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Thoughts on Dahomey - 2

Updated: Jan 21

By Gary Oswald

In the previous article, I talked about the Kingdom of Dahomey the shift in power there during the 19th century, when the most powerful elites within it went from being the primarily female residents of the palace to the primarily male coastal traders. In this article we will explore the cultural ramifications of that and the results of that in an Alternate History wherein Dahomey survived longer.

The domination of women within the palace, during its heyday, spoke both of the weakness and of the strength of the position of women within the country. Women were not taken to the palace voluntarily, they were taken by the king as wives or slaves, and their work was all essentially servitude as neither had any way to leave or refuse.

Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh, leader of the Dahomey Amazons, drawn by Frederick Forbes in 1851

They were picked for roles in the ministry both because they were seen as more loyal and less of a threat then men and because male slaves were worth more to Europeans and so were sold rather than kept. This latter point changed when palm oil trade took over from the slave trade as making palm oil was seen as women’s work and so women slaves became more valuable outside the palace. Moreover, we must not whitewash the Palace: one of the roles Palace Women served as was as sex slaves to be given as gifts and another was as human sacrifices. But the women could take on any role also taken by men and had often ended up the most powerful people in the country.

One of the more interesting conflicts of a surviving Dahomey would be how European influenced feminism would interact with such a culture, which had a history wherein an elite of women had power but women outside of the palace were still held as inferior in the eyes of the law despite that power. For example, divorces existed, which was an unusually feminist situation, but could only take place at the father of the bride’s request, not at the bride’s. In many ways, they faced a reversal of the usual West African situation, where centralised control weakened the role of women as they held power on a local level but not on a national one, in Dahomey the role of women became weakened the more the centralised monarchy lost power to influential local traders, who themselves being Yoruba or Brazilian educated often held more negative views on women in power. The loss of power of the palace women, alongside the growth of a few female traders in the periphery of royal power, might well provide fertile ground for a feminist movement but such a movement would be very different to that of other countries.

One way in which it would differ is that the exact nature of gender in Dahomey is debatable. Men, both eunuchs and non-eunuchs, were given feminine roles and clothing by the king and so were addressed by feminine pronouns. In the most extreme example of this the King had thousands of wives as he married a member of each new lineage to make his family include every family of his subjects and so tie their lineages into his own and a sizeable minority of these wives were themselves men as no available women could be produced. While in the other way, female soldiers sang songs saying ‘we are men, we are not women’. It is possible that rather than a gender binary decided by sex, Dahomey operated one decided by role and the palace women were ‘promoted’ to men. If so, this would be another way in which western influenced feminist teachings would clash with the existing roles. However, this is something difficult to prove either way and, at least, by the 1890s those female soldiers were primarily described internally as female. Culture is a moving target, it may be true that the link between sex and gender became more cemented as Brazilian, European and Yoruba educated figures took over from Fon figures in the positions of power.

This general ‘normalisation’ of gender roles to the West African standard during the late 19th century can be contradicted by the way the loss in power of palace women came hand in hand with the increased status of female military units. The most feted people in late 19th century Dahomey were the Royal Army and its most famous units, the all-female Amazons, with peace time rulers claiming positions in charge of Amazon battalions that they never held in order to borrow prestige and military parades forming the centre of any celebration.

The military worship of late Dahomey, which came from a type of nostalgia to the days of the peak of slave trade and Dahomian conquest, gave the army an importance it did not have in earlier days when it was used more. The Amazons were a relatively late innovation compared to the women’s government in the Palace, dating probably only from the 19th century. They began as a primarily Fon force, an extension of the existing female palace guard but under Gezo (King from 1818-1858) it became a slave army under direct control of the King. Its recruits were taken from war captives and those outside the existing hierarchy to ensure their loyalty and they were made to kill other captives in order to blood themselves. This also increased the wealth of the King by ensuring all war captives were property of the king himself due to being captured by his personal guard and not soldiers who owed patronage to a non-royal backer.

Ironically as worship of the army became more common, its effectiveness declined. Dahomey was able to expand to such a large extent as it did in the 18th century because it was surrounded by hundreds of tiny independent polities, villages and city states. As it expanded, it began to encounter larger entities which hemmed in its growth.

Kingdom of Dahomey in 1793

To the west there was the Ashanti Confederacy which clashed with Dahomey in modern day Togo and to the east was the Oyo Empire, which spent centuries acting as a limit to Dahomian power, enforcing tribute status on it and sacking Abomey on multiple occasions and the decline and defeat of Oyo was what allowed a second wave of Dahomian expansion to occur.

By this point, however, Europeans and Americans had become increasingly dangerous players in the game and would act to restrict too much new conquest. American missionaries prevented Dahomey from capturing the city of Abeokuta and the city of Porto-Novo made an alliance with the French to beat off a Dahomian attack that ultimately led to France occupying the entire region. A surviving Dahomey would inevitably find itself surrounded entirely by strong powers, it might indeed survive entirely due to being a buffer state between the British, French and German empires, and will so find further conquest impossible. This will inevitably result in a shock as a country which had previously been fuelled by conquest, in terms of capturing slaves, must require to do without it.

This would especially hit the Amazons hard as, like many slave armies, there were restrictions placed upon what the Amazons were allowed to do. They could not marry, have (heterosexual) sex or give birth. Being unable to sustain itself through breeding, the system required a steady stream of new captives and as conquest slowed it became unsustainable and needed reform. Under Gezo’s son, Glele, every peasant family was obliged to give a daughter to the King to become an Amazon, in order to replace the reduced amount of captives.

If Dahomey lasted into the 20th century, the Amazons might well be reformed even further than that so that either the restrictions on childbirth to be loosened (allowing the Amazons, like the Janissaries, to become an hereditary elite with the same rights as other citizens with daughters succeeding mothers) or so the army would drift away from its origins and just become a volunteer army (like the way the Moroccan black guard became the royal guard). In either case, the future of this elite force would be precarious as it would be politically powerful due to the militaristic culture of the Kingdom but militarily, it was not needed. The traders would argue for its weakening as doing so would weaken the monarchy and possibly force a confrontation between the palace and the Amazons.

Western Feminists would probably fete the Amazons, much as some do now, but while in the 1890s women were at their most visible to visitors to Dahomey, thanks to the military, the guards and the household of the palace, this hid a worsening position for women generally. On the individual level, punishments for female infidelity increased during this time, with the Vodun priests in particular becoming more hostile to women, in some cases building shrines decorated with the genitals of dead women. And on the national level, women found themselves removed from real power in the palace and more likely to be forced into subservient roles, state sponsored prostitution increased during this time period as did female slavery in the palm oil trade. The Amazons were as much a sign of the feminist credentials of the later Kings as Peasant levies proved the socialist credentials of the Ancien Régime.

In a surviving Dahomey women would be sent to the Palace not, as previously, to enter a meritocratic environment in which they could become effective rulers of the Kingdom and where they often were able to help out their home villages but to become slave soldiers. This system would doubtlessly be resented to some extent but as long as the Monarchy and Army remained popular it would be tolerated or even become a point of pride. What however happens if the Monarchy and the traders began to be seen as an enemy by the peasants?

How likely was a revolution in Dahomey? Would the Amazons be kept not for use against external enemies but internal ones? To answer that, we need to look at the peasantry and religious organisations and their relationship to the throne. That's what the next article is about.

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