1902 Encyclopedia > Dahomey


DAHOMEY, a kingdom on the west coast of Africa, extending inland from the Slave Coast, in the Gulf of Guinea, and second only to Ashantee in power and impor-tance. The territory of Dahomey has been described as extending from the Volta to the Niger, and from the Kong Mountains to the sea; but recent investigation has shown that the true limits of the state are much more closely circumscribed, Dahomey proper being probably not more than 120 miles from north to south, and the same, or perhaps less, from east to west, lying between 6° 15' and 7° 30' N. lat. and 10 30' and 2° 30' E. long, or thereby. On the W. and N.W. are the semi-independent races of Aja and Atakpam6; on the N. the Mahees or Makhis, now completely subjugated; and on the N.E. and E. the Eyos and the Egbas, both the hereditary enemies of the Dahomans. On the S.E. is the kingdom of Porto Novo, a nation of kindred race, over which the king of Dahomey claims suzerainty. The southern portion of Dahomey is confined to the narrow tongue of dry land which lies between the Avon and the Denkam lagoons and the swamps to the north of them, while the actual coast-line included in the dominion extends only from Mount Pulloy (near Great Popo) on the west to Cotonau on the east. The frontier is said to be marked for some distance inland by the River Agomey on the west and the Denham water and its tributary, the Ouellon or Whemi river, on the east. The seaboard is about 35 miles long, and forms a portion of the 120 miles of coast which intervene between the British possessions of the Gold Coast proper and Lagos. Between the Gold Coast and the Dahoman frontier occur several independent townships or coast settlements of mixed race, each under a separate chief. The principal centre of trade with the interior in this debateable land is the town of Gridgi, where a market is held every few days.

Physical Features.—The physical geography of Dahomey possesses some peculiarities. The ancient limit of the con-tinent now lies about 50 miles inland, and the low ground intervening between the former coast-line and the present shore is protected from the ocean by a natural bank of sand, varying in width and height, but sufficient to prevent the incursions of the sea except at a few points, of which the channels of Great Popo and Lagos are well defined. Behind the sand-bank runs a lagoon affording carriage along almost the whole coast. A line drawn from the coast at Appi northwards to Abomey would represent roughly the almost imperceptible water-shed of the country, dividing the two systems of drainage which communicate with the sea at Great Popo and Lagos respectively. Recent charts show two vast lakes, the Avon and the Denham waters, extending many miles inland, and communicating with the lagoon which skirts the coast-line, but it is now certain that the extent of these lakes has been much exaggerated, and that the greater portion of what has been considered as navigable water is really low-lying land, more or less marshy according to the season of the year, and intersected by rivers and streams. The steamer " Eko " from Badagry ascended the Whemi river for a considerable distance in the autumn of 1876, and found plenty of water; while M. Guil-levin, a French naval officer, who some years ago penetrated to the same river at Kassa near Abomey, not many miles further up in the month of April, that is during the dry season, reported that there was then little water in the stream. The whole question of the geography of this coast is very fully discussed by the Abbé Borghero in a letter explaining the discrepancies between the English maps and his own. The letter is published in the Bulletin de la Société de Géographie of July 1866. The subject has considerable interest in connection with recent events on the Slave Coast, and in regard to the possible extension of the British protectorate over the interval of coast-line which now separates the two sections of the Gold Coast Colony. The sketch which illustrates this article is based upon M. Borghero's map, but it differs from it in the important particular of the position of Abomey. The latitude now assigued has been determined by a careful comparison of the itineraries of all the principal travellers, and the length of the route is found to correspond exactly with that given by Commodore Wihnot in 1862. It is a singular fact that the distance of Abomey from the coast, according to the accounts of successive travellers, has been gradually diminishing from 200 miles in 1724 to the present esti-mate. The longitude of Abomey is undetermined, but preference has been given to the English accounts which place it slightly more to the west than the French map.

Communication.—The interior of Dahomey is traversed by road a extending from Whydah to Abomey, the capital, a distance of 65 miles. The road, for the first 40 miles, lies through forest, gradually increasing in density to the edge of the Agrimé, or Great Swamp. Round the villages, and here and there in the forest, clearings are met with, cultivated in places, but in others now partially overgrown. The soil is naturally fertile, and there is evidence of former prosperity, but everywhere the process of depopulation is apparent, and the country is described as a luxuriant wilderness. The swamp which is supposed to connect the marshes at the head of the Avon and Denham waters is seven or eight miles broad. It is covered with stunted trees and its surface is rough and uneven. So far as any movement of its waters has been observed, it drains towards the west. The passage is attended by considerable difficulties during the rainy months, but in dry seasons it is scarcely distin-guishable from the rest of the route. There are two known tracks across the swamp. The right is the more direct of the two ; it passes through Akpwe and Agrim6. The left road, said to be slightly longer owing to the obligation imposed upon all travellers to halt at Cana, branches off at Henvi, and enters the marsh at Toffo; it is used in the rainy season, the passage of the swamp being less difficult at this point. The " koh." or swamp, once passed, the difficulties of the journey are left behind, and the character of the country undergoes a complete change; instead of dense forest and dismal swamps, a vast and gently undulating plain, with a gradual ascent towards the Kong Mountains, stretches out as far as the eye can reach. The approach to Cana has been described by several travellers as one of much beauty.

Port and Towns.—The principal seaport is Whydah. It is situated on the north bank of the coast lagoon about two miles from the sea. There is no harbour at the beach, and landing is effected in boats made expressly to pass through the surf, which is here particularly heavy. The town is two miles long and half a mile deep, and has about 12,000 inhabitants. There are five quarters, the English, French, Portuguese, Brazilian, and native, and the three first have the remains of once formidable forts.

Cana is the country residence of the king; the town straggles over three miles of ground, but the precincts include more field than habitation, the population being from 4000 to 5000. The distance from Cana to Abomey is eight miles; the road, apparently level, has an imper-ceptible rise the whole way ; it is 20 yards broad and is kept carefully clear of grass.

Abomey.—The site of the capital is a rolling plain, nearly surrounded by marsh, and terminating in short bluffs to the north-west, where it is bounded by a long depression. Scattered over this hollow are the principal pans which scantily supply the city with water. For some reason visitors are not permitted to approach this quarter, and it was only by infringing the royal commands that Captain Burton, setting out at 4 o'clock one misty morning, was able to explore it. The city is about eight miles in circumference. The enceinte consists of a ditch 5 feet deep, filled with a dense growth of prickly acacia, the usual defence of West African strongholds. It is entered by six gates, which are simply clay walls, with two apertures, built across the roads leading into the town. Within the walls are several royal palaces, a market-place, a large square containing the barracks, &c, many cultivated farms and several large wastes; and outside the gates on the south there is a suburb with three other palaces. Notwithstand-ing the great area occupied by the habitations, the popula-tion is estimated by Burton at not more than 12,000, or about the same as that of Whydah, which only covers one-sixth of the area.

Mahee country.—From Abomey a road leads across a marsh northwards into the Mahee country, which is entered about 30 miles from the capital, and extends in a series of gradually rising terraces to the heart of the Kong Moun-tains. It is a rugged country of varied surface, and pro-duces iron ore, which is smelted and worked up into agricultural and other implements. The mahogany tree and the African oak abound, and the much esteemed shea-butter tree is met with : the cotton plant is indigenous. The towns are built on the level summits of the hills with a view to defence.

Productions.—The soil of Dahomey proper is naturally fertile, and is capable of being highly cultivated. It con-sists 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-palin orchards ; these are chiefly owned by the officials of the capital, many of whom have houses and grounds there. Palm-wine, said to be superior to the finest cider, is also made, but the manufacture is pro-hibited excepting in the bush, as the process destroys the tree. Next to palm-oil the principal vegetable products are maize, guinea-corn, cassava (the substitute for bread), yams, sweet potatoes, plantains, cocoa-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. Cattle, sheep, and goats are scarce, and fowls are not plentiful.

The medium of exchange is the cowrie, which is imported from Zanzibar by the European merchants. At Whydah fifty cowries make a string, and fifty strings one " head ;" a dollar is worth four heads; the head is Is. lfd., and a string therefore about a farthing. Inland, the value of the cowrie is enhanced by reducing the number in the string.

The climate of this part of the Slave Coast is the same as on the remainder of the Bight of Benin. Whydah is considered slightly more healthy than either Lagos or Badagry. Near the sea the heat is not excessive, the average temperature being about 80° Fahr. The year may be divided into four seasons :—summer, the rains, autumn, and the harmattan. During the summer, which continues from March to May, the heat is greatest, and dysentery prevails. The rains are ushered in by violent thunder-storms, and they last from May until August, with a break of fine weather in June ; at the close of the rains thunder-storms are again prevalent. This is the coolest season of the year, but mosquitoes and sandflies abound. The autumn months are from September to November; thunderstorms and tornadoes occur at intervals; the climate assumes a more unhealthy phase, and Guinea worm is troublesome. The harmattan, so called owing to the prevalence of a cold dry wind which blows from the north and north-east, continues from December to February. It prevails for several days in succession, and alter-nates with winds from the south and south-west; its approach is generally foretold by a thick white fog known as " the smokes." 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. This season is considered healthy, but in the intervals of the harmattan wind, when it is usually hot, mild fever may be expected. 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. It generally commences in the forenoon, and in the summer it often increases to a stiff gale at sundown.

The history of Dahomey before the last 200 years is unknown. The country now occupied by Dahomey and Porto-Novo was, at the commencement of this period, comprised in the extensive kingdom of Ardrah, of which the capital was the present town of Allada, on the road from Whydah to Abomey. About the beginning of the 17th century the state 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 Ardrah; another brother migrated to the east and formed a state also called Ardrah, but now known under the name of Porto Novo; while the third brother travelled northwards, and after some vicissitudes established the kingdom of Dahomey. The Western Ardrah, or Allada, appears to have been subsequently further subdivided by the formation of the separate kingdom of Whydah to the south. About 1721-28 Dahomey, having become a power-ful state, invaded and conquered successively Allada and Whydah. Towards the north it was unable to extend its power, being hemmed in by the Mahees and the still more powerful Eyos or Oyos. The people of Whydah who escaped massacre or capture retreated along the coast to the west, and established themselves in the islands of the lagoon about Great Popo. The Whydahs from time to time made several attempts to recover their country, but without success, while on the other hand the Dahomans failed in all their expeditions against Popo. It is related that the repulses they met with in this quarter led to the standing order that no Dahoman warrior is to enter a canoe. The Dahomans have at several times penetrated along the beach towards the east as far as Badagry, but the king of Porto Novo became jealous of their incursions, and invoked the aid of the Eyos to put a stop to them. This was the state of affairs at the accession of Gezo about the year 1818. This monarch, who reigned forty years, raised the power of Dahomey to its highest pitch. He boasted of having first organized the amazons, to which force he attributed his successes. In 1825 he attacked the Eyos at Cana and abolished the tribute, thus freeing his country from the incubus on the north-east. He next (1840) overran Atakpame on the west, and subjugated the Mahees on the north. Shortly after this began the quarrels with Abbeokuta, which continue to this day, and have proved one of the main causes of the decline of the Dahoman power. In 1848 Gezo fell unexpectedly on Okiadan and completely destroyed it. In 1851 he attacked Abbeokuta, the centre of the Egba power, but was beaten back. Gezo never recovered from this blow ; he died in 1858, and was succeeded by his son Gelele.

Gelele's principal exploit was tne capture of the Egba town of Ishagga in 1862. He slew the chief and carried off amongst the prisoners some native Christian converts and a native scripture-reader called William Doherty. This unfortunate man was crucified on a tree at Abomey, and his body was seen in this position by M. Euschart, a Dutch merchant of Whydah. In 1864 Gelele attacked Abbeokuta and received an exemplary defeat, which will probably be sufficient to prevent him from again seriously attempting the capture of the place. Abomey has been frequently visited by representatives of the British Government. The later missions have had a threefold object—the suppression of the slave trade, the abolition of human sacrifices, and the dissuasion of the king from attacking Abbeokuta. Little result has ever been obtained from any of these visits.

From the time of Captain Burton's visit in 1863 there was little change in the political situation of Dahomey, until the spring of 1876, when in an evil moment Gelele caused an Englishman resident in Whydah to be treated ignominiously. Brought to task by the commodore on the station the king refused to pay the fine of palm-oil awarded, and defied the British flag. Accordingly, for the fourth time in the history of Dahomey, a blockade of the coast was proclaimed.

Throughout the history of Dahomey, with very few exceptions, Europeans appear to have been treated with kindness, but they have often felt the inconvenience of placing themselves within the power of an uncivilized despot. It has always been an object with the king to secure the presence of white men at his " customs," and even casual visitors to Whydah have found themselves compelled to accept an invitation to visit the capital. Once there the length of their stay has depended on the caprice of the king, and even the envoys of European powers have found it impossible to break through the tedious etiquette of the savage court. As a notable instance of vexatious delay, Mr Skertchley, who visited Whydah in 1871, was induced to go to Abomey under promise of return to the port in eight days, and was compelled to remain eight months.

The " customs " consist of an annual festival which takes place about October, and lasts several weeks. During the saturnalia many human victims are put to death with great barbarity. At one stage of the customs the unfortunate wretches, chiefly captives taken in war, are dressed in white shirts and iong white night-caps and tied into baskets. They are then taken to the top of a high 'platform, and paraded on the heads of amazons, together with an alligator, a cat, and a hawk in similar baskets. The king now makes a speech explaining that the victims are sent to testify to his greatness in spirit-land, the men and the animals each to their kind. They are then hurled down into the middle of a surging crowd of natives, and meet with a horrible death. At another stage of the festival human sacrifices are offered at the shrine of the king's ancestors, and the blood is sprinkled on their graves. The skulls are used to adorn the palace walls, and the king's sleeping-chamber is paved with the heads of his enemies. The skulls of the conquered kings are turned into royal drinking cups, and their conversion to this use is esteemed an honour.

Amazons.—But the most singular institution of this strange race is found in the treatment of the female sex. About one-fourth of the whole are said to be married to the fetish, many even before their birth, and the remainder are entirely at the disposal of the king. The most favoured are selected as his own wives or enlisted into the regiments of amazons, and then the chief men are liberally supplied. Of the female captives the most promising are drafted into the ranks as soldiers, and the rest become amazonian camp followers and slaves in the royal households.

With such an appropriation of the women it is not surprising that the population of Dahomey is found to be decreasing. No estimate can be formed of the number of inhabitants, but evidences of depopulation strike the traveller. It is a mistake to ascribe the diminution to human sacrifices, for the number of these is comparatively insignificant, and the victims are principally foreign captives.

The army of Dahomey was formerly held in high repute, but its prowess was probably overrated. The amazons form the flower of the army. They are marshalled in regiments, each with its distinctive uniform and badges, and they take the post of honour on the flanks of the battle line. Their number has been variously stated. Captain Burton had a good opportunity of judging, as he saw the army marching out of Cana on an expedition in 1862, and he computed the whole force of women troops at 2500, of whom one-third were unarmed or only half armed. Their weapons are blunderbusses, flint muskets, and bows and arrows. Whether their arrows are poisoned or not is a point on which there is difference of opinion.

A recent writer estimates the number of amazons at 1000, and the male soldiers at 10,000. The system of warfare is one of surprise. The army marches out, and, when within a few days' journey of the town to be attacked, silence is enjoined and no fires are permitted. The regular highways are avoided, and the advance is by a road specially cut through the bush. The town is surrounded at night, and just before daybreak a rush is made and every soul captured if possible ; none are killed except in self-defence, as the first object is to capture, not to kill. The season usually selected for expeditions is from January to March, or immediately after the annual customs. The amazons are carefully trained, and the king is in the habit of holding " autumn manœuvres " for the benefit of foreigners. Many visitors have witnessed a mimic assault, and they are agreed in ascribing a marvellous power of endurance to the women troops. Lines of thorny acacia are piled up one behind the other to represent defences, and at a given signal the amazons, barefooted and without any special protection, charge and disappear from sight. Presently they emerge within the lines torn and bleeding, but apparently insensible to pain, and the parade closes with a march past, each warrior leading a pretended captive bound with a rope.

It is said that at the death of the king a horrid scene ensues ; the wives, after the most extravagant demonstrations of grief and breaking and destroying everything within their reach, attack and murder each other, and remain in an uproar until order is restored by the new sovereign. The throne descends rightfully to the eldest son, but, as in the case of the present monarch, a younger brother is not unfrequently preferred, should the chiefs consider the heir unfitted to assume the reins of government. (w. K. E.)

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