Fly and Elephant Parties: Political Polarization in Dahomey, 1840-1870



John C. Yoder

The Journal of African History, VoL 15, No.3 (1974), 417-432.

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Journal oj Africa« History, xv, 3 (1974), pp. 417-432 Printed in Great Britain



I. Introduction

WHEN the West African slave trade was permanently suppressed in the mid-nineteenth century, the kingdom of Dahomey experienced a profound economic and military transformation. Until about 1840, Dahomey obtained much of its income from the capture and sale of slaves, but in the second half of the century the nation was forced to devote its economic efforts to the peaceful production and exportation of palm oil. While Catherine Co query- Vidrovitch has analysed the economic implications of this change, 1 no one has attempted to discuss the political background to such a significant oolte-face. The economic transformation was accompanied by noticeable political realignments, creating polarizations among Dahomean leaders and interest groups. Competing viewpoints began to coalesce around opposing positions as two distinct political parties emerged in the decades between 1840 and 1870. For reasons to be explained later in this study, these two groups might appropriately be labelled the Fly Party and the Elephant Party.

An overemphasis on the absolute power of the Dahomean monarchy has caused scholars to overlook the complex and competitive political process in nineteenth-century Dahomey. Most early European visitors to this West African kingdom, interpreting royal harshness as absolutism, believed that all power and decision-making were concentrated in the hands of the king and a small clique of his high-ranking officials who acted with little regard for the pressures of interest groups or political constituencies. 2 The bias of the early travellers has been reflected in subsequent scholarly descriptions of Dahomey. Tn Le Dahomey, a nineteenth-century book claiming to be a 'scientific study' of African life, Edouard FDa described the Dahomean form of government as an

... uncontrolled, absolute monarchy without limitations. This [polity] permits all sorts of abuses on the part of the king. His smallest caprice is a law to which all his subjects, from the highest to the lowest, must submit without murmuring. And he changes the statutes at the whim of his fancy. Far from accepting the wise counsel which those surrounding him are able to give because of their age and experience, the sovereign listens only to his own desires."

1 Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, 'De La traite des esclaves a I'exporration de l'huile de palme et des paLmistes au Dahomey: XIXe siecle', in TIuJ Development oj Indigenous Trade and Markets in West Africa, Claude Me illassoux , ed, (London, 1971), ,07-23.

~ See for example Abbe Lafitte, Les pays des negres et la cdte des esclaoes (Tours, 18,8), 9'. Lafitte was a Catholic missionary to Dahomey in the 1860s.

a Edouard Foa, Le Dahomey (Paris, 189S), 26S.


Melville J. Herskovits, in Dahomey, An Ancient West African Kingdom, also emphasized the king's absolutism, allowing that it was tempered only by the personal restraint exercised by any wise monarch who had learned to value the suggestions of his advisers. 4.

While more recent scholars have begun to challenge the concept of an absolute monarchy in Dahomey," there has been little research into the precise nature of the kingdom's political process. However, a critical reading of the nineteenth-century sources reveals the existence of a complex and rational structure for decision-making and indicates the emergence of political coalitions, cohesive enough to be called parties, which influenced and determined government policy in Dahomey. The following essay will attempt, first, to delineate the mechanics of the political process in Dahomey, and second, to analyse the various political factions that determined national policies. Implicit in this study is the thesis that the king was unable to act arbitrarily and unilaterally in dictating government actions.

II. The pol£tical process and X wetanu

Dahomeans made their most important legislative and administrative decisions when they celebrated X wetanu each year at their capital Abomey. While European visitors in Dahomey believed Xwetanu was a religious ceremony held only to honour the royal ancestors and to propitiate the Dahomean gods," in truth Xwetanu served a political function similar to that of parliaments in Western countries by providing a structure for the annual resolution and reformulation of competing national goals and interests.

Dahomean dignitaries from every part of the country were expected to make the yearly journey to Abomey to observe Xwetanu, Riding under large umbrellas denoting their rank and detailing their exploits," these officials were accompanied by groups of armed retainers whose numbers indicated the power and wealth of their masters. The functionaries travelling to the capital were probably more concerned with important issues of state policy than with ceremonies recalling the lives of deceased kings. Many times during Xwenatu=-which lasted from several weeks to

• Melville J. Herskovits, Dahomey; An Ancient West African Kingdom (Evanston, 1938), 22-48.

• 1. A. Akinjogbin, Dahomey and Its Neighbour: '708-,8,8 (London, 1967), W. J.

Argyle, The Fon. of Dahomey (London, 1966), and Coquery-Vidrovitch, 'De Ie traite des esclaves a l'exportation de l'huiLe de palme'.

• This view was accepted by Herskovies, who Was not in Dahomey during the time when Xwetanu was held, Dahomey, 11,49-69. Akinjogbin does not challenge this position. The most recent assertion that the Xwetanu was essentially a religious event is made by Dov Ronen, 'On the African Role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Dahomey', Cahiers d'itudes africaines, XI ()97)), 5-13. Xwetanu is the proper Fon term for an event generally described by Europeans as AnnuaL Customs: personal communication from Gilbert Rouger, Mus&' de I'Homme, Paris.

1 The best explanation of the elaborate heraldry on Dahomean state umbrellas is given in J. A. Skerrchly, Dahomey As It Is (London, 1874), )93-4.


more than a month-the approximately 300 delegates representing all regions of the country" sat in a Great Council? debating and deciding issues of national importance. Because this Council was the supreme decision-making body of the land, the king and his ministers normally postponed decisions of serious import until the time when the Great Council convened each year .10

The Great Council was composed of three distinct sections representing three levels of power in Dahomey.'! The first group of twenty to thirty men probably included the ministers of the king, the highest military officials, the principal members of the royal family, the most prominent personal servants of the king, and the richest Creole traders. In general, these were the men wealthy enough to supply the king with armed regiments of 50 to 300 soldiers for the annual slave raids.P The next group in the Great Council was probably composed of fifty to eighty men who were prosperous Dahomean traders, middle-level administrators and army officers, and low ranking members of royalty. These were each able to support from ten to fifty soldiers.P Finally, there was a group of several hundred minor officials-headmen, tax collectors, and valiant warriorswho were presumably able to provide only for themselves and for a few unarmed retainers in the annual slave wars.P

Reflecting the entire Dahomean body politic, the Great Council was composed, not only of men, but also of women who were active participants in all levels of the civil and military structures of government in Dahomey.P In order to maintain surveillance over the country, the king appointed a royal wife as a counterpart to every male official from the Minister of Defence down to the royal Ilari messengers.!" Other women served in the king's celebrated Amazon army and, perhaps because they equalled or even surpassed the male army in reliability and valour, the female military officers were especially prominent in the Great Council discussions.l? In addition, the wealthy Creole slave traders retained Amazon soldiers who were generally supportive of the Creoles in the Council debates. IS

European officials-traders, military envoys, and consuls-visited

, F. E. Forbes, Dahomey and the Dahomans (London, 18SI), H, 243-6. Forbes recorded the names of more than 300 official delegates attending Xwetanu in 18so. ALthough Forbes and other European visitors observed that thousands of people were in Abomey for Xwetanu, most of these were retainers of the official delegates.

9 In this paper the name Great Council is used to distinguish the large body meeting during Xweranu from a much smaller Council of Ministers which attended to the daily affairs of government throughout the entire year.

,. Forbes, Dahomey, I, 83.

11 While European observers were unanimous in speaking of three separate divisions, none of the visitors gave a satisfactory description of the groups. The following portrayal

is, therefore, tentative. .. Forbes, Dahomey, 1I, 224-6.

ra Forbes, Dahomey, II, 213-14.. H Forbes, Dahomey, II, 213-14.

t For a description of the role of women in Dahomean politics see Herskovirs, Dahomey, n,44-8.

'" Europeans called these messengers 'half-heads' because they shaved off all the hair from One side of their heads.

" Forbes, Dahomey, II, lo8-:u. i s Forbes, Dahamey; II, 111-14.



Abomey during the Xwetanu and they were involved in the ceremony and political manoeuvring which took place at that time. As functionaries responsible to the Dahomean king or as ambassadors of a foreign power, they frequently sat in the sessions of the Great Council and recorded parts of its proceedings. From their records it is possible to recover an approximate model of the events at a typical Xwetanu in the mid-nineteenth century. Even though the sequence of events varied somewhat from year to year, the general content of Xwetanu remained the same over many years. The following reconstruction relies most heavily on the writings of Forbes who attended Xwetanu in 1850, but evidence for each event can be found in the accounts of other writers.P

X wetanu: Schedule of Proceedings

1St Day; The king and his officials marched in state from Cana to Abomey. znd Day; The highest officials held personal levees in which they listened to petitions. The king also received important visitors.

3rd Day: The officials, soldiers, and Amazons paraded through the great square in Abomey. The king and the high officials continued to hear petitions. 4th Day: The court singers recounted the history of Dahomey, giving special attention to Dahomean military exploits.

5th Day: The king displayed his wealth in a parade of treasures and war captives.

6th Day: The king distributed his wealth by throwing cloth. cowries, and slain

captives to the crowd of officials.

7th Day; The king reviewed all his troops.

8th Day; The king displayed his wealth for a second time.

9th to the 16th Day: The king met with small groups of officials and important foreign dignitaries.

17th to the 25th Day: The Great Council held legislative sessions in the morn-

ings while the ceremonies continued in the afternoons. 26th Day; The troops swore fealty to the king.

27th Day: The Amazon army held a mock battle and slave raid.

28th Day: The court singers praised trade, arms, the king, and the royal ancestors.

29th Day; The functionaries received their 'salaries' or gifts from the king. 30th Day; Individuals received answers to the petitions they had made at the beginning of the Annual Customs.

It is possible to separate most of the events of XwetaniI into two categories; first, the ceremonial activities (the parades, music, display of wealth, and human sacrifices), and second, the legislative functions (the Council debates, lobbying, and the king's private meetings with his officials). The ceremonies of Xwetanu served as propaganda for the official

19 Forbes, Dahomey, Il. Other good accounts of Xwetanu are found in Archibald Dalzel, The History of Daham» (London, 1793), [26-39; John Duncan, Trauels in We$le,,, Africa ;" I845 and I846 (London, 1847), I, :U6-S2; Thomas B. Freeman, 'Life and Travels on the Gold Coast', in the Western Echo, I6 July to 3I Dec. 1887; Richard F. Burton, A M;!isWn to Gelel«, King of Dahame (London, I86+), I, 201-386, and II, 1-63, and Skertchly, Dahomey, r47~292.



government policy by reinforcing the belief that the welfare of the nation depended on trade, tribute, and warfare, by proving that the king and his ministers had been successful in carrying out this policy, and by demonstrating to the assembled officials that they had benefited personally from this policy.

The spectacular parades displaying the king's wealth were designed to dramatize the rewards of the nation's economic and military policies. The objects displayed in these parades were articles of comrnerce-+cloth, cowries, gold, and silver; gifts of tribute-wheeled coaches, firemen's uniforms, plumed police helmets, and European furniture; and the spoils of war-plantation slaves, skulls and jawbones of dead opponents, prisoners of war, and models of towns captured by Dahomean armies. W On the day after the display of his wealth, the monarch distributed a portion of this treasure to his subordinates. Standing on a high platform, he threw cowries and cloth to the assembled officials. At the same time he, or one of the ministers, executed war captives and cast their bodies to the waiting crowd.s!

By displaying and distributing vast quantities of wealth in the form of treasure and captives, the king demonstrated his success in achieving Dahomean ambitions for lucrative commerce and profitable wars. In songs and speeches, the delegates to Xwetanu were told that the articles of trade, the prizes of tribute, and the booty of war were necessary to insure, not only the economic well-being of the nation, but also to maintain the approval of the ancestors watching over the fortunes of Dahomey. The quantity of wealth displayed at the Customs was interpreted as a visible indication of the state of the nation's economy. Any significant decrease from the previous year's exhibit would have been detected by the Dahomean officials responsible for determining the kingdom's political goals and priorities. 22

The close relationship between foreign trade and the prosperity of Dahomey was dramatized in a ceremony involving a large model ship displayed at the Customs. In 1850 Forbes described the ritual centred on this ship.

Just within the gate, on wheels, was a large full-rigged brigantine, under all plain sails, about twenty feet long ... Towards noon [on the day the king distributed his wealth 1 the brigantine on wheels was drawn up outside the mob, and a boat on wheels put off to discharge her cargo of rum, tobacco and cowries.l"

This ship, a gift of the Creole traders at Whydah, reinforced the notion

,.., Robert Norris, M~moirs of the Reign of Bossa Ahadee, King of Dahomey (London, [789), [[2, and Forbes, Dahomey, II, 37-8 and 213-42. Forbes made a complete listing of all the objects displayed in 1850.

"' Forbes, Dahomey, II, 44-55. On alternate years the captives were slain while tied to horses .

., Burton, A Mission to Gelele, II, 16-[7. Burton observed that the quantity of wealth displayed in 1863 did not nearly equal that shown in the time of King Gezo .

• , Forbes, Dahomey; II, 8 and 48.



that the most cherished symbols of wealth could be procured only through the continued operation of the slave trade.

Other ceremonies, military parades and mock battles, were used to evoke general support for the nation's military policy. Each year, at Xwetanu, Amazon soldiers staged a mock battle against a 'fortified town'. A 'fort' guarded by thorn bushes was filled with slaves who were 'captured' by Amazons and 'sold' to the king. The king then rewarded the soldiers who had distinguished themselves in the staged slave raid.24 Like the display and distribution of wealth, this ceremony served to strengthen the belief that Dahomey's success as a nation depended on her armies' ability to capture the slaves employed on Dahomean plantations or exported to America from Whydah,

While the ceremonies of X wetanu clearly reaffirmed a faith in conquest and trade as the best sources of wealth and security, Dahomean officials were free to challenge and debate both the implementation and the presuppositions of this policy. Following two weeks of ceremony, ministerial conferences, and personal lobbying, the Great Council held legislative and administrative sessions to act on important national problems. From the 1840S until the 1870s, the topics most frequently discussed were diplomatic affairs, military planning, promotion and demotion of officials, economic priorities, and defence tactics.P

Important officials tried to increase their influence in the Great Council by building coalitions of support. On the first day of Xwetanu, the important ministers and generals openly attempted, through favours and promises, to gain the backing and allegiance of a large group of clients. Forbes observed that in front of the palace gates, 'it was selon la regie for a minister to plant his umbrella and stool, and surrounded by a host of followers, who form an extensive circle, receive the visits of his friends, and such as have favours to ask or complaints to make'. 26 Such politicking continued throughout Xwetanu for almost every evening, after the official business of the day had been completed; the officials called on one another in an effort to exert influence and to gain information. 27

The legislative sessions of the Great Council were characterized by extremely intense and candid interchanges among the officials in attendance. Although high members of government such as the Migan (Minister of Defence), the Meu (Minister of Commerce) and the Gau (Commander of the Army) participated most prominently in the discussions of the Great Council, any member could enter freely into the debates. Forbes even recorded an incident where the Meu, the second highest official in Dahomey, was sharply rebuked by a low-level military officer. 28 Even the presence of

.. Duncan, Trauels, I, 229-36, and Forbes, Dahomey, II, 1l2-7 .

ss Duncan, Travels, I, 224 and 234; Forbes, Dahomey, H, 86-134; Burton, A M;ssion to Gelele, I, 336-71, and Skertchly, Dahomey, 247-75 .

•• Forbes, Dahomey; II, 12 and 15-16. See also Freeman, 'Life and Travels', Western Echo, 18-31 Dec. 1887,8 .

• ? Duncan, Trausls, I, 228. •• Forbes, Dahomey, II, 139-40.


the king did not diminish the conflicts at the Council sessions. The king expressed himself infrequently, probably preferring to voice his opinion through the intermediary of his chief eunuch or one of his wives.

After the officials had advanced, argued, and applauded specific legislative proposals, the king stated the final decision of the Council.P Although the monarch expressed the Council's final consensus, the intensity of the debates, the overt displays of strength by the leading officials, and the obvious competition within the Great Council all indicate that the king was not free to act without the support of the Council members. This is not to 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 moulded by conscious responses to internal political pressures as well as by executive fiat.

Once the myth that a Dahomean despot unilaterally and arbitrarily enacted his private political will has been refuted, the evidence describing the political factions and coalitions that determined decision-making can be properly evaluated and patterned. These political groupings were strongly marked by differences of region, race, ideology, economics, and class that existed within the country. An analysis of the events at the Annual Customs and an examination of Dahomean government and society permits at least a partial reconstruction of the major political configurations present in mid-nineteenth-century Dahomey.

III. Political parties in the mid-nineteenth centwy

In the late eighteenth century, Dahomean leaders curtailed the nation's involvement in the international slave trade. Their action was motivated by the fear of antagonizing their imperial master Oyo, also a major exporter of slaves, and by the desire to reduce the nation's dependence on a depressed and unstable slave market. However, following the end of the Napoleonic wars in I8IS and the collapse of Oyo in 1817, pressure grew within Dahomey to reverse the policy of disengagement from the slave trade. This pressure to profit from the changed economic and diplomatic conditions became so intense that in ISI8 a palace revolution forced the king of Dahomey from his throne. Supported by F. F. Da Souza, a prominent Creole slave trader, the king's brother Gezo staged a successful coup d'etat.30

Repudiating the policies of his predecessor. Gezo revived a stagnant

ss Skertchly, DahomtJy, 1;47-8 .

.. Edouard Dunglas, 'Contribution iI. I'histoire du Moyen-Dahomey (Royaumes d'Abomey, de Kerou et de Ouidah)' Etwks Dahomeennes, xx ([957), 1;6-51. Dunglas argued that Gezo's coup d'etat succeeded only because of Da Souza's help. British records indicate that Da Souza also benefited greatly from his friendship to Gezo, Already in [S1;O he had established himself as the principal trader in Dahomey. G. A. Robertson to Lord Bathurst (dated Cape Coast; November, I820), Public Record Office, London: CO zlt t , no, ISO.


slave trade and inaugurated an era of territorial expansion and economic growth. Gezo regularly sent his armies against the small and poorly armed neighbouring states. His kingdom's economy was stimulated by the labour of captives forced to work on plantations in Dahomey, by the revenues obtained from the sale of slaves through the market at Whydah, and by the trade monopoly Dahomey established over the newly conquered territories.31

Three groups profiting directly from this lucrative slave policy, Brazilian Creole traders, wealthy Dahomean officials, and the Aladazonu dynasty, were the chief supporters of an aggressive military posture and an active slave commerce. Dahorneans in the army also benefited from the slave wars. Each soldier who returned with a skull or a captive was paid for his efforts32 and valiant soldiers could expect to receive well-paying positions in the civil government.P While many common citizens resented the demands of conscription and certain chiefs disliked the insecurity resulting from the Dahomean military policy,M other people such as the peasants who grew supplies for the slave ships and urban dwellers employed by the Creole traders were content to share in the economic gains of the Atlantic slave trade.35

From 1818 until the mid-1840S, Dahomeans involved in some aspect of the slave trade prospered. Although France and England had outlawed the transport of slaves from the Gulf of Benin, they did little to hinder the actual flow of slaves from Dahomean ports. Because Brazil continued to purchase large numbers of African slaves, the departure of French and English slave traders from West Africa merely resulted in their replacement by Brazilian Creole merchants. While the total demand for West African slaves may have diminished somewhat from its peak in the eighteenth

at Forbes described a royal plantation worked by captured slaves. 'Near Abomey is a royal plantation of palms, corn, etc., called Leffiefoo. It is inhabited by people from the province of Anagoo, prisoners of war, and is under the direction of a Dahoman cabooceer.' Forbes, Dahomey, I, 3I. For a description of the extensive trading monopoly established over newly conquered ares north of Dahomey see Duncan, Traoels, I, 282-5,~290, and 297; 11,29-36. See also I. A. Akinjogbin, 'Dahomey and Yoruba in the Nineteenth Century', in A TJwusand Years of West African History, J. F. A. Ajayi and I. Espie, eds. (Ibadan, 1965), 32S·

3' Burton, A Miuion. to Gelele, II, 223. .3 Duncan, Traoels, I, 282-3.

a4 Forbes described tbe elaborate defensive system designed to alert and protect a border town against invasion by hostile forces. Forbes, Dahomey, I, 39-40. In 1863 Commodore Wilmot reported widespread anxiety caused by the constant threat of war. Commodore Wilmot to Rear-Admiral Sir B. Walker (dated Rattlesnake, off Lagos; January 1863) in Burton, A Mission to Gelele, II, 366.

3' Freeman, who visited Dahomey in the 1840S, noted the extensive commercial cultivation of tubers near the coast. 'The Cassada is cultivated more extensively in the provinces of Whydah than it is in the Interior districts; on account of tbe farina of that valuable root which are demanded by the slaveships, Some of the natives of Whydah have made little fortunes by the cultivation of the cassada and the manufacture of its farina', Freeman, 'Life and Travels,' Western Echo, 16-30 July I887, 8. See also Forbes, Dahomey, I, 121-2 and 127. Forbes listed the salaries of ordinary Dabomean citizens working for the international traders and he observed that people longed for the happier days of the past when the slave trade had been active and when there had been full employment in Whydah.


century, the Dahornean slave trade began to suffer seriously only after the imposition of a British naval blockade in 1843.36 A moderate reduction in revenue resulting from British interference in the slave trade prior to 1843 would have been offset by Dahomey's freedom from the annual tribute to Oyo which Gezo refused to pay after he seized power. Thus continued prosperity from the time of King Gezo's accession in 1818 until well into the 1840S evoked a general satisfaction among Dahomeans regarding national goals and policies. The universal acceptance of a policy based on war and trade was expressed by an Amazon soldier in a speech to the Great Council when she asserted, 'War is our great friend, without it there would be no cloth, nor armlets [j ewellery], .3'

During the 1840S, however, Dahomey began to face a serious threat to her policy of capturing and selling slaves. This menace occurred when Abeokuta and Britain initiated what appeared to Dahorneans a concerted effort to destroy the slave trade. Abeokuta, a newly founded Yoruba citystate east of Abomey, began to challenge Dahomean freedom to exploit her traditional slaving grounds. all At about the same time, Britain intensified military and diplomatic efforts to halt the slave trade by imposing a naval blockade along the coast and by demanding the substitution of palm oil for slaves as Dahomey's major export product. Therefore, Dahomeans logically inferred an alliance between Abeokuta and England. Such a conclusion seemed justified, not only by the common goals and policies of these two hostile powers, but also by the flow of British missionaries, diplomats, and military supplies to Abeokuta.P

The new threat of the 1840S elicited a deep polarization in the Dahomean body politic as two parties, one a party of confrontation, the other a party of accommodation, emerged in response to the difficulties facing the nation. These two parties, in this essay labelled according to mid-nineteenthcentury slogans identifying their conflicting objectives, were the Elephant Party and Fly Party:iO The Elephant Party, led by the traditional

3' Philip D. Curtin, The Atlandc Slave Trade (Madison, 1969), chapter 8. Curtin's statistics indicate that large numbers of slaves continued to be exported from the Dahomey and Nigeria region in the first half of the nineteenth century. See also David A. Ross, 'The Career of Domingo Martinez in the Bight of Benin 1833-64',J. Afr. Hist. VI (1965), 79-<}O. Ross suggests the Dahomean slave trade continued relatively unaffected until 18.j.8 when the British naval blockade became effective. Ross argues that some slave traders prospered until as late as 1851 when Brazil agreed to withdraw from the Atlantic slave trade. See also Freeman, 'Life and Travels', Western EeM, 7-13 Dec. 1887, 8. Quoting one of his own letters written in 1845, Freeman described the elaborate network of coastal intelligence allowing the Creole traders to evade easily the few British vessels patrolling

the area in the rnid-r Saos. "' Forbes, Dahomey; II, 108. Brackets mine.

"' For an account of the rise of Abeokuta and the alarm this caused in Dahomey see Akinjoghin, 'Dahomey and Yoruba in the Nineteenth Century', 324.

JO Wilmot to Walker, in Burton, A Mission to Gelele; n, 351-9. See also Forbes, Dahomey, II, 189-9:2 .

• ~ It should not be thought that the two groups had any organizational structure Or that they called themselves by the names Elephant or Fly. I chose these labels, used by Dahomeans to describe military targets, because they dearly symbolized the conflicting methods and objectives of the two competing coalitions which can be called parties.


supporters of King Gezo's vigorous slaving policy, was the party of confrontation. The goals of this party were the defeat of Abeokuta, known in Dahomey as the 'elephant'r'! and the firm rejection of British efforts to negotiate an end to the slave trade. Dominated by the Crown, the Creole slave merchants, and high military officials, three groups deeply involved in the international slave trade, the Elephant Party consistently resisted any threat to this commerce.

In the mid-r Saos, a new coalition, the Fly Party, arose to challenge the Elephant Party's political and economic dominance in Dahomey. Composed of individuals who had been unable to benefit fully from the slave trade and who desired the return of Britain as a trading partner, the Fly Party was willing to restrict future slave wars to forays against small manageable targets outside of Abeokuta's sphere of interest. Such smal1 towns and tribes were popularly referred to by Dahomeans as 'flies'.42 In addition to counselling peace with Abeokuta, the Fly Party, eager for a reconciliation with England, favoured the establishment of the palm oil trade as Dahomey's major source of commercial revenue.

Although the nineteenth-century record dearly indicates the emergence of an opposition party, members of the Fly Party are less easily identified than are persons in the Elephant Party. Because the European traders and government envoys, who frequently spoke of two factions or two schools of political thought in Dahomey, were primarily interested in recording the activities of the king and of the Creole slave traders, they left an imperfect description of individuals in the Fly Party. Furthermore, as an emerging coalition, the Fly Party had less clearly defined goals and fewer conscious partisans. Nevertheless, by carefully studying all known members of this coalition, by analysing its goals, and by determining which Dahomeans profited from the adoption of these aims, it is possible to obtain a reasonably satisfactory portrait of the Fly Party.

In 18.H- the hostility between Abeokuta and Dahomey erupted into open conflict when allies of the Yoruba city successfully attacked Dahomey's army in the region of Porto Novo.P Thus, in the 1840S and 1850S, war with Abeokuta was the prime topic of discussion at Xwetanu, When Forbes visited Abomey in 1850, he witnessed a series of debates between the Fly Party and the Elephant Party concerning Abeokuta. This debate provides a perfect paradigm of political process and polarization in Dahomey. Not only the chief protagonists, but also the main interest groups, the central issues, and the consequent decisions of the debate can be delineated. In this controversy the dynamic quality of Dahomean political life is revealed without ambiguity.

The debate described by Forbes can be understood by examining the statements of the soldiers arguing about the best targets for the next war. After reproaching a section of the male army for its weak performance in

.. Forbes, Dahomey, II, I09. .. ibid.

4~ Dunglas, 'Contribution it I'histoire du Moyen-Dahomey', 77-8.


a war against Atakpame, a town north-west of Abomey, Amazon officers implied Dahomeans would be unwise to attack Abeokuta.v' After the debate had continued for several days, an Amazon, the female officer assigned to provide surveillance over the powerful Creole trader Antoine Da Souza, said:

I am the mother of Antoine; I long to kill an elephant [Abeokuta] for him to show my regard, but Attakpahrn [a manageable target] must be exterminated first. One of the male soldiers sent us Guinea pepper to excite us to war ; such is an insul1.45

A second Amazon continued to develop this argument, 'If we go to war, we cannot come back empty-handed; if we fail to catch elephants, let us be content with flies'. 46

Several conclusions can be deduced from these statements. First, a section of the Amazon army was reluctant to attack such a formidable target as Abeokuta, preferring instead to fight the small, weaker enemies to the west. Second, a contingent of the male army had insulted the Amazons by implying that hesitancy to fight Abeokuta was cowardly. And third, the prominent Creole, Antoine Da Souza, wished to attack Abeokuta. The position of Da Souza was clarified soon afterwards when several Amazons under his command expressed the desire to challenge Abeokuta. In a short speech given to the Great Council, one of the Da Souza Amazons stated, 'I am the king's daughter, under his protection; he gave me to the late Da Souza: death seized him: 1 now belong to Antoine: my name is Ahgaesee; and all 1 want is to go to war on Abeahkeata'r'?

These debates concerning military priorities also revealed royal support for the position of the Elephant Party. The royal drummers and singers repeatedly reminded the Great Council of the unavenged insults Dahomey had suffered in the 1844 war when Abeokuta had attacked Porto Novo.4S Thus, the Elephant Party obviously included the king, Da Souza, and the male army. The Elephant Party, deeply concerned about Abeokuta's growing military might and her threatened expansion towards the coast, perceived that success for Abeokuta would weaken Dahomey economically, militarily, and politically. Although debate between the two parties was intense at the 1850 Xwetanit ceremony, the Elephant Party was able to assert its will. After several days of controversy, all the soldiers swore their allegiance to the king and vowed their unswerving desire to annihilate Abeokuta.s?

The opposition Fly Party seems to have been made up of Amazon soldiers, Dahomean religious leaders, and middle-level functionaries who feared the destruction a major war would bring. In the debate described by Forbes, all the Amazons except the ones directly under Antoine Da Souza hoped to avoid conflict with Abeokuta. Many of the nation's shrine

.. Forbes, Dahomey, II, 92-9. 45 Forbes, Dahomey, II, I09. Brackets mine .

•• Forbes, Dahomey, !I, I09. Brackets mine. '1 Forbes, Dahomey, II, 113-14.

n Forbes, Dahomey; 11, 99-100. .. Forbes, Dahomey, II, IOJ-2J.


priests may also have been sympathetic to the Fly Party. Their prediction that the king would die should Dahomey attack Abeokuta's ally Ketu was evidence of a profound pessimism about the outcome of any war involving Abeokuta.s? The middle-level officials responsible for local administration throughout the country formed a third group opposing an aggressive military posture. That the mid-nineteenth century witnessed the rise of this group's discontent is clearly evident in Commodore Wilmot's remarks in 1863. 'People have no time for peaceful pursuits: war, war, war is alone thought of, and the King gives them no rest. Many of the Chiefs complain of this, and seem heartily tired of it'. 51

The Fly and the Elephant Parties also differed in their responses to British efforts to suppress the slave trade and to establish 'legitimate commerce' in Dahomey. Dahomeans had been confused and angered by Britain's withdrawal from the slave trade early in the nineteenth century. They became even more troubled when the British, whom they had always considered to be their best trading partners, actively began to oppose the traffic of slaves by capturing vessels bound for America. From the 1840S until the 1 860s, the Bri tish sent numerous diplomatic missions to Dahomey to negotiate a cessation of the slave trade by offering to pay reparations for the loss of revenue should the African kingdom abandon the exportation of slaves and by arguing that in the long run the substitution of oil production for the slave commerce actually would strengthen Dahomey economically. 52 Even though all Dahomeans considered the naval blockade an unjustifiable intervention in Dahomey's internal affairs,53 Dahomeans were not unified in their response to English diplomatic efforts.

The Elephant Party advocated a policy of belligerent opposition towards the British missions and proposals. Within the Elephant Party, the great Creole slave traders were the most intransigent foes of the British. Their hostility can be attributed to the economic hardships they experienced with any reduction of the slave trade 54 and to their fear of direct European commercial competition. Because they held a virtual monopoly on Dahomean trade passing through Whydah and because they were well aware that European traders could undersell them by at least 2S per cent, the Creole merchants resisted any expanded European commercial activity on the coast. 55 Not only did they oppose the establishment of other expatriate traders at Whydah, but the Creole merchants also attempted to

•• Forbes, Dahomey, 1,20 •

• , Wilmot to Walker, in Burton, A Missinn to Gelele, II, 366.

"Paul Ellingworth, 'Christianity and Politics in Dahomey, 1843-1867', J. Afr. Hist., V (1964), ala. See also Forbes, Dahomey, rr, 185-7; and Wilmot to Walker, in Burton, A Missinn to Gelele, II, 349 .

• a Burton, A Missio« to Gelele, n, 276-8. See also Forbes, Dahomey, II, 189. In the 184Os, members of the Fly Party resented British interference in the traffic of slaves and some Fly Party members were involved ill the sale of slaves .

•• Burton, A Mission. To Gelate, I, 7+-S and lIS. See also Duncan, Travels, I, 138.

U Duncan, Travels, I, 138. See also C. W. Newbury, The Western Slave Coast and. Its Rulers (Oxford, 1964), 39-42; Ross, 'The Career of Domingo Martinez", 86-7.


limit Dahomean exports to slaves, the one product they alone could purchase. In the 1840s, apparently fearing that Dahomean entrepreneurs were developing an alternative commodity for foreign markets, the Creoles persuaded the king to destroy the large shea butter groves north of Abomey.s"

Creole attitudes towards the British became increasingly hostile as pressure against the slave trade intensified. 57 Although Thomas B. Freeman, a Wesleyan missionary who visited Dahomey in r843, received a cordial welcome from F. F. Da Souza,56 by r850 Creole-British relations had become so strained that at Xwetanu an open rivalry developed between the Creoles and English diplomats over questions of status and protocol.s" Later that year, when the British agents tried to sail from Whydah, they were harassed by the Creole traders who impounded all the canoes in the port.60

The wealthy Creoles were not the only group within the Elephant Party which adopted a belligerent stance towards the British. When Burton attended Xwetanu in r863, he observed that a large group of Dahomean officials were openly hostile to him. These 'unfriendly umbrellas' were the Migan (Minister of Defence), the Tokpo (Minister of Agriculture), and other unnamed male military officials. 61 The disaffection of these men was an expression of their opposition to Burton's demands that Dahomey abandon the slave trade in favour of 'legitimate commerce'. In addition, they probably snubbed Burton because of British ties with Abeokuta, For as early as 1850, Forbes revealed that some of the king's ministers had grown critical of England because of her alleged support for Abeokuta.P

Thus, one observes that the Creoles and the male military officials, the most vocal advocates of war against Abeokuta, were also united in their opposition to British attempts to end an active and previously profitable slave trade. It is therefore not surprising that the Elephant Party posited a conspiracy between their two major enemies and overestimated the intimacy of relations between Abeokuta and England.

Unlike members of the Elephant Party who resented and resisted British efforts to replace the slave trade with 'legitimate commerce', those adhering to the Fly Party hoped to avoid a complete breakdown of relations with England and to profit from new economic opportunities. No doubt the Fly Party hoped that skilful negotiations could persuade the English to abandon the naval blockade and to revive their commercial activity in Dahomey.P In 1850 the Meu (Minister of Commerce) informed Forbes

•• Duncan, Trauels, I, 285-6.

50 Ellingworth, 'Christianity and Politics in Dahomey", 204-2X .

•• Thomas B. Freeman, JaurtUJ.l tJj Variaus Visits to the Kingdam of Ashanu, Aku and

Dahomi in We$t~rn Africa (London, l8++), 240-3 .

•• Forbes, Dahomey, II, 8-9. ". Forbes, Dahomey, II, 202.

"' Burton, A Mi ss ion to Gelele, I, 375-6. •• Forbes, Dahamey, II, 189-9°'

•• Although Dahomeans consistently rejected British demands to halt the slave trade they always welcomed British negotiators to Abomey.



that he was unhappy because English trade goods were hard to obtain. 64 About the same time the Yovogan (Governor of Whydah), a man closely tied to trade, cautioned King Gezo against driving the British away by flatly rejecting their proposal that Dahomey abandon the slave trade. 65 The desire of the Fly Party to restore commercial relations with England was evident in [863 when Burton visited Dahomey and noted that although some Dahomeans were very hostile towards him, the Lieutenant Meu and the Binazon (National Treasurer) were among a large group of officials expressing their friendship to him.66

In addition to the Meu, the Y o vogan, and the Binazon, certain wealthy Dahomean entrepreneurs belonged to the Fly Party. While the adherence of these men to the Fly Party cannot be demonstrated by their own testimony, their economic enterprises, their hope of benefiting from an adoption of the goals of the Fly Party, and their close alliance with the Y ovogan all link them to the causes of trade and political accommodation. Five such prominent merchants, Adjovi, Xodonu, Nahwe, Kadzee, and Quenum 67 had large commercial establishments, and while these men sent detachments of soldiers on the annual slave wars and profited from the sale of slaves, they had also invested heavily in sizeable oil plantations.w Less dependent upon the slave trade, these merchants were more willing to substitute trade in oil for the slave commerce than were the Creoles.v" In the end, these men actually benefited by a shift from slaves to oil, since it freed them from dealing with the Creole middlemen who dominated all phases of the slave trade.

Besides this circumstantial evidence linking Dahomean traders and plantation owners to the interests of the Fly Party, an examination of the political alignments in the government provides more substantial proof that they supported the party of trade and accommodation. Because the names of the previously mentioned traders are listed together with the Yovogan's at Xwetanu?", because the king appointed these men to assist

•• Forbes, DaJw11UJY, II, 62-3 .

•• Forbes, Dahomey, II, 189-90.

to Burton, A Mission to Gelele, I, 375-6 .

•• Forbes, Dahomey, I, 112; II, 243 and 246. Forbes referred to this group of men three times. In V. I, 112, he named three of these five merchants. In two separate lists (II, 243 and 2+6) all five names appeared in association with the Yovogan. Professor Jack Berry of Northwestern University assures me that although Forbes's spelling is not consistent, he is always speaking of the same five men. I have included a fourth spelling that may be the Fon word referred to by Forbes.




II, 246 Ahjohvee Khodohnoo Narwhey Kohjeh Quaenung

Possible Fon orthography Adjovi Xodonu Nahwe

Kadz ce Quenum

I, 112 II, 243

Ahojohvee Ahjohvee

(not listed) Hoodoonoo

Narwhey Nearwhey

(not listed) Quejah

Quenung Ahqueanoo

M Forbes, Dahomey, I, H2-IS; II, 175-6 . •• Ross, 'The Career of Domingo Martinez", Sr. 70 Forbes, Daho~y, II, 243 and 246.



the Y ovogan in the surveillance of the Creoles.t- and because at least one of them, N ahwe, was a spy for the Y ovogan.P it is clear that actual political ties as well as common interests bound these men to the Y ovogan, a leader of the Fly Party. 73

The Fly Party's members were unified by their opposition to the Creoles, the Crown, and the male military, advocates of frequent wars and slave trading. Within the Fly Party, Dahomean entrepreneurs anticipated great profits in the growing palm oil trade, while Amazon soldiers, religious leaders, and local chiefs opposed continued unrest caused by conflict with Abeokuta. Together with many ordinary citizens, these individuals formed a coalition of discontented people who had frequently paid the cost of Dahomean economic and military policies, but who felt deprived of a fair share of the profits.

The conflict between the Elephant and Fly Parties, which continued throughout the mid-rboos, was eventually resolved in favour of the Fly Party as Dahomey adopted a more cautious policy towards Abeokuta and as the Creoles lost their political influence. Although members of the Elephant Party consistently pressed for war against Abeokuta, after 1851 Dahomey fought her powerful neighbour only one more time. That battle occurred in 1864 when Dahomey unsuccessfully attacked the Yoruba city to avenge King Gezo's death at the hands of a sniper friendly to the Abeokuta."! The disaster of the 1864 campaign seems to have permanently split the ranks of the Elephant Party, for in 1870, the king and the Migan were bitterly divided over the subject of Abeokuta. While King Glele wanted to punish Abeokuta, the Migan and other high officials opposed any further action against their apparently invincible enemy.7S

Not only was the Elephant Party split ideologically, but in the 1850S and 1860s the Party's most vigorous partisans, the Brazilian Creoles, experienced a political and economic decline. Until his death in 1848, F. F. Da Souza had served as Chacha, the principal agent of trade at Whydah. In conjunction with the Yo vogan, he established prices, collected customs, and regulated all international commerce on the Atlantic coast. 76 Da Souza also wielded great military power, maintaining at least 200 Amazon soldiers and 140 armed and uniformed male retainers." After 1850, however, when the Creole traders were no longer able to generate sufficient wealth through the slave trade, they lost their political influence to Dahomean entrepreneurs. Although as Chacha, F. F. Da Souza had exercised immense control over foreign trade, the Chachaship was stripped of most of its power

11 Forbes, Daho miJy , I, II I. ,. Forbes, Dahomey; T, 53 .

.. The intense and shrewd interest in British commerce expressed by Dahomean traders in Setta north of Abomey indicates that many Dahomeans linked to trade probably desired to restore normal commercial relations with England. Thus, the five men noted by Forbes were probably only a few of the many merchants forming part of the Fly Party.

,. Dunglas, 'Contribution a l'histoire du Moyen-Dahomey', 78-85 . .. Skertchly, Dahomey, 2.75-89.

? Forbes, Dahomey, I, Ill. 11 Forbes, Dahomey, II, 7 and II.




after he died in 1848.78 Initially, the duties of the office were divided among several of Da Souza's sons, but finally, after a rapid succession of Da Souza Chachas, the powers of this position were given to Quenum, one of the previously described Dahomean traders who were members ofthe Fly Party.??

Several conclusions can be drawn from this study of Dahomean politics.

First, the Dahomean king was not an absolute monarch acting without effective restrictions on his personal power. Second, the Dahomean government had highly organized institutions for channelling and resolving political differences. Third, economic and military changes in the nineteenth century resulted in an intense political competition and realignment in Dahomey. Previously dominant groups, the Crown, the male army, and the Creole traders were not successful in resisting the challenge of Dahomean traders, the Amazon army, middle-level chiefs, and religious leaders against the nation's established military and political policies. 80


Analysis of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Dahomean history reveals, not the existence of an absolute despotism, but the presence of a complex and institutionalized political process responsive to the needs and demands of Dahomeans from every part of the country. Each year at Xwetanu (Annual Customs), Dahomean officials met to discuss and decide administrative, military, economic, and diplomatic policies of the nation. In the mid-nineteenth century an obvious polarization developed as two groups, the Elephant Party and the Fly Party, sought to mould foreign policy. The Elephant Party, composed of the Crown, the wealthiest Creole traders, and the highest male military officials, advocated continuing the established practice of capturing and exporting slaves. Therefore, the Elephant Party wanted to destroy Abeokuta, an African rival and threat to slave raiding, and to resist England, a European obstacle to the transAtlantic shipment of slaves. After 184-0, as slaving became more difficult and as the palm oil trade emerged as an alternative to the slave trade, the Fly Party rose to challenge the goals of the Elephant Party. Comprised of the Amazon army, shrine priests, middle-level administrators, Dahornean entrepreneurs, and trade officials (groups who were unwilling to pay the costs of a major war and who were eager to gain access to the profits of 'legitimate' international trade), the Fly Party counselled peaceful co-existence with Abeokuta and restored commercial relations with England. Eventually, the Fly Party was able to gain ascendancy over the Elephant Party. By 1870 the great Creole traders had suffered severe economic reverses, the Crown and the high military officers were divided over the question of Abeokuta, and members of the Fly Party had obtained positions of political and economic dominance within the country. Thus, the economic and military transformations which affected all of West Africa in the first half of the nineteenth century evoked political polarizations, coalitions, and realignments in the nation of Dahomey.

10 Forbes, Dahomey, II, 3. See also Burton, A Miuion to Gelele, I, 91-2 and 105-6 .

.. Lafitte, Us pays des negres, 198-200. See also Burton, A Mission to Gelele, II, 104-6.

See also Skertchly, Dahomey, 13-14, 25, 32-3, 45, 51-3 .

• 0 I wish to express my thanks for the generous help and insightful criticisms of Professor Ivor Wilks.

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