paris, 1906), and Le Dahomey (1909), an official publication, deal with topography, ethnography and economics; L. Brunet and L. Giethlen, et dépendances (Paris, 1900); Édouard Foà, Le Dahomey (Paris, 1895). Religion, laws and language are specially dealt with in Ewe-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast, by A. B. Ellis (London, 1890), and in La Côte des Esclaves et le Dahomey, by P. Bouche (Paris, 1885). Much historical matter, with particular notices of the Amazons and the “Customs,” is contained in A Mission to Gelele, by Sir R. Burton (London, 1864). The story of the French conquest is told in Campagne du Dahomey, by Jules Poirier (Paris, 1895). The standard authority on the early history is The History of Dahomey, by Archibald Dalzel (sometime governor of the English fort at Whydah) (London, 1793). The annual Reports issued by the British, Foreign, and French Colonial Offices may be consulted, and the Bibliographie raisonnée des ouvrages concernant le Dahomey, by A. Pawlowski (Paris, 1895), is a useful guide to the literature of the country to that date. A Carte du Dahomey, by A. Meunier, (3 sheets, scale 1:500,000), was published in Paris, 1907.