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Africa During the Scramble: The Reality behind 'The Woman King'

By Gary Oswald

Picture of Behanzin, King of Dahomey by Alexandre d'Albéca. The King once claimed to have spent his entire life smoking a pipe, including when he was a newborn baby, and would only be pictured with one.

The first articles I ever wrote for this site were a three part series looking at the Kingdom of Dahomey in modern day Benin, West Africa. In that series I said the following "Dahomey was in the middle of a process of change when it was conquered by the French. It began the 19th century as a kingdom with a strong monarch and a government dominated by female advisors, a decentralised Vodun religious hierarchy, a relatively small army recruited from volunteers and an economy based around raids for slaves. And it entered the 1890s as a kingdom with a weak monarch with a government dominated by rich male traders, a much more organised religious hierarchy, a militaristic attitude that feted its female armies of slaves and conscripts and an economy based around slave plantations making palm oil." In those articles I discussed that change and how the Kingdom might have continued to evolve had the French conquest not happened. What I didn't talk about at all, was the nature of that conquest itself and the details of how it could be avoided, I just handwaved some extra years to look at the internal changes.

This article will however look directly at those wars of conquest. A big budget Hollywood film 'The Woman King', starring Viola Davis and John Boyega, is due out this autumn about these wars, which I am eagerly awaiting, and no such movie is complete without history nerds ignoring what the movie is trying to do and instead nit-picking it for accuracy. So please use this article to do so.

Dahomey was a country whose culture was formed to a large extent by the Atlantic Slave Trade. The violence that demand for slaves created meant it became increasingly militarised and the profits of that trade meant it fought it's way to the coast to take advantage. This was a relatively expected route for growth of a West African slaving Kingdom. Interior Kingdoms which were raided for slaves, would grow larger to defend themselves and then would attempt to fight to the coast to get into the slave trading game themselves while the coastal Kingdoms would attempt to prevent them doing so. The Ashanti in Ghana had a similar history.

Once on the coast, Dahomey was then able to buy prestige European goods, such as guns. It's often assumed African polities didn't have guns but from the 1600s onwards most in West Africa did. The last significant non gunpowder empires in the region were the Songhai and the Mali. The invasion of those polities in 1591 by a Moroccan force fully equipped with English guns and cannons would prove a watershed moment. These weapons were a huge game changer in the 1590s and Morocco quickly conquered both empires, with Songhai's one lone cannon captured, rusted and unfired, along with their capital.

But following those battles, the importance of gunpowder weapons was well known and so they weren't a significant game changer to the same extent in the 17th and 18th centuries because the lessons had been learned. Dahomey bought a lot of guns to use against the Oyo in the 1720s, but that wasn't enough to prevent them having their capital humiliatingly sacked by the enemy in 1726 because the Oyo had guns too. Everyone of significance did, which is one of reason why everyone of significance was trading slaves in order to buy those guns. If you didn't have guns, you were dooming yourself to be the one sold as slaves. Most significant Empires such as the Ashanti and Dahomey even had their own gunsmiths and produced their own ammunition, though often on a very small scale. The difference between a European and African Army, was not that one had guns and one had spears but the quality of guns and the amount of training with those guns.

And that difference only really became apparent in the late 19th century. Prior to that Dahomey and the European traders were on largely equal terms within West Africa, due to the small number of the latter. Dahomey won a significant battle against European traders in 1728, only two years after losing so badly to the Oyo. And while the Dutch defeated them in the 1730s, that was as a small part of an Army primarily made up of other Africans. The European traders were an important part of Dahomean politics but they weren't dominant.

When the British asked Dahomey to stop selling slaves in 1849, King Ghezo made it very clear that he feared his own slave traders more than he feared the British. And this, despite the occasional bombardment or blockade of ports in the region by the British Navy, was a reasonable conclusion, the British weren't going to depose him, his men would. But the decline of the Atlantic slave trade had a huge effect on Dahomey, not only were they poorer, but they were no longer as useful to the Europeans while still being well known to them.

Sara Forbes Bonetta, Goddaughter of Queen Victoria, who was saved from being sacrificed at the Dahomey Customs at the age of 5.

And the slave trading, the slave raiding and the religious sacrifice and torture of slaves, some as young as 5 yearS old, were sins that Europeans were increasingly unwilling to tolerate. Such atrocities were a good excuse for invasion. Dahomey had been formed by the Slave Trade and it was an unpleasant reminder of the worst sins of that trade. And Dahomey reacted to increasing Western hostility by doubling down on displays of its Army and public executions of captives. Kings Ghezo and Glele viewed their best defence as being scary rather than being tolerable and, to be fair, being tolerated didn't work for the Nama, who were westernised free soil Christians so there's no guarantee it would have worked at all for Dahomey either.

But they misjudged just how scary they were, used to conquest and increasingly worshipful of it's military, the Dahomean elite hadn't grasped how much the Europeans had surpassed it militarily. Their first major hint of that came in 1851, when armed American Missionaries from the Southern Baptist Convention helped see off an Amazon (as the all female armies of Dahomey were called) attack on the city of Abeokuta but that seems to have mostly blamed on poor army leadership, due to a disastrous failed attempt to catch the city by surprise by taking a longer more hazardous route, and used as an excuse for purges. And well, Dahomey couldn't stop being aggressive and still be Dahomey. Its moral leadership was based about being conquerors, its economy was based on slave labour and its religion was based about sacrificing those slaves. It had to keep attacking and attacking until it couldn't any more. And while they were reaching limits in expansion, they were still moving into new areas. In 1875, they defeated Grand Popo in Togo and in 1886 they conquered Ketu in Nigeria, after killing the Ketu leaders at a peace negotiation. This was a good example of what Dahomian warfare mostly meant. A trick would be employed to catch the enemy by surprise and then the forces deployed would swoop down with speed and discipline to crush the defenders and take the rest as slaves. Combat was not prolonged but instead came down to quick sharp attacks at undefended areas with overwhelming numbers.

With Europeans increasingly interested in African expansion and Dahomey raiding its neighbours, collision was inevitable, something both sides knew. Indeed as early as the 1830s, King Ghezo had reached out to Brazil, one of his main trading partners, to ask if they'd be interested in a formal alliance/protectorate to protect him from potential war against the UK or France, though unsurprisingly Brazil said no. The Afro-Brazillian merchants of Whydah who encouraged that switched instead to working for an alliance with the Portuguese, which was eventually signed in the 1880s but, as the Atlantic Slave Trade died out, the Portuguese, and their allies in Whydah, became less influential.

Instead the European country with the most influence became France. The port of Porto-Novo, modern day Benin's Capital, signed repeated treaties of protection with France under their ambitious leader Toffa, who was looking to break free of Dahomean influence. And the minor village of Cotonou, which the French secured trade rights to from Dahomey, began to first compete with and then overshadow Whydah due to France's activity there. This would have long term consequences, it is currently Benin's biggest city, and the French tried to build it up as a competition to British Lagos and a major port for the movement of palm oil, Dahomey's main export. Cotonou remained administrated by Dahomey, with them still collecting tariffs, during the 1880s but French traders, missionaries and even settlers moved there and made it distinctly alien in culture.

To balance that, Dahomey reached out to German Togoland where, although the Germans were unwilling to directly intervene, they set up a profitable slaves for guns trading scheme, despite Germany having signed multiple treaties promising to not either buy slaves or sell guns to Africans. The German administration recorded this as voluntary labour paid by goods given to their Kings though there is little doubt that they knew what was actually happening. Certainly the Dahomeans were perfectly familiar with this subterfuge, they'd already been suppling slaves to their Portuguese allies in São Tomé on similar terms for four years. The Congo Free State, founded of course on a promise to end slavery, would also get into the slave buying business during the late 1880s. In return for this illicit trade, Dahomey received, from all sources, around 5,000 rapid firing rifles, around 10 pieces of artillery and 2 machine guns, something which gave them confidence of matching the French.

French officials in Cotonou were equally confident and were under orders to gain controls over tariffs at the port, something Dahomey adamantly refused to discuss. The French did eventually produce treaties saying that had been agreed but the Dahomeans obviously weren't aware of what they were signing on those and they rejected any attempts to enforce it, even executing the officials who had signed those treaties. France was however willing to go to war over those tariffs if needed and it was for that reason they put pressure on Dahomey's Portuguese allies, which led to Lisbon breaking that alliance at the French request in 1887.

The French also attempted to get their ally picked on the Throne, after the death of Glele in 1889, plotting with the Powerful King's wife Visesagan to get a King who'd give up his rights to Cotonou. Visesagan was however defeated in the succession battle and the new king was instead Behanzin and he was opposed to further French influence. He'd hoped instead for an alliance with the British in Lagos, making promises in an 1890 letter to reduce the human sacrifices and forced labour within the Kingdom to purely convicted criminals. This was a line Dahomean Kings had been using on the British for decades ever since they worked that as an absolute monarch you could just make anyone a convicted criminal. The British had perhaps seen through this by 1890 as they turned him down entirely. They were unwilling to provoke a war with France on behalf of slavers.

King Toffa c. 1890

France, having successfully isolated Dahomey, gave up on subtlety and in February 1890 moved in an army to occupy Cotonou and take its taxes by force. Dahomey counter attacked with a large army and they were repulsed with heavy losses. With Cotonou firmly under French control, Behanzin turned his attention to King Toffa of Porto Novo, the French ally who'd become an increasing annoyance to the Dahomeans. His plan was a classic Dahomean set piece. Raids on farm land around Porto Novo would draw out Toffa's soldiers into an ambush north of his stronghold while a second battalion would wait for them to leave and then attack and destroy the newly undefended Porto Novo itself, with its people taken as slaves. 9,000 Dahomean solders were committed to this in total but ultimately both the ambush and the raid would fail miserably. This was mainly thanks to the arrival of a few hundred French troops sent from Cotonou to reinforce Toffa, who would form two defensive squares, protecting the City and the ambushed troops, and fend off all attacks on them.

This was a crisis for Behanzin. The power of the Dahomean King was based on their military success and he had just lost two major battles within a year of taking the throne and, so as a result, he signed a treaty in 1890, conceding French control of Cotonou. The French Army, on the other hand, despite having been limited to defensive fighting due to a lack of numbers, were given new found confidence. Throughout 1891 they petitioned the French parliament to give it the funds for a new, more aggressive, campaign against Dahomey. In 1892, Dahomean soldiers attacked a French gun boat that had been sent to investigate suspected slave raids on the farmland around Porto-Novo. Behanzin attempted to denounce these soldiers as having acted against his will but the French had just been given the funds for a campaign and they weren't interested in accepting peace when handed a convenient casus belli.

The Second Franco-Dahomean War lasted only three months as an army of around 2,200 French soldiers, led by the mixed race Senegalese born General Alfred-Amédée Dodds, marched 90 miles from Porto-Novo, to avoid the Dahomean defences around Cotonou, to the Dahomean Capital of Abomey. The Dahomeans, unable to rely on their usual play book, attempted pretty much anything they could to stop them. They ambushed them, they sniped them, they charged at them, they dug trenches and set up defensive positions around machine guns, they engaged them at rivers with guns mounted on boats, they launched night time artillery bombardments with their new cannons, they attempted to murder the French leadership at a faked peace conference, etc, etc. This shows flexibility sure, but it also shows a lack of a cohesive strategy.

And well, none of it worked, the French won in three months because they were considerably better trained, better drilled, better led and better organised than their opponents. The French soldiers were impressed by the bravery and discipline of the army of Dahomey but not much by their tactics. The elite Amazons for instance, while great soldiers, were largely wasted on a futile frontal attack on the French officers, hoping that if they killed Dodds, the army would crumble. Fundamentally, despite all their new weapons, this was not an army used to modern warfare. For a start one major French advantage was the bayonet, which gave them extra reach in hand to hand fighting and meant they didn't have to switch between their guns and their swords. This was a crucial part of European warfare but Behanazin had made no effort to acquire any of his own, focused as he was on rifles and artillery.

Behanazin met Dodds outside the Capital city of Abomey and surrendered. He agreed to abolish the slave trade, stop human sacrifice and become a French vassal. Dodds asked that to prove his sincerity, Behanzin would hand over 7 million francs, eight cannons and two thousand rapid firing guns (which seems to have been Dodd's estimations of the Kingdom's remaining assets). Behanzin was unable to meet those demands so instead he burned down Abomey and fled with thousands of followers.

He set up a monarchy in exile in Atcherigbe, around 30 miles North of Abomey, where he still acted as King, and managed to hold onto his government's loyalty (helped somewhat by a mid war purge of disloyal family members who all 'died of smallpox', the traditional way of announcing a royal member had been executed). From there he and his exiles were in regular communication with the French, both the ones in Abomey and the ones in Paris, because he used his contacts in Lagos to send messengers to France itself to speak over Dodd's head. It's unclear what exactly he thought he could achieve with this, he never seemed to dispute the French conquest or want to launch an attack on them. Nor was he willing to meet any of the envoys France offered to try and get better terms. He just seemed to hope that if he went to Atcherigbe, the French would ignore it, and he could rebuild there.

Alfred-Amédée Dodds on the cover of L'Illustration.

They obviously couldn't ignore him, he would undermine the French conquest if he was left to rebuild in exile. After two months of futilely trying to open negotiations, a French Army went to Atcherigbe to arrest him. Behanzin fled again but this time with less than ten followers. The rest, including his family, surrendered peacefully and Behanzin's brother and Chief of Staff, Agoli-agbo, was announced as the new King and a French puppet, though he was increasingly powerless as emancipation weakened the old feudal structure. Behanzin travelled to Lagos in hope that his messengers to France had won him mercy but they had not, the French government refused to speak to them and the French newspapers were generally unsympathetic given the ongoing reports of human sacrifice and slavery. His last hope removed, he finally surrendered in 1894 and was sent to exile elsewhere in the French Empire, dying in Algiers in 1906.

Could things have gone better for him? Well, yes, the all encompassing nature of the scramble for Africa wasn't inevitable, without agreements on areas of influence, it's not impossible for Dahomey to endure as a buffer state by playing France, Portugal, Germany and the UK off one another and earning forbearance due to their illicit trade of slaves to European colonies suffering from labour shortages. Behanzin does seem to have some talent as a diplomat and awareness of his position. It is however somewhat unlikely unless you significantly change the general trends of the 19th century, Dahomey was the African State best known for its brutality and as such would be on the top of any targets list.

And so much of the power of the Dahomean monarchy came through the sacrifices and the slaves. Even if France had taken control peacefully, thanks to a different King being chosen, the same decline of the Monarchy and rise of a colonial structure would take place due to the agreements to end both.

In terms of resisting conquest, it's not impossible that Dahomey could have captured Cotonou and Porto Novo in 1890 and thus removed the French base for conquest. But well it's a catch 22. French Victory gives them confidence, French Defeat gives them a humiliation to revenge. Either way the money would be found for Dodds' invasion and Dahomey wasn't capable of stopping a French naval landing. And as for Behnazin's hope of marching North to start a new state outside of French territory, well he only travelled 30 miles because if he travelled further North he'd be attacked by the Mahe and Mossi people of that region and 30 miles is not really far enough to escape an invasion force that has just advanced 90 miles in three months of combat. It's difficult to see it ever working. Exiled states can work, Samori's Empire held on for six years in exile, but they need the remaining military capability to conquer new lands and Dahomey had thrown their own forces away trying to stop the French reaching Abomey.

What the fall of Dahomey really shows is the limited ability for an army, and society, designed for a certain type of fighting, in this case slave raids with the focus on deception and stealth, to switch to a different type of fighting, in this case massed defence, with the focus on discipline and formations, even when given new weapons. A genuinely brilliant military leader, such as Samori Ture, could, and did, pull off such a transition, but Behanzin could not. Just having machine guns was not in itself an automatic equaliser. Benhanzin's brief exile state can be seen in this light as the desperate flailing of an elite unable to cope with a new paradigm wherein the old tactics no longer applied.

The other, more important, thing that this article shows is that we all need to boo at the cinema if Viola Davis' character in 'The Woman King' doesn't have a bad ass machine gun which she inexplicably manages to fires one handed while jumping. It would be historically accurate for her to have such a weapon.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' Anthology.


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