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Kingdom of Dahomey (Benin)

The Dahomey kingdom in western Africa (the region is now southern Benin) lies west of Nigeria and north of the Gulf of Guinea. It was a form of absolute monarchy unique in Africa.

It contains Ardra and Whydah, which were taken over by the Dahomans early in the eighteenth century.


Vodun (a.k.a. Vodoun, Voudou, Voodoo, Sevi Lwa) is commonly called Voodoo (vû'dû) by the public. The name was derived from the god Vodun of the West African Yoruba people who lived in 18th and 19th century Dahomey. Its roots may go back 6,000 years in Africa. That country occupied parts of today's Togo, Benin and Nigeria. Slaves brought their religion with them when they were forcibly shipped to Haiti and other islands in the West Indies.

Amazons of Black Sparta. Stanley B. Alpern, Author.

Vodun, like Christianity, is a religion of many traditions. Each group follows a different spiritual path and worships a slightly different pantheon of spirits, called Loa. The word means "mystery" in the Yoruba language. Yoruba traditional belief included a senior God Olorun, who is remote and unknowable. He authorized a lesser God Obatala to create the earth and all life forms. A battle between the two Gods led to Obatala's temporary banishment.

Followers of Vodun believe that each person has a soul which is composed of two parts: a gros bon ange or "big guardian angel", and a ti bon ange or "little guardian angel". The latter leaves the body during sleep and when the person is possessed by a Loa during a ritual. There is a concern that the ti bon ange can be damaged or captured by evil sorcery while it is free of the body.

The Dahomey rite is distinguished by the mildness of its Loa, a Voudoun diety: that is, the power of a divine archetype working through a congenial personality built up for it by human worship and invocation in Voudoun. The most frequent means of manifestation of the Loa is by temporary possession of a devotee. (The word "Loa" has but one form for singular and plural.)

Mange Loa

"A feeding of the Loa." Strictly, every Voudoun ceremony at which offerings are made - birds, a goat and chickens, even a bull, and always accompanying offerings such as drinks, syrups, cakes - is a feeding of the Loa, an augmentation of their powers at earth level. The term "mange Loa," however, is most notably applied to a great annual or biennial feasting of all the Loa, which may well take a week to complete and which involves numerous offerings and services. If this feasting is held at the harvest time, it will be inaugurated with the "ceremonie-yam."

Benin's King

The king, surrounded by an impressive retinue, was the unchallenged head of a rigidly stratified society of royalty, commoners, and slaves. He governed through a centralized bureaucracy staffed by commoners who could not threaten his authority. Each male official in the field had a female counterpart at court who monitored his activities and advised the king. Conquered territories were assimilated through intermarriage, uniform laws, and a common tradition of enmity to the Yoruba.

West Africa.
Gvinee de meme que la plus grande partie du Pais des Negres. c. 1743
Map of West Africa.

Map of West Africa.

Dahomey was organized for war, not only to expand its boundaries but also to take captives as slaves.

The Portuguese were the first to engage in the New World slave trade, and others soon followed. Slaves were considered cargo by the ship owners, to be transported to the Americas as quickly and cheaply as possible, there to be sold to labor in coffee, tobacco, cocoa, cotton and sugar plantations, gold and silver mines, rice fields, construction industry, cutting timber for ships, and as house servants.

Slaves were sold to the Europeans in exchange for weapons or kept to work the royal plantations that supplied food for the army and court. From approximately 1680, a regular census of population was taken as a basis for military conscription.

Female soldiers, called Amazons by the Europeans, served as royal bodyguards when not in combat.

Editor's Note: The following article refers to King Obbah, however, "Oba" means king. Ovonramwen was tThe Oba during the time of the following article and Vice-Consul H. L. Gallwey's visit to Benin in 1892.

May 7, 1892, Evening Gazette, Sterling, Illinois

The French Have a Tough Job

Dahomey Rebellion. Coups in Africa. Samuel Decalo.

A dispatch from Sierra Leone says: "A messenger from the interior reports that King Samadon of Dahomey, as a piece of strategy, allowed the French to capture three native towns, and afterward recaptured two of them, the French issuing heavily in the engagements. The messengers says he saw eighty-one French prisoners and Senegal natives and the heads of four French officers in King Samadou's camp. King Samadou commands 20,000 warriors, 8,000 of whom are armed with chassepots.

May 3, 1893, San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.

Behanzin Has Submitted

PARIS, May 2 -- From Africa comes the statement that King Behanzin of Dahomey, who, since the capture of Aromoy, his capital, has been carrying on a desultory warfare against the French, has made submission to French authority.

December 23, 1893, San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.

Will Capture Behanzin

PARIS, Dec 22 -- General Dodds cables that King Behanzin is nearly surrounded and his capture is imminent.

February 3, 1894, San Francisco Call

PARIS, Feb 2 -- Colonel Dodds telegraphs that ex-King Behanzin has surrounded to him and is now held under arrest.

March 7, 1894, San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.

How King Benhanzin Sent a Message to His Father.

LONDON, March 6 -- A dispatch to the Times from Paris says: An officer who has returned from Dahomey reports that when King Behanzin found escape impossible he summoned his aged mother and said: "I am going to surrender to France. My father must know it. You will see and tell him." The King thereupon had his mother beheaded while he calmly looked on smoking a pipe.

February 2, 1897, Fort Wayne News, Fort Wayne, Indiana, U.S.A.

A Royal Monster
Cannibal and Slaver
His Massacre of English Visitors Will End His Atrocious Reign.
His Stores of Ivory Worth Millions.

King of Dahome. Richard Francis Burton.

If England makes good its intentions to punish King Obbah of Benin for the recent massacre of an unarmed expedition, the most atrocious of the African monarchs will get a taste of the misery he has so generously bestowed upon tens of thousands of others. And that England will do this there is little doubt, for in addition to avenging the deaths of her subjects the conquest of Benin will open up a country of immeasurable richness. Not only this, but it will abolish one of the central points of the slave traffic of Africa and go a long way toward crushing cannibalism and human sacrifice.

The domain of King Obbah forms the central section of the notorious Slave Coast of the Gulf of Guinea. This was a favorite resort of slave hunters as far back as a century ago. The ancestors of the King helped the slavers in exchange for trifling baubles, and when the foreign demand ceased, the traffic was continued for native purposes, just as had existed before the advent of foreign slavers.

Slavery is a formidable part of the social fabric of this African kingdom. It supplies a currency system; it does away with the need of jails or penitentiaries; it is an exchangeable commodity for the riches of the slave cities in northern Africa, and forms a scheme for the disposition of captives made in the petty wars which are constantly being waged . . . owing to the cruelties and exactions of the different kings the rich country has been rendered next to useless for commercial purposes.


. . . Very few white men have ever visited the city of Benin, located some two hundred miles inland from the coast. Even the missionaries have given the city a wide berth . . . The city of Benin is quite extensive, having twelve or fifteen hundred houses of clay. What the population is can only be conjectured, as the men are constantly going on expeditions in the country. The number of women and children in the city is very great. Polygamy is extensively practiced. The fathers look upon the girl children as so much property, or as so much money. They are virtually slaves from birth, and eventually many of them are sold by the dealers in the slave marts of Morocco.


It is believed that the city of Benin contains fabulous amounts of ivory. For many generations the natives have been compelled to give the reigning king a certain amount of ivory, and as the surrounding country is the richest in elephants of any section of Africa, the accumulation of tusks is figured to be immense.

Coronation of the King of Whydah (Ouida)

Coronation, Whydah.

When Brass Captain H. L. Gallwey, (the British Vice-Consul of that district) visited the king's palace he saw enough to convince him that the ivory of the kingdom was worth millions.

The palace is surrounded by high walls of clay, and in the enclosure were numbers of shrines of carved tusks, some of them of prodigious size. Each shrine was guarded day and night by naked attendants, as the average native is not above stealing from the king, although he well knows that detection means death in a horrible form . . .

For two years he (King Obbah) has waged a guerrilla war against the Royal Niger Trading Company, which maintains stations for many hundreds of miles along the river Niger. These wars have been mainly directed against the native employees of the company, and thousands of them have been killed or captured within the past two years. Europeans have seldom suffered from these depredations, and for that reason, no regular military expedition has been sent against him. This has evidently made the king bold, as was shown by the recent massacre of Englishmen.


Antique Map of Africa.

To punish King Obbah will not be an easy matter. To reach the city of Benin means a march of more than two hundred miles through an almost impenetrable country . . . Among the Benin warriors cannibalism is rife. Animal flesh is despised as coming from dumb, inferior brutes, while human flesh is regarded as the proper meat for great soldiers. The bodies of enemies killed in battle, even at great distance from the city, are transported to Benin with much labor for the purpose of supplying the population with an immense feast. The warriors eat first, then the male children are fed, while the women and small girls receive the leavings . . .

King Obbah, through his dealings with Asiatic slavers, has contracted some luxurious Oriental customs. One of his most important attendants is a functionary whose sold duty is to tickle the soles of the royal feet. This service is always performed for the king while he is attending to affairs of state, seated on his throne of ivory and coral.

1899. World's Fleet. Boston Daily Globe

Lloyds Register of Shipping gives the entire fleet of the world as 28,180 steamers and sailing vessels, with a total tonnage of 27,673,628, of which 39 perent are British.

Great Britain10,990 vessels, total tonnage of 10,792,714
United States 3,010 vessels, total tonnage of 2,405,887
Norway 2,528 vessels, tonnage of 1,604,230
Germany 1,676 vessels, with a tonnage of 2,453,334, in which are included her particularly large ships.
Sweden 1,408 vessels with a tonnage of 643, 527
Italy1,150 vessels
France 1,182 vessels

For Historical Comparison
Top 10 Maritime Nations Ranked by Value (2017)

  Country # of Vessels







1 Greece 4,453 206.47 $88.0
2 Japan 4,317 150.26 $79.8
3 China 4,938 159.71 $71.7
4 USA 2,399 55.92 $46.5
5 Singapore 2,662 64.03 $41.7
6 Norway 1,668 39.68 $41.1
7 Germany 2,923 81.17 $30.3
8 UK 883 28.78 $24.3
9 Denmark 1,040 36.17 $23.4
10 South Korea 1,484 49.88 $20.1
Total 26,767 87.21 $466.9

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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