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Thoughts on Dahomey - 1

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

By Gary Oswald

Africa is a treasure trove for Alternate History for the simple reason that culturally, economically and politically it was one of the great losers of the 19th century. African institutions, customs and economies were stamped upon, supressed and eliminated by European colonialism.

If the fundamental appeal of AH is to take ideas that were never completed and explore how they would have enfolded had they been put into motion, if the obsession around Nazi Germany and the Confederate States is about extending the lifetime of those states in order to examine what would have emerged had those polities been given time to consolidate, than Africa is full of states that could withstand equally rigorous examination.

Victims for sacrifice-1793. From "The history of Dahomy, an inland Kingdom of Africa" - New York Public Library

Take, as these articles intend to, the Fon Kingdom of Dahomey in what is now Southern Benin. It is, in many way, the archetype of the exotic dangerous African kingdom. Europeans at the time were both fascinated and repulsed by it. A kingdom of vodun and human sacrifices, of eunuchs and slaves and kings and nobles, of glories and humiliations. A Kingdom which did things that no other polity in the world did such as field all women units in the front line of its armies. Dahomey was unlike anywhere else and yet much of its exoticness was stamped out of it by French rule after its conquest in 1894 and the Republic of Dahomey that emerged in the 1950s bared little resemblance to the pre-colonial state.

Dahomey had little chance of avoiding European colonisation, it was too coastal, too well known and too aggressive to avoid coming to European attention and too small and vulnerable to avoid losing once it did. But what if it had? If we can handwave a german victory over the soviet union, can we not also handwave a Dahomey making it intact into the 20th century for the same reasons? To explore just what that state would look like and how it would evolve?

If we are to do so, we should first ask ‘how did Dahomey evolve in our timeline?’ There is a terrible tendency in pop culture to view historical states as essentially static, to talk about say the Roman Empire as a single entity as if Rome in 50 BC and Rome in 1444 AD shared all the same characteristics. The Dahomey Kingdom changed hugely through the centuries of its existence and by exploring how it did so we can see where it might have continued to go had it but been allowed to.

So we will start at the beginning. Which is Great Arda or Allada, the prominent city in the area before Abomey, Capital of Dahomey, replaced it. Allada was a paper tiger, decentralised to the point that there was little the King actually controlled. Its tributary cities such as Whydah, Great and Little Popo, Porto Novo and Abomey paid head to Allada only as a moral leader rather than an actual one. When one of those cities did work for Allada, such as when Little Popo helped put down a revolt in Jacquin, the alliance was paid for by concessions rather than demanded as a right. Moreover even in the land directly controlled by each of those cities, all save Abomey alone were operating under a feudal structure. Whydah, for instance, divided its land into 26 provinces, the leaders of which had their own armies who operated independently, set their own tolls and taxes and were too powerful to be removed at a whim. The result of this, was when Allada and the other fon cities fought it was rarely with their own armies, which belonged to powerful local nobles, and could hardly be relied on but rather with mercenaries from modern day Ghana and Togo.

Abomey, and its hinter land in Dahomey, was far more centralised with a stronger monarchy and a professional army commanded by the royalty that owed no loyalty to local nobles. Abomey had a much stronger history of royal monopolies and effective laws then the other Fon states and it effectively used the state religion of Vodun as a way of legitimising its rulers. It was this that allowed Dahomey to conquer Allada and Whydah, thus becoming the largest and most powerful of the Fon states. But the further they expanded, the greater difficulty they had in maintaining that centralised structure over a larger amount of subjects. In theory, new subjects would be integrated into the Kingdom by having their lineages married into the royal family, though some marriages could be better understood as fostering, but this had limited practical effects and in most cases it was decades before effective control was actually established.

Conquering Allada and Whydah allowed Dahomey to become a major player in the slave trade, this was the economic reason for the conquest, but the attempt to make the trading in slaves a royal monopoly was unsuccessful, as the coastal merchants in the new territories rebelled with assistance of the remaining free Fon towns and European merchants and forced the crown to allow free trading in slaves. By the mid-19th century, the Brazilian born viceroy of Whydah and other major traders were arguably more powerful than the monarchy and could make and unmake Kings. This power struggle was a defining one for Dahomey and the way the traders were winning it by the late 19th century would define how a hypothetical surviving Dahomey would look in the 20th century.

The fact that these powerful men were traders rather than nobility is due to the institutional opposition to any hereditary nobility, beyond the monarchy itself. Rather ministerial positions were often given to low born men, it was an effective meritocracy, and it was self-made rich men who gathered local status and power. These men primarily gathered riches by selling slaves, which they acquired by capturing them during wars and raids. Traders would then provide men to the army who owed them patronage and whose captives would revert to the traders, allowing more wealth to be accumulated. This gave the most powerful traders a stake in the army’s success and a reason to desire wars. A period of peace, needed for the security of the kingdom, would be impossible as long as the slave trade was the primary route to riches and so the elites had a financial stake in wars.

The Kingdom was self-sufficient in terms of subsistence because Dahomey was mostly an agricultural society blessed with rich farm land, Whydah was notorious for its large food stocks due to farms being able to support two crops a season, and so was rarely troubled by famine. But it was trade that was the route in which luxury prestige items were bought which powered the economy. There were brief and unsuccessful attempts to industrialise and open factories in Dahomey but primary the export trade to Europe and the New World was in slaves and palm oil.

The shift from the former to the latter, as abolitionism spread among western society (though ‘free labour’ was still being sold to German and Portuguese colonies by Dahomey long after slavery was officially abolished by those countries), would have a profound effect on the nature of the Kingdom and allow for the possibility of a surviving peaceful kingdom. It would also break the economic power of the Monarchy, which owned most of the slaves, and allow the growth in power of the traders who could produce their own oil much easier than their own slaves. The palm oil was still often collected by slave labour on Dahomian plantations but the simple shift from selling slaves to using them meant they were less valuable and so the need to bring in more through constant war was removed. Moreover unlike the slave trade, palm oil traders were often women which allowed a route for women without the patronage of the monarchy to gain power. It is likely that if the Kingdom had not been conquered, a merchant elite would have been established that controlled the Monarchy. And it would be doubtless the wish of every new Monarch to reverse that trend.

Gezo, King of Dahomey, 1851

The Monarchy itself, as the Kingdom grew, had stopped being defined as a single person so much as the residents in the palaces which was not just the monarch but his wives, his advisors, his guards, his eunuchs, his mothers, the princes and the princesses. Rather than a strict dynasty passing from eldest son to eldest son it became a small elite, picking their ruler from among their number, after a power struggle, and replenishing itself by bringing in new women and so new bloodlines. There was in fact no rule whatsoever as to who would inherit until the very last independent King, who took over due to being the eldest son of the previous King, it was instead treated as self-evident that there would be a disputed succession and so the rightful king would be the one that won, and that they would win by winning the support of the elite. Because only men could take the throne itself, the most powerful people among this elite, who weren’t the king, tended to be the women, who also made up the vast majority of the palace population, as they could be theoretically trusted to be less ambitious as they had no direct path to the throne and were in many cases, executed upon the death of the previous monarch.

The palace increasingly became a seat of a shadow female government where women, known as mothers, would overlook and check the work of male governors and ministers as part of the power struggle between the monarchy and the merchant princes. And these women would be major players in the dynastic struggles that ensued after the death of a King. But as the traders gained in power, the palace lost it and the shadow government became removed from direct control and as the palace became less rich, compared to traders outside the palace, it also became less welcoming. Less women and low born men were promoted to ministerial positions, the elite stopped bringing in new bloodlines and the power of the monarchy became limited to just that of the King and his sons or brothers, with women within the palace being increasingly marginalised from power.

So one obvious prediction for a surviving Dahomey would be for these trends to continue. The Palace would turn inward, it's elite rulers smaller and more homogenous, and the once powerful advisors and guards reduced to obedient minions and so the legitimacy of the rulers would be proved by winning over the merchant elites outside the palace rather than the government within it. The traders, with their own slave plantations would then form their own shadow government, with effective feudal control over their towns, and the king would be forced to toe their line or be overthrown. Dahomey would, in fact, become Allada reborn.

But this is to look at the Kingdom purely through a political and economic lens. In the next article I will talk about the social makeup of the Kingdom, in particular gender relations, how it changed and how it could cope with the pressures of the 20th century.



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