The Fon people, also called Fon nu, Agadja or Dahomey, are a major African ethnic and linguistic group. They are the largest ethnic group in Benin found particularly in its south region; they are also found in southwest Nigeria and Togo. Their total population is estimated to be about 3,500,000 people, and they speak the Fon language, a member of the Gbe languages.
The history of the Fon people is linked to the Dahomey kingdom, a well-organized kingdom by the 17th century but one that shared more ancient roots with the Aja people. The Fon people traditionally were a culture of an oral tradition and had a well-developed polytheistic religious system. They were noted by early 19th-century European traders for their N'Nonmiton practice or Dahomey Amazons – which empowered their women to serve in the military, who decades later fought the French colonial forces in 1890.
Most Fon today live in villages and small towns in mud houses with corrugated iron gable roofs. Cities built by the Fon include Abomey, the historical capital city of Dahomey on what was historically referred to by Europeans as the Slave Coast. These cities became major commercial centres for the slave trade. A significant portion of the sugar plantations in the French West Indies, particularly Haiti, Dominican Republic and Trinidad, were populated with slaves that came from the Slave Coast, through the lands of Ewe and Fon people.
Fon live mostly in villages and towns, although there are some more isolated farming compounds. Rectangular mud brick houses and concrete brick dwellings with gabled or corrugated-iron roofs are predominant except along the ocean, where there are numerous palm-frond huts with straw- or palm-thatch gabled roofs.
Small huts or buildings are often clustered in a single compound with an open court, all surrounded by a mud wall. In ocean-front fishing villages, fragile palm-frond fences give some privacy to clusters of small huts. People living in the same compound are usually members of the same patrilineage (to-fome ), although kinship is extremely open to outside recruitment; fictive kin may even predominate in certain cases. Large villages may have central marketplaces
Fon people speak Fon language. Fon (native name Fon gbè, pronounced [fɔ̃̄ɡ͡bè]) is part of the Gbe language cluster and belongs to the Volta–Niger branch of the Niger–Congo languages. Fon is spoken mainly in Benin by approximately 1.7 million speakers, by the Fon people. Like the other Gbe languages, Fon is an analytic language with an SVO basic word order. it has the following dialects: Agbome, Arohun, Gbekon, Kpase.
The Fon people, like other neighboring ethnic groups in West Africa, remained an oral tradition society through late medieval era, without ancient historical records. According to these oral histories and legends, the Fon people originated in present-day Tado, a small Aja town now situated near the Togo-Benin border. Their earliest rulers were originally a part of the ruling class in the Aja kingdom of Allada (also called Ardra kingdom).
The Aja people had a major dispute, one group broke up and these people came to be the Fon people who migrated to Allada with king Agasu. The sons of king Agasu disputed who should succeed him after his death, and the group split again, this time the Fon people migrated with Agasu's son Dogbari northwards to Abomey where they founded the kingdom of Dahomey sometime about 1620 CE. The Fon people have been settled there since, while the kingdom of Dahomey expanded in southeast Benin by conquering neighboring kingdoms.
The oral history of the Fon further attributes the origins of the Fon people to the intermarrying between this migrating Allada-nu Aja group from the south with the Oyo-nu inhabitants in the (Yoruba) Kingdoms of the plateau. These Yorubas were known as the Igede, which the Ajas called the Gedevi. The fusion of the immigrant Aja conquerors and the original Indigenous Yorubas of the Abomey plateau thus created a new culture, that of the Fon.
Although these oral traditional origins have been passed down through the generations, they are not without controversy. The claim to an origin from within Allada is not recorded in contemporary sources before the late eighteenth century, and is likely a means of legitimating the claim and conquest of Allada by Dahomey in the 1720s. These claims can also be interpreted as a metaphorical expressions of cultural and political influences between kingdoms rather than actual kinship.
While references and documented history about the Fon people are scant before the 17th century, there are abundant documents on them from the 17th century, particularly written by European travelers and traders to West African coasts. These memoirs mention Ouidah or Abomey. Among the most circulated texts are those of Archibald Dalzel, a slave trader who in 1793 wrote the legends, history and slave trading practices of the Fon people in a book titled the History of Dahomey. Modern era scholars have questioned the objectivity and accuracy of Dalzel, and to what extent his pioneering book on Fon people was a polemic or dispassionate scholarship.
In the 19th century and early 20th century, as the French presence increased and then the colonial period began in the Benin and nearby regions, more history and novels with references to the Fon people appeared, such as those by Édouard Foà, N. Savariau, Le Herisse and M.J. Herskovits' anthropological study on Fon people published in 1938.
These histories suggest that Fon people's kingdom of Dahomey expanded in early 18th century, particularly during King Agaja's rule through the 1740s, reaching the Atlantic coast from their inland capital of Abomey. During this period, 200 years after Portugal had already settled in the Kongo people lands on the Atlantic coast of Central Africa in the 16th century, there were numerous plantations in the Caribbean and Atlantic coastline of South America, which had already created a booming demand for slaves from the European traders. The expanded territory of the Dahomey kingdom was well positioned to supply this transatlantic trade and the 18th and 19th century history of the Fon people is generally presented within this context.
Slavery, Bight of Benin
The Fon people did not invent slavery in Africa, nor did they have a monopoly on slavery nor exclusive slave trading activity. The institution of slavery long predates the origins of the Fon people in the Aja kingdom and the formation of the kingdom of Dahomey. The sub-Saharan and the Red Sea region, states Herbert Klein – a professor of history, was already trading between 5,000 and 10,000 African slaves per year between 800 and 1600 CE, with a majority of these slaves being women and children. According to John Donnelly Fage – a professor of history specializing in Africa, a "slave economy was generally established in the Western and Central Sudan by about the fourteenth century at least, and had certainly spread to the coasts around the Senegal and in Lower Guinea by the fifteenth century".
By the 15th century, Songhay Empire rulers to the immediate north of the Fon people, in the Niger River valley, were already using thousands of captured slaves for agriculture. The demand for slave labor to produce sugarcane, cotton, palm oil, tobacco and other goods in the plantations of European colonies around the globe had sharply grown between 1650 and 1850. The Bight of Benin was already shipping slaves in the late 17th century, before the Fon people expanded their kingdom to gain control of the coast line. The Fon rulers and merchants, whose powers were established on the Atlantic coast between 1700 and 1740, entered this market. The Fon people were divided on how to respond to the slave demand. Some scholars suggest that Fon people and Dahomey rulers expressed intentions to curtail or end slave trading, states Elizabeth Heath, but historical evidence affirms that the Benin coastline including the ports of the Dahomey rulers and the Fon people became one of the largest exporter of slaves.
The kingdom of Dahomey, along with its neighbors' kingdoms of Benin and Oyo Empire, raided for slaves and sold their captives into transatlantic slavery. The competition for captives, slaves and government revenues, amongst the African kingdoms, escalated the mutual justification and pressure. The captives were sold as slaves to the Europeans from the Bight of Benin (also called the Slave Coast), from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. The Fon people were both victims and also victimized other ethnic groups. Some captives came from wars, but others came from systematic kidnapping within the kingdom or at the frontiers, as well as the caravans of slaves brought in by merchants from the West African interior. The kingdom of Dahomey of Fon people controlled the port Ouidah, from where numerous European slave ships disembarked. However, this was not the only port of the region and it competed with the ports controlled by other nearby kingdoms on the Bight of Benin and the Bight of Biafra.
The Fon people, along with the neighboring ethnic groups such as the Ewe people, disembarked in French colonies to work as slaves in the plantations of the Caribbean and coasts of South America. They were initially called Whydah, which probably meant "people sold by Alladah". The word Whydah phonetically evolved into Rada, the name of the West African community that embarked in slave ships from the Bight of Benin, and is now found in Haiti, Saint Lucia, Trinidad, French Antilles and other nearby islands with French influence. In some Caribbean colonial documents, alternate spellings such as Rara are also found.
The slave traders and ship owners of European colonial system encouraged competition, equipped the various kingdoms with weapons, which they paid for with slaves, as well as built infrastructure such as ports and forts to strengthen the small kingdoms. In 1804 slave trading from the Bight of Benin was banned by the Great Britain, in 1826 France's ban on slave purchase or trading came into effect, while Brazil banned slave imports and trading in 1851. When slave exports ceased, the king of the Fon people shifted to agricultural exports to France, particularly palm oil, but used slaves to operate the plantations. The agricultural exports were not as lucrative as slave exports had been in past. To recover state revenues he leased the ports in his kingdom to the French through a signed agreement in late 19th century. The French interpreted the agreement as ceding the land and ports, while the Dahomey kingdom disagreed. The dispute led to a French attack in 1890, and annexation of the kingdom as a French colony in 1892. This started the colonial rule for the Fon people.
The French rule removed the king and royals of the Fon people, much like the British and German colonial rule did in neighboring areas, but they all kept the system of plantations. The only difference, so states Patrick Manning – a professor of World History specializing on Africa, for the next seventy years was that the French colonial state, instead of the former king of Fon people, now decided how the surplus (profits) from these plantations were to be spent. The French colonial administrators made some infrastructure improvements to improve the plantation profitability and logistics to serve French colonial interests.
The French rulers targeted slavery in Benin, they outlawed capture of slaves, legally freed numerous slaves, but faced resistance and factional struggles from previous local slave owners running their farms. The slavery that continued included those that was lineage-related, who cohabited within families in the region. The Fon aristocracy adapted to the new conditions, by joining the ranks of administrators in the French rule.
Taxes new to the Dahomey colony's people, which the French called impôt, similar to those already practiced in France, were introduced on all ethnic groups, including the Fon people, by the colonial administrators. Payment of these were regularly resisted or just refused, leading to confrontations, revolts, arrests, prison terms and forced labor. These complaints gelled into an anti-colonial nationalism movement in which the Fon people participated. France agreed to autonomy to Dahomey in 1958, and full independence in 1960.
Fon are farmers, fishermen, and market women. Nowadays they occupy all the positions and jobs to be found in government, civil service, business, and production. Staple crops are yams, maize, and manioc. (Millet was once important.) Beans, peas, peanuts, sorghum, sweet potatoes, onions, okra, peppers, gourds, papayas, bananas, plantains, mangoes, pineapples, oil palms, and some rice and cocoa are also grown. Animals raised include pigs, sheep, goats, dogs, chickens, guinea fowl, ducks, and pigeons. Fishing is of primary importance along the coast and in the Volta region. Cash crops include palm kernels, peanuts, copra, castor beans, kapok, and, by far the most important, coffee and cocoa.
Fon and Ewe market women—both wholesalers and retailers—have a near monopoly on the internal economy. Even in small villages, many women are traders and retailers, selling anything from homemade fermented corn porridge to Coca Cola, often specializing in a single item such as fresh or home-smoked fish, imported Dutch wax cloth, fresh fruits and vegetables, or trade beads.
Fon engage in pottery making, wood sculpting (mostly for religious use), and basketwork; in the past, every village had a blacksmith.
Fon have traded with Yoruba and Hausa for as long as they have had their present identity. The slave trade and the salt trade brought other traders from the north of present Ewe and Fon regions, including as far north as Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) and perhaps Mali and Niger. Portuguese traders reached the coast in the fifteenth century, even before the Ewe and Fon had migrated that far. By the seventeenth century, when the Volta region had become home to an Ewe polity and the Kingdom of Dahomey had regular relations with Ouidah, European commercial envoys were no longer a novelty on what was then called the Slave Coast. The Atlantic commerce in slaves was a significant aspect of Fon life for two centuries.
Market activities are central in all Fon regions. Women almost always have something to sell on market days, including foodstuffs they make themselves. They often buy their husband's or brothers' catch of fish fresh from the sea or river and take it straight to various markets. Or they smoke the fish and take them to markets farther inland. Today European, U.S., and Chinese goods are available even in small Fon village markets more than 150 kilometers from the coast, often taken there by local women who buy the goods in coastal cities.
Apart from the special status of kings in the Kingdom of Dahomey who did not perform manual labor, the main division of labor is along gender lines. Men do heavy agricultural labor such as clearing the land and staking yam vines; they fish, hunt, and build houses. Women participate in the above activities also, such as preparing the palm-frond walling or fencing necessary to hut building, taking charge of butchered animals and fish, and carrying out almost all agricultural tasks except the very heaviest.
Women also carry headloads as heavy as any load men can carry. Although it is often said that only women headload, this is patently untrue. Women are in charge of most market activities, although they may hire men to help them. One of the few items usually sold by men in the market is beef, often brought by Hausa or other Muslim traders. Most other kinds of work, including cooking, may be done by women and men, and even the above-mentioned divisions of labor are not absolute. Women and children may join with men in pulling in the enormous and heavy fishing nets from the surf after a catch. Gender-specific cash savings and work collectives abound, enabling members to have their own banking as well as support in house building, clearing land, harvesting, fishing, marketing, and all other labors. Especially notable are the Fon dokpwe , or cooperative, or tontine (French). Both women and men engage in child care, although women are considered to have greater responsibility in this regard. Groups of men and groups of women may take care of any and all village children in their vicinity at any given time.
Anyone from a particular region can farm on land that is not occupied by anyone else. Inside a settlement, a person wishing to employ land must ask permission of the village chief or the elders of the lineage owning the land. Formerly, rights have extended only to use of land; there was no absolute right to the land itself. In the Kingdom of Dahomey, land was by definition the property of the king. In most Ewe regions, land is inherited and administrated by elders of each patriline; any lineage member may build or farm on lineage land as long as she or he respects the rights of others nearby who are already established on the land. Widows of patriline members or other persons not members of the lineage may stay on the land and farm it, but it cannot pass definitively into another lineage.
Only in the last few generations has land come to be alienable from lineage tenure by being mortgaged or sold. Land not already belonging to a lineage (of which there is scarcely any now) may be acquired personally through simply clearing the land, or buying it non-Fon owners; the owner may dispose of such land without consulting lineage elders. Both women and men have rights to lineage land, often now called "inheritance of land," but, in areas where land is scarce, women have difficulty claiming such rights.
Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is primarily patrilineal. Fon have exogamous patrisibs composed of lineages, but in the Kingdom of Dahomey the royal sib had exceptional rules. Princesses married commoners and their children belonged to the royal sib, as did the offspring of royal princes. Cross-cousin marriage is preferred among most Fon groups, particularly with mother's brother's daughter.
Most Fon marriages are patrilocal, although neolocal residence has become popular in the late twentieth century. Polygyny is the rule if a man has means to marry more than one wife. It is often said that an abuse of polygyny leads wives to leave their husbands for other men, often younger and as yet unmarried, so that women also tend to have more than one husband in their lifetimes. Fon marriages are of two general types, one more prestigious than the other. Prestigious marriage includes payments by the groom to the bride's father or premarital farm labor performed by a man for his future father-in-law. Such bride-wealth or work gives a man control over his children. When this is not performed, the mother and her family have all rights over the children; thus, this sort of marriage is less desirable or prestigious for a husband. Herskovits (1938) outlines thirteen different variations of these two major marriage categories. A man must never refuse a wife offered him, and divorce may be initiated only by the wife's family. In many Ewe groups, marriage is less marked by bride-wealth or bride-service, and even if a man offers only the required drinks and cloths to his bride and her family, he may claim the children as members of his own patriline. In case of separation, a father may keep his children with him, although in many cases wives are allowed to raise the children. Pregnancy makes a marriage complete. In the Kingdom of Dahomey, virginity was demanded of brides in prestigious marriages. Christian Fon proceed according to the arrangements prescribed in their churches.
Patrilineal three- or four-generational extended family compounds, as well as agnatic extended family compounds, are common. Another model is a nuclear-family household (often with children from previous marriages) that eventually is joined by other relatives, such as the couple's younger siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, and foster children.
If the husband has not vowed monogamy, in time, other wives and their children may come to expand the compound (each wife with her own hut or little house). In many cases, other wives and their children form separate households. Adolescent boys may have collective sleeping quarters separate from their mothers and sisters.
Most Fon property, including land, is inherited patrilineally, although some lineage land remains. Cloth wealth and jewelry sometimes become lineage property too, along with ancestral stools. Individual property, which may include rights to land and fields, may be inherited patrilineally. In some areas the eldest son inherits land rights, but livestock and other individual property go to a man's sister's son. In Lome inheritance is mixed.
Virtually everyone, but especially older siblings, takes care of the children. Grandparents, both female and male, also spend considerable time with children. Fishermen in from the sea often sit around in groups during the afternoon, playing boardgames and watching over young children at the same time.
Toddlers are passed from person to person, including adolescent boys, who appear to enjoy taking their turns. Mothers and all female relatives carry babies on their backs for much of the day; sometimes doting fathers or other male relatives also wrap babies and toddlers on their backs. Fon adolescents experiment with sexuality early in their teen years, and nowadays pregnancy at a young age, even if the mother is unmarried, is not especially discouraged in many communities. Thus virginity is not as highly valued as it once was.
Young girls help their mothers, often caring for smaller children or carrying loads to market, boys as young as 10 may go to sea with the men and go over the side of the pirogue to drive a school of fish into the nets. Inland, young boys and girls help perform agricultural tasks and care for animals. Children are present at all important social and religious events and may, at a very early age, become "spouses" of important spirits or gods, thus inheriting sizable responsibilities and the special, often prestigious, identity, that goes with them. Children as young as 10 may go into trance during Vodu (Fon) possession ceremonies. They also enjoy such events as recreation and take advantage of opportunities for drumming, singing, and dancing performances; teenagers and young adults may court during and after such religious rituals.
Although the Fon kingdom had a centralized state with a powerful ahosu (King), since its collapse that structure is no longer available. Fon villages had village autonomy before they were consolidated into a kingdom in the seventeenth century, and thus each village chief was a "king" (toxosu ) to whom the heads of each compound answered. The Kingdom of Dahomey forced these chiefs to swear loyalty to the ruler or be sacrificed (some were sold into slavery). Sibs in Fon villages have considerable political influence, but the chief is hardly all-powerful.
Although during the colonial period chiefs had considerable control (and still do as far as administrative decisions are concerned), authority is widely distributed in villages and regions. Whereas Fon are nominally under the jurisdiction of French-inspired legal systems, the laws of the ancestors and the moral frameworks of Vodu worship tend to have just as much, if not more, authority than official law in many communities. Even in colonial and precolonial periods, the office of chief and the ranks of the elders were usually filled with men (and some women) who were linked to religious orders.
Individual behavior for many is constantly interpreted and adjusted through the lenses of Afa (or Fa) divination, which includes the "laws of destiny," or the "law-deity who brought me here" (esesidomeda ). Thus, supernatural sanctions are more powerful than state legal systems for numerous Fon. In the Kingdom of Dahomey, kings were tyrannical according to numerous sources; village chiefs, in keeping with earlier practices, were not. Decisions of village chiefs had to be reported to the king, however, so that final control was in his hands. The king's tribunal of chiefs was expected to judge harshly so that the king himself could demonstrate clemency by lightening the sentence. During the colonial period, there was great tension between certain Ewe Vodu orders and colonial administrators who claimed the Vodu "courts" were presuming to take the place of official courts. Numerous shrines were thus destroyed by German and French authorities. Vodu worshipers often did not consider the powers of the colonial governments to be legitimate.
Conflict in villages is typically brought to a group of "judges," including the chief, Vodu priests, and both male and female elders. The entire village has the right to attend, and whoever wishes to speak may do so. Often divorce cases, theft, assault, and instances of injury through witchcraft do not go before official courts of law. Even cases that do go before official courts of law, including murder, may be rejudged by Vodu priests and communities because the conflict at the source of the crime is not thought to be merely personal. All conflict is a reflection of the social body in its relationship to the rest of the cosmos.
Religious Beliefs. Various Vodu (Fon) orders are at the foundation of Fon religion. A High God exists, according to numerous informants. Among Fon, Mawu and Lisa are a couple, twins, or a female (Mawu) and male (Lisa) hermaphrodite divinity. Fon may say the world was created by Nana-Buluku, who gave birth to Mawu and Lisa. For others, Nana-Buluku, Mawu, and Lisa are all Vodus, and there is no all-powerful separate creator.
Gu or Egu, the warrior and hunter god of iron, is central among all Fon groups. There are a number of other Vodu orders, including Gorovodu, which is popular across Fon populations in Benin. Mama Tchamba, a related order, involves the worship of the spirits of slaves from the north that Ewe once owned and married. The selfhood of each individual is involved with these major deities and spirit personalities. They are also protectors, healers, judges, and consummate performers.
All Vodu orders work hand in hand with Afa (or Fa) divination, a complex interpretive framework within which each person has a life sign (kpoli ), of which there are a total of 256. Each sign is connected to a set of plants and animals, stories and songs, dietary taboos, Vodus, and dangers and strengths, all associated with each other, as though clan-related. Events, projects, activities, and relationships also have their own Afa signs. Everything in the universe is related to Afa texts and themes, as though nature itself were divided into exogamous clans.
Some Fon have become Christians; given their proximity to the coast, these ethnic groups were among the first to accept Christianity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Certain Christian groups originating in West Africa, such as Aladura and Celeste, have a considerable following on the coast.
Religious Practitioners. Vodu priests are usually men, but postmenopausal women may become priestesses. The great majority of spirit hosts or "wives" of the Vodus are women. Priests, priestesses, and "wives" of the Yehve deities (Sosi, Avlesi, Dasi, etc.) do not usually practice trance. Afa diviners are almost always men, although it is said that a woman can become a diviner if she wishes.
Ceremonies. Vodu ceremonies are compelling performances for both insiders and outsiders. Worshipers who begin dancing to the drum music may go into trance. Spirits who possess their "wives" may have messages for the community, may take part in judging certain cases of conflict, and may heal the sick. Above all, they are dancing gods, and there are aesthetic conventions that have long traditions.
In Vodu orders where possession is not usual, ceremonies are all the more dazzling because of the perfection of their collective execution. Rows of dancers, all clothed in ceremonial attire, move across a ritual space as one person, performing specific movements. Drums always provide a sort of text or context for movement, including narrative associations and instruction. Ceremonies are events during which symbolic associations are reinforced, individual and collective identity is stated, certain aspects of identity and power are recalled and redistributed, healing and admonishment take place, and, above all, collective exhilaration, ecstasy, and awe are produced. Ceremonies are always gifts to the gods.
Afa divination involves numerous complicated rituals based on a binary system of questions and responses, and permutations of the 256 life signs associated with collections of oral texts.
Fon artists are widely known for their appliqué hangings with legendary motifs from the Kingdom of Dahomey and Vodu culture. Elaborate engraving or carving of calabashes is another Fon art. Brass casting (using the cireperdue, or lost-wax method) has been practiced by the Fon since early times. Brass workers belonged to special guilds in the Kingdom of Dahomey; they created some of the more striking objects constituting the king's wealth. Silverwork was also mastered. Fon still carve wooden bocio figures for spiritual practices, as well as Legba statues (guardian deities) and other Vodu god-objects. Earthen Legbas are also common. Some god-objects, entirely abstract in form, are confected as a collage-sculpture, with numerous ingredients including cowry shells, goat horns, cows' tails, birds' claws, iron bells, and tree roots, all united with red clay and glazed with the blood of sacrificial animals. Drums of many different kinds are produced for specific ceremonies. Vodu costumes for spirit possession may be richly adorned with cowries sewn on in patterns. All of the objects necessary for Fa (Fon) divination are also created with great care and elaboration; thus they are sometimes bought by Europeans as objects of art. Stools are important to Fon lineages. They are often carved with narrative detail so that their symbolic significance is inscribed for future generations to see.
Gelede is a cult dedicated to Mother Earth. It is celebrated by the whole community to promote fertility of both the people and the soil. Each mask is sculpted and represents a different character but only the initiates know the true nature and secrets of those symbolic characters.
The masks are brightly painted and move like puppets linking myths and moral stories through mime. It is both educational and quite hilarious. The delighted crowd laugh and clap their hands as they watch in appreciation. It is a fascinating mix of street theatre and magical theatre.
Egun masks represent the spirits of the deceased and according to the locals; they "are" the deceased.
The men wearing the masks representing Egun are initiates of the cult. Dressed in brightly multicolored clothing, they emerge from the forest and form a procession through the streets of the village, leaping towards any foolish spectator who dares to get too close.
You don’t want the Egun to touch you because if he does; there is a danger of death, so watch out! Some people touched by the Egun immediately collapse but fortunately they recover instantly. When they arrive, the masks perform a kind of bull fight which is designed to scare the crowd but instead is greeted with bursts of laughter!
The Zangbeto mask is very tall and covered with colored straw. It represents wild non human spirits (the forces of nature and of the night that inhabited the Earth before human beings). The mask wearers belong to a secret society and keep their identity hidden as the non-initiated cannot know who they are.
When Zangbeto comes out, it is a big important event for the village. Its performance guarantees protection against bad spirits and malicious people. The spinning movement of the mask symbolizes the spiritual cleaning of the village and Zangbeto also performs miracles to prove its powers.
Today many Fon seek medical assistance in modern clinics and hospitals and go to Westerntrained doctors. They may also frequent local healers and Vodu priests who employ plants and carbonized ingredients, as well as rituals to address illness and conflicts playing themselves out in a person's body and soul.
Vodu medicine is not hostile to modern biomedicine. Upon asking Afa, though divination, what to do about illness, a sufferer may be told by Fa to go to a doctor in town. Vodu medicine is particularly effective in cases of madness. Ingestion of roots and plants, as well as "speaking pain and desire" to the Vodus make it possible for the alienated to mourn losses and go on with life once again.
Upon death, certain aspects of the person are lost forever in their individuated form, whereas other aspects, for example, the djoto, or reincarnation soul, will come back in the next child born to the lineage. The luvo, or death soul, may linger for some time after death, looking just like the person in life and frightening loved ones with demands for attention and its cravings to be still with the living. According to some informants, the person as constituted in life does not survive death, but parts of the personality may indeed continue and even join with Vodus, as part of the conglomerate energy and personality of a deity. Others say that the spirit realm mirrors human life in every aspect, so that after death individuals go on in much the same way as before. Funerals are the single most important event in a person's history, more lavish and expensive than any other celebration or feast. Groups of drummers are hired, and mourners may dance throughout the night for several nights in succession. Attending funerals and contributing to them financially and with food and drink are among the most binding obligations for lineage members, neighbors, friends, chiefs, and Vodu worshipers (above all, for those who belong to the same order as the deceased).
Early writings, predominantly written by European slave traders, often presented the kingdom as an absolute monarchy led by a despotic king. However, these depictions were often deployed as arguments by different sides in the slave trade debates, and as such were probably exaggerations. Recent historical work has emphasized the limits of monarchical power in the Kingdom of Dahomey. Historian John Yoder has written in attention to the Great Council in the kingdom that its activities do not "imply that Dahomey's government was democratic or even that her politics approximated those of nineteenth-century European monarchies. However, such evidence does support the thesis that governmental decisions were molded by conscious responses to internal political pressures as well as by executive fiat." The primary political divisions revolved around villages with chiefs and administrative posts appointed by the king and acting as his representatives to adjudicate disputes in the village.
The King of Dahomey (ahosu in the Fon language) was the sovereign power of the kingdom. All of the kings were claimed to be part of the Alladaxonou dynasty, claiming descent from the royal family in Allada. Succession through the male members of the line was the norm typically going to the oldest son, but not always.
The king was selected largely through discussion and decision in the meetings of the Great Council, although how this operates was not always clear. The Great Council brought together a host of different dignitaries from throughout the kingdom yearly to meet at the Annual Customs of Dahomey. Discussions would be lengthy and included members, both men and women, from throughout the kingdom. At the end of the discussions, the king would declare the consensus for the group.
Key positions in the King's court included the migan, the mehu, and the yovogan, amongst many others. The migan was a primary consul for the king, a key judicial figure, and served as the head executioner. The mehu was similarly a key administrative officer who managed the palaces and the affairs of the royal family, economic maters, and the areas to the south of Allada (making the position key to contact with Europeans). With European contact, Agaja created another position the yovogan ("white person director" in Fon) tasked with managing trade relations with the Europeans. The kpojito (or "queen mother") was an important position who heard religious appeals, acted as council to the king, and plead for citizens in cases before the king. A final administrative position was the chacha (or viceroy) which operated to manage the slave trade in the port city of Whydah. The first chacha was created by Ghezo and was the Brazilian slave trader Francisco Félix de Sousa.
The military of the Kingdom of Dahomey was divided into two units: the right and the left. The right was controlled by the migan and the left was controlled by the mehu. At least by the time of king Agaja, the kingdom had developed a standing army that remained encamped wherever the king was. When going into battle, the king would take a secondary position to the field commander with the reason given that if any spirit were to punish the commander for decisions it should not be the king. Unlike other regional powers, the military of Dahomey did not have a significant cavalry (like the Oyo empire) or naval power (which prevented expansion along the coast). The Dahomey Amazons, a unit of all-female units, is one of the most unique aspects of the military of the kingdom.
The economic structure of the kingdom were highly intertwined with the political and religious systems and these developed together significantly. The main currency for exchange was cowries, or shells for exchange.
The domestic economy was largely focused on agriculture and crafts produced for local consumption. Until the development of palm oil, very little agricultural or craft goods were traded outside of the kingdom. Markets served a key role in the kingdom and were organized around a rotating cycle of four days with a different market each day (the market type for the day was religiously sanctioned). Agriculture work was largely decentralized and done by most families. However, with the expansion of the kingdom and the importance of the slave trade, agricultural plantations begun to be a common agricultural method in the kingdom. Craft work was largely dominated by a formal guild system.
The Kingdom of Dahomey shared many religious rituals with surrounding populations; however, it also developed unique ceremonies, beliefs, and religious stories for the kingdom. These included royal ancestor worship and the specific vodun (voodoo) practices of the kingdom.
Royal Ancestor Worship
Early kings established clear worship of royal ancestors and centralized their ceremonies in the Annual Customs of Dahomey. The spirits of the kings had an exalted position in the land of the dead and it was necessary to get their permission for many activities on earth.
Ancestor worship pre-existed the kingdom of Dahomey; however, under King Agaja, a cycle of ritual was created centered around first celebrating the ancestors of the king and then celebrating a family lineage.
The Annual Customs of Dahomey involved multiple elaborate components and some aspects may have been added in the 19th century. In general, the celebration involved distribution of gifts, human sacrifice, military parades, and political councils. Its main religious aspect was to offer thanks and gain the approval for ancestors of the royal lineage. However, the custom also included military parades, public discussions, gift giving (the distribution of money to and from the king), and human sacrifice and the spilling of blood.
Most of the victims were captives from slave raids and were sacrificed through decapitation, a tradition widely used by Dahomean kings, and the literal translation for the Fon name for the ceremony Xwetanu is "yearly head business".
Dahomey had a unique form of West African vodun or voodoo which linked together preexisting animist traditions with vodun practices. Oral history recounted that Hwanjile, a wife of Agaja brought the vodun to the kingdom and ensured its spread. The primary deity is the combined Mawu-Lisa (Mawu having female characteristics and Lisa having male characteristics) and it is claimed that this god took over the world that was created by their mother Nana-Buluku. Mawu-Lisa governs the sky and is the highest pantheon of gods, but other gods exist in the earth and in thunder.
Religious practice organized different priesthoods and shrines for each different god and each different
pantheon (sky, earth or thunder). Women made up a significant amount of the priest class and the chief priest was always a descendant of Dakodonou.
Kings of Dahomey
Gangnihessou, unknown – 1620
According to tradition, Gangnihessou came from a dynasty that originated in the sixteenth century. Based in Tado, a city on the banks of the Moro River (in modern day Togo), the dynasty rose to eminence on the basis of one of his four brothers, who became the king of Great Ardra. After the death of the king, his territories were divided among the three remaining brothers, one of which was Gangnihessou.
Gangnihessou came to rule around 1620 but was soon dethroned by his brother, Dakodonou, while traveling through the kingdom. His symbols were the male Gangnihessou-bird (a rebus for his name), a drum, a hunting stick and a throwing stick.
Dakodonou was the second King of Dahomey, who ruled from 1620 to 1645. Dakodonou is portrayed as a brutal and violent man. His symbols were an indigo jar (a reference to his murder of a certain indigo planter named Donou, whose body he made sport of by rolling it around in his indigo jar, and whose name he appended to his own original name, ‘Dako’), a tinder box, and a war club. Before dying, Dakodonou named his nephew, Aho Houegbadja, as his successor.
Houegbadja (or Webaja) 1645-1685
The third King of Dahomey was Aho Houegbadja, who succeeded his uncle, Dakodonou. He ruled from the time of his uncle’s death in 1645 until 1685.
Houegbadja established the political authority and boundaries of Abomey proper by naming the city as his capital. By building his palace (named “Agbome,” meaning “in the midst of the ramparts”) near Guedevi, an area located a few kilometers to the northwest of Bohicon, he established the area as the seat of political authority. He was responsible for forming the political culture that would continue to characterize Dahomey, with a reign that was marked by autocratic rule. Houegbadja’s symbols were a fish (houe), fish trap (adja), and war club hoe (kpota).
Houegbadja’s successor was his son, Houessou Akabawas, who became the fourth King of Dahomey. He ruled from 1685 to 1708.
Houessou Akaba’s reign was characterized by war and military expansion. His enemies, the Nago (Western Yoruba) kings, attacked Abomey and burned the town. But the warriors of Abomey ultimately defeated the Nago armies and the kingdom extended to include the banks of the Oueme River. Akaba failed, however, to capture Porto-Novo. Akaba’s symbols were the warthog and a saber.
Akaba died of smallpox in 1708. Because his only son, Agbo Sassa, was only ten years old, Akaba was succeeded instead by his brother, Dossou Agadja.
Ruling from 1708 to 1740, Dossou Agadja was the fifth King of Dahomey. Despite the fact that Agadja had gained the throne due to the youth of Agbo Sassa, the rightful heir, he refused to surrender power when the boy came of age and forced Agbo Sassa into exile.
Agadja’s reign was characterized by continual warfare. The Yoruba soldiers of the kingdom of Oyo defeated the army of Abomey. The peace terms required Agadja to pay tribute to the Oyo Empire, a system that continued for the next hundred years. The Tribute of the Kingdom of Abomey to the King of Oyo took the form of an annual tribute in young men and women destined for slavery or death in ceremonies, as well as cloth, guns, animals and pearls.
The kingdom of Abomey grew during Agadja’s reign, and conquered Allada in 1724. In 1727 it conquered the kingdom of Savi, and gained control of its major city, Ouidah. When Abomey conquered Savi and Ouidah, it gained direct access to the trading ports along the southern coast and took over the lucrative slave trade with the Europeans. As a result, Agadja’s symbol is a European caravel boat. Agadja’s victory over Ouidah came, in part, as a result of his use of a corps of women shock-troopers, called Dahomey Amazons by the Europeans after the women warriors of Greek myth, in his army. The Amazons became a dynastic tradition.
Agadja was succeeded by Tegbessou.
Tegbessou was the sixth King of Dahomey, ruling from 1740 to 1774. His reign was characterized by internal corruption and failed foreign policy. He killed many coup-plotters and political enemies, refused to pay tribute to the Yoruba, and lost many battles in the punitive raids that followed.
His main symbol is a buffalo wearing a tunic. His other symbols are the blunderbuss, a weapon he gave his warriors (his reign marked the first time the Dahomey Royal Army had ready access to firearms) and a door decorated with three noseless heads, a reference to his victory over a rebellious tributary people, the Benin Zou, whose corpses he mutilated.
During Tegbessou’s reign, the Dahomey enlarged the slave trade, waging a bitter war on their neighbors. It is said 10,000 people were captured and sold into slavery, including another important slave trader, the King of Whydah. King Tegbessou made £250,000 a year selling people into slavery in 1750.
Tegbessou was succeeded by Kpengla.
The seventh king of Dahomey, Kpengla, ruled from 1774 to 1789. His reign focused on expansion, and dramatically increased the size of the kingdom. In order to expand westward, he killed the chief of the Popo people, Agbamou, and spread his empire into modern day Togo. He destroyed the villages of Ekpe and Badagry (in what is now Nigeria), that were interfering with Dahomey’s regional monopoly on the slave trade.
His main symbol is the akpan bird, a trade gun (flintlock), and an Amazon warrior striking her head against a tree. Kpengla was succeeded by Agonglo.
Kpengla was succeeded by his son, Agonglo. The eighth King of Dahomey, he ruled from 1789 to 1797.
Agonglo instituted several reforms which pleased his subjects: taxes were lowered, and a greater distribution of gifts was made during the annual customs. He reformed the shape of the asen, or sacrificial altar, and supported the surface by ribs rather than a metal cone, typical of the earlier Allada style altars.
After the period of aggressive military expansion of his father, Agonglo consolidated the rule of the dynasty, his few military battles, however, were successful. His symbol is the pineapple.
Agonglo is notable in being the first of the Dahomean kings to marry a European woman. One of his wives was Sophie, a Dutch woman of mixed ancestry. Agonglo was succeeded by his eldest son, Adandozan.
Technically the ninth King of Dahomey, Adandozan is not counted as one of the 12 kings. His name has largely been erased from the history of Abomey and to this day is generally not spoken out loud in the city. He became king when, in 1797, the previous king died, leaving the throne to his eldest son.
Adandozan’s symbols were a baboon with a swollen stomach, full mouth, and ear of corn in hand (an unflattering reference to his enemy, the King of Oyo), and a large parasol (‘the king overshadows his enemies’). These symbols are not included in Abomey appliques, for the same reasons that Adandozan is not included in Abomey’s history.
The traditional stories of Adandozan’s rule portray him as extremely cruel: he is said to have raised hyenas to which he would throw live subjects for amusement. He has been portrayed as hopelessly mad, struggling foolishly with the European powers.
The commonly told story is that he refused to pay Francisco Felix da Souza, a Brazilian merchant and trader who had become a major middle-man in the Ouidah slave market. Instead, he imprisoned and tortured de Souza, and then attempted to have his own ministers sell the slaves directly. According to legend, de Souza escaped with the aid of Gakpe, Adandozan’s brother, who returned from exile for that purpose. In return, de Souza helped Gakpe marshall a military force and take the throne with the assistance of the terrified council of ministers. Gakpe then put Adandozan in prison.
This traditional portrayal may be wrong: like Richard II of England in the Wars of the Roses, Adandozan may have been the object of a propagandistic rewriting of history after he lost the throne, turned into a monster by his successor as a means of excusing the coup d’état and legitimizing the new regime. All stories agree that Adandozan tried to force more favorable terms of trade with the Europeans involved in the export of slaves, and seriously undermined the power of the extended royal family and Vodun cult practitioners at court through administrative reforms.
It may be that these policies themselves provoked Adandozan’s powerful opponents to support a coup against him. In order to justify the coup, Gakpe may then have been obliged to have oral historians tell of the monstrous and mad Adandozan.
Ghezo (Gakpe) 1818-1856
Ghezo was the ninth King of Dahomey and is considered one of the greatest of the 12 historical kings. He ruled from 1818 to 1858. His name before ascending to the throne was Gakpe.
Ghezo’s symbols are two birds on a tree, a buffalo, and a clay jar sieve with holes in it held by two hands, a symbol of unity. Ghezo is said to have used the sieve as a metaphor for the kind of unity needed for the country to defeat its enemies and overcome its problems; it takes everyone’s hand to block the sieve’s holes and hold water. The pierced clay jar upheld by multiple hands has become a national symbol in Benin, a large portrayal of it is the backdrop of the speaker’s podium in Benin’s National Assembly.
Ghezo ascended to the throne after he overthrew his brother, Adandozan, in a coup d’état. The traditional stories state that Adandozan was a cruel ruler, but it is possible these stories may have been invented by Ghezo’s historians to justify the coup.
Throughout his reign, Ghezo waged a military campaign every year during the dry season. His prisoners-of-war were sold into slavery, thus fattening the royal treasury, increasing the annual budget, and making war a very efficient means of raising revenue. Due to the increased strength of his army and capital, Ghezo put an end to the Oyo tribute paying. He formalized his army, gave his 4,000 Dahomey Amazon female warriors uniforms, required soldiers to drill with guns and sabres regularly, and was able to repulse Oyo’s attack when it came.
From the time of King Ghezo onward, Dahomey became increasingly militaristic, with Ghezo placing great importance on the army, its budget and its structures. An intrinsic part of the army of Dahomey, which increased in importance as the state became more militaristic, was the elite fighting force known as the Amazons.
Ghezo was also seen as an extremely shrewd administrator. Because of his slave revenues, he could afford to lower taxes, thus stimulating the agricultural and mercantile economy: agriculture expanded, as did trade in a variety of goods with France. He instituted new judicial procedures, and was considered to be a just judge of his subjects. He was much loved, and his sudden death in a battle against the Yoruba was considered a tragedy.
However loved by his own people, Ghezo’s legacy includes his making a major contribution to the slave trade. He said in the 1840s that he would do anything the British wanted him to do apart from giving up slave trade: “The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people. It is the source and the glory of their wealth…the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery…”
Ghezo was succeeded by Glele.
Badohou, who took the throne name Glele, is considered (if Adandozan is not counted) to be the tenth King of Dahomey. He succeeded his father, Ghezo, and ruled from 1858 to 1889.
Glele continued his father’s successful war campaigns, in part to avenge his father’s death, in part to capture slaves. Glele also signed treaties with the French, who had previously acquired a concession in Porto-Novo from its king. The French were successful in negotiating with Glele and receiving a grant for a customs and commerce concession in Cotonou during his reign. Glele resisted English diplomatic overtures, however, distrusting their manners and noting that they were much more activist in their opposition to the slave trade: though France itself had outlawed slavery at the end of the 1700s, it allowed the trade to continue elsewhere; Britain outlawed slavery in the U.K. and in its overseas possessions in 1833, and had its navy make raids against slavers along the West African coast beginning in 1840.
Glele, despite the formal end of the slave trade and its interdiction by the Europeans and New World powers, continued slavery as a domestic institution: his fields were primarily cared for by slaves, and slaves became a major source of ‘messengers to the ancestors’, in other words, sacrificial victims in ceremonies.
Near the end of Glele’s reign, relations with France deteriorated due to Cotonou’s growing commercial influence and differences of interpretation between Dahomey and France regarding the extent and terms of the Cotonou concession grant. Glele, already on his death bed, had his son Prince Kondo take charge of negotiations with the French.
Glele’s symbols are the lion and the ritual knife of the adepts of Gu; of fire, iron, war, and cutting edges.
Glele died on December 29, 1889, to be succeeded by Kondo, who took the name Behanzin.
Behanzin, though the twelfth, is considered the eleventh (if Adandozan is not counted) King of Dahomey. Upon taking the throne, he changed his name from Kondo to Behanzin, as it was traditional for Dahomey kings to assume a throne name. He succeeded his father, Glele, and ruled from 1889 to 1894. Behanzin was Abomey’s last independent ruler established through traditional power structures, and was considered to be a great ruler.
Behanzin was seen by his people as intelligent and courageous. He saw that the Europeans were gradually encroaching on his kingdom, and as a result attempted a foreign policy of isolating the Europeans and rebuffing them. Just before Glele’s death, Behanzin declined to meet French envoy Jean Bayol, claiming conflicts in his schedule due to ritual and ceremonial obligations. As a result, Bayol returned to Cotonou to prepare to go to war against Behanzin, named king upon Glele’s death. Seeing the preparations, the Dahomeans attacked Bayol’s forces outside Cotonou in 1890; the French army stood fast due to superior weaponry and a strategically advantageous position. Eventually Behanzin’s forces were forced to withdraw. Behanzin returned to Abomey, and Bayol to France for a time.
Peace lasted two years, during which time the French continued to occupy Cotonou. Both sides continued to buy arms in preparation for another battle. In 1892, the soldiers of Abomey attacked villages near Grand Popo and Porto-Novo in an effort to reassert the older boundaries of Dahomey. This was seen as an act of war by the French, who claimed interests in both areas. Bayol, by now named Colonial Governor by the French, declared war on Behanzin. The French justified the action by characterizing the Dahomeans as savages in need of civilizing. Evidence of this savagery, they stated, was the practice of human sacrifice during the annual customs celebrations and at the time of a king’s death, and the continued practice of slavery.
The French were victorious in attaining the surrender of Behanzin in 1894, though they did not procur his signature of national surrender or treaty. He lived out the remainder of his life in exile in Martinique and Algeria. After his death, his remains were returned to Abomey.
His symbols are the shark, the egg, and a captive hanging from a flagpole (a reference to a boastful and rebellious Nago practitioner of harmful magic from Ketou whom the king hanged from a flagpole as punishment for his pride). But, his most famous symbol is the smoking pipe.
Behanzin was succeeded by Agoli-agbo, his distant relative and one-time Army Chief of Staff, the only potential ruler which the French were willing to instate.
Agoli-agbo is considered to have been the twelfth, and last, King of Dahomey. He took the throne after the previous king, Behanzin, went into exile after a failed war with France. He was in power from 1894 to 1900.
The exile of Behanzin did not legalize the French colonization. The French general Alfred Dodds offered the throne to every one of the immediate royal family, in return for a signature on a treaty establishing a French protectorate over the Kingdom; all refused. Finally, Behanzin’s Army Chief of Staff (and distant relative), Prince Agoli-agbo was appointed to the throne, as a ‘traditional chief’ rather than head of state of a sovereign nation, by the French when he agreed to sign the instrument of surrender. He ‘reigned’ for only six years, assisted by a French Viceroy. The French prepared for direct administration, which they achieved on February 12, 1900. Agoli-agbo went into exile in Gabon, and the Save River. He returned to live in Abomey as a private citizen in 1918.
Agoli-agbo’s symbols are a leg kicking a rock, an archer’s bow (a symbol of the return to traditional weapons under the new rules established by the colonial administrators), and a broom.
The Dahomey Amazons were a Fon all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey. They were so named by Western observers and historians due to their similarity to the legendary Amazons described by the Ancient Greeks.
King Houegbadja, the third king, is said to have originally began the group which would become the Amazons as a corps of royal bodyguards after building a new palace at Abomey. Houegbadja’s son King Agadja developed these bodyguards into a militia and successfully used them in Dahomey’s defeat of the neighboring kingdom of Savi in 1727. European merchants recorded their presence, as well as similar female warriors amongst the Ashanti. For the next hundred years or so, they gained a reputation as fearless warriors. Though they fought rarely, they usually acquitted themselves well in battle.
From the time of King Ghezo, Dahomey became increasingly militaristic. Ghezo placed great importance on the army and increased its budget and formalized its structures. The Amazons were rigorously trained, given uniforms, and equipped with Danish guns obtained via the slave trade. By this time the Amazons consisted of between 4,000 and 6,000 women, about a third of the entire Dahomey army.
European encroachment into West Africa gained pace during the latter half of the nineteenth century, and in 1890 the Dahomey King Behanzin began fighting French forces (mainly made up of Yoruba, who the Dahomeans had been fighting for centuries). It is said that many of the French soldiers fighting in Dahomey hesitated before shooting or bayoneting the Amazons. The resulting delay led to many of the French casualties. Ultimately, bolstered by the French Foreign Legion, and armed with superior weaponry including machine guns, the French inflicted casualties that were ten times worse on the Dahomey side. After several battles, the French prevailed. The Legionnaires later wrote about the “incredible courage and audacity” of the Amazons. The last surviving Amazon died in 1979.