's Ancient Civilizations of the World/Benin and the Forest Kingdoms

The Benin Empire (1440–1998)Edit

Benin Empire.

The Benin Empire (1440–1998) was a pre-colonial African state in what is now modern Nigeria. It should not be confused with the modern-day country called Benin, formerly called Dahomey.

Ancient Benin EmpireEdit

The original people and founders of the Benin Empire, the Edo people, were initially ruled by the Ogiso (Kings of the Sky) dynasty who called their land Igodomigodo. According to the Edo oral tradition, 36 Ogiso ruled the empire, being the first one Igodo. Note worthy is the fact that out of these 36 Ogiso, two, Emose and Orhorho were women. In 8th century CE, the ruling Ogiso successfully expanded Igodomigodo into a system of autonomous settlements. By the 15th century, Edo as a system of protected settlements expanded into a thriving city-state. In the 15th century, Benin would expand from city-state to an empire. It was not until 15th century during the reign of Oba Ewuare the Great that the kingdom's administrative centre, the city Ubinu, began to be known as "Benin City" by the Portuguese, and would later be adopted by the locals as well. Though, farther Edo clans, such as the Itsekiris and the Urhobos still referred to the city as Ubini up till the late 19th century, as evidence implies.

Golden AgeEdit

Benin city in the 17th century.

Oba Ewuare, the first Golden Age ruler, is credited with turning Benin City into a military fortress protected by moats and walls. To enclose his palace he commanded the building of Benin's inner wall, a seven mile (11 km) long earthen rampart girded by a moat 50 feet (15 m) deep. Ewuare also added great thoroughfares and erected nine fortified gateways. It was from this bastion that he launched his military campaigns and began the expansion of the kingdom from the Edo-speaking heartlands.

At its heyday, the empire extended from the western Ibo tribes on the shores of the Niger river, through parts of the southwestern region of Nigeria (much of present day Ondo State, and the isolated islands (current Lagos Island and Obalende) in the coastal region of present day Lagos State). Expansion eastwards was stopped by the aggressive autonomous Igbo villages southeast of the Niger river, the Oyo Kingdom, which extended through most of SouthWestern Nigeria in the West to parts of present day Republic of Benin, and the Northerly tribes united under the new and fiercely proselytistic Islamic faith.

Pendant ivory mask of Queen Idia or Iyoba ne Esigie (meaning: Queenmother of Oba Esigie)), court of Benin, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

During the Golden Age, the Benin Empire developed an advanced artistic culture, especially in its famous artifacts of bronze, iron and ivory. These include bronze wall plaques and life-sized bronze heads depicting the Obas of Benin. The most common artifact is based on Queen Idia, now best known as the FESTAC Mask after its use in 1977 in the logo of the Nigeria-financed and hosted Second Festival of Black & African Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77). Tales of Benin's splendors and highly burnished artifacts lured more Portuguese traders to the city gates.

European ContactEdit

The first European travelers to reach Benin were Portuguese explorers in about 1485. A strong mercantile relationship developed, with the Edo trading tropical products such as ivory, rubber and palm oil with the Portuguese for European goods such as hemp and guns. In the early 16th century, the Benin Empire sent an ambassador to Lisbon, and the king of Portugal sent Christian missionaries to Benin City. Such was the importance of their contacts that, some residents of Benin City could still speak a pidgin Portuguese in the late 19th century.

The first English expedition to Benin was in 1553, and significant trading developed between England and Benin based on the export of ivory, palm oil and pepper. Visitors in the 16th and 17th centuries brought back to Europe tales of "the Great Benin," a fabulous city of noble buildings, ruled over by a powerful king. However, the Oba began to suspect Britain of larger colonial designs and ceased communications with the British until the British Expedition in 1896-97 which resulted in a weakened Benin Empire.

Despite increasing European pressure, the kingdom of Benin offers a snapshot of a relatively well-organized and sophisticated African polity in operation before the major European colonial interlude. Military operations relied on a well trained disciplined force, which may have deterred European nations from interfering. Foreign observers often commented favorably on Benin's discipline and organization as "better disciplined than any other Guinea nation."

Until the introduction of guns in the 15th century, traditional weapons like the spear and bow held sway. Efforts were made to reorganize a local guild of blacksmiths in the 18th century to manufacture light firearms, but dependence on imports was still heavy.

Fortifications were important in the region and numerous military campaigns fought by Benin's soldiers revolved around sieges. In fact, Benin's military earthworks are the largest of such structures in the world. Barring a successful assault, most sieges were resolved by a strategy of attrition, slowly cutting off and starving out the enemy fortification until it capitulated. On occasion however, European mercenaries were called on to aid with these sieges. The example of Benin shows the power of indigenous military systems, but also the role outside influences and new technologies brought to bear. This is a normal pattern among many nations and was to be reflected across Africa as the 19th century dawned.


The city and empire of Benin declined after 1700. By this time, European activity in the area, most notably through the Trans-Atlantic slave-trade, resulted in major disruptive repercussions. However, Benin's power was revived in the 19th century with the development of the trade in palm oil and textiles. To preserve Benin's independence, bit by bit the King of Benin banned the export of goods from Benin, until the trade was exclusively in palm oil.

By the last half of the nineteenth century Great Britain had become desirous of having a closer relationship with the Kingdom of Benin. Several attempts were made to achieve this end beginning with the official visit of Richard Burton in 1862. Following that was an attempt to establish a treaty between Benin and the United Kingdom by Hewtt, Blair and Annesley in 1884, 1885 and 1886 respectively. But Benin resisted signing a protectorate treaty with Britain through most of the 1880s and 1890s. Progress was finally made by Vice-Consul H.L Gallwey's visit to Benin in 1892. This mission was significant in several ways. It was the first Official visit after Richard Burton's in 1862, and it would also set in motion the events to come that would lead to the Kingdom of Benin's demise.

During his visit, Vice-Consul H.L. Gallwey claimed to have convinced the King of Benin to sign a formal agreement between the kingdoms of Benin and Great Britain, which would come to be known as "The Gallwey Treaty of 1892." Contrary to the stories told by Gallwey later, for a number of reasons there is still today some controversy as to whether the Benin monarch actually agreed to the terms of the treaty as Gallwey had claimed. First, at the time of his visit to Benin the monarch could not welcome Gallwey or any other foreigners due to the observance of the traditional Igue festival which prohibited the presence of any non-native persons during the ritual season. Also, even though Gallwey claimed the King and his chiefs were willing to sign the treaty, it was common knowledge that the ruler was not in the habit of signing one sided treaties. The Treaty reads "Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India in compliance with the request of [the] King of Benin, hereby extend to him and the territory under his authority and jurisdiction, Her gracious favor and protection" (Article 1). The Treaty also states "The King of Benin agrees and promises to refrain from entering into any correspondence, Agreement or Treaty with any foreign nation or power except with the knowledge of her Britannic Majesty's Government" (Article 2), and finally that "It is agreed that full jurisdiction, civil and criminal over British subject's and their property in the territory of Benin is reserved to her Britannic Majesty, to be exercised by such consular or other officers as Her Majesty shall appoint for the purpose...The same jurisdiction is likewise reserved to her Majesty in the said territory of Benin over foreign subjects enjoying British protection, who shall be deemed to be involved in the expression "British subjects" throughout this Treaty" (Article 3).

It makes little sense that the monarch and his chiefs would accept the terms laid out in articles IV-IX, or that he or his chiefs would knowingly bestow their dominion upon Queen Victoria for so little apparent remuneration. Under Article IV, the treaty states that "All disputes between the King of Benin and other Chiefs between him and British or foreign traders or between the aforesaid King and neighboring tribes which can not be settled amicably between the two parties, shall be submitted to the British consular or other officers appointed by Her Britannic Majesty to exercise jurisdiction in the Benin territories for arbitration and decision or for arrangement."

Drawing of Benin City made by an English officer 1897

The chiefs attest that the King of Benin did not sign the treaty because he was in the middle of an important festival which prohibited him from doing anything else (including signing the treaty). The King maintained that he did not touch the white man's pen. Gallwey later claimed in his report that the King basically accepted the signing of the treaty in all respects. Despite the ambiguity over whether or not the monarch signed the treaty, the British officials easily accepted it as though he did because they were driven (to a large extent) by greed; British officials were increasingly interested in controlling trade in Benin and also in accessing the kingdom's rubber resources to support their own growing tire market. However, after Benin discovered Britain's true intentions, eight unknowing British representatives, who had been sent to visit Benin were killed. As a result a Punitive Expedition was launched in 1897. The British force, under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, razed and burned the city, destroying much of the country's treasured art and dispersing nearly all that remained. The stolen portrait figures, busts, and groups created in iron, carved ivory, and especially in brass (conventionally called the "Benin Bronzes") are now displayed in museums around the world. The King of Benin was eventually captured by the British, deposed and sent to live out his days in Calabar, in southeastern Nigeria. He died in 1914.[1]

The Forest KingdomsEdit

Oyo Empire (1400s–1905)Edit

Oyo Empire and surrounding states, c. 1625.

The Oyo Empire was a Yoruba empire of what is today western and northern Nigeria. Established in the 14th century, the Oyo Empire grew to become one of the largest West African states encountered by pre-colonial explorers. It rose through the outstanding organizational skills of the Yoruba, wealth gained from trade and its powerful cavalry. The Oyo Empire was the most politically important state in the region from the mid-17th to the late 18th century, holding sway not only over most of the other kingdoms in Yorubaland, but also over nearby African states, notably the Fon Kingdom of Dahomey in the contemporary republic of Benin to the west.



The mythical origins of the Oyo Empire lie with Oranyan, the second prince of the Yoruba Kingdom of Ife, in south-western Nigeria. Oranyan made an agreement with his brother to launch a punitive raid on their northern neighbors for insulting their father the king of Ife. On the way to the battle, the brothers quarreled and the army split up. Oranyan's force was too small to make a successful attack, so he wandered the southern shore until reaching Bussa. There the local chief entertained him and provided a large magical snake. The chief instructed Oranyan to follow the snake until it stopped somewhere for seven days and disappeared into the ground. Oranyan followed the advice and founded Oyo where the serpent stopped. The site is remembered as Ajaka. Oranyan made Oyo his new kingdom and became the first oba (king).

Early period (1300s to 1600s)

Oranyan's successors managed to conquer the rest of what later historians would refer to as metropolitan Oyo. Oyo had grown into a formidable inland power by the end of the 14th century. For over a century, Oyo had expanded at the expense of its neighbors; but in the 16th century, Oyo suffered military defeats at the hands of the Nupe, a tribe from the Middle Belt and northern Nigeria. Sometime around 1535, the Nupe occupied Oyo and forced its ruling dynasty to take refuge in the kingdom of Borgu. The Nupe sacked the capital, destroying Oyo as a regional power until the early 17th century.

Imperial period (1600s to 1800s)

Oyo's ruling class went through an interrugnum of 80 years as an exiled dynasty after its defeat by the Nupe. They re-established Oyo as more centralized and expansive than ever. The people created a government that established its power over a vast empire. During the 17th century, Oyo began a long stretch of growth, becoming a major empire.

The key to the rebuilding of Oyo was a stronger military and a more centralized government. Taking a cue from their Nupe enemies. they rearmed with armor and cavalry. After the reconquest, a new capital, Oyo-Igboho, was constructed, and the original became known as Old Oyo. Despite a failed attempt to conquer the Benin Empire sometime between 1578 and 1608, Oyo continued to expand. By the end of the 16th century, the Ewe and Aja states of modern Benin were paying tribute to Oyo.

  • Dahomey Wars

The reinvigorated Oyo Empire began raiding southward as early as 1682. By the end of its military expansion, Oyo's borders would reach to the coast some 200 miles southwest of its capital. It met little serious opposition until the early 18th century. In 1728, the Oyo Empire invaded the Kingdom of Dahomey in a major campaign. Dahomey warriors, on the other hand, had no cavalry but many firearms. Their gunshots scared the Oyo cavalry horses and prevented their charging. Dahomey's army also built fortifications such as trenches, which forced the Oyo army to fight as infantry. The battle lasted four days, but the Yoruba were eventually victorious after reinforcements arrived. Dahomey was forced to pay tribute to Oyo. The Yoruba invaded Dahomey seven times before finally subjugating the small kingdom in 1748.

  • Later conquest

In 1764, a joint Akan(Akyem)-Dahomey-Oyo force defeated an Asante army. The alliance victory defined borders between the neighboring states. Oyo led a successful campaign into Mahi territory north of Dahomey in the late 18th century. The Yoruba also used the forces of their tributaries; for instance, they accomplished a 1784 naval blockade of Badagri with an Oyo-Dahomey-Lagos force.


Many believe the decline of the Oyo empire had started as early as 1754 with the dynastic intrigues and palace coups sponsored by the Oyo Prime Minister Bashorun Gaha. Gaha, in his quest for absolute power force four successive kings to commit ritual suicide. Gaha's treachery was not ended until 1774 during the reign of king Abiodun, the fifth ruler he served with. Gaha was subsequently executed by Abiodun but the instability that had been brought about by these intrigues had further weakened and impoverished Oyo.

Most historians agree that the decline of Oyo started with the events that led to the secession of Ilorin. Ilorin was a war camp with a large population of Hausa, Borgu and Nupe slaves who were principally in charge of the king's horses and cavalry. Are-Ona Kakanfo Afonja, who was in charge of Ilorin, marched on the capital Oyo-Ile (which was a taboo), and demanded the king to abdicate. After the king's death in 1795, there was a scramble for the throne by numerous contenders, some were reported to have spent less than six months on the throne, there was also a period of interregnum of almost twenty years where the various factions could not agree on a candidate for the throne.

This period of vacuum led to the rise of powerful military and regional commanders like Solagberu, who was the leader of a growing Muslim population in Oyo. These new powers had lost regard for the throne due to the various political wranglings and the lack of a central authority at the time, this situation eventually led up to Afonja seceding Ilorin from Oyo in 1817 with the help of Oyo Muslims. In 1823, after Afonja had been killed by his allies, Ilorin became part of the Sokoto Caliphate. Ilorin then besieged Offa and started raiding, burning and pillaging villages in Oyo, eventually destroying the capital Oyo-Ile in 1835.


Territorial organizationEdit

At the beginning, the people were concentrated in metropolitan Oyo. With imperial expansion, Oyo reorganized to better manage its vast holdings within and outside of Yorubaland. It was divided into four layers defined by relation to the core of the empire. These layers were Metropolitan Oyo, southern Yorubaland, the Egbado Corridor and Ajaland.

Political organizationEdit

The Oyo Empire developed a highly sophisticated political structure to govern its territorial domains. Scholars have not determined how much of this structure existed prior to the Nupe invasion. Some of Oyo's institutions are clearly derivative of early accomplishments in Ife. After reemerging from exile in the early 17th century, Oyo took on a noticeably more militant character. The influence of an aggressive Yoruba culture is exemplified in the standards placed on the oba (king) and the roles of his council.

The king

The oba (meaning 'king' in the Yoruba language) at Oyo, was also referred to as the Alaafin of Oyo, (Alaafin means 'owner of the palace' in Yoruba). The king was the head of the empire and supreme overlord of the people. He was responsible for keeping tributaries safe from attack, settling internal quarrels between sub-rulers, and mediating between those sub-rulers and their people. He was also expected to give his subordinates honors and presents. In return, all sub-rulers had to pay homage to the oba and renew their allegiance at annual ceremonies. The most important of these was the Bere festival, marking the acclamation of successful rule.

The Oyo Empire was not a hereditary monarchy, nor an absolute one. The oyo mesi selected the king. He was not always directly related to his predecessor, although he did have to be descended from Oranyan,, and to hail from the Ona Isokun ward (which is one of the three royal wards). At the beginning of the Oyo Empire, usually the king's oldest son succeeded his father to the throne. But, this sometimes led to the oldest son, i.e. the first-born prince, the aremo, hastening the death of his father. Independently of the possible succession, the aremo was quite powerful in his own right. For instance, by custom the king abstained from leaving the palace, except during the important festivals, which in practice curtailed his power. By contrast, the aremo often left the palace. This led noted historian S. Johnson to observe: "The father is the king of the palace, and the son the King for the general public".

The ilari

The king appointed certain religious and government officials, who were usually eunuchs. These officials were known as the ilari or half-heads, because of the custom of shaving half of their heads and applying what was believed to be a magical substance into it. The hundreds of ilari were divided evenly among the sexes. Junior members of the ilari did menial tasks, while seniors acted as guards or sometimes messengers to the other world via sacrifice. Their titles related to the king, such as oba l'olu ("the king is supreme") or madarikan ("do not oppose him"). They carried red and green fans as credentials of their status. All sub-courts of Oyo had ilari who acted as both spies and taxmen. Oyo appointed these to visit and sometimes reside in Dahomey and the Egbado Corridor to collect taxes and spy on Dahomey's military successes, so that the king of Oyo could get his cut. Similar officials had existed in Ife, as attested by terracotta art depicting them.

The councils

While the king of Oyo was supreme overlord of the people, he was not without checks on his power. The oyo mesi and the Yoruba Earth cult known as ogboni kept the oba's power in check. The Oyo Mesi spoke for the politicians while the ogboni spoke for the people backed by the power of religion. The power of the king in relation to the oyo mesi and ogboni depended on his personal character and political shrewdness.

The oyo mesi were seven principal councilors of the state. They constituted the Electoral Council and possessed legislative powers, similar to today's United States Congress. They represented the voice of the nation and had the chief responsibility of protecting the interests of the empire. The king was required to take counsel with them whenever any important matter affecting the state occurs. They also controlled the military.

The oyo mesi does not enjoy an absolute power or influence, and while they may wield political influence, the ogboni represented the popular opinion backed by the authority of religion, and therefore the view of the oyo mesi could be moderate by the ogboni. And most interestingly, there are checks and balances on the power of the king and the oyo mesi and thus no one is arrogated absolute power. The ogboni was a very powerful group composed of freemen noted for their age, wisdom and importance in religious and political affairs. Its members enjoyed immense power over the common people due to their religious station. A testament to how widespread the institution was is the fact that there were ogboni councils at nearly all sub-courts. Aside from their duties in respect to the worship of the earth, they were responsible for judging any case dealing with the spilling of blood. The leader of the ogboni, the oluwo, had the unqualified right of direct access to the king on any matter.

Military organizationEdit

There was a high degree of professionalism in the army of the Oyo Empire. Its military success was due in large part to its cavalry. Because its main geographic focus was north of the forest, Oyo enjoyed easier farming and thus a steady growth in population. This contributed to Oyo's ability to consistently field a large force. There was also an entrenched military culture in Oyo where victory was obligatory and defeat carried the duty of committing suicide. This do-or-die policy no doubt contributed to the military aggressiveness of Oyo's generals.[2]

Kingdom of Dahomey (c.1600–1900)Edit

Map of Kingdom of Dahomey in the modern borders of Benin.

Dahomey was an African kingdom in the present-day Republic of Benin which lasted from 1600 until 1900. Dahomey developed on the Abomey Plateau in the early 1600s and became a regional power in the 1700s by conquering key cities on the Atlantic coast. For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Kingdom of Dahomey was a key regional state, eventually ending tributary status to the Oyo empire and being a major location for the Atlantic slave trade, possibly supplying up to 20% of the slaves to Europe and the Americas. In 1894, the kingdom became part of French West Africa as part of the territory of French Dahomey (which also included Porto-Novo and a large area to the north of Dahomey). French rule lased until 1960 when the independent country took the name Republic of Dahomey, to be changed to Benin in 1975.

The Kingdom of Dahomey was an important regional power that had an organized domestic economy, significant international trade with European powers, a centralized administration, significant taxation systems, and an organized military. Notable in the kingdom were significant artwork, all-female military units known as the Dahomey Amazons, and elaborate religious practices of Vodun with the large festival of the Annual Customs of Dahomey. The Kingdom of Dahomey serves as the context for a number of works of fiction dealing with West African ideas and the slave trade.


The Kingdom of Dahomey was established around 1600 by the Fon people who had recently settled in the area (or were possibly a result of intermarriage between the Aja people and the local Gedevi). The foundational king for Dahomey is often considered Houegbadja (c.1645-1685) who built the Royal Palaces of Abomey and began raiding and taking over towns outside of the Abomey plateau.

Houegbadja's grandson, King Agaja, came to the throne in 1718 and began significant expansion of the Kingdom of Dahomey. In 1724, Agaja conquered Allada, and in 1727 he conquered the Whydah. This increased size of the kingdom, particularly along the Atlantic coast, which made Dahomey into a regional power. The result was near constant warfare with the main regional state, the Oyo Empire from 1728 until 1740. The warfare with the Oyo empire resulted in Dahomey assuming a tributary status with the Oyo empire.

Statue of Béhanzin in Abomey.

The Kingdom of Dahomey became a major power in the Atlantic slave trade, with slaves supplied through raids of surrounding areas. Such was the importance of the slave trade, that Kind Adandozan (1797-1818) was replaced by his brother King Ghezo (1818-1858) largely because Adandozan had been ineffective at maintaining stable supply for the slave trade. Under Ghezo the empire reached its zenith with Ghezo defeating the Oyo empire in 1823, ending Dahomey's tributary status, and greatly expanding the slave trade.

However, in the 1850s, much of this changes with the rise of Abeokuta (a city dedicated to protecting people from slave raids by Dahomey) in the region and the imposition of a naval blockade by the British in 1851 and 1852 to halt the slave trade. Ghezo was forced to stop slave raids and agreed to stop slave trading. Attempts at resuming the slave trade were attempted in the late 1850s and 1860s; however, these never lasted long.

The coastal area began to be controlled by the French in the 1870s, with the French reaching agreement with the kingdom to turn the port of Cotonou into a protectorate in 1878. When King Béhanzin (1889-1894) took over the throne he began raiding French protectorates and renounced the agreement regarding Cotonou. The French began responding in the Franco-Dahomean wars from 1890 until 1894 which resulted in the French conquest of the kingdom and appointing King Agoli-agbo as a puppet king. When Agoli-agbo resisted French taxation attempts, the French dissolved the Kingdom and sent Agoli-agbo into exile.

The Kingdom of Dahomey retained an important legacy with the French appointing many Dahomey leaders as canton chiefs in the new administrative structure. The French colony, which included the kingdom but also Porto-Novo and a large area to the north, took the name French Dahomey which lasted until 1960 when the Republic of Dahomey was created. The name Dahomey was retained until 1975 when the country's name was changed to Benin.

Political organizationEdit

King Ghezo displayed with a royal umbrella.

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

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.

The royal court

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 matters, 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.


Group portrait with the so called 'Dahomey Amazons'.

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.

Domestic economy

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.

Slave trade

The Atlantic slave trade was the primary international trade from the kingdom for much of its history. The slave trade was heavily organized by the king himself and the money provided him with significant funds to purchase guns, iron, and cloth. Although the king did make some money from domestic taxation, most of the funds to the king derived from the slave trade. The Dahomey coast was known in many European accounts at this time as the "Slave Coast" because of the active trade. Dahomey contributed possibly as much as 20% of the total Atlantic slave trade making it one of the largest suppliers to the trade. Historian Akinjogbin did contend that the entry into the slave trade by Dahomey was hesitant and that the early kings of Dahomey, primarily Agaja, were simply trying to improve the economic state of the kingdom and only engaged in the slave trade when other options did not work.

The slave trade had significant impacts on the kingdom. Historian Robin Law contends that the international slave trade provided a likely justification for much of the military policies of the kingdom. Similarly, when King Adandozan was unable to supply enough war captives for the international slave trade, domestic household and plantation use, and for sacrifices, he was replaced by Ghezo with the support of Francisco Félix de Sousa, a Brazilian slave trader, primarily to increase the trade.

Starting in the 1840s, the British empire began trying to suppress the Atlantic slave trade. Multiple missions tried to convince King Ghezo to end the trade, but he responded that domestic political pressure prevented him from ending the trade. However, he did increase palm oil plantations in order to try and develop economic alternatives. In 1851-1852, the British instituted a naval blockade on Dahomey in order to prevent the slave trade forcing Ghezo to promise to end the slave trade. Major military operations were halted at the same time.


Dance of the chiefs during celebrations.

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.

Young girl with wooden statue of mystic chair.jpg

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 Cosmology

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.[3]

Ashanti Empire (1670–1902)Edit

Map of Ghana showing Ashanti region.

The Ashanti (or Asante) Empire (or confederacy) was a West Africa state of the Ashanti, the Akan people of the Ashanti region, Akanland. The Ashanti Empire was based on trade, especially gold, ivory, and slaves, which were sold to first Portuguese and later Dutch and British traders. The region also had dense populations and large agricultural surpluses, allowing the creation of substantial urban centers.

The Ashanti (or Asante) are a sub-group of the Akans, a powerful, militaristic and highly disciplined people of West Africa. Their military power, which came from effective strategy and an early adoption of European rirearms, created an empire that stretched from central Akanland to present day Benin and Ivory Coast, bordered by the Dagomba kingdom to the north and Dahomey to the east. By 1874, the Ashanti controlled over 250,000 square kilometers while ruling approximately 3 million people. Due to the empire's military prowess, sophisticated hierarchy, social stratification and culture, the Ashanti empire had one of the largest historiographies of any indigenous Sub-Saharan African political entity.


Origins and founding of the kingdomEdit

The ancient Ashanti may have migrated from the vicinity of the north-west Niger river at some point during the Ghana Empire. Linguists have substantiated the migration by tracing word usage and speech patterns along West Africa. Between the 10th and 12th century AD the Ashanti and other Akan peoples migrated into the forest belt of present-day Akanland and established several states. At the height of the Empire, the Akan people became wealthy through the trading of gold mined from their territory.

Akan political organization centered on clans headed by a paramount chief or Amanhene. One such clan, the Oyoko, settled in Akanland's sub-tropical forest region, establishing a center at Kumasi. The Ashanti became tributaries of another Akan state, Denkyira but in the mid-17th century the Oyoko under Chief Oti Akenten started consolidating the Ashanti clans into a loose confederation against the Denkyira.

The introduction of the Golden Stool (Sika ɗwa) was a tool of centralization under Osei Tutu. According to legend, a meeting of all the clan heads of each of the Ashanti settlements was called just prior to independence from Denkyira. In this meeting the Golden Stool was commanded down from the heavens by Okomfo Anokye, priest or sage advisor to Asantehene Osei Tutu I and floated down from the heavens into the lap of Osei Tutu I. Okomfo Anokye declared the stool to be the symbol of the new Asante Union (Asanteman), and allegiance was sworn to the stool and to Osei Tutu as the Asantehene. The newly founded Ashanti union went to war with and defeated Denkyira. The stool remains sacred to the Ashanti as it is believed to contain the Sunsum — spirit or soul of the Ashanti people.

Golden mask property of Kofi Karikari.

In the 1670s the head of the Oyoko clan, Osei Kofi Tutu I, began another rapid consolidation of Akan peoples via diplomacy and warfare. King Osei Kofu Tutu I and his chief advisor, Okomfo Kwame Frimpon Anokye led a coalition of influential Ashanti city-states against their mutual oppressor, the Denkyira who held Asanteman as one of its tributaries. Asanteman utterly defeated them at the Battle of Feyiase, proclaiming its independence in 1701. Subsequently, through hard line force of arms and savoir-faire diplomacy, the duo induced the leaders of the other Ashanti city-states to declare allegiance and adherence to Kumasi, the Ashanti capital. Right from the onset, King Osei Tutu and Priest Anokye followed an expansionist and an imperialistic provincial foreign policy. According to folklore, Okomfo Anokye is believed to have visited Agona-Akrofonso.

Realizing the strengths of a loose confederation of Akan states, Osei Tutu strengthened centralization of the surrounding Akan groups and expanded the powers of the judiciary system within the centralized government. Thus, this loose confederation of small city-states grew into a kingdom or empire looking to expand its borders. Newly conquered areas had the option of joining the empire or becoming tributary states. Opoku Ware I, Osei Tutu's successor, extended the borders, embracing much of Akanland's territory.

European contact and fallEdit

European contact with the Ivory Coast region of Africa began in the 15th century. This led to trade in ivory, slaves, and other goods which gave rise to kingdoms such as the Ashanti. On May 15, 1817 the Englishman Thomas Bowdich entered Kumasi. He remained there for several months, was impressed and on his return to England wrote a book, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, which was disbelieved as it contradicted prevailing prejudices. Joseph Dupuis, the first British consul in Kumasi, arrived on March 23, 1820. Both Bowdich and Dupuis secured a treaty with the Asantehene. However, the governor, Hope Smith, did not meet Ashanti expectations.

From 1806 until 1896, the Asante Union was in a perpetual state of war involving expansion or defense of its domain. The Asante's exploits against other African forces made it the paramount power in the region. Its impressive performance against the British also earned it the respect of European powers. Far less known than its Zulu contemporaries, Asanteman was one of the few African states to decisively defeat the British Empire in not only a battle but a war.

In December 1895, Sir Francis Scott left Cape Coast with an expedition force. It arrived in Kumasi in January 1896. The Asantehene directed the Ashanti to not resist. Shortly thereafter, Governor William Maxwell arrived in Kumasi as well. Asantehene Agyeman Prempeh was deposed and arrested. Britain annexed the territories of the Ashanti and the Fanti in 1896, and Ashanti leaders were sent into exile in the Seychelles. The Asante Union was dissolved. Robert Baden-Powell led the British in this campaign. The British formally declared the coastal regions to be the Gold Coast colony. A British Resident was permanently placed in the city, and soon after a British fort.


The lands within Asanteman were rich in river-gold and kola nuts, and they were soon trading with the Songhai Empire, the Hausa states and later with the Portuguese at the coastal fort Sao Jorge da Mina, later Elmina.


The Ashanti government was built upon a sophisticated bureaucracy in Kumasi, the nation's capital.

The king

At the top of Ashanti's power structure sat the asantehene, the king. Each asantahene was enthroned on the sacred Golden Stool, the Sika 'dwa, an object which came to symbolise the very power of the King. As king, the asantehene held immense power, but did not enjoy absolute royal rule, and was obliged to share considerable legislative and executive powers with Asante's sophisticated bureaucracy. The asantehene was the only person in Ashanti permitted to invoke the death sentence. During wartime, the king acted as Supreme Commander of the army, although during the 19th century, actual fighting was increasingly handled by the Ministry of War in Kumasi.


Below the asantahene, local power was invested in the obirempon of each locale. The obirempon (literally "big man") was personally selected by the asantahene and was generally of loyal, noble lineage, frequently related to the king. Obirempons had a fair amount of legislative power in their regions, more than the local nobles of Dahomey but less than the regional governors of the Oyo Empire. In addition to handling the region's administrative and economic matters, the obirempon also acted as the Supreme Judge of the region, presiding over court cases.[4]


  1. "The Benin Empire" (Wikipedia)
  2. "The Oyo Empire" (Wikipedia)
  3. "Dahomey" (Wikipedia)
  4. "Ashanti Empire" (Wikipedia)