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Landscape Politics: The Serpent Ditch and the

Rainbow in West Africa

ABSTRACT Anthropologists and archaeologists have long been interested in the intersection of social, political, and religious insti-
tutions and landscape features. Recent efforts have been aimed at elucidating the tensions between the perception and description of
such features among Western and non-Western groups. This article seeks to contribute to this project through an analysis of a series
of massive ditches (c. 17th–19th centuries A.D.) in southern Bénin, West Africa. In their accounts of the region, European travelers de-
scribed these features through tropes and terminology that ascribe Western military designs and exploits. With insights drawn from
archaeological and anthropological data, we argue a different perspective: that groups from the West African kingdoms of Hueda and
Dahomey used the built landscape to reference cosmological factors, in attempts to negotiate and shape the political landscape of the
region. [Keywords: West African Archaeology, landscape politics, Vodun, Dangbe, earthenworks]

W HILE MAPPING1 A PORTION of the massive ditch

complex that surrounds the archaeological site
of Savi2 in coastal Bénin,3 West Africa, one of us (Neil Nor-
tutions is often aided by research designs that conjoin his-
torical and anthropological methodologies (cf. Hantman
1990; Sahlins 1985). Researchers investigating West Afri-
man) asked a Dahomean collaborator to run a transect can history from the 16th century to the present often
through a ditch segment to plumb its depth. He looked at ground their interpretations in European observations of
the ditch with trepidation and suggested it might be more the social and political interactions of the region (e.g.,
appropriate if Norman took the measurement, since for Curtin 1975; DeCorse 1998, 2001; Wallerstein 1986). Pri-
him the ditch evoked the presence of Dangbe, the python mary documents have aided greatly in the understanding
deity worshiped by Vodun practitioners in the area.4 This of African/European interactions in the area. However,
statement was striking, since virtually all of the ancient others argue that greater efforts should be made to enu-
ditches were incorporated into a modern productive agri- merate the tensions, dissonances, and conflicts between
cultural landscape, and other local collaborators had been European accounts of contact and interaction and other
involved with identification, mapping, and archaeological lines of evidence (Fleisher in press; Kelly 1997b; LaViolette
testing of these very earthworks. When Norman asked if it in press; Miller 1980; Stahl 2001).
would be appropriate for him to enter the ditch himself, Ann Stahl (2001:1–40) suggests that archaeological data
our collaborator suggested that it should be fine as long as are in a prime position to help us address not only con-
Norman proceeded respectfully and realized the potency flicts between primary sources but also the “silences” asso-
and potential danger of the space. This moment demon- ciated with the selective and subjective process of record-
strated clearly that the earthworks embodied differing cul- ing historical accounts (cf. Trouillot 1995). We suggest that
tural significance for specific individuals, compelling the common themes in attempts by West African groups to
research that follows. manipulate the built landscape and shape the ways it is
We consider this study as part of the growing body of presented and perceived offer an avenue to explore such
comparative data elucidating the interrelations of political, historical processes at the local and regional levels. This
social, and religious institutions with the built landscape methodology borrows from Martin Hall (1987:3–4), who
(e.g., Bauer 1998; Bender 1993; Fox 1996; Holley et al. 1993; suggests evaluating elements of the built landscape based
Kolb 1994; Koontz et al. 2001). In settings involved in the on their relation to the goals and strategies used to natu-
European colonial expansion following the late 15th cen- ralize and reinforce power relations within and between
tury, contextualizing landscape features within such insti- groups. Hall (2000:44) notes that these strategies are often


Norman and Kelly • Landscape Politics in West Africa 99

met with ambiguous and unexpected responses, and, thus, to European design and inventiveness; however, we argue
we fully acknowledge that the experiences and perceptions that they more closely relate to efforts by West African
of such ditches throughout West Africa were, as they are groups to implement monumental architecture for the
today, multifarious. One of the strengths of Hall’s research creation of social distinction (Kelly 1995, 1997a), as well
in colonial and modern South Africa is to explore the em- as attempts to provide symbolic and physical protection
bedded meaning(s) and political significance of landscape through evoking cosmological elements. We hope that
from the perspective of African groups involved in their this study will add to the voices of researchers calling for
construction and use. Thus, necessary tensions often de- theoretical models and heuristic devices that are sensitive
velop between European accounts of the African land- to African perspectives and cosmologies (McIntosh 1999;
scape and the accounts of those African groups that create Schmidt 1996), that give time depth to historically specific
and maintain the features. moments, and that situate these moments within the po-
In the discussion that follows, we seek to demonstrate litical dynamics of the region (Piot 1999:1–26).
such tensions between European and African accounts of
the ways that ditches were used to signify and implement HISTORICAL AND REGIONAL BACKGROUND
power relations in social, political, and religious spheres in Researchers commonly characterize the 14th and 15th
southern Bénin. Particular attention will be focused on: centuries as a period of intensification and consolidation
(1) the Huedan5 capital of Savi (early 17th century to in the coastal forest zone of modern-day Togo, Bénin, and
1727) and (2) the Dahomean capital of Abomey where, in Nigeria, as kings in the region extended their spheres of
the early 18th century (see Figures 1 and 2), Dangbe was control over areas of several hundred kilometers. In turn,
incorporated into the Dahomean pantheon, as ditches these kings were reliant on regional governors who ad-
were adopted as architectural features around that palace ministered portions of their kingdom, collected tribute,
complex. European traveler’s accounts relate these ditches mediated disputes, organized religious ceremonies, and

FIGURE 1. Project Area.

100 American Anthropologist • Vol. 106, No. 1 • March 2004

with dwellings and inhabitants that it can be said to form

a single town” (in Law 1991:59). Law estimates the popu-
lation of the Hueda kingdom at approximately 100,000
for the late 17th century; from this population of both free
and enslaved the king could field a military force of be-
tween 20,000 and 40,000 for defensive and offensive op-
erations (Law 1991:58–59). This military force was neces-
sary to defend Savi and the coastal port and transatlantic
entrepôt of Glewhe (later Ouidah) from the regional con-
flict between the kingdoms of Oyo, Allada, and Dahomey.
Dahomey posed the most immediate threat to Hueda, as
Dahomean kings sought to use military might to expand
their political control to the Atlantic coast. A key feature
in the military posturing and political hegemony involved
African elite groups marshalling the symbols of their re-
spective pantheons. In the section that follows, we outline
the theoretic perspectives that guide this study of ditch
systems as representations of members of these pantheons
in southern Bénin, and the connection of these deities to
the political maneuverings of the area.


Many of the older, large-scale urban settlements through-
out the forest zone in Togo, Bénin, Ghana, and Nigeria
share the common element of incorporating ditches into
social systems that attempt to construct physical barriers
and social boundaries: zones of protection and inclusion.
FIGURE 2. Map of the Central Site Area of Savi.
Patrick Darling’s (1984) research in and around Benin City
in southern Nigeria includes the most complete discussion
coordinated corvée labor for public works and agricultural
of the massive ditch features from this period. He notes
operations. Attached artisans produced items from gold,
that the concentric bank-and-ditch systems in the area
brass, clay, ivory, and cloth, which were traded by coastal
were created not only to distinguish the royal palace com-
groups to larger northern polities that controlled trade
plex from nonelite areas but also to encircle and protect a
networks throughout the region and beyond (Law 1991; majority of the settlement. He estimates the total length
Polanyi 1966). for the southern Nigerian earthenworks at 16,000 km with
The arrival of European traders on the West African an average depth of three meters. Such a system would
coast in the late 15th century, and their sustained efforts have required the removal of 37 million cubic meters of
from the 16th–19th centuries to trade captive Africans fill, and an estimated 150 million hours of labor to com-
across the Atlantic, caused a radical reorganization of this plete. This calculation led Graham Connah (2000) to write
network. Polities in the interior traded captives to coastal that such structures speak as much to the ability of the
groups, who used their position at the nexus of trade to King of Benin and his religious administrators to organize
exact tribute and taxes from both European and African excess, or corvée, labor as they do to the king’s ability to
groups. Coastal polities used this tribute to acquire Euro- organize defensive posturing of the kingdom. The ditches
pean armaments, further aiding the expansion of political appear to be a major outlet of the compulsory labor that
control and adding to the zeal to capture neighboring the King of Benin commanded through powers of taxa-
groups. Regional conflict ensued as politically centralized tion.
polities scrambled to annex surrounding areas. During the Connah (2000) notes a florescence of ditch systems in
height of this conflict in the early 18th century, settle- Later Iron Age (c. A.D. 1300) settlements throughout the
ment patterns became tightly nucleated, as those living savanna and coastal forest areas of West Africa, where elite
near territorial boundaries relocated to the centers of the groups coordinated enslaved and corvée labor for the con-
kingdom to seek protection from raiding/slaving parties struction of immense edifices and public works. Robin
(Law 1990, 1991). Law (1991:93–94) correlates the political prominence of
After visiting the region, the early-18th-century Euro- kings in the area to their ability to keep these laborers in
pean traveler Etiénne Des Marchais noted that the area in public displays of service and commerce. Africanist an-
and around the Huedan capital of Savi was “so populated thropologists have recognized a close relationship between
Norman and Kelly • Landscape Politics in West Africa 101

the ability of an African political leader to command sur- DITCH SYSTEMS IN SOUTHERN BÉNIN
plus labor and the extent of his or her administrative-juris- The centrality of Savi to the trade of captive peoples drew
dictional authority (Guyer 1995; Webster 1990). French, English, Portuguese, and Dutch traders and emis-
It is telling that in the coastal forest zone of West Af- saries to reside in the area (Polanyi 1966). The various
rica, this labor was organized to create ditches rather than kings of Hueda were adept at manipulating the competi-
walls or other devices for separating social space. Paula tive nature of these European groups to benefit their own
Ben-Amos (1980:78–82) suggests the interpretations of coffers. Huedan kings resisted exclusive trading status
West African ditches should not focus solely on their use with any single European group, thus allowing maximum
as barriers but also take into account their use as symbolic competition between European traders and Huedan con-
structures that demarcate the sacred from the profane. After trol of the last stage on the African side of the Atlantic
comparing historical accounts with contemporary inter- trade. In turn, the authority of the kings of Hueda was reli-
views, she suggests that in Edo cosmology the ditches and ant on their ability to monopolize these trade networks
gates found throughout the Kingdom of Benin (14th–19th and to control related political relationships (Kelly 1997a;
centuries) served as a crossroads where aspects of the spiri- Law 1991).
tual and natural worlds collided. Numerous offerings were As Europeans established ephemeral settlements in
thus required in these areas to placate the various entities southern Bénin in the late 17th and early 18th centuries,
passing between realms. Not surprisingly, the ditches asso- they became entangled in the politics of the region. Huedan
ciated with the most powerful crossroads between spiri- elites restricted the movement and relative freedom of
tual and earthly planes were those in closest proximity to European traders and diplomats, by curtailing their oppor-
the palace complexes (e.g., Benin City), adding to the tunities to move throughout the kingdom and their settle-
prestige of elite groups residing within palace complexes. ment opportunities (Kelly 1997a). Huedan kings ordered
Furthermore, elite groups were protected from outsiders and the construction of European “trading lodges” within the
internal political dissent by locating themselves within series of ditches that marked the boundary of their palace
the physical and symbolic boundary provided by the ditch complexes, thus placing European activities under the
system. constant gaze of the king and his representatives.
In a similar fashion, Merrick Posnansky (1981) draws This circumscribed settlement isolated the European
from oral histories and archaeological data to interpret a traders by separating them from their naval reinforce-
series of ditches at Notsé (occupied from mid–15th century ments at the coastal port of Ouidah. Archaeological evi-
to the present) in the coastal forest zone of modern Togo, dence7 (Kelly 1997a, 2001) from Savi suggests that build-
as defining social boundaries.6 He recorded a four-sectioned ing materials such as European bricks, originally destined
wall-and-ditch system that enclosed most of the settle- for these European lodges, were diverted for use within the
ment. Subsequent work there by Dola Aguigah (1986, 1992) palace complex. This requisition of material exemplifies
suggests the complex was not used for defensive purposes the dominant position that Hueda kings held in trading
but to demarcate the territory under Notsé control. Pos- relationships and alludes to the strategies used by elites to
nansky and Aguigah base their interpretation on the oc- create differentiation through use of the built landscape.
currence of a ditch running inside the walls, where it adds Namely, elites used architectural features to signify and
no defensive value to the structure (Posnansky 1985). This distinguish their privileged positions in social, political,
interpretation is countered by Nii Quarcoopome (1993), and religious spheres. In addition to materializing this
who draws from oral traditions to suggest the wall was separation, the activities conducted within and outside
constructed during the 17th century as protection against the palace zone further point to the differentiation of in-
raiding groups from the east and north. He also notes that teraction spheres.
a smaller wall (agbobovi), which circumscribes a much The elite zone contained within the palace complex
smaller area, was constructed during the reign of the in- became the economic hub for the kingdom as it provided
itial king of Notsé to “isolate the royal domain and to pro- space for negotiations between European and African trad-
tect the notables” (Quarcoopome 1993:114–115, emphasis ers. At the same time, the palace complex was also the
added). Thus, it is conceivable that Notsé walls and ditches center for the creation of symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1990)
served multiple defensive and symbolic functions, includ- through the manipulation of European traders (Kelly
ing division of the site between elite and nonelite zones. 1997a), and it was the locus for religious ceremonies con-
Drawing from ethnohistoric accounts, Sandra Greene ech- ducted by the king and other religious officiates. The ditch
oes this interpretation, claiming that portions of the wall- system that divided the palace complex from the remain-
and-ditch system served to “symbolize the town’s status as der of the settlement separated these spheres of interac-
a major economic power and ritual center within the re- tion and placed symbolic and physical space between elite
gion” (Greene 2002:15). In the section that follows, we and nonelite activities.
discuss evidence for ditches in Southern Bénin being used European visitors, traders, and emissaries resided
to define social space and represent political prominence within the palace complex at Savi more or less continu-
in a similar fashion to those described above. ously from 1670 until its destruction in 1727. Yet these
102 American Anthropologist • Vol. 106, No. 1 • March 2004

European eyewitnesses, many of whom were trained ob- two round, where he keeps near a thousand women”
servers, made no mention of the earthworks that enclosed (1721:366). This discrepancy suggests the amount of labor
the elite district (Kelly 1997b). These observers, nonethe- organized to construct and maintain the structures within
less, described in copious detail the features of the built the elite zone, as well as the ditch system that stands be-
and social landscape that they considered relevant to tween elite and nonelite areas of the site. Archaeological
maximizing trade and advantage. Over a century after Savi investigations indicate that the Savi ditches enclose an
fell to Dahomey, Sir Richard Burton reported after a visit area of approximately six-and-a-half hectares through a
to the area that: segmented system, with individual segments varying be-
Nothing now remains of the ancient glories of Savi; even tween ten and 70 meters in width and up to 220 meters in
in A.D., 1772, we are told, only the moats of the many length. The maximum depth of the segments was re-
European forts could be traced. A long trench, with a tall corded at eight meters below the surface of the edge of the
growth of trees, was the sole remnant of the palace occu-
excavation. Occasional low mounds, possible vantage
pied by the Whydah kings. [Newbury 1966:94]
points two to three meters in height, are located adjacent
It is not surprising that Burton attributes these structures to the ditches, but they do not appear to be related to
to European innovation and action, as such accounts and walls. The ditches do not retain, or drain, large quantities
tropes were common among European travelers from the of water; however, standing water may collect in lower ar-
19th century (Hall 2000). Undoubtedly, Burton’s account, eas of the ditches during the rainy season (Kelly 1997a;
as well as modern historic accounts, were influenced by Kelly et al. 1999). They meander in noncontiguous seg-
earlier European maps and documentary sources from the ments, that when viewed from the ground level, trace a
17th to 18th centuries that often exaggerated the size and serpentine pattern between the elite and nonelite sections
position of European trade lodges in relation to the Huedan of the site.
palace complex (Kelly 1995:277–279). Archaeological evi- Kelly suggests that if the Hueda did not regard the
dence suggests strongly that these ditches were the result ditches as defensive, then it is possible that European ob-
of Huedan efforts and designs. servers understood this, but saw no alternative role the
Kelly (1997a) draws from the archaeology of Posnan- ditches could have played. He posits that European visi-
sky (1981) and Aguigah (1986, 1992) at Notsé when inter- tors and residents did not comment on the ditches be-
preting the ditch system at Savi as an attempt by Huedans cause they were not identifiable in terms of their own pre-
to define internal social relations. Kelly (1997b:361–362)
conceptions of the size, shape, style, and placement of
downplays the physical defensive significance of the Savi
military fortifications (Kelly 1995:303). We propose that
ditches as they were breached by repeated causeways that
when the historical silences associated with these ditches
apparently allowed access to the palace complex without
are considered alongside the accounts of political and re-
checkpoints or other means of controlling movement into
ligious posturing in and around the palace complex, the
the elite zone. Furthermore, the ditches do not encompass
Huedan strategies associated with defining social space
the entire town—only the elite section (Kelly 1997a:360).
can be understood in more nuanced fashion (Stahl 2001).
Kelly concludes that the ditches served as a material,
For Hall (2000), there is a close relationship between the
and monumental, representation of the authority of the
ability to make claims to authority and the ability to con-
king of Hueda, and a reminder of the political prominence
trol material representations (i.e., the built landscape),
necessary to organize the labor involved. Archaeological
and products, of such relations of power. In his concep-
evidence supports the assumption that ditches stood be-
tion of political power, a key strategy becomes attempting
tween elites and nonelites, as survey (Kelly 1995) and ex-
to control the presentation and perception of these mate-
cavation (Brunache 2001; Kelly 1995, 1997a; Kelly et al.
rial representations at times when a group’s, or individ-
1999) data reveal a higher proportion of non-African trade
ual’s, prominence is on display. Therefore, the ditches
goods concentrated within the palace complex compared
may also be interpreted in relation to attempts throughout
with those areas outside.
the region to control the presentation and use of religious
In a similar fashion to artifact variance in elite and
nonelite areas, the massiveness of the architectural fea- symbols and political iconography associated with the ser-
tures located inside the palace complex served to signify pent deity Dangbe. The section that follows provides an
the relative status differences of those living inside. Struc- overview of Dangbe worship in southern Bénin, and the
tures inside were up to 115 meters in maximum dimen- relationship between those religious practices and the
sion, while initial investigation of the structures outside ditches at Savi and Dahomey.
the palace complex indicate that nonelite house structures
averaged approximately two-and-a-half meters in length DANGBE WORSHIP IN SOUTHERN BÉNIN
(Kelly 1995). The late-17th-century observer William Bos- Ian Hodder (1995) suggests issues of performance and dis-
man recorded a similar massiveness of architecture associ- play should be considered in the interpretation of archae-
ated with the palace, describing the Savi palace complex ological assemblages, such that archaeologists should at-
with the king “who lives in . . . majesty at Sabbee [Savi]. tempt to link material culture with the pageantry of past
[The] palace is a . . . large bamboo building of a mile or events. Melville Herskovits (1938), Herskovits and Frances
Norman and Kelly • Landscape Politics in West Africa 103

Herskovits (1933), and Law (1991) note that European procession to the temple of Dangbe, where his wealth was
travelers to the region were fascinated with Huedan wor- placed on display as his court paraded items from the pal-
ship of the python deity Dangbe and recorded numerous ace compound around the palace walls and to the temple
accounts of Dangbe being called upon on occasions of of Dangbe (Law 1990:226). A large portion of the Huedan
economic, political, and social significance. In the early population was mobilized for the procession by ritual spe-
18th century, Des Marchais recounted that Dangbe was in- cialists, who led the drumming, dancing, and singing (Law
voked for political purposes “on all occasions relating to 1991:95–96). The king of Hueda served as the head offici-
their government” (in Law 1990:209). In the mid–19th ate, while his wives demonstrated royal largesse by throw-
century, Richard Burton described the sacred python con- ing cowries and other items of value to the assembled
sidered the earthly manifestations of Dangbe as “a brown crowd. The procession and related ceremonies resemble
yellow-and-white-streaked python of moderate dimen- Achille Mbembe’s (1992) description of the use of specta-
sions; and none appear to exceed five feet” (in Newbury cle as a strategy for reinforcing political structures and ex-
1966:74). This characterization corresponds with the col- isting relations of power, as such events lend credibility to
oration and physiology of one type of python indigenous the existing power structures (Orr 2001; Turner 1974, 1995).
to the area today: the Royal/Ball Python, Python regius, Following Mbembe, such structures would allow elite groups
usually less than six feet (Villiers 1975). Similar to the ac- to conduct ceremonies, which translated into political
counts of modern Dangbe practitioners (Norman 2000), prominence in the more mundane aspects of life. Like-
historic travelers noted that Dangbe was considered to wise, the bodies (Figure 3) of those processing and observ-
regulate weather and agricultural fertility. ing (including Europeans and those animals and persons
An early-18th-century traveler to the area recorded occasionally sacrificed to Dangbe) added to the aura of the
that “the great men paid their respects to the king of Why- Huedan elite groups and reinforced their position as the
dah as the head of the descent group which had as its mediator between the sacred and profane, arbiter of life
tohwiyo [symbolic head] the revered serpent Dan[gbe], and and death. It is clear from documentary sources and sub-
recognized him as their leader in negotiations with the sequent archaeological investigations that the procession
Europeans” (Argyle 1966:16). However, the sociopolitical would have coincided with the path of the ditch system,
and religious authority associated with Dangbe worship as the party moved outside the palace and proceeded to
both legitimated and circumscribed the actions of the
the temple of Dangbe.
king, as he was obliged to provide gifts to governors and
The ditches surrounding the palace at Savi circum-
other royal retainers during the annual ceremonies associ-
scribed the path followed by the procession and forced
ated with Dangbe.
participants to retrace the symbolic boundary of the elite
The most sacred ceremony on the Huedan calendar
district. In one instance when the king of Hueda left the
was the procession of the King of Hueda to the main tem-
palace to invoke Dangbe and reestablish the relationship
ple of Dangbe located immediately outside the palace
of exchange between Hueda and the Huedan pantheon, it
walls. Des Marchais noted such a ceremony associated
is telling that the structure of the ritual focused on move-
with the coronation of Huffon (c. 1713–15; see Figures 3
ment in and out of the palace complex, with the encir-
and 4). He describes a formal procession to the temple of
cling ditches marking the point of transition between the
Dangbe by the wives of the king after the coronation cere-
two spheres of Huedan society. Dangbe is considered to
mony held within the palace complex, followed by a pro-
control movement and the transition between social cate-
cession to the shrine by the king himself three months
gories (Blier 1995:201). As the physical representation of
later. Law suggests that this action secured Huffon’s en-
Dangbe, the ditches would have literally shaped the
dorsement for his position “from the kingdom’s national
movement of the procession into a form consistent with
deity as well as from its traditional overlord” (Law
the aesthetic principles associated with Dangbe, discussed
1990:225). Before this ceremony, there was civil unrest as-
sociated with the legitimacy of Huffon, concerning the
In the section that follows, we highlight the incorpo-
political jockeying between two of his chief governors. In
ration of palace structures into the political machinery of
attempting to mount a coup against Huffon, one governor
the kingdoms of southern Bénin.
required his supporters to swear allegiance through taking
oaths to Dangbe (Law 1990:221).
The public ceremonies associated with the annual PALACES, POLITICS, AND THE BUILT LANDSCAPE
procession were normally held immediately outside the Numerous archaeologists (e.g., DeMarrais et al. 1996; Joyce
palace complex, with major rites thus adding to the sa- and Winter 1996; Thomas 1993) have commented on the
credness within, and further linking the authority of the relationship between elements of the built landscape and
king with the supernatural (Blier 1995; Law 1991). Ritual political activities. Recent attempts have been made to
restrictions reinforced the mystique of the palace and the place such landscape elements within their social context
“exalted status” of the king, who left the palace com- (e.g., Bender 1993, 2001; Kelly 1997a). Edna Bay (1998: 11–12)
pound “once or twice” a year (Law 1991:77–78). The king notes that in the 18th–19th century the palaces in the
remained inside the palace complex except for the annual coastal forest zone were active elements in the political
104 American Anthropologist • Vol. 106, No. 1 • March 2004

FIGURE 3. Procession to the Temple of Dangbe, from Des Marchais (1731: Plate 7).

interactions of the area. The Dahomean palace at Abomey tionship, European traders, the major source of Hueda
was considered by individuals in the area to be the center wealth, were compelled to live inside the palace. European
of the universe, and as such it also exemplified the funda- travelers and diplomats who held high offices outside the
mental ideological and organizational principle in Da- palace were forced to genuflect on arriving before the king
homean cosmology: Any whole is the sum of complemen- and remain so until their audience ended. These inver-
tary forces. sions also affected the daily practices of the king; though
The Dahomean palace itself was organized to exem- most individuals could move freely throughout the king-
plify the oppositions in these complementary parts of in- dom, the king’s movement was restricted to life within the
side–outside, right–left, royal–commoner, male–female, and boundary ditches of the palace (Law 1991:75–78).
to invert the relationships experienced outside the com- It is not surprising, then, that a deity who permeated
plex (Bay 1998). By inverting traditional relationships and the religious and economic activities of the Huedan peo-
social categories, the palace presented Dahomeans a sa- ple would also be incorporated into the kingdom’s politi-
cred space where many rules and norms upheld outside cal iconography. Ben-Amos (1999) suggests that religious
the palace did not apply. For example, gender roles were iconography was incorporated into art created in the 18th-
reversed within the palace, as the only way to talk to the century Kingdom of Benin, and that elite groups used such
king was through courtesans acting as intermediaries and art to shape the interpretation of events and as mnemonic
diplomats. Similarly, female warriors served as the king’s devices used to spur the recollection of oral histories. The
personal guard, eunuchs appeared in palace audiences in built landscape and monumental architecture of southern
women’s dress, and courtesans appeared in male dress of Bénin was used to signify similar relationships between
Yoruba style. Other norms observed outside the palace elites and the divine, and to naturalize their position atop
were upheld, as right superseded left and elite superseded Huedan and Dahomean society. For Hall (2000:25–27), ar-
commoner, and all who entered the palace were obliged to chitectural features effectively communicate political
show deference to the authority of the king (Bay 1998). authority when they are linked to elite groups through
The ditches at Savi served to mark the boundary performative events such as the parade described above,
where outside social relations and practices did not apply. and the action of corvée and enslaved laborers toiling in
Inverting the typical relationship on the West African the ditches in compliance to the king and his administra-
coast, and highlighting the tensions inherent in their rela- tors. In such a social environment, the built landscape can
Norman and Kelly • Landscape Politics in West Africa 105

FIGURE 4. Huedan coronation ceremony. Note the conical python shrine in the center of the palace courtyard, from Des Marchais (1731:
plate 4).

be interpreted as an expression of social and political southern Bénin in the mid–20th century, noted that these
structure that communicates these relative differences in deities are associated with things in the world that are
structural positions, through symbolic associations that flexible, moist, and that fold, refold, and coil, as well as
denote affiliation with, and differentiation between, cer- things that are considered to connect the earth and sky.
tain groups (cf. Lawrence and Low 1990; Kelly 1997a). The These associations parallel the physical characteristics of
following section describes attempts to designate or ap- pythons and the ecological areas that they inhabit. Al-
propriate symbols of Dangbe for such political purposes. though pythons spend most of their lives in terrestrial set-
tings where they brood in abandoned burrows, they also
DANGBE AND THE DITCHES hunt from trees and return to branches for protection after
engorging on the ground (Villiers 1975). The association
Beyond the proximate relationship between ceremonies
with dankness, and moisture might relate to the python’s
for Dangbe and the ditches that surrounded the palace,
adept ability to negotiate aquatic environments, as well as
modern residents living near the site of Savi associate rem-
the slight oily feel of their skin. Pythons are excellent
nant ditches with the aesthetic elements used to describe
swimmers and occasionally hunt from rivers and streams.
serpents in general, and Dangbe in particular. Daniel
John Murphy and Robert Henderson (1997:17–18) note
Miller and Christopher Tilley (1984) and Tilley (1994) sug-
modern accounts of pythons swimming several kilometers
gest that landscape features should be evaluated with an in and around the Victoria Nyanza islands of eastern Africa,
approach empathetic to the possible experiential qualities and those of Ghanaian fishermen who reported catching
of certain settings. They suggest that adequate inferences pythons in fish traps set in the sea, some of which were
regarding the political significance of archaeological fea- alive after being submerged for several hours. The impor-
tures must include analogies related to emotions evoked tance of the Savi ditch system referencing qualities associ-
by such features. Our collaborators considered the dank- ated with pythons in general and Dangbe in particular can
ness of the ditches and the serpentine patterns they trace be better understood as strategies for reinforcing political
on the landscape analogous to similar qualities of serpents. and religious hegemony of those groups residing within
Melville Herskovits (1938:245–255), while comparing and the ditch system, when it is considered in relation to ac-
contrasting the serpent deities worshiped throughout counts describing the manner in which pythons shaped
106 American Anthropologist • Vol. 106, No. 1 • March 2004

dust on their heads, and begging to be rubbed over the

body with the reptile. After taking the snake up, a very
heavy penalty is incurred by laying it down, before it is
placed in the fetish-house. [1847:126–127]
When the reverence shown to these earthly representa-
tions of Dangbe is considered, it is not difficult to imagine
the symbolic importance of placing monumental architec-
ture that references the qualities associated with the deity,
in close proximity to the symbolic center of the kingdom.
The symbolic protection that the ditches afforded the resi-
dents of the palace complex at Savi should be viewed in
relation to Huedan conceptions that Dangbe will protect
those groups contained within, or beyond, physical struc-
tures that evoke qualities associated with serpents. Bay
notes that an early-18th-century European observer of the
battle for Savi suggested that the Huedans

only went every Morning and Evening to the River side,

to offer to their principle God, which was a particular
harmless Snake they adored, and prayed to on this occa-
sion, to keep their Enemies from coming over the river . . .
there is a constant Tradition amongst them whenever any
Calamity threatens their Country, by imploring the
Snake’s Assistance, they are always delivered from it . . .
the Pass of the River being . . . wholly left to the Care of
the Snakes, whom the Enemy little feared; and they hav-
ing observed for several Days, that the Whidaws kept no
set Guard there, it encouraged the King of Dahomè’s Gen-
eral to send two hundred of his Soldiers to ford the River.
[Bay 1998:60]

Through activation by sacrifice and ceremonies, the

river became a symbolic boundary defended by Dangbe
against attack from invading forces. In light of these ac-
tions taken by Huedan devotees to engage Dangbe in the
FIGURE 5. Temple of Dangbe in Ouidah, from Chaudoin (1891:343). defense of Savi, it becomes difficult to support conten-
tions in European travelers’ accounts and, later, interpre-
the daily practices and bodily comportment of people tations that draw on them (Akinjogbin 1967:69–72; Argyle
from the area. 1966:19; Law 1991:284–285), that little was done in de-
In the mid–19th century Forbes recorded that around fense of the Huedan Kingdom. European observers over-
the Dangbe temple at Ouidah there were: looked the nuances of warfare being waged by Dahomey
many snakes of the Boa [python] species. These are al-
against Hueda, using the application of flintlocks, bayo-
lowed to roam about at pleasure; but if found in a house nets, castles, and cannon as their referent of military op-
or at a distance, a fetish man or woman is sought, whose erations. They furthermore underestimated the impor-
duty it is to induce the reptile to return, and to reconduct tance, in terms of Huedan cosmology, of the defense being
it to its sacred abode, whilst all that meet it must bow mounted at the river. In the stand at the river bounding
down and kiss the dust. Morning and evening, many are
seen prostrated before the door [of the temple of Dangbe].
Huedan and Dahomean territories, Huedans appear to
[1966:109] have used one of the most potent forces available in their
arsenal—an appeal to the serpent deity to control move-
The treatment of pythons in this account (see also Figure ment at the frontier of their kingdom.
5) is similar to the description the king received while he A similar strategy can be seen in relation to elite groups
was holding court. As mentioned above, courtesans as well at Savi, who used the annual procession to the shrine of
as European visitors were compelled to genuflect through- Dangbe to activate the ditch system at Savi as the last line
out their audience with the king (Law 1991:78). In a simi- of defense against enemies who would target the symbolic
lar sense, the king and pythons normally resided in sancti- center of the kingdom. The center of the Savi was strategi-
fied spaces out of view and shielded from the profane cally important not only as the ritual center but also as a
elements of daily life. John Duncan noted that in the mid- physical sanctuary for sacred pythons and the head offici-
19th-century homage was paid to pythons: ates for Dangbe worship. Travelers’ accounts suggest that
When one of [the pythons] is picked up by any one, oth- Huedans treated symbols of Dangbe worship with the ut-
ers will prostrate themselves as it is carried past, throwing most respect, which made their avatars the targets for
Norman and Kelly • Landscape Politics in West Africa 107

outside groups. Law (1991:28) notes that recent oral histo- could monitor its activities (Law 1991). The compound of
ries record that the key to military victories throughout the Yovogan, the Dahomean chief of Europeans and state
the region involved capturing and retaining the royal py- official governing the affairs of Ouidah for the king of Da-
thons, the incarnation of Dangbe. homey, was located between the two largest threats to the
In such a social environment in which individuals king’s influence over the area; the Temple of the Python
associated military victories and political and religious and the European trading quarters. Later, the Catholic Ca-
authority with serving as the steward for the royal serpents, thedral entered the ideological battle after being estab-
it is not difficult to comprehend the importance of pro- lished directly adjacent to the Temple of the Python (Kelly
tecting the serpents from outside groups. Likewise, if out- 2002).
siders understood the power fields that could be mobilized Although Dangbe worship never became as prominent
by Dangbe, the importance of monumental architecture as other major gods worshiped on the Abomey plateau,
that references the aesthetic qualities associated with the Agaja attempted to incorporate Dangbe into the liturgy of
deity can be more clearly associated with the strategies as- Dahomean Vodun. While Dangbe was being installed in
sociated with Huedan defense. the Dahomean pantheon, Law notes that Etienne Gallot, a
The relationship between Dangbe worship and earth- French officer serving in Ouidah, was engaged by Agaja to
works becomes even more striking when viewed in light of teach the Dahomeans “how to dig trenches and raise crude
Dahomean efforts to incorporate elements of the panthe- fortifications, which was unknown among these people”
ons, cosmologies, and material culture associated with (Law 1992:110). The statement that these techniques were
Dangbe into Dahomean religious and political practices. unknown is not credible, because Dahomey had political,
economic, and social relations with both the Kingdoms of
THE APPROPRIATION OF DANGBE AND DITCHES Hueda and Benin, both of which employed ditches around
their palace complexes since at least the 17th century (Law
Dahomean soldiers targeted not only the Huedan palace
1991). Furthermore, architectural features found aestheti-
complex and its inhabitants but also the royal serpents as-
cally pleasing or militarily advantageous readily spread
sociated with Dangbe. The serpents were incorporated lit-
throughout the southern forest zone (Shinnie 1971:22–24).
erally and symbolically into the Dahomean kingdom by
It seems more likely that the ditches represent an effort to
being consumed by Dahomean troops at the time of Savi’s
increase the defensive qualities of the Abomey palace com-
conquest in March of 1727 (Law 1991). In a similar fash-
plex, while at the same time incorporating monumental ar-
ion, the Huedan populace was incorporated into the Da-
chitecture associated with Dangbe into the material culture
homean fold. William Snelgrave witnessed the decapita-
of the capital. The fact that the creation of the ditches co-
tion of 400 war captives in 1727 and noted a collection of
incided with a time when thousands of war captives were
4,000 skulls from sacrifices offered after the conquest of
removed from Savi to Abomey and most likely partici-
Hueda earlier the same year (in Law 1986:249). William pated in the construction of the ditches as enslaved labor
Smith recounts that the general who put the torch to the suggests that Agaja used Huedan labor to construct the
European lodges at Savi ordered “all the boys in the Camp; physical symbol of the merger of the two kingdoms. This
some of which were not above Seven or Eight Years of Age, symbol was a ditch system that evoked the political, relig-
to cut off the Heads of All the Aged and Wounded among ious, and economic prominence of the Huedan palace
the Captives that were unmerchantable” (Smith 1744:192). complex so closely associated with Dangbe.
The collection of skulls is a key strategy, because the Da- Such earthworks were followed by other attempts to
homean king considered the heads of his subjects his incorporate serpent imagery into the Dahomean palace at
property, with skulls the symbolic seat of knowledge and Abomey and associate elite activities with its prominence.
religious essence (Law 1989). Through incorporating heads In the 1850s, Guezo, King of Dahomey, commissioned the
of the conquered Huedans into the royal treasury, Agaja, sculpture of bas-reliefs representing Dan Ayido Houédo, a
king of Dahomey at Savi’s conquest, was symbolically in- serpent biting its own tail, as one of the symbols of his
creasing the size of his kingdom. In doing so, and annexing reign. Dan Ayido Houédo, known also as the “rainbow ser-
Huedan lands, Agaja also incorporated aspects of Huedan pent,” is considered by our collaborators in the Savi area
cosmology into the Dahomean pantheon, and Huedan as a derivation of Dangbe and serves in a similar fashion in
material culture into the repertoire of forms created by ar- the Dahomean cosmology and mythology, as it did earlier
tisans housed within the palace compound at Abomey. in Huedan cosmology. Namely, Dan Ayido Houédo was
European observers recognized that Dahomey’s strategy considered to control the eternal movement between the
of permitting continued worship of Dangbe was instru- earthly plane and the hereafter, as well being the source of
mental to assimilating the conquered Hueda. After Agaja’s material wealth for those closely associated with his wor-
conquest of the Hueda, he negotiated with Huedan ritual ship (Blier 1995). By comparing and relating himself to
specialists for Dahomean acquisition of Dangbe and other Dan Ayido Houédo, Guezo was able to project an “aura of
local deities. Dahomean administrators shifted the wor- timeless power” (Piqué and Rainer 1999:75).
ship of the python deity from the former capital of Savi to Beyond referencing the element of timelessness asso-
the coastal port of Ouidah where Dahomean bureaucrats ciated with Dangbe, it was strategically important for Guezo
108 American Anthropologist • Vol. 106, No. 1 • March 2004

to associate himself with the earlier military exploits of of the Atlantic, speaks to the prominence of such struc-
Agaja. The bas-reliefs located throughout the palace com- tures in the negotiation of power relations.
plex were central elements to the transition and mainte- By focusing on strategies using elements of the built
nance of political power in the kingdom, because royal landscape to create social boundaries, this case study at-
storytellers used them as mnemonic devices that illus- tempts to revisit moments of European interaction through
trated and evoked the oral histories of the kingdom. the perspective of nonwestern groups. Such critical reex-
Through retelling and shaping of the histories both ver- aminations are sorely needed for periods and areas where
bally and through the built landscape, the legacy of the European travelers, though a demographic and political
Dangbe became inextricably linked to that of the rainbow minority, form the recorded and vocal majority through
serpent Dan Ayido Houédo, as the history of the Daho- their primary accounts. By highlighting these alternative,
mean palace became linked to the Huedan palace. and often contradictory, versions of the significance of
elements of the landscape in nonwestern settings, other
CONCLUSION lines of evidence can be brought to the interpretation of
features that, since the moment of “contact,” have lan-
In numerous societies in the West African coastal forest
guished under theories drawn primarily from European ac-
zone, groups created ditch systems as means of protection
counts. We hope to add to the scholarship of anthropo-
by placing both literal and symbolic space between zones
logical investigation of articulation of such sociocultural
of their settlement. As symbolic barriers, the voids of the
factors and landscape features, by situating this specific
ditches created earthly manifestations of cosmological fea-
case study from southern Bénin within a broader regional
tures, patrolled by members of their respective pantheons. phenomenon of West African groups’ incorporation of
Following Hall’s (1987) discussion of the way elements of ditches and other barriers into social, political, and cosmo-
the built landscapes are used as political features to distin- logical institutions.
guish relationships and boundaries between African and
European groups, we have described the series of massive
ditches at the urban centers of Savi and Abomey in rela- NEIL L. NORMAN Department of Anthropology, University of
tion to the political strategies of the Huedans and Da- Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904
homeans. That such earthworks were the product of large- KENNETH G. KELLY Department of Anthropology, University
scale mobilizations of corvée and enslaved labor points to of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208
the prominent role they played in West African social rela-
tions, as well as physical reminders of the ability of elite NOTES
Acknowledgments. This research was made possible through the
groups to organize such labor. European observers related support and encouragement of many people. We would particu-
the construction of the ditch systems at Savi and Abomey larly like to recognize Professor Merrick Posnansky, UCLA; Pro-
to European design and deployment. However, archaeo- fesseurs Alexis Adandé, Elisée Soumoni, and Joseph Adandé, De-
partment d’histoire et d’archéologie, Université Nationale du
logical and ethnographic data show that ditch and other Bénin d’Abomey-Calavi; Mme. Rachida de Souza, Secrétaire
earthenworks were used throughout the region prior to Générale de le Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication;
European incursion (Connah 2000; Darling 1984; Posnansky M. Eric F. Totah, Directeur du Patrimoine Culturel; Mme.
Micheline Egounlety, Conservateur, Musée d’Histoire de Ouidah;
1981). Thus, earthworks at Savi and Abomey most prob- the Agomadje family, Savi; M. Boniface Bossoukpè. The University
ably relate to attempts to mitigate West African interpolity of South Carolina College of Liberal Arts Scholarship Support
Grant provided funding for the 1999 research of Kelly, under
conflicts through incorporating the physical and symbolic
whose guidance and auspices Norman worked. The University of
defensive value of ditches related to cosmological bounda- Virginia, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and Department of
ries into the material culture of the kingdoms. Anthropology provided funding for Norman’s summer 2003 re-
search project. At the University of Virginia, this article benefited
In these ways, the symbols of Dangbe inspired by pre- from comments of Carolyn Heitman, Dennis Blanton, Seoyeon
vious practices at Savi were incorporated into the pan- Choi, Yadira Perez, Abigail Holeman, Alex Caton, Matthew Meyer,
theon and material repertoire of the Dahomean kingdom, David Sapir, and Dell Upton. Concepts for the article were devel-
oped through coursework with Hanan Sabea and Patricia Watten-
evidenced today by the ditches still visible near the palaces at maker. Jeff Hantman was a stabilizing force and an endless source
Abomey and the place that the rainbow serpent holds in of theoretical information through the article’s construction and
the Dahomean cosmology. The importance of Dangbe’s revision. Norman owes a deep debt of gratitude to Adria LaVio-
lette, whose previous research, guidance, and counsel fundamen-
relationship to ditches begs comparison to earthen struc- tally informed this article and who clarified tangled prose through
tures far from West Africa, in places where individuals reading and commenting on numerous drafts. We appreciate the
review and critical commentary of Ann Stahl, Barbara Bender, and
from the area came to live. Two examples are the use of
a third anonymous AA reviewer.
ditches in modern Haiti associated with Vodun rites for 1. This article originated as Neil Norman’s M.A. thesis in anthro-
the “Rainbow Serpent” (de Heusch 1989:295–296), and de- pology at the University of Virginia, which explored the cosmol-
fensive ditches associated with the 17th-century Maroon ogy of the ditches at Savi and Abomey. It builds on published and
unpublished work, intellectual guidance, and fieldwork opportuni-
Kingdom of Palmares in Brazil (Diggs 1953:66). This tre- ties provided by Kenneth Kelly since 1998.
mendous expenditure of labor on ditch construction by 2. Kelly directed six field seasons of archaeological survey, testing,
West Africans and their descendant groups, on both sides and data recovery in the region from 1991–99. Norman conducted
Norman and Kelly • Landscape Politics in West Africa 109

two ethnoarchaeological field seasons of interviews and guided Darling, Patrick

surveys of sacred sites in the region in 1999 and 2003. 1984 Archaeology and History in Southern Nigeria: The Ancient
3. By convention and for clarity, the modern political state of Linear Earthworks of Benin and Ishan, 2 vols. Cambridge: BAR In-
ternational Series 216.
Bénin will be differentiated from the historical Kingdom of Benin
de Heusch, Luc
by the accented “é.”
1989 Kongo in Haiti: A New Approach to Religious Syncretism.
4. For a detailed discussion see Jakob Spieth 1911, Melville Hersko- Man, n.s. 24(2):290–303.
vits 1938, Melville Herskovits and Frances Herskovits 1933, and DeCorse, Christopher
Susan Blier 1995. 1998 Culture Contact and Change in West Africa. In Studies in
5. The historic polity of “Hueda” is transliterated using the Eng- Culture Contact: Interaction, Culture Change, and Archaeology.
lish form to distinguish it from its coastal port with the same name James G. Cusick, ed. Pp. 358–377. Carbondale: Southern Illinois
“Ouidah” (French transliteration), as well as historic sources that
2001 An Archaeology of Elmina: Africans and Europeans on the
use Whydah, Whidaw, Fida, etc. (see Figure 1). Gold Coast, 1400–1900. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institu-
6. See also Jack Goody’s 1957:83–87 description of the Lo Da- tion Press.
gaba’s use of ditches as social boundaries. DeMarrais, Elizabeth, Luis Jamie Castillo, and Timothy Earle
7. For a detailed discussion of the archaeological work at Savi, see 1996 Ideology, Materialization, and Power Strategies. Current An-
Kelly 1995 and 2001. thropology 37(1):15–31.
Des Marchais, Etiénne
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