Benin Early History

Benin can look back on a long, eventful and eventful history. The Kingdom of Danhomè was an important player in the transatlantic slave trade, and there were also women’s regiments in the army, the legendary Amazons. King Gbêhanzin resisted the advancing French colonial power, corresponded with the German Empire from 1882 – 1892 and hoped for a partner in the conflict with France. But these hopes were dashed and Gbêhanzin was defeated in 1892 and exiled to Martinique as punishment. During the following colonial period, the country was also given the name ‘Quartier Latin’ of Francophone West Africa, as many administrative officials with their French schooling were also given preference in the other colonies of West Africa.

After independence in 1960, one putsch followed another, from 1974 to 1990 the era of Marxism-Leninism. Simultaneously with the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, people in Benin protested against the run-down system and demanded more democracy. President Kérékou approved the “Table ronde”, a national conference that spread like a beacon to other West African countries. After the transitional government held new elections, Nicéphore Soglo was able to prevail against Kérékou.

Pre-colonial history

According to businesscarriers, today’s Benin was settled by pygmies even before our era. At that time they lived as hunters and gatherers. After the first millennium of our era, peoples who operated agriculture began to immigrate. In the north settled the Betamaribe (Somba), in the northeast the Baatombu (Bariba) and Fulbe and in the south the Fon belonging to the people of the Ewe.

Several small kingdoms emerged over the centuries: the Kingdom of Nikki in the north, in the south the kingdoms of Allada, Hogbonou (Porto Novo) and Danhomè, which over time became the most powerful of the kingdoms. Danhomè means in the language of the Fon: “in the belly of Dan”. Dan had betrayed the king with his wife and for this the king had a post erected in the middle of his palace and through the belly of Dan. The French later renamed “Danhomè” to “Dahomey” because they could not pronounce the original name correctly.

The kingdom of Danhomè with the capital Abomey developed under the different rulers (genealogy) to a regional power on the Guinea coast. Above all, King Guezo, who ruled between 1818 and 1858, promoted a tightly organized state with a number of ministries and duties for the subjects. Guezo did business with the Brazilian slave trader Francisco Felix de Souza, gave him the people he had hunted himself and even made De Souza viceroy for his good services. The story was written by Werner Herzog on the basis of the book ‘The Viceroy of Ouidah’directed by Bruce Chatwin as ‘Cobra verde’ with Klaus Kinski in the lead role. The Togolese writer Kagni Alem also adopted the figure of Francisco de Souza in his novel ‘Esclaves’. In Ouidah, the main port of export for the slave ships, the museum and memorial today commemorates this dark chapter of history. Various artists have designed the way to the memorial by the sea.

Toussaint L’Ouverture, the national hero of Haiti, born in 1743, was the grandson of King Kokpon of Allada, where a monument was erected in his honor.

Danhomè was a tightly and centrally governed empire and maintained a relatively large army even in peacetime, including the legendary Amazon Corps. The Amazons were distinguished by great bravery and courage. They played a particularly important role during the reigns of King Guezo (1818-58) and King Glélé (1858-89). The Amazons were also known and famous in Europe, as some of them appeared on various national shows.

Although the slave trade was banned in Europe in the early 19th century, the trade continued until 1858. Business with people was too profitable and it became the economic basis of the kingdom of Dahomey. Since the end of the 18th century, Dahomey had been cultivating oil palm plantations in a sophisticated leasing system and exporting the oil produced to Europe, whose demand rose steadily due to the industrial revolution. However, up to the replacement of the throne of the son King Glélé in 1858, slavery shaped the organizational form of society and the militarism closely related to it. The reign of King Glélé lasted until 1889, after which the throne was passed on to the son Gbêhanzin (1889-1894).

From 1882 to 1892, both King Glélé and his son Gbêhanzin had political correspondence with Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm II and other representatives of the German Empire in the hope of establishing normal foreign policy relations with the German Empire in order to find a partner in the threatened conflict to win with France. The French finally defeated the king militarily and deported him and his family to the Caribbean island of Martinique. His ‘ever friend’ Wilhelm II didn’t help him. The kingdom fell in 1892, and King Gbêhanzin died in 1906 in Algerian exile. He was the last king of the mighty kingdom of Dahomey with absolute power.

The Royal Palace of Abomey is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, houses a historical museum and a handicraft center. In front of the town of Abomey there is a monument with a larger than life sculpture of King Gbêhanzin, which was produced by the North Korean company Mansudae.

While the history of the kingdom of Danhomè is relatively well researched, there has long been far less literature on the historical processes in the northern parts of the country. Only recently, and therefore all the more numerous, have scientists, including some Germans, been researching various topics in northern Benin. In the northeast, it was above all the Bariba Kingdom of Nikki, whose hierarchical structure of feudal statehood with a kind of caste system attracted the attention of researchers. This system then consisted of the so-called Wasangari aristocracy, free chopping farmers, dependent Fulani cattle farmers and their slaves (Gando) who carried out complementary economic activities. The Wasangari levied taxes, conducted raids, and provided protection for the other three groups.

Colonial history

With the increasing importance of the trade in palm products (palm oil and copra) and the decline of slavery, an upper class of French, Brazilian and English merchants emerged in Danhomè, who gradually got more and more influence over the plantations. With the importation of money and arms and the introduction of the French protectorate over the kingdom of Danhomè in 1863 the power of the conquerors increased. The invasion of the French troops in 1890 was the logical consequence. The subsequent colonial war led to the victory of the French in 1892 and to the proclamation of the French colony of Dahomey in 1894. The last revolts took place until 1898, mainly in the north of what is now Benin. A colonial administrative system was introduced which was valid for all of French West Africa. Administered by French commanders, Dahomey was divided into twelve circles, which were composed of various sectors and formed the cantons as an even smaller unit. The lowest level of administration was the village. African “Chefs de canton” and “Chefs de village” at village level served the colonial rulers as representatives to enforce their power. They recruited forced laborers and soldiers and collected poll tax.

In the period from 1945 to 1960, the foundations of the later political north-south polarization were laid. The Union Progressiste Dahoméenne (UPD) founded by Sourou Migan Apithy later split into the Parti du Regroupement Dahoméen (PRD) and a Groupe Ethnique du Nord (GEND) under Hubert Maga. In the elections to the state parliament in 1952, the PRD won all seats in the south, the GEND all in the north. The 1959 elections cemented the regional political units: PRD and Apithy in the south and southeast, UDD and Ahomadegbé in central and southwest Dahomey, RDD and Maga in the north.

Amazons from Dahomey Benin