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Thoughts on Dahomey - 3

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

By Gary Oswald

In the previous articles we have discussed the development of Dahomey in the late 19th century as it ran into the limits of its expansion and moved away from the slave trade and how in an Alternate History in which it was not conquered by France in 1894 those trends would develop.

One major problem with the lack of new conquest would be religion. Vodun, the state religion of Dahomey, is not a naturally hierarchal religion, it is based around the idea that various spirits can be summoned and channelled by men and as such has a very mercenary attitude to gods, those who are useful or kept, and those who are not are replaced. The Vodun priests and priestesses in Dahomey would go through hundreds of spirits and ancestors, searching for one which would be the most successful to invoke. In the same way as there was no strict hierarchy in spirits, there was no strict hierarchy of the village priests and priestesses (the introduction of a duel creator spirit, Mawu and Lisa in the 1740s, is generally seen as a regime attempt to fix this problem, later this would be replaced by the worship of Voduns representing the royal family and later still, tellingly by Zumadunu, a single male creator god as female power became increasingly curtailed). The chief priest of the Leopard cult, associated with the royal family, had no power over the other cults and local Vodun priests became the centre of rebellions in new conquered territories.

"Adahoonzou cuts off 127 heads to complete the ornament of his wall-1793", according to The history of Dahomy, an inland Kingdom of Africa - New York Public Library

The Annual Customs became an answer to this problem, a way for royal authority to be stamped over religious matters. The customs involved the paying of taxes, the sending of funds to the provinces (crucially this meant that the Vodun priests became funded by the palace, thus establishing royal control) and the handing over of slaves, it also involved animal and human sacrifices to the ancestors of each lineage, with the royal lineage receiving the first and biggest sacrifices to cement their power. The sacrifices were primarily criminals and war captives, including children, and so are another major part of the Dahomian state that relied on raids and expansion and would need to change as Dahomey reached its natural limits. With war captives limited, in order to continue the customs more sacrifices must be found from the native Fon people, from criminals and rebels. And the customs, as much as slavery, would make Dahomey struggle to make foreign allies and overcome international revulsion. Gezo would double the length and severity of the customs in order to cement Royal control over the Vodun but this is a tactic that can only be used so many times and the customs notably became less grand and generous as the palace weakened.

When Glele took over the throne his first customs both shocked the international community with the large number of sacrifices and disappointed the Vodun Houngans due to not having enough, with natural disasters being blamed on the crown due to this. This dispute between the Palace and the Houngans worsened as Dahomey spread into the Yoruba lands that had once been Oyo. As it increasingly began to find Houngans within its border who were part of cults that Dahomey had long suppressed due to their misogynist and anti-royalist tendencies, the King struck back. The palace had always attempted to control Vodun by changing its theology, one King even attempted to please Christians by adding their god to the pantheon, and in the late 19th century the introduction of the single male creator god, Zumadunu, came hand in hand with an attempted new hierarchy which reduced the power of the low born Houngans and replaced them with the royal diviners from the palace. Dahomey would enter the 20th century among a background of low level religious turmoil.

As the fear of the ancestors abandoning their favour of Dahomey due to less elaborate customs grew, the palace may actually decide they had no choice but to abandon Vodun altogether and take up a new religion. A surviving Dahomey would require a reforming King who’d play the European’s game and when Madagascar had such a King he converted to Christianity. Moreover, cultural influence in terms of clothing and technology spread fast among the Fon from other neighbouring cultures and Dahomey had long traded with Muslim and Christian kingdoms. And as the traders, many of whom were Christian due to their Brazilian routes, grew in power they'd resent slaves being taken from the plantations to the sacrifices. A surviving Dahomey might well see the traders convince the Palace to break their alliance with the Vodun Houngans entirely.

The peasantry of Dahomey were considered unusually placid by French administrators, which was seen as a symptom of a strong pre-colonial royal authority and the existing hierarchical system, that saw younger children obedient to older children, women to men, men to their fathers in laws and village heads to national heads. And given the Dahomian elite obeyed none of the rules that the peasantry were expected to, it was not held against the French that they did not either. But Dahomey would not be the first country whose elites were surprised when a previously docile peasantry revolted and the late 19th century was when certain princes and princesses were noted as being unpopular and where several aborted slave revolts happened.

As expansion stopped, and war captives stopped being able to fulfil important roles as sacrifices and slaves, the burden of the state would fall heavier on Fon peasants. Their daughters would be given to the king to use as soldiers, their taxes would be raised as selling palm oil was less profitable than selling slaves and their own would be sacrificed to the Vodun rather than foreigners. The rise of the traders would worsen this situation, with the peasants running the possiblity of being taxed twice, by the local trader and the central monarchy. And the advantages of the Kingdom, that it bought security and safety from raids and famine, would become less important as West Africa became more peaceful and central control weakened. If the Vodun Houngans turned against the Palace, the result might be a peasant’s revolution. It might not succeed, they rarely did, but it would act as fuel to the debates between reactionaries and reformers that inevitably happened in royal palaces. And if it came close to success, you might even see an unholy alliance between European colonisers and the Dahomian elite, who would join forces to prevent a peasant’s republic forming.

Dahomey Amazon - 1905

Under these circumstances, the Amazons, slave soldiers loyal to the King made up of the conscripted daughters of peasants would become as hated as the Ottoman Janissaries and the forcing of women into roles of repression would become an anti-feminist talking point especially among the increasingly misogynist Vodun Houngans.

As royal power weakened, ethnic strife would also become more of an issue as loyalty to the Palace and loyalty to your lineage would clash. Whatever the borders the Dahomian state would end up as, it would have to deal with large numbers of minorities in its state. The Afro Europeans from Brazil, the Mahi and the Yoruba made up sizable minorities in our timeline and there was tension due to their different cultural histories. And it is entirely possible that in an alternate timeline it could have also include the Akan or the Mossi. How successfully or not these minorities were integrated would be a possible conflict in any surviving Dahomey. The Yoruba in particular formed their own communities and kept their own prejudices, a strong desire against men working with palm oil for instance, and so their increasingly influence (the amazons were often Yoruba) was resented by the Fon peasants. Without the monarchy, the country may be split among ethnic lines.


Dahomey was in the middle of a process of change when it was conquered by the French. It spent the 19th century changing from 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 into 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 army made of slaves and conscripts and an economy based around slave plantations making palm oil. Had that conquest not happened, it would have doubtless aimed to continue further down that road. But those who had the most to lose from those changes, the peasantry, the priests, the king and the palace women should not be discounted. Any change comes with push-back.

That Kingdom, riven by conflict between traders and monarchs, men and women, christian and Vodun, peasants and landowners, Yoruba and Fon, would probably not be much happier a place than a surviving CSA or Nazi Germany. But it would be interesting and could serve as a background for a number of stories of various genres. What would a visitor to it think? What would an exile from it think of the rest of the world? What would Dahomian feminism look like or a Dahomian revolution? How would a star crossed romance between a Dahomey Amazon and a Vodun priest play out? I believe these are questions worth exploring in fiction as well as essays and hopefully these articles will inspire someone to do so.



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