- I -
An Ancient West African Kingdom
IN TWO VOLUMES
Appliqu6 oloth repreeai.g a chief and members of his entourage.
AN ANCIENT WEST AFRICAN KINGDOM
MELVILLE J. HERSKOVITS
NEW YORK CITY
PRINTED IN GERMANY BY J.J. AUGUSTIN, GLUCKSTADT, HAMBURG AND NEW YORK.
CONTENTS OF VOLUME TWO
Illustrations ................. ........................... xi
Text Figures ................................... .......... xv
Part V. POLITICAL ORGANISATION
Chapter XXII. Primary Political Divisions .................. 3
The village as the primary unit of Dahomean political organisation;
its outward appearance, its inner structure.-The village chief
and his subordinate officials, their duties and prerogatives.-
The village courts and the administration of justice by them;
types of appeal to higher tribunals.-The use of the ordeal; the
ordeal as a type of magic; forms of ordeals employed; the appeal
to the King's ordeal.
Chapter XXIII. The King and his Court ................... 22
The larger subdivisions of the kingdom, their geographical
extension, and their administration; the Viceroy of Whydah.-
Inheritance of the throne, rebellion and its consequences.-The
powers of the King.-The role of the King and the place of
royalty in Dahomean society.-The officers of the court, their
position and tenure.-The King's wives.
Chapter XXIV. The Cult of the Royal Ancestors .............. 49
The "customs" for the dead kings as described in the literature;
the vestiges found at the present time under European control.
-Human sacrifice inthe days of the monarchy, and its justification
in Dahomean thought.-Description of rites for Behanzin, the
last King of Dahomey; the ritual for the souls of those sold into
Chapter XXV. Wars, Conquests, and the Census .............. 70
The Dahomean census and its importance to the monarch;
method of counting; vital statistics and their importance. -
Recruiting the army; organisation of the army, regiments and
their insignia, the commanding general and his subordinates; the
place of the King during a campaign.-The "Amazons."--The
campaign; provocation to war, the march to battle, the attack,
rewards for valor.
Part VI. RELIGIOUS LIFE
Chapter XXVI. The Great Gods: The Sky Pantheon .......... 101
The "public" deities.-Nang Bulukfi, her place among the gods and
her cult.-Mawi-Lisa; native tradition concerning the introduction
of their cult into Dahomey, and the mythological position of
these deities.-The "children" of Mawii-Lisa; names, rank, duties,
and powers of these deities.-The cult of the Sky pantheon;
rituals when an initiate enters the culthouse, when he emerges.-
Mawf-Lisa worship in every-day life.
2!! ~~~~ez I
Chapter XXVII. The Great Gods: The Earth Pantheon ....... 129
The position of Sagbat4 among the Great Goods; myths of the
quarrel between the Earth and the Thunder; SagbatA as the name
of a pantheon.-The "small-pox cult," and its relation to the
Earth deities.-The members of the Earth pantheon, their duties
and powers; names and duties of Sagbata gods as given by priests
and by laymen.-The cult of the Earth gods.-Earth deities and
the fertility cult.
Chapter XXVIII. The Great Gods: The Thunder Pantheon .... 150
The mythology of the Thunder gods.-The sub-pantheons of
XEvioso; the Sea deities, the Thunder deities, and the relationship
between the two.-Duties and powers of the individual members
of this pantheon.-The cult of the Thunder gods; ceremony of
"emergence" of a novitiate; descriptions of Thunder god shrines.
Chapter XXIX. The Great Gods: The Organisation of Worship 170
The nature of the Vodq; the establishment of a new shrine; making
a Vody.-The cult house as the center for a cult-group; as a
place of worship.-Classes of membership in the cult-group; chief-
priests, minor cult-officials, cult-members.-Determination of
membership in a cult-group; initiation; rights and obligations of
members.-The question of a "Yehwe cult"; Yehwe and Vodu.-
Death and burial of a cult-member.-The nature, outward expres-
sion, and validity of the Dahomean religious experience.
Chapter XXX. Personal Gods and Forces: Fate and the Divine
Trickster .................... ................... . 201
The cult of FA; its probable place of origin; mythological accounts
of its introduction into Dahomey.-The methods of divination;
equipment of the deviner and how employed; the "du" of Fa.-
The place of the Fate-cult in Dahomean life; the acquisition of Fa
by the private individual; the worship of FA.-FA and Legbd;
mythological relationship between the two.-Legbi, the divine
trickster, and his worship; prevalence and outward manifestation
of the LEgba cult.-The importance of Legba to the Dahomean;
Legba as messenger of gods, as the deification of accident.
Chapter XXXI. Personal Gods and Forces: The Souls of Man.. 231
The three souls of man, their significance, relative importance
and "duties."-Worship of the soul; ceremonies for each soul;
the belief in the soul and its relation to the ancestral cult.-Soul
and body.-The fate of each soul after death.-The world of the
dead, in belief and according to accounts of those who are held
to have visited it.-The Dahomean soul-concept and animism.
Chapter XXXII. The Cult of the Serpent .................... 245
Emphasis on serpent worship in the early literature on Dahomey
and its validity.-The concept of D4 underlying "serpent worship"
and its significance.-Types of D4; the rainbow-serpent, the Dq of
the umbilicus (Dq as wealth), the angry Di.-Worship of Da.-The
absence of a fertility cult in connection with serpent worship.-The
attitude of the Dahomean toward Dq.
Chapter XXXIII. Magic and Charms ....................... 256
The theory of magic; how magic originates, the deities who give
man charms.-Classification of charms, as to appearance, as to
function.-Catalogue of charms collected; their composition, ef-
fectuating formulae, and purpose.-Good magic and bad; bad
magic and the "counter"; the identity of good and bad magic.
-"Fetichism" and Dahomean religion; the place of magic in the
Dahomean religious complex.
Chapter XXXIV. The Dahomean World View and its Place in
Daily Life............................................ 289
The controversy concerning the existence of the belief in "One
God" in West Africa; the Dahomean Mawii as the One God, as
Creator, as a member of a pantheon.-The reflection of Dahomean
social and political structure in the organisation of the gods.-The
place of "Great Gods," "personal deities," ancestors and magic in
Dahomean religious belief; the error in conceiving the Dahomeans
as a "fear-ridden" people.-Manifestations of religion in everyday
existence; the Aizq and its role.-Numbers of shrines for the
several pantheons.-The relationship between man and the gods;
procrastination in religious duties as an index of attitude toward
supernatural forces.-The role of fear, of affection, and of custom
in Dahomean religion.
Part VII. ART
Chapter XXXV. The Art-Forms of Dahomey ................ 311
The variety of art-forms; plastic and graphic arts, useful and non-
useful arts, religious and secular arts.-The place of the artist
in Dahomean society.-Music; songs and instrumental music, and
their relationship; song and dance.-Classes of music; religious
songs, ancestral songs, secularsongs.-Techniquesof presentation;
trained and untrained singers, choral singing.-The "literary"
arts; stories and proverbs and their function in Dahomean culture.
-Native classification of tales.-Poetic art-forms.
Chapter XXXVI. Graphic Art-Forms ....................... 329
Applique-work in cloth; the technique employed and the use to
which the cloths are put. -Principles of composition in the cloths;
color combinations, the treatment of human and animal figures.
-Stylisation in cloth designs.-Conservatism and change in
Dahomean art as evidenced in the creation of designs.-Calabash-
carvings; the carvers and their techniques, the calabash as the
outstanding form of symbolic art.
Chapter XXXVII. Plastic Art-Forms ..................... 354
Brass-working; the techniques employed. -The brass-worker under
Sthe kingdom and at the present time.-Human and animal figures
in brass, realism and stylisation in the figures.-Bas-reliefs.-
Wood-carving.-The products of the carvers; human figures and
their use; stylisation and realism in Dahomean wood-carving.-
The living quality of Dahomean art.
References .......................................... 373
Index ............................................. 377
ILLUSTRATIONS TO VOLUME TWO
PLATE 51. ................. ...................... FACING TITLE
Appliqu6 cloth representing a chief and members of his entourage.
PLATE 52. ................... .. ........ ............. ... 16-17
a) The eldest son of Behanzin and some of his wives.
b) A chief in ceremonial regalia.
PLATE 53. ............................................. 16-17
A chief and two of his retainers as conceived by the brass-
PLATE 54................................................. 32-33
Pillows representing the insignia of three kings and (upper right-
hand) a toxosu.
PLATE 55................................................. 32-33
a) The tomb of Behanzin.
b) Inside the tomb; the women in the picture are Behanzin's
widows, and the one on the left is in a corresponding position
in the framed picture seen in the foreground.
PLATE 56................................................. 64-65
a) The ceremony for Behanzin, members of the royal family as
spectators at the rite.
b) Those who take part in the ceremony prostrate themselves on
PLATE 57................................................. 64-65
a) Sacrificing the animals for the ancestors. The men at the left
are holding the goat given to the souls of those sold into slavery.
b) The body of the bullock is removed, to be prepared for the feast.
PLATE 58................................................. 64-65
The participants come to salute the chief.
PLATE 59................................................. 64-65
Daha, the son of Behanzin, dancing.
PLATE 60. ............................................... 112-113
a) Inside the palace walls of Tegbesu at Djen4, Abomey. The
shrines to Mawi, Agi, and Lisa.
b) The shrine to Gd at Djend.
PLATE 61. ................................................ 112-113
Brass figures representing cult-initiates dancing for Mawd and
PLATE 62................................................. 112-113
a) "In single file came the novices...headed by the one man
among them. ..."
b) "At the side of the initiates walked the chief-priestess. She
wore the kerchief that signalized her rank, but over it was also
placed a white folded cloth....
PLATE 63. .................. ............................. 112-113
a) "The initiates, in a stupor, sat with heads sagging forward.. .
b) "When they reached the dancing enclosure, the procession
marched three times about it ... "
PLATE 64. ............................................... 112-113
a) "The time had come for the ceremonial shaving of the head ...."
b) "On no other occasion was the number of spectators so large ....
PLATE 65. ............................................... 112-113
a) The novitiates rest toward the end of the first day's rites.
b) "On the fifth day... the novitiates.. .were. ..dressed in new
PLATE 66.................................................. 160-161
a) The principal shrine of the Xsvioso gods at XEvi6.
b) Subsidiary shrines, and a spiritual guard protecting a path near
the temple of the Xevioso gods at Xevi6.
PLATE 67. ................................................ 160-161
Appliqu6 cloth showing the sacrifice of a goat by a priest before
a Xevioso temple to the god, and four novitiates.
PLATE 68. ............................................... 160-161
Ceremonial axe used in dances of the Thunder cult.
PLATE 69................................................. 160-161
a) Emergence rites of a Xevioso initiate. ". . A pot resting on
three stones was to be seen in the center of the court-yard, and
over this an elderly priest and a younger assistant were sprink-
ling meal and then palm-oil."
b) "The devotees knelt before her, their foreheads to the ground,
uttering a shrill summons to the god to come into the head of the
PLATE 70 ................... ............................ 160-161
a) "It is not strange that at this point the dancing became more
b) "The dancing was then resumed, the candidate and her attend-
ants circling the courtyard time after time."
PLATE 71................................................. 160-161
a) A group of Xevioso priests near Xevi6 calling the god to
punish a thief.
b) While passing along a road, from time to time one comes upon a
group of vodinst going from one settlement to another.
PLATE 72. ........................................... . . 192-193
a) Vodinsi in their regalia.
b) In Dahomey possession is a carefully controlled phenomenon.
PLATE 73. ........ ................................ ........ 192-193
a) FA cups and wands used by the diviners.
b) FA cups.
PLATE 74. ................................. ......... 208-209
a) LegbA shrine. The roof has not yet been erected over this new
image of the god.
b) LegbA shrine. This shows the characteristic appearance of
PLATE 75. ........................................... 208-209
PLATE 76. ........................................... 224-225
From left to right are shown a statuette from a Legba shrine, a
dancing wand from the Sagbata temple at Abomey, and two
gb6, the smaller of which derives its power from the Thunder
PLATO 77 ............................................. 224-225
a) Village gb6.
b) Village gbJ (in Adja), with its three servitors.
PLATE 78................................................. 272-273
a) Bochie (house-guard).
b) Janus-faced house-guard; evil which may evade the outward-
facing figure is caught as it emerges from the compound by
the side which turns inward.
PLATE 79................................................. 272-273
a) Bachis, house-guard from Abomey.
b) Bachie, from Abomey.
PLATE 80 ................................................ 272-273
Bachie, house-guards from AdjA.
PLATE 81. ................................................ 272-273
a) GbO to guard a field.
b) Gbo to protect a house.
PLATE 82. ............................................ 272-273
a) Detail of SagbatA shrine near Djidja.
b) Shrine to the Earth-gods near Abomey.
PLATE 83................................................. 272-273
a) Bas-reliefs at the entrance to a chief's compound.
b) Bas-reliefs at the entrance to a temple.
PLATE 84.................................................. 320-321
PLATE 85................................................. 320-321
Brass figures. From left to right: a man hoeing, a drummer drumm-
ing a funerary drum, an old man.
PLATE 86. ................................................ 320-321
Appliqu6 cloth showing a man caught by a crocodile.
PLATE 87 ................................................. 320-321
a) Appliqu6 cloth; from patterns cut by the grandfather of the
b) Appliqu6 cloth; revision of the preceding cloth, as made by the
father of the present chief.
PLATE 88. ................................................ 320-321
a) Appliqu6 cloth; revision of cloth in Plate 87b, as made by the
b) Appliqu6 cloth; revision of the preceding cloth, as made by the
son of the present chief.
PLATE 89................................................ 320-321
Pillow with sun-motif.
PLATE 90. .............................................. 336-337
PLATE 91................................................. 336-337
Brass figures; an elephant with a human victim, and a crocodile.
PLATE 92. ............................................. 336-337
Brass figures; Vodinsi (showing ritual cicatrizations), woman
pounding mortar, and bird with dog.
PLATE 93. .................. ............................. 336-337
a) Horse's head (carved in wood).
b) Wood figures; handle of chief's wand showing a hyena, a "half-
head," and the representation of an Aziz4.
PLATE 94. ............................................. 368-369
An unfinished piece of wood-carving, showing preliminary blocking-
in of principal masses.
PLATE 95. .......................................... 368-369
Wood-carving with leather dress. The piece is a gb6, which derives
its power from the Earth-gods and Fate, representations of
the dit of which are to be seen sewn onto the dress.
PLATE 96. ............................................. 368-369
FA cups and kneeling figure (from Allada). The distinctive treat-
ment of these figures is noteworthy.
PLATE 97. ............................................. 368-369
PLATE 98 ............... ................................ 368-369
Statues representing wives of a deities.
PLATE 99. ........................................... 368-369
Carved statues from Abomey; the contrast in the treatment of
the legs in the two figures is to be remarked.
PLATE 100. ............................................ 368-369
Example of a statuette carved for sale to Europeans.
PLATE 101. ............................................ 368-369
a) Male figure from a shrine in Abomey.
b) Female figure, wife of a deity, from a shrine in Abomey.
TEXT FIGURES IN VOLUME TWO
NOTE: Figures 1-18 were drawn by Miss Maudjean Gail; figures
19-23 are the work of Mr. Irving Breger.
1. Gb6 (Acquisition No. 163) ..................................... 264
2. Gb6 (Acquisition No. 164) ..................................... 266
3. Gb6 (Acquisition No. 189) ..................................... 268
4. Gb6 (Acquisition No. 229) ...................... .............. 270
5. Gb6 (Acquisition No. 161) .................................... 270
6. Gb6 (Acquisition No. 245) ..................................... 271
7. Gb6 (Acquisition No. 187) .................. .................. 272
8. Gb6 (Acquisition No. 193) .................................... 274
9. Gb6 (Acquisition No. 192)..................... ............... 275
10. Gb6 (Acquisition No. 268) ................. ........ ........... 275
11. Gb6 (Acquisition No. 191) .................................... 276
12. Gb6 (Acquisition No. 194)..................................... 276
13. Gb6 (Acquisition No. 165) ..................................... 277
14. Gb6 (Acquisition No. 222) ................ ..... ............. 281
15. Gbb (Acquisition No. 230) .................................... 282
16. Gb6 (Acquisition No. 247) ..................................... 283
17. Gbb (Acquisition No. 248) ..................................... 284
18. Gb6 (Acquisition No. 269) ...................................... 284
19. Carved Calabash, top ......................................... 346
20a. Carved Calabash, top ........................ ............... 348
20b. Carved Calabash, bottom ..................................... 348
21 a. Carved Calabash, top ....................................... 349
21b. Carved Calabash, bottom .................... ................. 350
22a. Carved Calabash, top ........................................ 351
22b. Carved Calabash, bottom ..................................... 351
23. Carved Calabash, top ......................................... 352
PRIMARY POLITICAL DIVISIONS
The importance of the village as the primary political unit not only
occurs in the accounts of native informants, but is to recognized
in the traditions of the conquest of the kingdom by the early kings
of the Aladax6ni dynasty. In Dahomey, as in all West Africa, the
early organisation seems to have been that of village autonomy or,
at most, the rule of several neighboring settlements by the head of
the largest village, so that the number of petty kingdoms which
existed before the time of their consolidation into great kingdoms such
as Dahomey, Benin, Ashanti, and others, was extensive. Every village
headman was called "king," and this feeling of the rank of a
/village head persists to the present, where a traveller, when introduced
/ to a chief even of a small village, finds the word "king" specifically
employed to denote the petty chieftain. The plateau of Abomey in
its entirety is not large, and yet the traditions of the early wars on this
Plateau indicate that many autonomous "kingdoms" existed there.1
Even the famous tale of the derivation of the name of the kingdom
Itselff2 quoted by all the early authors and told in Dahomey to this
day, is nothing more than a reflection of this condition, for Da was
one of these independent kinglets. In the light of the existence of
these numerous autochthonous political entities, it would be strange
if, even under the despotism of the Dahomeans kings, all trace of them
had been wiped out.
A village, in its outward aspects, may vary from an extremely
compact group of buildings, such as found near Allada or in the region
east of Abomey, to rather sprawling series of compounds, each separ-
ated by an expanse of tilled land, the internal unity of which is
recognized by the designated village name. The inhabitants of these
1 This is strikingly exemplified in the first portion of the native version of
Dahomean history given by Le Heriss6, especially pp. 279-288, and also where
in explaining the etymology of the term for village chief (p. 44), he speaks of
... les chefs de villages don't le nom, td'hosou 'roi de pays,' rappelait qu'ils
representaient les rois des tribus ou sous-tribus conquises par les Dahom6ens."
2 See above, vol. i, pp. 15-16.
villages consist largely of farmers, their families, and, in olden days,
such slaves as they might possess. In very small villages, the inhabi-
tants may form an extended family of one of the great sibs, but if the
village is of larger size, it is divided into quarters, each of which is
inhabited by one of these intermediate relationship-groups. The native
conception .ofa village does not restrict it to the area where the people
actually have their houses, but includes the region immediately
adjacenitThoit, which is controlled byts inhabitants. As will be
explained, though the boundaries of fields owned by families or by
single individuals are well marked and are known to all, yet the boun-
daries of the territory which appertains to a village itself are more
or less vague, and this, in the days before the consolidation of these
autonomous villages into the kingdom, gave rise to incessant strife.
The main portion of the territory of each village group was sufficiently
well known, however, so that any natural feature encompassed well
within its boundaries which might offer advantages to the people
and ruler who possessed it was not neglected. Thus Le Heriss6 gives
an example from the early traditional history of Dahomey, where one
village which controlled an important well, used this control to its
great advantage during times of drought,' while the fact that trade
was often hampered by the impost regulations which levied toll on
those who wished to pass through a village on their way to market, was
one reason why the consolidation of these villages into the kingdom
was so successful.
No village is complete without its market-place; if it is of any size,
it may possess several subsidiary markets as well. The importance
of the market in Dahomean life has already been discussed, as has
also the matter of days on which various markets are held. This
importance of the market, and the matter of the intervals at which
it is held would be true only of the principal market of a village, the
subsidiary markets being held every day.2 Even in very small villages,
however, a few women may be observed sitting by the roadside,
sometimes even in the market-place itself, with articles in daily use
spread out to meet the needs of the inhabitants or any passer-by.
Every village has also its shrines and temples. These vary from the
-elaborate structures in Allada or Zagnanado or Savalu to simple
huts in the poorer, less populous centers. No village is without its
aizq, and its shrine to LegbA; even small villages have modest shrines
1 p. 285.
2 See above, vol. i, pp. 51ff.
PRIMARY POLITICAL DIVISIONS
for Earth and Sky and Thunder deities; and above all evey.compoun d
in the village has shrines to its ancestors, the spirits of twins and the
abnormally born that have come to it, to Legbi and to the other,
personal, more ubiquitous supernatural powers. In addition, many
villages are centers for their special forms of magic. These may vary
from an imposing shrine erected to some power which has become
famous throughout Dahomey, to the carvings of wood that constitute
charms to keep evil from the household.
Of streets there are none, for the paths run haphazard between
compound walls or between the boundaries of fields. It was only
between the more important centers of population, and in the cities
-Abomey, Allada, and Whydah-that in the days of the kingdom
roads worthy of the name were laid down, and even after some forty
years of European occupation the Dahomean saying that only along
the bush paths does one find the real life of Dahomey still holds
In this village complex the chief holds sway over an hierarchical
organisation that is dictate the fundamental configurations oT
Dahomean logic. The men of every compound are under the command of
the head of the compound; each group of compounds is responsible to the
chief of the collectivity of which their compounds form a part, while
over all is the tox6si, the village chief. This chief, who, as has been
stated, was a "king" in early days before the consolidation of the native
empire, held his rank by hereditary right. After the conquest of the
region by the Aladax6ni dynasty, most village chiefs suffered the fate
of the defeated, and were either sold into slavery or sacrificed. In
some instances, a chief may have proffered voluntary submission to
the conquering Dahomeans on the part of himself and of his village,
and where policy dictated, he might have been retained in his post
by the King of Dahomey. Forbes gives an account of these rites of
submission which may be quoted:
"The Mahee provinces have been long overrun by Dahomey; yet
there still remain parts unconquered. The king held out a promise of
amnesty to these, on condition that their chiefs repaired to Abomey,
and swore allegiance. This morning, as I returned from my walk, a
crowd was assembled in the rear of a fine-looking black, who, followed
by five attendants, entered at the Cannah gate, with a palm-branch
round his neck, and passed towards the Dange-lah-cordeh palace.
"After my bath, I followed in the same direction, and, entering the
square of the Agrim-gomeh palace, found Leh-peh-hoong and the
cabooceers assembled ready to receive this chief, who came, under the
promised truce, to swear fealty to the tyrant. In front of the cabooceers
was Poh-veh-soo, the headsman, and his band of club-men. The envoy
of peace passed thrice round in front of the council, each time prostrat-
ing, and beating the dust with his forehead; on prostrating the third
time, Poh-veh-soo and his gang beat the ground, and, with menacing
gestures, caused the degrading ceremony to be repeated over and over
The hereditary principle was followed with minor chieftains who
cooperated with the monarch, but, in the final instance, their tenure
was subordinate to the rule that every office in the kingdom was at
the disposal of the King. For this reason, at the death of any Dahomean
official, his possessions were transported to the royal palace in Abomey,
not to be released until a pronouncement was made concerning his
successor. Only at his pleasure did the King give the appointment
to the son of the deceased for, if he desired, he might appoint a court
favorite or a soldier who, valorous in battle, had attracted his attention.
Some of the wealth of the deceased chief-a substantial portion,
if a son was re-appointed to his father's position-was ordinarily
returned to his family, but even this was as though a gift from the
King. In no instance did the successor receive all the property that
his predecessor had left, for every death in the kingdom meant the
payment of what, in modern parlance, might be termed an inheritance
tax, only it was accomplished by indirection.2
The office-holders in a village, after the tox6si, or chief (literally,
"village-king"), were the tonukwe (literally, "village-before"), his
principal assistant, and the dokpwjg4, while, if the village were suf-
ficiently large, each quarter was under a xag4 ("quarter-chief").3
These chiefs of quarters, together with the three officials named above,
constituted the village council. As far as can be determined, the
tonukwe was really the spokesman of the tox6su, corresponding in
function, if not in ceremonial importance, to the "linguist" of an
Ashanti chief. It was he who spoke for the chief to the people, since
here as elsewhere in West Africa, a man of power never communicates
directly with those under him, but always through the medium of a
subordinate. The tonukwe also acted as general factotem for the chief.
He pronounced the rulings of his master, he was remembrancer for the
chief, he summoned people to appear before his chief, and he an-
1 Vol. ii, pp. 181-182.
2 Burton, vol. i, p. 244, and Skertchly, pp. 348-349, give contemporary con-
firmation of these statements.
3 Cf. Le Heriss6 (p.44), "Dans les villages, les t6hosou s'adjoignaient des Sranon
'charges de quarters' et des hagan 'chefs de recensement' (ha-compter)."
PRIMARY POLITICAL DIVISIONS
nounced meetings and items of interest to the people at large. The
dokpwig4, whose position as head of the men of the village has been
discussed, was also subordinate to the village chief. Though he aided
the chief in gathering the men of the village when this was necessary,
his functions, in the main, were sufficiently specialized so that they
did not conflict with the larger considerations of village administration.
In villages where chiefs of quarters were appointed these men were
held strictly accountable to their local head for the administration of
their respective quarters. Every day each of them was expected to
report separately to the compound of the village chief, there to recount
the occurrences in his quarter. The visit had to take place even if
nothing of sufficient importance to warrant a report occurred. Thus,
even in a fairly large village, its toxasi was daily kept informed of what
was going on.
Each chief was accorded the respect that is the prerogative of
Dahomean rank, and, in his own way, emulated to the degree his
means made possible the display which marked position. As a rule,
visitors coming to a village were required to pay their respects to the
chief on arrival. The early accounts are dotted with notations of
mutual gift-giving between travellers and the chiefs through whose
villages they passed. Etiquette demanded that the stranger prepare
himself carefully before entering a village, since ordinary dress was
not deemed proper for reception by a village head. The considerable
trouble to which travellers were often put, however, was rewarded
by the elaborateness of the reception. That this pattern is deeply
lodged in the Dahomean ritual of welcome is to be seen from the very
first account which gives, in any detail, the manner in which a dis-
tinguished visitor was received. In this instance-Snelgrave's
experience when he went from Jacquin to Allada to greet King
Agadja-the reception was by the King's emissary, but its pattern
is that which would be followed, if less elaborately, by any village chief
.the present time:
"N e next day about seven a clock in the morning, we set out again,
k~inTtb nine came within half a mile of the King's Camp. Here we
h ltd, and judge we had then travelled about forty miles from
0Ueei. Soon after a Messenger came from his Majesty to compliment
and welcome us; and being told it was proper to prepare our selves, we
took our best Apparel out of our Trunks, and dressed our selves under
the covert of an old Wall; and soon after we advanced within a little
way of the Camp, where we were desired to wait for a great Man who
was to receive us. The King, it seems, to do us the more honour, sent
the principal person of his Court (whom the Negroes distinguished to us
by the title of the Great Captain) to receive us; which he did in a very
extraordinary manner. For he came in the midst of five hundred
Soldiers, who had Fire-arms, drawn Swords, Shields, and Banners in
their hands, using so many odd and ridiculous Ceremonies, (as they
appeared to us) that at first we could not judge, whether they meant
us well or ill: For the Great Captain, with some of his Officers,
approached us, with their Swords drawn, flourishing them over our
Heads, then pointing them to our Breasts, and skipping and jumping
about us, like so many monkies, showing as many tricks and postures,
as that animal generally does. At last, after some time spent in this
manner, the Great Man settled into a sedate temper; Then he gave
us his hand, welcoming us in the King's Name, and drank to us in Palm
Wine, which is a Juice drawn from the Palm-tree, which is very com-
mon in that Country."'
Duncan, who journeyed north from Abomey, records many instances
of receptions by village chiefs. The excerpt below is quoted to illustrate
the manner of reception by a chieftain:
"At ten miles, we arrived at the foot of the mountain of Zoglogbo,...
We halted at a small kroom at its foot, in the market-place, where I
changed my dress at the desire of the captain of my guard, and put on
my regimentals to receive the caboceer of Zoglogbo. I had scarcely
finished, when he arrived with his retinue. He is a remarkable fine
old man, apparently about sixty years of age; and of a very venerable
appearance. He is nearly six feet high, and altogether of a noble and
graceful figure. He approached within about five yards of the place
where I was seated, by the side of the caboceer or captain of my guard,
when, before speaking a word, he, together with his head men and
attendants, prostrated themselves, throwing dust on their heads, and
rubbing their arms with the same. My own caboceer next prostrated
himself, going through similar forms of humility. Both parties after-
wards remained on their knees, and delivered the King's message
respecting the King's stranger, as they constantly called me. We then
drank water with each other, previous to the introduction of rum, of
which our new and venerable friend Kpatchi seemed very fond."2
It will be remarked how important it was for Duncan to change his
clothing. So significant was this held to be, that this same traveller
tells us how, on one occasion, when arriving at a village late at night
and ill with fever, he was too exhausted to go through the ritual
of welcome, it was strongly intimated to him that etiquette required
him the next morning to dress in his uniform, mount his horse, ride
half a mile out of the town and then, with all the display of a first
entrance, receive the official welcome of the village head.3
1 Snelgrave, pp. 26-28. 2 Vol. ii, pp. 32-33. 3 Vol. ii, pp. 210-211.
PRIMARY POLITICAL DIVISIONS
Norris shows how good form required of these chieftains abundant
hospitality towards visitors of rank:
"Our stay here was no longer than necessary, and we proceeded to
Whybow; which place, I reached about ten o'clock, and was kindly
received by the hospitable old Caboceer, who provided an excellent
dinner for me, and gave my whole retinue abundant proof of his
liberality, by supplying them plentifully with good cheer. This old
man's name was Jabrakou; he had been a warrior in his youth, and
having acquitted himself with reputation, was rewarded with the
government of this town. I found him a keen sportsman: he did not
like domestic animals, he said, but the chase furnished him with a
variety of delicacies, and he shewed me his larder, which was well
stored with buffalo, venison of different sizes and sorts, wild hog, and
Agouti, or Bush-Cat; of all these he pressed me to partake for my
journey, which though I declined as having no occasion for, yet on
coming away, he insisted on my accepting a couple of nice guiney
fowls, which, he said, he had ordered to be roasted for my supper. It
was with much difficulty I prevailed upon him to accept a small
present in return; which he refused to do, until I promised to spend a
few days with him on a hunting party, at my return."1
In the internal life of the village, while the chief was its first citizen,
he wa.by.no-aeans all-powerful. If the inhabitants of a village were
members of one sib, then the representative of the sib-head in that
village-its oldest male member-exercised a considerable restraining
influence on any untoward exercise of power to which the village
chief might be tempted. Moreover, in spite of the fact that a chief
derived his power from the ing, it was necessary for him constantly
Sto be in the company of those under him, and it would be a rash/
chieftain who would defy the wishes of the old men of his village.
Provided he did not arouse the enmity of those over whom he ruled,
- however, his life was far from difficult. He occupied the most important
house of the village, which was usually the best built, and the best
cared for. His fields were large, and the local ddkpw6 were, of course,
at his service to till them. He was in a position to augment his income
by revenues exacted from those under him because of his function
as overseer in the collection of taxes for his village, and his perqui-
sites of office also included the fees he received for trying cases at law,
and the fines he levied against those convicted of the minor crimes he
was empowered to punish.
As representative of the King, he entertained and-aided such of the
King's officials as might be sent there, or who passed through on a
1 pp. 75-76.
journey, and the presents which etiquette demanded he give as host
to any who visited him were often richly returned and retained by
him, though what he dispensed in hospitality was supplied by the
village. His wealth and prestige gave him the means to acquire and
support a larger number of wives than the ordinary villager, and this,
in turn, was of economic as well as a social advantage to him, since
once his fields were cut, his wives were there to plant them and to
care for the growing crops. If he was in the King's favor, slaves might
be given him, and these in turn enriched him with their labors. It
is thus apparent that in the body of village chiefs, the King of Dahomey
had a group of officials who were in a strategic position to keep the
monarch in close touch with whatever occurred among the people
of his kingdom. At the same time, since their tenure of office was at
his pleasure, these men were under his control to an extent that
assured him a loyalty based solidly on the economic advantages they
enjoyed, or if fealty was not wholeheartedly accorded the monarch,
on fear of the loss of their position, or even of their lives.
That the control exercised by the village chief was far from absolute
/ is clearly seen in the concept of his position as expounded by the
/ Dhmeans themselves. To them, he stands more in the position of
conciliator than judge; he is more arbitrator than ruler. His function
is now, as it was under the Dahomean Kings, not so much to decide
cases as to recall to the parties of a dispute the past decisions of the
King which have a bearing on the point at issue. In a dispute over
land he might perhaps act as judge, but he would come to a decision
only after summoning the neighbors of the disputants as witnesses
and taking their testimony. In a case involving divorce, he would
not even attempt to render a verdict, but, as conciliator, would call
in the local heads of the sib-groups whose members were involved,
and thus try to effect a compromise. M'Leod's contemporary account
shows how carefully the power of the village chiefs was controlled by
"All the districts and towns in this country have each their partic-
ular caboceers, or magistrates, who regulate their own departments,
and distribute justice except in some extraordinary cases which are
referred to Abomey to be laid before the king, whose decision is, of
course, final. However absolute and independent the king himself
may be, yet others in official stations must be careful how they conduct
themselves, for any well-founded complaint of oppression or injustice,
would place the head of the aggressor in a very awkward predicament.
During the time I was in the country, the chief magistrate of a district,
PRIMARY POLITICAL DIVISIONS
for some iniquitous transaction, was ordered by the king not to shave
his beard, pare his nails, or wash himself for a certain number of moons,
and in this dirty state to sit daily at the palace-gate several hours for
"They are very rigorous in the treatment of shuffling or equivocat-
ing witnesses, and whoever is proved to have borne false witness
against his neighbour is punished with death."1
At present, the power of the village chief is circumscribed by
European control, though the r6le of the French administrateur does
not differ greatly from that which was assumed by higher officials in
the days before the European conquest. At that time, if a decision
given by a village chief was not acceptable to both parties to a dispute,
a second and third attempt was made to reconcile them to it. If the
decision remained unacceptable to the disputants after a third effort,
the village chief brought the case before the head of the district. But
every decision made by the village chief had to be reported to an
official of the King or to the monarch himself, at a gathering of all
toxsi4 which took place each month at the palace in Abomey.2 This
is confirmed in the account of Forbes, who also speaks of the existence
of village courts, though, at the same time, he indicates to what
extent control over their decisions was exercised by higher officials:
"Any head man of a town or district can, by prostrating and kissing
the ground, declare a king's court, and try a culprit; but the sentence
must be put in force at Abomey, and a public crier proclaims it in the
In the outlying regions, where the distance was too great to allow
the village chiefs to come to Abomey to report-that is, those who
lived near the coast, or in Adj or the Maxi country, or near Zagnanado
-officials called togodog4 (literally, "country-behind-chief"), regional
chiefs, described as having positions akin to those of the European
administrateurs at the present time, received these monthly reports.
However, every three months the togodog4, or their representatives,
journeyed to Abomey, to transmit these reports to the King.
1 pp. 47-48.
2 Le Heriss6 (p. 78) disagrees sharply with these statements concerning the
judicial powers of the village chiefs, holding that punishment was administered
only by the King and his highest dignitaries: "Quant aux t6hosou, c'est-&-dire
ceux qui repr6sentaient les rois des anciennes tribus, ils n'avaient aucune
prison ni aucune maison d'arret, tout au moins sous les regnes des deux derniers
rois." Le Heriss4's discussion of the Dahomean system of law-enforcement
(Ch. III, pp. 73-81), should be consulted in this connection.
3 Vol. i, pp. 26-27.
A number of specific instances when the village chief would be
S expected to act may be considered. One such occasion would be an
Epidemic, when he would call his diviner to discover the gods that
had caused this misfortune, and what offerings they sought to recall
, the evil they had sent. With this information in hand, the chief would
then call together all the men and women of his village, and imparting
this news to them, he would assess them the number of animals needed
for the sacrifices, and would then set the date when the animals with
the magic palm-fronds, or the foodstuffs required, were to be brought
to the chief-priest of the deity in that village. The sacrifices made,
the fronds would be left at the temple of the deity that had been
propitiated, and the people would wait for the epidemic to lift.
/ Another occurrence when action by the village chief was called
for was when a quarrel between the men of his village and those of
Another developed as a result of a hunting expedition. Such quarrels
were not infrequent, and were at times serious. On the day the
toxisi learned of the trouble, he would order his dokpwig4 to summon
all the young men of his village to come before him. Each man who
had been a party to the quarrel would be required to explain publicly
his version of the affair--"That is when the chief gives his people good
words to replace the evil ones they had spoken." After hearing what
the young men had to say, he would despatch an oral complaint to
the King, so phrasing it that "if the case of his villagers is not a just
one, he makes it sound just." The chiefs of the two villages involved
would then come before the tribunal of higher officials headed by the
M~Igq, the Prime Minister of the King. Each chief, when called upon,
would enlarge upon his earlier complaint, and when the judges demanded
evidence, each would produce the young men of his village who had
participated in the fight. After hearing the testimony, the judges
would pronounce a verdict, imposing penalties not on the village but
on the individuals found guilty. Both the villages, however, would
be required to execute a considerable amount of work on some public
project for the King, as a punishment for having been involved in a
Once the judgment of the court of high chiefs had been rendered,
the village chief against whose subjects the decision had gone would at
once appeal to the King, since a tacit principle of the monarchy in
such affairs was that the tribunal of chiefs must judge severely and
punish heavily, in order that the King might show clemency by easing
the sentence somewhat, and thus strengthen his popularity.
PRIMARY POLITICAL DIVISIONS
When such an appeal to the monarch was made, the King summoned
the two village chiefs, together with the members of the higher court,
and heard the evidence on the basis of which the appeal had been
taken, learning from the MVijgq the reasons for the judgment of the
court. If he wished, he could, of course, annul the verdict, or mitigate
the sentence to any degree. Ordinarily, however, after first vindicating
the verdict of the court of justice, he would point out that ill-feeling
was harmful, and he would conclude by advising each group of young
men to give a dance for the enjoyment of the village of their former
adversaries, and thus re-establish peace. To enable this to be done
at once, he would donate a sum of money toward the cost of these
festivities. The two village chiefs would thereupon return home, each
well contented with the judgment. In the general enthusiasm for the
wisdom and generosity of the monarch, any dissatisfaction with the
judgment of the higher tribunal in imposing fines would be minimized.
Each village chief would thereupon give a goat and two chickens for
Adjagb6, the god of the hunt, and the people of both villages would
go to the forest to dance for this deity. When the festivities were
over, each chief would send a present to the King.
Duncan gives an account of an appeal of a different sort from a
verdict of a local chief, and recounts the manner in which the case was
settled by King Glele:
"... his Majesty invited me to be present at the trial of a prisoner
who had been brought from a town in the Mahee country, where he had
already been tried, upon an accusation of adultery with one of the
Caboceers' wives, and the sentence of death had been passed upon him.
The man, however, being conscious of his innocence, appealed to the
Court of Abomey, where all the witnesses were again examined and
cross-questioned by the King himself. It was now distinctly proved
that the whole was a false accusation, and the poor fellow was imme-
diately liberated; but the caboceer, who had been his accuser, and
fourteen of his false witnesses, were seized and imprisoned for trial on
a future day, when doubtless the whole of them would suffer death.
"The King, with great satisfaction, pointed out to me the beneficial
effects of this new law which he had made, observing that formerly, in
the Mahee country, when a caboceer felt animosity against a person in
his power, he could at any time get up an accusation against him, and
also ensure such evidence as would suit his purpose; but that now the
accused had the power of appealing to the court of Abomey, which had
been the means of effectually checking such practices, as he invariably
put the accusers to death when he found the accused to be innocent."1
1 Vol. ii, pp. 277-278.
In the first instance given above, the chief is seen as the one who
crystalizes action in order to propitiate a supernatural power who,
discontented with some occurrence in the village, has endangered the
lives of its people. In the second case the chief is envisaged as spokes-
man before a higher authority for his village against the people of
another village. A situation where the chief acts as conciliator may
next be considered. It may be assumed that one village possesses a
well where the people of a second draw their water; and that the im-
portant market of the region, to which the people of the first must
come to sell their produce is situated in the second village. It may
further be supposed that, for some reason, the people of the first village
do not wish to allow those of the second to take water from their well.
One day a woman of the second village goes to the well, and a quarrel
develops between her and a woman of the village where the well is
situated, whereupon insults are freely exchanged until those of this
latter village beat the woman who came for water, and drive her away.
She goes home and reports the quarrel and its consequences to her
village chief. He, in turn, calls the dokpwig$, and informs him of
the case. In the other village, the women who were party to the fracas
have, in the meantime, also brought to their village chief their own
version of the affair, emphasizing what the "stranger" had done to
provoke it. As in the other village, this chief calls his dokpwgg4. In
the meantime, news of the quarrel spreads rapidly, so that all are
soon conversant with what has happened. On the day the market is
held in the second village, to which the people of the other must come
to sell their goods, all the young people of the "market" village, male
and female, gather to prevent those of the "well" village from
attending the market. This results in much excitement, and a general
quarrel develops between the people of the two villages. A meeting
between the two village chiefs and their dokpweg4 is hurriedly arranged,
and when these men meet the situation as it was laid before each of
them is expounded. For aday the matter rests at this point, and on the
order of the "well" village chief, those who were accustomed to go to
the market refrain from going there, while those of the "market"
village who went to the well also stay at home. The following day,
each village chief summons all his subjects to appear before his house. At
this time each chief asks further details of the quarrel from any of his
people who have evidence to bring and then, calling the heads of the
compounds of his village about him, designates to his people a meeting
place on neutral ground, that is, on land which neither village controls,
PRIMARY POLITICAL DIVISIONS
where the two groups of elders are to gather. At this meeting both
groups come prepared for reconciliation, knowing that it would be
unwise to allow news of a quarrel of this kind to reach the ears of the
King, and costly to have it brought before the higher courts. Terms
are therefore agreed upon, and after the two groups repair to their
respect e villages, these terms are proclaimed by the spokesmen of
the iefs to the villagers. Each chief orders that the terms be ob-
ser ed, that ill feeling be put aside, and the matter is considered
SThe next duty of the village chief which may be considered is that
in which he acts as arbiter in cases involving questions of vested rights
or of establishing such rights. An example of this would be where a
field or a large palm-grove held by the sib-head or head of a collectiv-
ity in trust for a group of heirs is to be divided.1 The trustee proposes
a division, and, if this is acceptable to the members of his group, he
presents himself before the village chief, accompanied by those who
are to receive their heritage. The village chief summons his dokpwgg4,
his tonukwe, and the heads of all collectivities and compounds; that is,
the village elders. These go to the field or palm-grove which is to be
divided. Once arrived there, the village chief seats himself on his
stool-an act decreed necessary to establish legality-and holding up
a bamboo of a standard length in his hand, he calls the heads of
collectivities to witness the division about to be made. The trustee is
asked, "How many measures of bamboo do you give to the eldest son ?"
The reply is given, and the village chief leaves his stool, and himself
measures off the number of lengths of bamboo the trustee had named.
As he measures, he counts loudly, and is watched by principals and
witnesses. When he reaches the last of the allotted lengths, he plants
a sacred qyyd tree or an equally sacred bush called disilisigh to serve
as a boundary mark, repeating this process until the division is com-
pleted. The tonukwe carefully notes for future reference everything
that has been done, for this official is the repository of such traditions,
which are, in turn, taught to the son who succeeds him. After two or
three generations, a dispute of the ownership of a given piece of land
may arise. When this occurs, the village chief, who arbitrates the
question, calls in his tonukwe, and this official goes to the place where
the chief's stool rested, counts the number of bamboos in the direction
stated, finds the tree or bush, and thus the proper boundary is re-
established and revalidated by the decision of the tox6st.
1 See above, vol. i, pp. 92-94, for the indication of when this would occtr.
The final function of the village chief was to act as what may be
described as a court of first instance. The powers of a village chief in
Sthe matter of punishment are largely restricted at present, and
according to the accounts given by Dahomeans were never of any
considerable importance. These statements are corroborated by re-
ports of contemporary observers, for where a village chief is mentioned
as judge, reference to final review by the King or his officers in-
variably follows. Forbes has left perhaps the most detailed description
of a court of justice held by a village chief and, since it is the only
contemporary record to be found in the literature, describing not only
procedure but giving the verdict as well, it may be quoted here in full:
"Arrived at Allahbah, fourteen miles from Cannah, and near the
swamps. Mr. Duncan very unwell. In the afternoon a terrible noise
drew my attention, when, on examination, I found some of our ham-
mock-men and the townspeople at a war of words. Presently the head
of the town rushed amongst them, prostrated, kissed the dust, and,
taking his seat on his hams, all squatted down peaceably, scarcely a
moment after. Narwhey arrived too late; and in a terrible passion he
rushed on one of the hammockmen, and fairly pummelled him; while
the head man called to him to desist, and that his conduct was contempt
of court. He fell back among the crowd, a quiet but enraged spectator.
The cause was this: my Kroomen had given one hammockman twelve
strings of cowries to buy a large fowl, and the hammockman had paid
eight. The woman, hearing that twelve had been given, after the fowl
was killed demanded restitution of the money. A squabble ensued;
and, lest the Narwhey should take up the case, the head man of the
town proclaimed a king's court, over which he alone, in his district, is
judge. Several of the villagers made speeches, and condemned Nar-
whey's conduct. After fully proving the charge, in consideration of
the prisoner being the servant of a white man, he was let off with
paying the whole sum to the woman. The judge again kissed the dust,
the hammockmen knelt and clapped hands in token of submission,
then all kissed the dust and separated, and the king's court was thus
/ According to current accounts, the village chief may imprison only for
a period not exceeding four days. He may not punish by flogging
with a whip or with sticks, but only administer a beating with the
hand, and if he imposes a fine, the senior member of the offender's
S sib must concur.
The most important judicial prerogative of the village chief as a
court of first instance was the administration of the trials by ordeal.2
1 Vol. i, pp. 89-90.
2 Aside from administering ordeals, which are now forbidden, the powers of
village chiefs apparently remain much as they were under the monarchy.
a) The eldest son of Behanzin and some of his wives.
b) A chief in ceremonial regalia.
- 2 ;T42
A chief and two of his retainers as conceived by the brass-workers.
PRIMARY POLITICAL DIVISIONS
As an example of the procedure followed in a. typical ordeal, the
discovery of a culprit who perpetrated a theft may be described. When
a theft was committed in a village and the identity of the guilty
one was not known, the chief summoned all his subjects before him
and directed the dokpweg4 and the lIgied to make a search of the houses
of the village while all its inhabitants were before him. If the property
was found in this search, then the members of the compound where the
stolen goods had been recovered were brought forward one after the
other, and questioned until the guilty one confessed. Once a confession
was obtained, a judgment of a fine or imprisonment or both was passed,
or if the theft involved a large sum, the culprit was taken before the
King for more serious punishment than the village chief might impose.
If, however, the dokpweg4 and the legdde were unsuccessful in their
search, the village chief summoned the akqdato ("proof-who-does-it
person"), and instructed him to prepare an ordeal. If this was a
village large enough to be divided into quarters, the people were
grouped according to their quarters and one representative from each
quarter was required to take the ordeal for the entire membership.
If he passed the ordeal successfully, this cleared all the inhabitants
of the quarter. When the representative of one quarter failed to pass
the ordeal, however, this was held as proof that the guilty one was to
be found among the inhabitants of that group, whereupon the same
ordeal was taken by collectivities, each being represented as were the
quarters of the village. When the guilty collectivity was determined,
each compound in that collectivity submitted to the ordeal through
its representative, while once the guilty compound was finally located,
every individual of it was put to the test until one person was declared
to be the culprit.1
The nature of the ordeal cannot be understood until it is recognized
that it is a form of gb6, a charm or fetish, properly speaking, which
constitutes one of the important elements in the religious life of the
1 Bosman (p. 333) may be quoted in this connection: "If any Person here [i. e.,
in Whydah] is accused of any Crime, and denies the Fact, he is obliged to clear
himself by Fetiche's as on the Gold Coast; or otherwise (which is here very
common) he is brought to a River, not far from the King's Court, to which
is ascribed the strange Quality of immediately drowning all the guilty Persons
which are thrown into it; (contrary to the European manner of trying Witches)
but the Innocent come clear out of it without any Damage; supposing withal,
that they save themselves by swimming: In which Art all of them being
very expert, I never heard that this River ever yet convicted any Person;
for they all come well out, paying a certain Sum to the King, for which End
alone I believe this Trial is designed. The Viceroys, in their Governments,
generally follow the same Rule, and condemn the Malefactors to pay a certain
Sum for their Use."
Dahomeans.1 This gb6 is owned by the akqdato-the practitioner of
ordeals-and is endowed with magical properties that enable it to
distinguish the guilty from the innocent in exactly the same manner
as any other charm may be endowed by a supernatural agent with a
In one type of ordeal, called gqyd kpaka, a red-hot machete was
placed on the tongue of the accused, and a blistered tongue constituted
/ evidence of guilt. Another, called amizok4, was an ordeal by boiling
oils, in which an adjikwi seed of the kind used in playing the adji
game3 was placed in a pot of boiling oil, and the accused had to
withdraw it with his fingers. If not guilty, he was able to go through
this unharmed. A third type, called agokwikq, employed two magically
treated ag6 seeds tied to the ends of a cord long enough to go about the
neck of the accused, and the seeds were buried lightly in the ground.
Such was the spiritual power in these seeds, that if the accused was
guilty of the crime, he could not remove them from the ground; if he
succeeded in rising, he was declared innocent. Another ordeal, named
atakfkq, was that of inserting pepper under the eyelids of the accused,
with a reddening of the eyeballs serving as an indication of guilt. In
the ordeal of dekikqkq, broken palm-nut shells were strewn on the
ground, and the culprit was required to kneel on these for a time; if
the sharp edges of the shells produced abrasions of the skin, this was
regarded a sign of guilt. When the adjidjqxakA ordeal was used,
porcupine quills were burned, crushed, and put into water, and the
face of the accused was washed in this water; if guilty, the quills
adhered to his face and eyes; if innocent, no harm was done him. The
liy6ka ordeal employed a magically charged ball of akdsd, placed on
the ground, which the accused was commanded to pick up; if innocent
he did this without difficulty, but if guilty, the corn-meal ball ran
1 See below, pp. 256ff.
2 The type of ordeals administered in Dahomey were numerous, and the list
given here includes only a fraction of those. They were gathered from several
informants; several were given by more than one person. However, since
each practitioner held claim to the right to give certain of the ordeals, it is
obvious that the list could have been enlarged had still more individuals
familiar with the manipulation of magic charms been queried. To what extent
the introduction of European supervision of native courts of justice has done
away with the use of the ordeal is difficult to say. It is believed that, except
where fear of discovery is slight because of the remoteness of European of-
ficials, or the absence of French-speaking inhabitants, trial by ordeal is not
met with in present-day Dahomey. Knowledge of this judicial magic, and the
formulae for the manipulation of it, has been far from forgotten, however, and
it is not without significance that in discussing the ordeals informants invariably
employed the present tense.
3 See above, vol. i, p. 287, note 1.
PRIMARY POLITICAL DIVISIONS
away-"as any thief runs"-and, at each attempt to grasp it, it
rolled out of his reach, thus indicating guilt. Crushed caury-shells,
placed in water, were employed in the aydk# ordeal, and the body of
the accused was washed with this fluid; if guilty, the body was soon
covered with sores. In the pottery ordeal, called golik4, two pots tied
to a cord were attached by strings, much in the way the ag6 seeds
were employed in a previously cited test. The accused was made to
kneel and the two pots were thrown over his back; in this case,
however, they did not touch the ground. The wrists of the culprit
were held in a crossed position, and if guilty he was unable to separate
his wrists at the word of command. In another ordeal the face of the
accused was washed in very cold water. If innocent, this did not
affect him, but if guilty, his eyes became inflamed and remained red
until he confessed.
Ordeals- of this type were performed under the direction of the
village chief, and the~ r-Iif~of appeal was always retained by the one
declared guilty. If the real thief had been found by the local author-
ities but did not wish to accept the ordeal, or if the one deemed guilty
was not the real thief, he took an appeal to the King by making complaint
at the royal court. The King thereupon caused all the inhabitants of
the village to come before him, in order that the officials of the higher
tribunal might ask the accused to name the one who had administered
the ordeal. When the giver of the ordeal had been named, he was
called forward and informed that his findings were annulled, and that
the entire village was to be put to the test anew. In the ordeals as
given in the higher courts, however, there was no such variety of
trials as characterized those administered in the village.itself, nor did
the accused personally undergo the ordeal. The "ordeal of the King"
was called adi, from the name of the tree which furnished the poison
employed in it. In a case such as has been cited, the representative of
each village quarter, accompanied by a petty chief, brought a cok.
Quarter by quarter the ordeal was administered, the poison bein
given to each cock, recovery indicating innocence, death showing th
guilty person to have lived in the quarter that had brought him. T
same procedure as was followed in the village was repeated-the
disclosure of the guilty quarter led to the testing of the compounds of
this quarter; with the guilty compound determined, every individual
was tried by the same ordeal, with the poison being administered to
a cock brought by him. If the ordeal fixed the crime on the culprit
originally determined in the village, then the punishment meted out
was more severe than for the offence itself; if another was proclaimed
guilty, the one who had taken appeal was allowed to go free, for the
King's ordeal, being actuated by stronger magic, was held to nullify the
results of the original trial.
Ordeals taken on appeal to the King were not conducted before the
King himself, but were carried out by special officers in a building
somewhat removed from the palace. The sharp differentiation that
is always made between the King's ordeal and that of the villages may
perhaps represent an aboriginal difference between the methods of
justice among the indigenous peoples of the Dahomean kingdom, and
those introduced by the conquering monarchs.1
The question of collusion, when raised, brought the free admission
that collusion was indeed often attempted; that, in fact, from
time to time, culprits were caught because they went at night to
the maker of the ordeal to try to bribe him. One way in which
manipulation of the ordeal was guarded against was to allow the
chief of the village to decide what type of ordeal was to be employed,
and to summon a man from another village to administer it. One
reason why the King's ordeal was sought was that, removed from
the village, there was less opportunity for bribery than nearer at
home,2 though it was invariably a costly expedient for all concerned,
involving gift-giving and "court costs"-assessed, to be sure, always
After a man had been found guilty at the court of the King, and
where the sentence was death, a piece of wood was at once placed
1 One or two specialized forms of trial by ordeal, employed at the present time,
may also be mentioned in this connection. If a person accused of a crime
is a member of a cult-group of one of the "public" deities, he is asked to take
an oath that if he be guilty, then on the day his god comes to his head, he
should fall to the earth. If he refuses to take this oath, it is regarded as a sign
of guilt. Another way of swearing is to declare, "If I am guilty, let the King
of Dahomey take my head. Here is the earth of Dahomey," whereupon the
accused takes some earth in his hand, calls on the spirits of the dead of his sib,
and eats it. If he is guilty, he is believed doomed to die in seven, or in sixteen
days. In still another, called nuslenidji which is only given to men, the
accused takes a knife and with it scoops up some sand, and swallowing this,
swears his innocence by Gi, the god of iron. It is said that a warrior will never
swear by the earth; that if he is guilty and is asked to do this, he will confess
2 Le Herisse (p. 75) is convinced, however, that the death of a given cock was
due to the handling of the animal by the ading (who administered the ordeal)
rather than to the effect of the poison: "Celui-ci ouvre le bec du coq en exergant
une pression avec le pouce sur la mandibule inf6rieure, en m6me temps qu'il
appuie l'index sur la gorge de l'animal. II peut ainsi, A volont6, contractor le
gosier et determiner l'etouffement." Le Heriss6 says nothing of the types
of ordeal described here as occurring in the village chief's "court of first
PRIMARY POLITICAL DIVISIONS
across his mouth, and pushed back until it was firmly held between the
molars. It was then tied in place with cords in order to effectually gag
the condemned and prevent him from speaking:
"The instrument is a Y-shaped stick; the sharp end touches the
palate, whilst the fork embraces the tongue, so that the criminal,
however much he may suffer, cannot cry out. The gag is used, because,
if a man speak to the King, he must be pardoned."'
This was done to prevent the condemned from swearing an oath
against the King, since in Dahomey, as elsewhere in West Africa the
f power of the oath is greatly feared. Tradition tells that though this
: precaution had been taken from the time of Agadja, Agongolo, finding
S it cruel, abolished it. However, those condemned insulted the chiefs
and finally an episode occurred which, as recounted, induced Gezo to
revive the ancient custom. On one occasion, it is said, when two Maxi
captives were to be sacrificed to the spirit of Gezo's father, they were
being given a message by the King to deliver in the other world. He
told them to inform his father he was doing his duty, that he had
organized the ceremony for the tovody, and that he had conquered
several Nago villages. The Migqg repeated this to the captives, as
etiquette demanded, whereupon one of the condemned asked, "How
shall we know the man when we see him, since we never knew him
when he was alive?" There were shouts of "Treason! Insult!" and
on that day the custom of gagging those condemned to death was
In the discussion of village polity, and particularly in considering the
administration of justice in the old kingdom, it was seen how, though
the authority of the village officials was restricted by the central
government, the village chief and his subordinates wielded con-
siderable power; this power is today perpetuated in the organisation of
local government under European supervision. The overwhelming
supremacy of the central government must, nevertheless, be recognized
as the very core of Dahomean political organisation. All other forms
were subservient to it and were held to strict and regular account; all
organizations and offices were subordinated to its efficiency of ad-
1 Burton, vol. i, p. 204, note 1.
THE KING AND HIS COURT
Before proceeding to a description of the political superstructure
that had been erected during the more than two and a half centuries
of the domination of Dahomey by the Aladax6nfi kings, some con-
sideration must be given the attitudes found at the present time toward
the monarchy and the institutions most intimately associated with it.
As might be expected, in reconstructing this phase of the past, those
Dahomeans who today identify themselves with the regime of the
kings tend to introduce all manner of overstatement. It is not necessary
to enter here into a discussion of the underlying psychological factors
that make for this; it is sufficient to point out that this overstatement
is actuated by no impulse that would be foreign to the psyche of any
people recapturing a vanished period of their history that symbolized
power and glamor. The Golden Age, in Dahomey as elsewhere, lies
in the past.
Yet this overstatement, characteristically enough, is embodied in
two extreme views, though the two are not irreconcilable when the
background of those expressing them is taken into consideration. One
view, which may be termed the Abomey attitude, is chiefly that of
members of the royal sib or of the descendants of those who had held
high office under the kings, and is replete with tales of splendor, of
wisdom, and of daring. The other position, taken by those who derive
from the more provincial portions of Dahomey-Allada, Adjh, Why-
dah-recounts oppression, cruelty, and the insecurity felt by those
not in power, or the fears which beset those whose rising power made
them subject to the intrigues of envious plotters.
Valuable as these idealisations may be for an understanding of the
aspect of Dahomean culture which, more than any other, has dis-
appeared, it is nevertheless important to recover as much of objective
fact as possible concerning the political institutions as they actually
functioned. As a check against what might be unduly rationalized
accounts, therefore, two methods have been employed. One of these
utilizes the implicit testimony in native accounts of non-political
THE KING AND HIS COURT
phases of culture-social, economic, religious, and artistic-which
serve to control direct statements concerning the methods by means
of which Dahomey was governed in the days of its independence. More
important than this approach, however, is the analysis of published
accounts of eye-witnesses, who themselves watched the monarchy in
operation. Hence, in the pages which follow, extensive use will be
made of quotations from the historic sources. These often unwittingly
throw important light on points which, of doubtful authenticity when
brought forward in a statement of native tradition told years after
a custom has ceased to be operative, may be proved or disproved by
even a casual observation of a contemporary writer.
The political hierarchy of Dahomey may be thought of in a general
way as comprising three ranks. The highest of these, where position
was shared with no one, was occupied by the King. At the bot om were
the village chiefs, whose place and prerogatives have been described.
Between them were the gbonug4chiefs possessing varying degrees of
powr-wr6eduties- may be considered before the rl1e of the King in
Dahomean life is analyzed. Some of these higher chiefs were members
of the King's court in Abomey, and these supervised the actual execu-
tion of the decrees of the monarch. Others ruled over the several pro-
vinces of Dahomey as deputies of the King. All had subordinate chiefs
under their command.1
Though these divisions have received but scant attention in the
literature, when present-day inhabitants of Dahomey speak of the
kingdom they invariably predicate their discussion on the existence
of six such provinces. The most important, of course, was the region
which comprised Abomey and Kana and their environs, that stretched
northward from the great marsh, or "lama," to include the "plateau
of Abomey" itself. Kana and Abomey were the seat of government
and the centers of the "real" Dahomean civilisation, and this region
was more directly under the control of the King than any of the others.
The remaining divisions were Whydah, Allada, Zagnanado, Maxi (Save
and Savalu), Atakpame, and AdjA. In geographical form, they
described a sort of tailed loop, the tail, which pointed toward the south,
comprising Whydah, while the other five provinces, constituting the
1 Le Heriss6 gives a similar arrangement of the Dahomean political hierarchy,
when, after giving a list of the kings of Dahomey and their principal officers,
he remarks (p. 44): "Les cab6c6res commandant des regions s'appelaient
'Togan' chefs de pays (T8-pays, gan-chef). Sous leurs ordres Btaient places
les chefs de villages ..." The major portion of Le Heriss6's first chapter,
especially pp. 5-44, deals with the aspects of Dahomean society considered in
loop, roughly circled the central area of Abomey in counter-clockwise
direction in the order named. With the exception of Whydah, little
detail concerning the administration of each of these provinces can
be recovered, their very areas varying with the fluctuations of fortune
of the kingdom. Though much may be read of the "viceroy," as he
was called by the travellers, who ruled Whydah as representative of
the King, only rarely, if ever, is mention made of similar overlords for
the other four provinces.1 Indeed, whether these "provinces" were
actually organized under the native regime, or whether present-day
accounts are influenced by the manner in which the present colony
of Dahomey is divided under European domination, cannot be said.
Yet the fact remains and must be noted that native interpreters
almost invariably speak of the old kingdom in terms of the subdivisions
which have been given here.
That this should be the case follows the logic of Dahomean recorded
history. Whydah was a well-recognized political entity when con-
quered by Dahomey; the same is true of the kingdom of Ardra, which
is to be identified with Allada. Whether or not the region east of
Abomey, today named by the natives after its most important town,
Zagnanado, also existed as a political unit, as tradition states, historical
record does not tell. However, this is the area which bordered on the
country of the Nago, the Yoruban (Oyo and Egba) peoples who were
the bitter enemies of the Dahomeans and whose conquest remained
the lifelong aim of at least the last three Dahomean kings. It is known
from the writings of Duncan and Skertchly, who travelled in the
northernmost portions of the kingdom, that Maxi was recognized as
a unit, even though but the scantiest information as to the manner in
which it was governed is given. It is possible, however, to conclude that
by reason of the persistence of the term "Maxi" in the New World at
the present time, this area was not only recognized by the Dahomeans,
but by its inhabitants themselves.2 For the territory to the west, there
is once more no absolute evidence of its having been an independent
political unit, though, as has been seen, the "King of Adja" is referred
to repeatedly in Dahomean oral tradition. At least one myth was
collected which tells how the King of AdjA and the King of Oyo were
the first two rulers on earth.
1 Le Heriss6 is an exception to this statement, for he says (p. 44), "... d'autres
cabec6res furent cr66s pour s'occuper des affaires concernant des regions
nouvellement conquises ou reorganisees, par example Fyogb6 pour Agony,
Binazon comme auxiliaire de 1'Akplogan & Allada."
2 Thus the name, pronounced Mahi, figures in Haitian dances today.
THE KING AND HIS COURT
The accounts given by members of the royal family, men who have
the traditions of native rule well in hand, contain only approximate
boundaries of these provinces. For example, the area over which the
Yovog4, who was viceroy of Whydah, had control, apparently did
not reach any great distance beyond the city of Whydah itself, if the
accounts of the travellers are to be accepted. In the traditions of
native rule, however, it is stated that chiefs who ruled settlements
along the sea-coast would, at frequent intervals, bring their reports
to the representative of the King at Whydah, who would consolidate
these and transmit them to Abomey several times a year for the
district as a whole. Thus, for example, Tori, some miles north of
Whydah, is traditionally regarded as coming under the rule of the
King's representative there.1 Allada also had its own gbonug4, who
was apparently responsible for the administration of the country as
far north as the great marsh and as far east and west as the varying
boundaries of the Dahomean kingdom extended its control.2 According
to_present-day tradition, the province of Allada was divided into five
districts, each ruled by its gbonugY, whose titles were as follows:
Ugbiy4, AladagbeTNwachemi Agbogbwd, and Hwedjisi. The territory
of Zagnanado seems to have reached from the river Zou to the banks
of the Weme, and as far beyond in the direction of Abeokuta as
Dahomean control extended, and here the rule was divided between
the HQg4 and the FPnyi. Duncan gives a point at which the boundary
between Abomey and the northern province of Maxi may be located,
in the following passage:
"After crossing the Savalu mountains, I was again in the original
kingdom of Dahomey, Jallakoo being the first Dahoman town in that
"The north," which comprised Save and Savalu, were governed by
the Adamadjer6dje and the Djsketeme. The province of Adji is
reached soon after leaving the city of Abomey, travelling southwest-
ward, when the descent from the plateau on which Abomey is situated
1 The statement of Foa (p. 272) would indicate something of this order: "II y
avait, du moins jusqu'en 1890, trois yevogans: celui de Whydah, et ceux de
Godomb et Kotonou. Le premier 6tait le plus important et commandait aux
autres. C'6taient les trois principles villes du Dahomey, ou les blancs r6sidaient.
Malgre l'occupation francais A Kotonou, depuis 1885, le yevogan avait 6t6
2 Cf. Le Heriss6 (p. 44) where he speaks of "L'Akplogan ... grand cab6cere, ...
commandait Allada," and the "Binazon ... auxiliaire de 1'Akplogan a Allada,"
to whom reference has already been made.
3 Vol. ii, pp. 243-244.
has been made. The present French administrative center of Parahoue
may be regarded as the heart of the region, and in the days of the
kingdom, the AladakA and the Djedokp6 were responsible to the King
for its government. During the Dahomean conquests the area con-
trolled extended much farther to the northwest than the present
boundary-line of the colony, since Glele's capture of Atakpame, in the
present Togoland, is recorded by the later writers; Atakpame was
administered by a gbonug4 entitled Shadakasf. However, the prin-
cipal interest of the monarchy, insofar as the extension of Dahomean
territory was concerned, lay not in the territory to the west, but
eastwards, for when the conquering armies of Dahomey had penetrated
what is now Togoland, caution was dictated by political considera-
tions, since here the Dahomeans approached the sphere of influence
of the Ashanti, with whom they were on terms of mutual political
SWhether or not native tradition is correct in assigning district
chieftains to each of these provinces, there can be no question but
that the gbonug4 who ruled Whydah for the King was a person of
importance and power, since so much of the revenues of the kings
came from trade with the Europeans, and since it was to this official
that the collection of these revenues was entrusted. Burton, the most
careful linguist of all the travellers, terms the viceroy of Whydah
the Yevogan, giving the correct translation of "White man's chief";
whether this was Whydah pronunciation of the period or not cannot
be said, for in Abomey this official is at the present time called
Yovog4.1 Burton2 gives in detail all of the renditions of this title, of
which there are many, for all travellers came at once in contact with
the Whydah chief, and many accounts exist of the person of the
officiating Yovog4, of his palace, of the ceremonial which surrounded
his office, and of his reception of White travellers. Norris3 characterizes
his contemporary who ruled Whydah; Forbes4 gives a description of
the man who ruled the city in his time and an account of his visit to
him; Duncan5 tells how the Yovog4 to whom he reported received
him, and of his appearance, while Burton6 and Skertchly7 give analyses
of his duties and prerogatives, details of his palace and personal
appearance, and something of his character. M'Leod has left a
1 This is also the rendition employed by Le Heriss6, though he adds a final "n"
in place of the nasalisation of the final "a" given here.
2 Vol. i, p. 63, note 1. 3 pp. 40-41; reproduced in Dalzel, p. 91.
4 Vol. i, pp. 47-49. 5 Vol. i, pp. 117-118. 6 Vol.i,pp. 63-65.
7 pp. 51-52. Skertchely consistently speaks of this official as the "Avogan."
THE KING AND HIS COURT
description of the Yovog4 which may be quoted here as summarizing
the type of man who held the position:
"The political management of Whydah is intrusted to a viceroy
who is called the Yavougah (or captain of the white men) from having
the shipping and strangers more immediately under his jurisdiction.
"This officer, at the time of my residence in the country, was a man
of majestic stature, and possessed an uncommon share of dignity,
mixed with complacency of manner. His dress was generally a large
hat, somewhat resembling that of a Spanish Grandee, tastefully
decorated; and a piece of damask silk (usually red) thrown over one
shoulder, like a Scotch plaid; with a pair of drawers, but his arms and
legs were bare, except the bracelets of silver, which encircled the arm
above the elbow, with manillas of the same sort, and rows of coral
round the wrists.
"When he had any message to deliver from the king, or other public
affair to transact at the European forts, it was done with much cere-
mony and state; his guards, musicians, umbrella-bearers, and a numer-
ous retinue always attending him. On such occasions, it was usual for
all whites (who were of sufficient rank to be admitted to the parties of
the governor) to be seated in the hall of the fort; but the yavougah
alone of the blacks assumed this privilege, and he was placed on a
finely-carved stool: all the rest squatting on the floor; except any one
of them spoke to or was addressed by him, when the person so speak-
ing or addressed, always appeared on his knees.
"The most polished courtier of Europe, could not have deported
himself more gracefully on public occasions than this man, or have
carried on a conference with greater ease and affability. He was
master, besides his own, of the English, French, and Portuguese
languages; having resided from his birth chiefly in the vicinity of the
forts, and in his younger days been much connected with them offi-
cially, as a linguist."1
One aspect of his position not stressed in the above quotation concerns
the manner in which he used his considerable power. Thus Norris
"...he maintained a great number of domestics and attendants,
whom he attached to his person by his liberality; and to his interest by
protecting them in their villainies, and screening them from justice in
defiance of the king. His oppressions rendered him odious to the
garrisons at the forts; and his great influence and wealth gave no small
uneasiness to the king; who nevertheless did not care to attack him
openly, but waited a fit opportunity to get him into his hands by
strategem, or surprise."2
1 pp. 34-36.
2 pp. 40-41.
Burton's comments on the power vested in the Yovog4 and the manner
in which he used it may also be quoted:
"He is at once council, jury, and judge; he cannot, however, put a
Dahoman to death even for crime without sending him for examination
to the King. He has unlimited powers of imprisonment and bastinado;
indeed, the local system seems to be that which kept the old British
man-of-war in such grand discipline; all are in ranks, and the superior
'sticks' every one below him. He is great at embezzlement, and woe
betide the litigious wight whose cause falls into his hands. Both he
and his lieutenant must be propitiated before he will forward a visitor's
message to the King; and both, though they can do little to assist, are
powerful in impeding progress. However, a piece of silk, and a few
bottles of French 'tafia', suffice for each, and both vouchsafed a return
How complete was his control over Whydah and all who lived there
is evident from the manner in which all traffic between the city and
the beach was regulated by him. Numerous writers testify to restric-
tions which prevented them from travelling the few miles to the sea-
shore without permission. The mechanism of this control and the
careful manner in which it was exerted is seen in M'Leod's comments:
"The police of Dahomy is extremely strict, and no stranger, whether
white or black, can move in any direction without being under surveil-
lance, although it is so adroitly managed that he discovers no appear-
ance of this espionage. One may travel right and left in the country
without asking permission but if a man wishes to go afloat, even to
transact business in his own ship, he must send a messenger to the
viceroy to obtain a pass for that purpose, most probably to give him
an opportunity of judging of the motive for going on board, that being
a point where his power ceases. It is impossible to elude his vigilance
by embarking secretly.
"For example, were a dozen white people to send their names on
for the same morning, in a regular manner, by the interpreter to the
viceroy, desiring a free pass to the beach, having business to perform
on board ship; that permission would, no doubt, be granted, and a
polite answer returned. A different messenger would then be des-
patched by the viceroy to the village between Grigwee and the sea,
through which the party must pass, to give the Caboceer of that place the
distinguishing marks as they had been pointed out by the first mes-
senger, of each individual who had really demanded a pass. On their
arrival at this village, although they might be perfectly correct as to
number, yet, should a person appear who had not asked for leave, but
had come in the room of one who had done so, he would be instantly
picked out as not being one of those described by the first messenger
to the viceroy.
1 Vol. i, pp. 63-64.
THE KING AND HIS COURT /29
"On more occasions than one, during my stay, interlopers were
detected, who thought they might pass in the throng at Kakeraken's
Kroom (so called from the name of the Caboceer who presided at this
village, or kroom), and, with all possible civility, informed there must
be some mistake about their pass, and referring them back to Grigwee
for an explanation."1
As for the chief or chiefs of the other provinces who have been
named, it can only be said that they represented the King, that they
were responsible for the peaceful and efficient administration of their
area, and particularly for the collection of taxes. Chiefs of recently
acquired terrains, who had voluntarily offered submission, were at
times apparently permitted to continue their rule, but Duncan points
out the manner in which the central government controlled them:
"The King of Dahomey displays great sagacity in sending Dahomans
to the frontiers between the Mahees, Yarriba, and Fellattahs. These
men, although acting as principal attendants to chiefs or caboceers of
the subdued Mahees, are nothing more nor less than political spies, the
upper rank of such persons preventing any combination or alliance
dangerous to the power of the King of Dahomey, although generally
the Mahees seem very much pleased with their present government
and new laws."2
Provincial chiefs were also responsible for their quotas of men for the
army, and it was through them that the King's emissaries effected
agricultural control, arranged communal work and complied with
other special requirements resulting from decrees promulgated in Abo-
mey. These district officials were expected to be in frequent attendance
at the court of the King, at whose pleasure they held their positions.
Burton states of the YovogA:
"He is proposed by the Meu, or second minister, his after patron,
and he is installed by the King, under whose indirect protection he is.
The Viceroy is surrounded by the cleverest spies and councillors; on
his own ground he is strong, but once in the capital he falls into the
hands of his protector. He is ever liable to be summoned to Agbome,
and etiquette compels him to ride a wretched garron upon which he is
supported by his slaves."3
These chiefs of districts, while humble before the King, wielded des-
potic power in their own jurisdiction, and this was reflected in the
behavior which they exacted from their subordinates:
"All being equally nothing in the royal presence, they there must
behave accordingly; but when outside the palace, these high poten-
2 Vol. ii, p. 35. 3 Vol. i, p. 63.
1 pp. 99-102.
states expect the commonalty to kneel, to kiss the ground, and to clap
hands before them, as if they were kings."'
Yet, for all this display of power, it may be said that there were no
intrenched classes in Dahomey. The absolutism of the King was of the
greatest; the state, in the fullest sense, was the King.
Though the King ruled by right of birth, he was not necessarily
the eldest son of his father. Early accounts stress the fact of primo-
geniture, yet all of them qualify such an assertion. Thus, Forbes states:
"All rank is hereditary and primogenitive, provided the king con-
curs; if not, he nominates another member of the family. The succes-
sion to the throne is also primogenitive, with the concurrence of the
miegan and the mayo, who otherwise discriminate between the several
next heirs of the reigning family."2
M'Leod gives the same version of the inheritance of the throne, ap-
pending an example of where the eldest son was set aside in favor of
"The choice usually falls on the eldest son of the late sovereign's
greatest favourite, provided there exists no particular reason for
setting him aside. An instance of this sort occurred however at the
demise of the late King Whenoohew, where the elder son's right of
primogeniture was disallowed, because one of his toes from some
accident overlapped the other; and his next brother, the present king,
who, with respect to form, is certainly 'a marvellous proper man,' was
elected in his stead."3
Norris also tells how the eldest son of Agadja was passed over for a
younger brother, because, in the opinion of the elders, the heir-ap-
parent did not seem to fulfill the requirements of kingship:
"Trudo's death was concealed, as is customary upon such occasions,
until the prime ministers, who are stiled Tamegan and Mayhou, had
consulted together, and agreed which of his sons was to succeed; a
trust which devolves to these officers, upon the decease of their
sovereign: for though the son, who is the first born, after his father
comes into possession of the regal dignity, is esteemed heir apparent to
his dominions, yet if he appears to these two ministers, from some
defect or vice, either of body or mind, to be unworthy of this exalted
station, they have the power of rejecting him, and of chusing from
among the other children, him who seems to be most deserving or best
qualified to rule over them. Upon the present occasion, they rejected
the eldest son, and were unanimous in fixing their choice on Ahadee;
1 Ibid., vol. i, p. 174. 2 Vol. i, p. 27.
3 See, for a fuller description of Dahomean despotism, M'Leod, pp. 37-40, from
which this quotation is.taken.
THE KING AND HIS COURT
whose reign has been a continued series of misery to his unhappy
country, and who, notwithstanding some good qualities, has proved
upon the whole, a bad king, and a worse man."'
In the accounts of the succession to the throne given by present-day
Dahomeans, primogeniture is rarely, if ever, mentioned. Although it
must be accepted that these accounts are inevitably idealized, yet they
represent testimony from members of the royal family who are undoubt-
edly well versed in the traditions of royalty, and who keep alive these
traditions as family lore. According to such persons, the heir apparent
was selected by the King from among his sons on the basis of his
judgment as to which of them would make the best ruler, and the
crown prince was proclaimed as such after the King's choice had been
made. He took up his residence in a vast compound, especially erected
for him by his father in the city of Abomey, or in other compounds
near Kana and Allada whence the court repaired from time to time.
The crown prince was accorded the respect due his station, but as
far as can be ascertained either from accounts of the natives or of
contemporary observers, he had little to say in the management of
the kingdom.2 On the death of his father, if there was no organized
opposition to him, he took over the rule. However, in discussing the
best friend of the King, it was maintained that when summoned to
tell the will of the deceased regarding his heir, he might set aside the
crown prince in favor of a later choice, secretly made by the dead
monarch. In such an event, however, it was freely conceded that
only one result would obtain, namely, that internal strife would com-
,mence at once. Nor was the word of a best friend concerning another
heir to the throne essential to such a condition of internal strife on the
death of a monarch. Again and again, in the historical accounts,
descriptions are encountered of how a new King was compelled, to
make good his position, which was hotly contested by one of his
brothers. Indeed, this situation may be regarded as inescapable in
a question of succession to the throne of an absolute monarch with
as many wives as had the Dahomean kings. Every wife coveted the
the kingship for her own son, and the countless intrigues and conspir-
acies made for serious disorders when the succession was at stake.
A first-hand account of such an occurrence is had from Norris, who
1 pp. 4-5.
2 The best descriptions of a crown prince are those in Skertchly, passim, of
Hahansu, who was to reign under the name of Behanzin, and who was one
of Skertchly's closest native friends.
tells how one of the brothers of Tegbesu disputed his claim to the
throne, after the death of Agadja:
"Tamegan and Mayhou having determined on their choice, an-
nounced Trudo's death and proclaimed Ahadee king: by which deter-
mination, his elder brother Zingah finding his hopes disappointed, and
himself aggrieved by the loss of an inheritance, with the expectation of
which he had flattered himself; sounded privately the disposition of
his friends. On applying secretly to those upon whom he had conferred
favors in his father's lifetime, he received assurance, of numbers being
willing to espouse his cause; and he began to concert measures to
surprise his brother, and seize the government either by stratagem or
force. Ahadee however, got intelligence of his design; Zingah, and the
principal conspirators were seized, just on the point of taking up arms
to assert his claim; Zingah was sewed up in a hammock at Abomey, in
which he was carried to Whydah, where he was put into a canoe, and
taken about two leagues out at sea, and there thrown overboard and
drowned. The law of the country does not allow the sacred blood of the
royal family to be shed, but appoints this punishment for their offen-
ces: such was the end of Zingah, and all his adherents were put to
It did not always occur, however, that death was the fate of the sup-
pressed rebels, for native tradition, at least, holds that slavery was a
more likely fate. This is understandable, since there was hesitancy
dictated by fear of the ancestors, on the part even of an enraged
monarch to murder his brothers, a hesitancy that was encouraged by
a desire for the wealth to be gained from the disposal of the rebel
and his followers to slave-dealers. It will be seen later2 how this practice
of selling rebellious members of the royal house into slavery is recognized
in the royal ancestral rites.3
When the heir apparent had made good his claim to the throne,
it was no light task to displace him; in fact, in the long history of the
Dahomean monarchs, Gezo alone successfully disputed the throne
with a brother who had taken it over. In this case, however, Gezo
deposed a ruler who because of great cruelty was thoroughly hated
by his subjects.
Contemporary accounts all stress the absolutism of the rule of a
King once securely on the throne, and only one observer has noted
1 pp. 5-6. 2 pp. 63-65.
3 The significance of this manner of disposing of recalcitrant members of the
royal family, for an understanding of the type of persons sold into slavery,
has gone almost completely unrecognized by those who have studied slavery
in the New World. Yet it is of first importance for an understanding of the
leadership which was exerted by men of position among the slaves as a
mechanism for the perpetuation of Africanisms in the New World.
Pillows representing the insignia of three kings and (upper right-hand)
a) The tomb of Behanzin.
b) Inside the tomb; the women in the picture are Behanzin s widows, and
the one on the left is in a corresponding position in the framed picture
seen in the foreground.
THE KING AND HIS COURT
that sufficient power was held by any of his officials to influence the
monarch's decisions. Commenting on an audience with King Gezo,
"Having shaken hands, we became seated, and the ministers rose
from their degrading and disgusting position to take their actual
station, without whose concurrence the king cannot act. It is extra-
ordinary that while the miegan and the mayo wallow in the mud in the
royal presence, they have, if united, actually more power than their
In all other descriptions of the Dahomean monarch, the subservience
accorded him.by all of his officers, whatever their rank, is emphasized.
Thus Forbes himself states:
"In the royal presence no rnk is free from prostration, and the
throwing dirt on the head, except white men, and a certain class of
necromancers, who regulate sacrifices to divert epidemics, and other
evils: these people wear hats, and only bow to the throne. The liber-
ated Africans and returned slaves are considered as white men; and
while the king's ministers are prostrate in the dust they merely bow. In
the royal presence none may smoke but white men: and in the pre-
cincts of the palace, or the grand Fetish houses, none but whites may
remain covered, and none may be carried or ride, or be shaded by an
umbrella, unless by the king's permission. If the king's stick be shown,
all bow down and kiss the dust except the bearer, who is exempt."2
Besides prostration in the dust,3 there were numerous other types
of ritual behavior in recognition of the kingly rank. Thus, no matter
how exalted his position, no Dahomean would appear before the King
with his shoulders covered;4 he could not wear sandals or shoes, nor
could he wear a hat or smoke, and he could seat himself only on the
ground, not on a stool. All the details of court etiquette are as rigidly
observed today as during the monarchy, and may be witnessed in the
compounds of the chiefs who are members of the royal family and who
rule their quarters of the city of Abomey or the larger districts allotted
to them under the supervision of European officials. In his own
compound, such a chief is treated as a petty king, and more than one
informant who himself enjoyed these marks of respect from those
not of the royal family or those of lesser rank, removed his shoes and
sat on the ground, or moved about on his knees when in the presence
1 Vol. i. pp. 82-83. 2 Vol. i, pp. 24-25.
3 See above, vol. i, p. 327, for a description of this manner in which Dahomeans
still prostrate themselves before a superior.
4 Cf. Burton, vol. i, p. 251, for his comments on those who "by a mere caprice
of the King" were exempt from some of these restrictions.
of a brother, a father's brother, or a father who represented the head
of his extended family and in whom was vested the power of chief.
The awe in which the King was held extended to everything ap-
'pertaining to him. A royal sceptre in the hands of a messenger was
carefully covered with a cloth; when uncovered before those to whom
the message was sent, it was received with all the ceremonial of the
actual presence of the King. Burton1 describes these royal sceptres,
and, together with all others who visited the kingdom in the days
of its autonomy, testifies to the homage paid these on all occasions.2
The King's messengers constituted a special group. In the literature
these are termed "half-heads" and none dared but expedite their way
when they were delivering the royal word. M'Leod has described them
in the following terms:
"There are entertained about the court a number of king's mes-
sengers, called Halfheads, because one side of their heads is always
shaved whilst the hair on the other is allowed to grow to its full length.
They are men who have distinguished themselves in battle, and wear
as the badge of their office, strings of the teeth of those enemies they
have actually killed with their own hands, slung round their necks, like
the collar of an order.
"These extraordinary looking couriers when sent on any mission,
are never permitted to walk, but run at full speed, and are relieved at
certain distances on the road, by relays of others, who push on in the
same manner on receiving their orders, which they transfer from one
to the other with the greatest exactness.
"When carrying a message to any European at the forts of Grigwee,
they repair first to the Yavougah (or in his absence, to the next in
command), who instantly accompanies them to the individual, be it
even at midnight, or the subject itself ever so unimportant; and, as
they come in great bustle, serious alarm is apt to be excited, more
especially when enemies are known to be in the vicinity, for it is impos-
sible at once to judge from the tumultous noise about the gate whether
the visitors are friends or foes."3
Burton testifies to the speed with which the "half-heads" travelled
and the care they took to arrive at their destination at the earliest
possible moment, stating that "these messengers had walked from the
capital (to Whydah) in three days"-a distance of ninety miles.4
In similar manner, the King's wives enjoyed extraordinary privileges
and the difficulties which those about Abomey or Kana encountered,
1 Vol. i, pp. 77-78 and p. 122. 2 Cf. Skertchly, p. 147. 3 pp. 42-43.
4 Vol. i, p. 76. He adds, "Though fire would not have made them own it, they
THE KING AND HIS COURT
if the court were at these places, or about Allada, if the King was
sojourning there, because of the right of way granted these women,
is another recurring theme in the contemporary accounts. Duncan
writes of this:
"From this period till my march for the Kong Mountains, I passed
my time heavily, rarely taking any exercise, on account of the ridicu-
lous custom of being obliged to turn out of the road if any of the King's
wives should meet you. They are in all parts of the town and neigh-
bourhood, employed on different domestic occupations, but principally
in carrying food in immense gourds or calabashes on the head, con-
taining provisions for the King's ministers and principal men, who
although they live in their own houses with their families, yet are all
furnished with food by the King, which is prepared in the palace.
"The approach of the King's wives is always announced by the
ringing of a small bell, which is carried by a female servant or slave,
who invariably precedes them. The moment this bell is heard all
persons, whether male or female, turn their backs, but the males must
retire to a certain distance. In passing through the town this is one of
the most intolerable nuisances."'
These matters of strictly regulated conduct, which signalized the
subservience to the royal master, were but a reflection of the-power
he wielded over the lives of his subjects. As observed, all hi were
appointed by him, even the dokpwigy, whose place was hereditary.2
Bur-rfdn and Skertchly4 both tell of the elevation of a chosen candidate
to an important position, the former describing the installation of the
ajaxo, the sixth most important post in the realm, the latter that
of a new ga6, or army chief. Dahomeans at the present time insist
that the King exercised an arbitrary choice in selecting appointees
to high office. An instance of this, already encountered, was in the
description of the marriage of a princess, when the man chosen as
bridegroom was said often to have been elevated to a chieftainship.5
In the case given by Burton, he remarks that the one elevated was
called forward and raised to his exalted rank "to the wonderment
of all," while Skertchly provides an example of the manner in which
Glele imposed a veto on the nominee put forward by his Prime
Minister, appointing instead the candidate of the Mei.6 Forbes simi-
1 Vol. i, pp. 257-258.
2 See above, vol. i, pp. 66ff., for a description of the ceremony of accession to
office of this official. 3 Vol. i, pp. 243ff.
4 pp. 347-349. Skertchly also describes (p. 200) the creation of a number of
"junior caboceers." 5 See above, vol. i, p. 333. 6 Loc. cit.
larly tells of the appointment of a new Yovog4 at the will of the mon-
/ As with any despot, the infraction of any rule of the monarch,
however unreasonable, or any wish of his, however whimsical, was
severely punished. Even the highest officials were not exempt from
this. Burton describes a case where some of the important officials
had failed to arrive earlier at a ceremony than the European visitor.
"The recreant ministers spent the night under sheds at the King's
gate, being forbidden to enter their homes... This exile continued till
5 p. m. of the next day (Jan. 9th), when royalty was induced to relent
by a storm of thunder and rain, the latter falling in peculiar spurts
like jets of heavy drops. Agbwejekon, however, the only caboceer who
did his duty, was temporarily rewarded with precedence, and was
publicly presented with a fine cloth, a wife, and ten heads of cowries.
Next time the chiefs will not be outwitted: they will pass the whole
night in the square."2
Control over his officials was exercised by the King not only during
their life but in death, as is apparent in the following excerpt from
"This morning, outside the gate of our quarters at Wagon, guarded
by about thirty musketeers, were the bodies of two deceased caboceers,
one from Whydah, the other from Gohdohmeh. It is the custom of
Dahomey that the bodies of all officers that die shall be sent for
interment to Abomey, for the following reasons: -
"1st. That the king has a sure report of the decease.
"2nd. That the official positions are mostly held by Abomey people,
and all have ancestral houses in the city, in which there is invariably
a family tomb."3
Even in the case of lesser persons, death had to be established by an
impartial official to the satisfaction of the monarch:
"Curious to say, there is in barbarous Dahome a coroner's inquest
after every death. The kings, who here monopolize murder, hearing
that many masters killed their slaves, established in all the towns
'Gevi,' or officers charged with controlling the abuse. When a death is
reported they must inspect the body; and their fee for certifying a
natural death is a head and a half of cowries."4
Through the medium of his chiefs, the King held close-sentrol
over happenings of all kinds in his domain. It will be seen, for example,
1 Vol. ii, pp. 72-73.
2 Vol. ii, p. 85. In this connection, reference is also made to a quotation from
M'Leod already given above (pp. 10-11).
3 Vol. ii, pp. 199-200.
4 Burton, vol. ii, p. 107.
THE KING AND HIS COURT
what measures were taken to insure his knowing the number of people
available for his wars, and how he was apprised of vital statistics
that he might check his population resources at frequent intervals.1
In other aspects of the life of the kingdom, his influence was equally
felt. All sib-heads had to be confirmed by him, and even the heads
of collectivities passed his scrutiny. The inheritance of all property-
certainly where any degree of wealth was involved-was validated
through his court. Finally, his control extended to the religious groups
as well as the secular ones, for he dictated the number of cult houses,
regulated the location of some of them, notably of the Earth cult, and
subordinated the priesthood to his wishes, using them to instil political
docility in the cult devotees.
The ceremonial which surrounded his life and served to exact for
him that reverence and fear which existed in the minds of his subjects
was carried on by his large court entourage. The membership of the
King's court may be divided as follows: first, the crown prince and
other members of the royal family-collateral relatives of the King and
their children; next the chief officials and their subordinates; then
the wives and children of the King himself; and finally, the army.
Of the crown prince, there is only little to be said. -He lived-alife
of luxury, being granted large revenues and numerous wives. by his
father; He apparently figured only subortti~i ely, if at all, in the
ceremonialism of the court, and little is heard of him in the accounts
of travellers. The only indication in the literature that the crown
prince entered into the ceremonial of the court is contained in the
"Gelele then descended from his station on the platform, and seated
himself on a sofa beneath several large umbrellas which had been set
up to the proper left of a small platform that had hitherto escaped my
observation, or more probably, had only been erected since yesterday.
"This smaller Attoh was a miniature of Gelele's, but without the
victim-shed and the calico covering. Hahansu [the crown prince] and
the other princes of the blood then ascended this platform and threw
a few cowries to the people, and concluded by throwing over four
ducks, two goats and a sheep, which were tied to baskets in a similar
manner to the human victims. The heads of these animals were then
cut off; and a few bunches of cowries tied in blue cloth being thrown
to the people, two guns were fired, thus bringing the Attoh for the
princes to a termination happily without the crime of murder attached
1 See below, pp. 72ff.
2 Skertchly, pp. 376-377.
SOn his accession to the throne, he took over full title to his rank only
after he had performed the grand customs for the ghost of his father
and had been enstooled in Allada, where all Dahomean kings had to
go to be confirmed in their sovereignty. As crown prince, h partici-
pated in the wars waged by his father, thouglihit-w-agnly as a sub-
ordinate commander; often, too, he was placed-under the-Titelage
of a chief who taught him the ritual and administration of the office
he was to assume. As stated, he was not necessarily the eldest son
of the King, nor, as is found elsewhere in Africa, the child of the
King's first wife. His selection was arbitrary and, at most, it can only
be said that he was usually the child of a favorite wife of his father.
It was not even necessary that the crown prince be the son of a
Dahomean woman, and at least one member of the royal family
maintained that several of the kings were sons of slave women. The
logic that had dictated their selection was that for a captive to become
a favorite of the King argued a rich endowment of good looks, intel-
ligence and prudence, and that consequently, her children should also
be well endowed.
The royal sib included a vast number of persons, as it still does;
so large, indeed, that it had seemed as though in the city of Abomey
at least, it would be difficult to find Dahomeans who were not des-
cended from royalty, either in the male or female line.1 The members
of the the royal family were freed of many prohibitions that governed
the life of ordinary folk, and this held particularly for those who had
some special claim to favor from the ruler. Thus, as has been indicated,
the ordinary incest rules which strictly forbid endogamiiTsib mating
did not apply to princes and princesses, and "incest" was, as it still
is, the right of those having royal blood, cousin marriages being
frequent among members of the ruling sib. Uninhibited sex relations
were particularly enjoyed by women descended from royalty. Of
the large group of women, free in every sense of the term--economically,
socially, and above all, sexually-the princesses comprised the major
portion. If married, they might divorce their husbands at will; but
married or unmarried, they took what lovers they wished. Not the
least element in their power arose from the fact that they exerted
their charms on the influential members of the royal sib and the King's
SIt will be remembered that descent from either parent was sufficient to
constitute a child a member of the royal sib, in spite of the prevailing patri-
lineal character of Dahomean social organisation, since it was felt that the
royal blood could not be permitted to flow into other strains.
THE KING AND HIS COURT
counselors, and this powerful support rarely failed to extricate them
from any unpleasant consequences which their intrigues might bring
The men of the royal sib, however, knew definite bounds for their
exercise of personal power, and these were rigidly- deaIited.1 No
member of the royal family might hold high office or serve-as an
important chief. Tradition holds strongly that no King ever appointed
a prince to any position of power.2 The reason given for debarring
members of the royal family from offices of influence was simple
enoughy-had a brother of the King been appointed to an important
post," his desire for power, thus whetted, might have tempted him
to cas fenvious eyes on the throne itself, while his office would have
given him an opportunity to gain the adherence of the King's subjects
in the interest of intrigue with other chiefs and conspiracy. Good
judgment also prompted the realistic view that the King's absolute
control of all offices in his kingdom, and his power to assign these at
will among commoners whom he could ennoble by raising to chief-
tainships, would assure to the throne the greatest loyalty.
The members of the royal sib, who comprised the court of the King,
thus played essentially a parasitic rdle. They lived lives of pleasure,
often stimulating their jaded senses by sexual excesses. They were
an undoubted burden on the economic and social resources of the
country, which as time went on became more and more serious due to
the constant increase in their number. This does not mean that all
those who bore the title "prince" or "princess" held positions of
equal importance within the royal sib. The princely rank of a person
whose direct line of descent was from an early King such as Agadja,
Tegbesu, or Agongolo was more of a courtesy than anything of real
importance in his life. The more recent the King from whom descent
was counted, the more important the position of the prince, and today
it is the immediate descendants of Glele who are regarded as of the
first rank among royalty.3
1See Le Heriss6, pp. 32-37, for a discussion of the place of the princes in
2 It is to be doubted whether this rule was unfailingly followed, for several of the
contemporary observers of the Dahomean kingdom remark the fact that
on occasional officer was a brother of the King. However, none of these cases
involved the holding of one of the major positions, such as Med, Mli3ga,
Yovog4, or the like.
3 Behanzin is not counted in this computation of rank for several reasons, the
most important of which is that some of his brothers, that is, Glele's sons,
are still alive. Since he was defeated by the French before any of his own
children were old enough to be persons of consequence, and since, also, the
Those who ranked after the King politically, then, were the ap-
pointed officials, the gbonugO, or as they are usually termed in the
literature, the "caboceers."1 Le Herisse names seven, who were of
the highest rank,2 giving them in the following order: Mijgg Mefi,
YovogA, Adjaho, Sog4, Tokp6, and Akplog4. He does not, however,
detail the subordinates of each with the same care as Burton, whose list,
though not as extensive, comprising only four names, includes the
minor officials under each of the important officers he considers.3
The literature contains a number of other lists of gbonug4 encountered
at the King's court, the most extensive of these being that of Forbes,4
whose phonetic rendition, however, is such as to make identification
of them extremely difficult. He lists two hundred and ninety-six
Dahomean officials who received the royal bounty at one of the
"customs," exclusive of the King's brother, the "people from Dekkon,"
and the fifty-eight caboceers whom he groups without naming. His
list, which also gives the amount in dollars received by each gbonug4,
shows that the largest grants were to the Mijga, the Med, and the
Yovog4 (Ee-a-voo-gan), which places him in agreement with Burton
and Le Heriss6 as to the rank of these three. His fourth, called Ah-
quea-noo, is an official it has not been possible to identify by this name,
though it seems by inference that he may have been the treasurer.
These chief officials-certainly the first three-held offices established
in very early times. Norris speaks of them,5 mentioning .inMaddition
ga6 (spelled by him agaow), the commander-in-chief of the army,
Yovog4 (euvagah) whom he correctly terms viceroy of Whydah,
and Jahou, the So-gan of Burton, "master of the horse." M'Leod,
obviously quoting Norris, repeats the above, and Forbes gives concur-
ring testimony which, however, goes somewhat more deeply and more
correctly into the position held by the first two officials of the kingdom
than do those who wrote before him.6 Skertchly's account of their
duties is, however, the most useful:
other sons of Glele, who under the regime of the last of the monarchs had been
relegated to the rank of the princely relations who might not wield power,
found it to their advantage to offer their services to their conquerors, it is
their sons who today hold high rank as chiefs of cantons and quarters under
the French, rather than the sons of Behanzin who held aloof longest from the
conquerors. One of Behanzin's sons, however, today heads one of the cantons
1 This term, which has been used to denote officials on the West coast of Africa
from very early times, is derived from the Portuguese. 2 pp. 39-45.
3 Vol. i, pp. 147-153. Skertchly's list, pp. 444-446, is similar to that of Burton.
4 Vol. ii, pp. 243-248. 6 pp. 85-86, quoted by Dalzel, pp. 120-121.
6 Vol. i, pp. 22-23.
THE KING AND HIS COURT
"The prime-minister of Dahomey, field-marshal, and war captain-
in-chief, is the Ningan. He is also the chief magistrate, superintendent
of police, and executioner for Gelele. He holds no communication with
visitors to the king unless they are created Bonugan, or war captains,
and he has no dealings with any civil business whatever. War alone is
his province, and trade palavers are far below his dignity and consider-
ation. All captives taken in war are put under his charge. The Ningan
is the only officer who has the privilege to talk 'Lion mouth', that is, to
address his Majesty of Dahomey with the prefix 'Aiah,' an onomato-
poetic word supposed to resemble a lion's roar. He invests all newly
made officers with their robes, and is the supreme judge in all cases
that do not go before the king.
"All these high dignitaries have deputies, and the Ningan's assistant
is the Biwanton, a tall, fine fellow, who conducted us through the
"The commander of the second division of the right wing is the
Gaou, whose appointment has been described. His deputy is the
Matro, a half-brother to Gelele, by the same father but a different
mother. All these officers have corresponding 'mothers' among the
Amazons, who take precedence of their male coadjutors.
"On the left wing, the second minister in the realm is the Meu,
whose office is anything but a sinecure. He is the officer under whose
care all visitors to the court are placed, the executer of Addokpon's
victims, and the collector of all revenues, which he hands over to the
treasurer or Benazon. The present officer is a shrewd little man, very
different to the childish imbecile who filled the office in Burton's time.
The Adonejan is the deputy of the Meu, who is the 'English landlord'
and engineer-in-chief to the palaces.
"The corresponding officer to the Gaou is Kposu, a young man who
is extremely fond of appearing in court with a calico coat of European
cut covering his naked back. His deputy is the Ahwegbamen."1
No attempt will be made here to detail the numerous other officials
who composed the King's court, for, as has already been remarked,
this phase of native life has attracted more attention than any other,
and the works of Burton, Skertchly, and Le Heriss6 will be found to
contain information which allows a reconstruction of the life and
organisation of the court to be made.
These officers had seats removed from the capital as well as re-
sidences at Abomey. That of the Yovog4 at Whydah has been mentioned,
but all of the other principal officers had large compounds in Kana
and Allada as well as in Abomey, and furthermore maintained their
own houses in important stopping-places along the more frequently
travelled roads where it might be necessary for them to remain over
1 pp. 444-445. See also pp. 140-141, for a description of these officers and their
subordinates at a state reception.
night. An official of consequence was the King's diviner, and Burton
has drawn a picture of the royal bokl6n on the march:
"The Buko-no was habited in the usual 'Chokoto', or little drawers,
with a long shirt about his body, and a black-ribboned Panama hat.
His escort of thirty-three retainers was that of a Dahoman noble on a
journey, and the common people on the road knelt and clapped palms
as he passed. He was preceded by nine musketeers, who danced and
sang the whole way with unwearied energy. His fetish stick was
carried before him in a calico etui by a man in a long white cap like
the extinguisher-shaped nightgear of our ancestors. The Buko-no rode
under the shade of a large white umbrella, and was closely followed by
his axe man, who gave orders as one having authority. The train was
brought up by the band, chiefly boys, with three drums, a couple of
tom-toms, two single cymbals, and a pair of gourd rattles: they kept
up a loud horrid noise throughout the march. About a dozen carriers
were scattered about the cortege bearing a pipe and tobacco bag, a Gold
Coast chair, a footstool and calabashes, and bundles of clothes and
The same author has given a description of the life of one of these
officials in the capital:
"The Senior sets out on his nag, with his suite, to the palace, at
six or seven every morning. He squats or stretches himself, dozing,
smoking, chatting, eating, and drinking, in one of the outside sheds,
ready to be summoned at a moment's notice within. Sometimes, but
rarely, he revisits his house for an hour about noon, when he barri-
cades the door, and is not 'at home.' The post meridional are spent
like the morning hours, and he is rarely dismissed before dark, often
not till deep in the night. These people seem hardly to take natural
rest; the drum and the dance may be heard at his quarters until dawn,
and he declares that if this mode of life were changed he should fall
ill. Like the Dahoman dignitaries in general, he must be sober, under
pain of 'king's palaver.' He cannot be said to have an hour's liberty,
or to be his own master for a day, whilst the King is in the city. He
leads the life of the East Indian Dhobi's dog, 'Nar ghar ka, na ghat
ka.'2 Such is the routine of a Dahoman noble. What an existence to
As long as he retained favor of the King and held his office, the
opportunities for enrichment and power available to each of the
more important Dahomean officials were by no means inconsiderable.
These men had the ear of the King, and those who had favors to ask
of the monarch did well to see that their suit was seconded in the
1 Vol. i, pp. 186-187.
2 (Note by Burton): "A washerman's dog, neither of the house nor of the
ghaut" (where the master washes). 3 Burton, vol. i, pp. 223-224.
THE KING AND HIS COURT 43
proper quarters; to what advantage may be seen in the reports of
all those who visited the later kings with the end in view of inducing
them to give up the slave-trade. Being always with the King, the great
chiefs could mold his opinion, and their position was thus secure unless
they were detected in some act of disloyalty. Yet the King's definition
of "disloyalty" was difficult to interpret and at any time the most
unwitting offence might bring a chief into serious trouble, as the
following incident recounted by Skertchly, indicates:
"After an hour of this sport, 'Ahgo' was called, and the Benazon
summoned. Contrary to the usual custom in such cases-when the
name of the officer is scarcely out of the king's lips ere the customary
answer of 'Wae' is made, and the person asked for is seen running to
the king-Benazon did not put in an appearance. His name was
called out by the heralds, and at last a messenger was despatched to
his house to make inquiries.
"The king then made a speech, and said that it was not a good thing
for a monarch to ask for any person and find that he was not in the
presence; everybody ought to wait and see if the king wanted them.
In about ten minutes the delinquent treasurer made his appearance
with his hands bound before him, hurried along by two of the Ajkaya-
ho's guards. When he approached the platform he fell on his knees,
and began to throw dust on his head. The king then asked where he
had been. He said that he had been home preparing his house for the
princess whom the king had promised him in marriage. Thereupon
the king ordered him to be taken to prison, and this high dignitary was
hurried off as if he were one of the rabble, and ignominiously thrust
into the Ajkayaho's goal. The law in Dahomey evidently knows no
distinction of persons.
"The king then said that he should not give his daughter to any man
who had not respect enough to him to wait in the court until the king
left it. It then cropped up that Benazon had asked permission of the
king to retire, and a new palaver arose to find out the Dahkro who
ought to have given the king the message, and who had evidently given
the Benazon a false reply. This, however, was a matter for the 'inside'
and not to be spoken before the canaille."1
Despite his capriciousness, however, the King was not without a
realization of the importafice of riaving-thiIeYi ole-hearted-support
of these men whom he had elevated to positions of rank. Testimony
of the present members of the royatfam~'niiidicates clearly that it
was a rash King who consistently flaunted the advice of his Miagg
and Mef. Thus, while the final word was undoubtedly with the King
im any question to be decided, ithe offical1s cort actuaiyJ
constituted an important check on his absolutism in the extent to which
1 p. 375.
he relied on their counsel and followed their advice. The atmosphere
of the Dahomean court, however, was always one of suspicion, intrigue,
and jockeying for position. No one was completely trusted and the
mechanism of control was lodged, to a very great extent, in the next
group of persons who formed the immediate entourage of the monarch,
the women of the royal household.
Inside the walls of his compound, the Dahomean King possessed
a complete counterpart of the officialdom of his kingdom. While
most of the travellers from the early nineteenth century on were
conversant with this fact, Burton was the first to recognize its full
importance, speaking again and again of the "she Mingan" or the
"she Mehu" or characterising the counterpart of a male official as his
"At the Court of Dahome every man must have at least one mother,
and she may be twenty years his junior. The King's actual parent
is now alive; when she departs, he must supply her place by selection.
For each monarch in the dynasty there is, as will be seen, an old
woman mother. The 'mothers' of the high officials are the corres-
ponding honours. For instance, the she-Min-gan is popularly called
the 'he-Min-gan's mother.' Many have two 'mothers,' an old one for
the last, and a young one for the present reign. Visitors communicate
with the 'mothers' of their several nations. As will be seen, 'mothers'
is the official title of the 'Amazons'-hence the custom."2
A few sentences from Forbes summarize the atmosphere of the court
that resulted from the system of espionage in vogue:
"No office under government is paid, and the offices, although
hereditary, are subject to much espionage. In the house of each
minister lives a King's daughter and two officers: these superintend
the minister's trade, on which he pays tribute according to their
report. If a dispute arises in which the King's interest is at stake, these
officers report direct; and if the dispute is serious, the minister is
arrested or fined. The whole system is one of espionage, cunning, and
intrigue; and no man's head is safe on his shoulders for twenty-four
1 For example, see vol. ii, pp. 2-3.
2 Burton, vol. i, pp. 213-214, note 2. In this connection, the numerous references
in Skertchly to the manner in which he always looked to his "dahkro," a
woman invariably with the monarch when he was at court, for instructions
in court etiquette and especially for permission to leave a ceremony, are to
3 Vol. i, pp. 34-35. A consideration of the manner in which the women of the
court kept check on the officials of the kingdom given above in some
detail in connection with the discussion of the fiscal policy of the monarchy
(vol. i, pp. 110-111), may here be recalled.
THE KING AND HIS COURT
In theory, alLwDamenz.eweeat-the-pleasure--the-King. Any woman
of his realm to whom he took a fancy, whether unmarried, betrothed,
or married, could be taken by him and placed in the royal harem.
Fantastic accounts of the numbers of wives married to the potentate
have been handed down; speaking in round numbers, the Daho-
mean informant ordinarily mentions several thousand,1 while every
European who visited the capital from the time of Bullfinch Lambe,
comments on the size of the King's harem. Lambe's description, a
part of his plea that a white or mulatto woman be sent the King to aid
in facilitating his escape from Abomey, includes the following account
of the number of wives in the King's household and the manner
in which they were treated:
"As to any one's coming, they need not fear his using any Compul-
sions, having at least two Thousand wives, which he maintains beyond
any Black King; and suffers them to do nothing but for his own Use
in his own House, or Palace, which is as big as a small Town. And
when one Hundred and Sixty, or two Hundred of them goes with little
Pots for water, they one Day wear rich Silk Waist-cloaths, called
Arse-Clouts; another Day they all wear Scarlet Cloaths with three or
four large Strings of coral about their Necks, and their Leaders some-
times in Crimson, sometimes in Green, and sometimes Blue Velvet
Cloaths, with Silver-gilt Staffs in their Hands, like Golden Canes."2
It was not necessary for a King's wife to be a Dahomean, for the
women who pleased him among the captives taken in war were also
made members of his household, often becoming his favorite and most
Obviously, a normal sexual life was not possible to anyone in a-
situation of this sort. There were women who were close to the King
and who lived with him more or less constantly, while others served his
pleasure but once or twice in their lives, or not at all. For these the
choice was celibacy or adultery, and the last was punished with death
for the men as well as the women. This made for embittered jealousies
among the women, and offered fertile ground for intrigue. In the main,
it was the younger, more attractive women who surrounded the King,
though this does not necessarily mean that a woman was discarded
when she lost her youthful attractiveness. If she impressed the monarch
with her trustworthiness or her intelligence, she would be assigned
to keep a check on one of the King's officers. As has been shown, she
1 The inaccuracy of Dahomean estimates, especially where large numbers
involving prestige is concerned, must always be remembered.
2 Quoted from Smith, pp. 183-184.
-..-'' would be present whenever this official made a report, and it would be
her duty to remember carefully all that had been said so that if
from period to period his reports did not tally, any illegal diversion
of revenue he might attempt would be detected by her, and reported
in time to prevent serious defalcation.
JlAn. he main the women_of the- King's-honsehold.-were-divided into
four categories. There were first of all the wives, properly speaking,
including those who at a given time were living with the King or had
lived with him. In the second place were the "Amazons," in the third
the female slaves, while the fourth group comprised the older women
of the household. The Amazons were women warriors who, while
legally regarded as the King's wives, were really those women who
for some reason or other came under the control of the King, but whom
he did not desire because of their lack of personal attractiveness. An
Amazon woman was one who, being strong and muscular, and not
exhibiting those qualities regarded by the Dahomeans as properly
feminine, would be recruited into the battalions of female warriors.
Much has been written about these women, who were unique in
Africa and whose regiments have been reported since early times.
They will be discussed somewhat more in detail when the organisation
of the army is considered; here it need only be said that the Amazons
were expected to remain virgins while serving in this capacity; and
wereseverelypumished if found intriguing with a person of the other
sex. The penalty for the man in such a case was death, but that the
rule of chastity was observed at least as much in the breach as other-
wise is evident from the joking remark of Dahomeans that "probably
more soldiers met death because they scaled the wall into the quarters
of the Amazons than at the hand of the enemy." The account of
an eye-witness to the judging of an affair of Amazonian unchastity
may be quoted:
"It appears that several of the Akhosusi, or King-wives, as the
Amazons are called, were not satisfied with so nominal a husband as
Gelele, and had, therefore, committed themselves to the tender
embraces of some of the tabooed outsiders of the male sex. Perhaps
owing to the all-powerful effect of the Demen, or more probably in
consequence of a suspicious corpulence in the sinners, an investigation
into the matter had been made, and resulted in the conviction of
seventy-two Amazons of liaisons with some of his Majesty's lieges.
Eighty culprits were brought forward on the male side, and these 152
prisoners were now about to be tried for one of the most heinous crimes
they could be guilty of, and the punishment of which was death.
THE KING AND HIS COURT
"A palaver of three hours' duration, in which Gelele pointed out to
the court the ingratitude of his people after the care (?) he had man-
ifested towards them in making Custom for his father and in conduct-
ing them to victory. Nevertheless, he was willing to waive his right
to the lives of all the culprits, but justice must be satisfied. Four of the
principal offenders on each side were then singled out for punishment,
and the remainder were drafted into the gate-opening company of the
army, a corps exposed to the hottest fire and the brunt of the battle.
"The condemned were then bound and gagged, and their heads cut
off on the spot; there being no little rivalry among the soldiers as to
who should execute their comrades.
"The Amazonian prisoners were marched off to the 'inside,' and in
half an hour a messengeress arrived to give notice that the' dread
sentence of the law had been carried out. The pardoned roues then
knelt before the king, and copiously besmeared themselves with sand,
and then departed on a tour round the palace, a herald preceding them,
calling out their offence, and the king's clemency in pardoning them."'
The older women, mentioned above asthe fourth. gou.heLhigd gh
placirerthe royal compounds. Besides the mother of the King and his
gradmter, if o she were aliv&this group also included the women
who were in charge of the graves of the deceased monarchs, the
tqsio. The intimacy of the relationship between a man and his
mother has already been recounted.2 The King's official mother was,
however, a woman chosen for this r6le, and her duties were chiefly
The tqsino were likewise accorded great privileges. At the present
time, they are to be seen in the restored palace of the kings, staying
Always near the tombs of those whose mothers they represent, seeing
that the court-yard is spotless and that no unauthorized person comes
near the sacred resting places of the dead. Burton gives a description
of the old women who kept Gezo's grave. One of these was Gezo's
"mother," and the rest a number of his wives who were still living:
"Within the bamboos, women passed before the throne from left
to right, bowed to Gezo's ghost, and after prostrating to the King,
presented arms. First came a procession of eighteen Tansino, or fetish
women who have charge of the monarch's grave, -slow and solemn
old gipsies, in gold-trimmed broad-brim felts or white night-caps. They
were preceded by bundles of matting, eight large stools, calabashes,
pipes, baskets of water, grog, and meat, with segments of gourd, above
and below, tobacco bags, and similar commissariat articles; and they
were followed by a band of horns and rattles."3
1 Skertchly, pp. 359-360.
3 Vol. ii, pp. 1-2.
2 See above, vol. i, pp. 153-155.
Not only the Amazons, but all other women of the royal household,
were severely segrated from all men but their master.1 The only time
they could be seen by outsiders was on ceremonial occasions when,
for the most part, only the youngest and best looking of them were in
evidence. The kp8si-"wives of the leopard"-who formed the
immediate retinue of the King, were of this group, though in addition
there were those older women whose duties as members of the internal
bureaucracy made it necessary for them to appear. Burton describes
the manner in which these women attended to their royal husband:
"The 'Able-to-anything' cloth having been removed, the King
ascended the diwan by a five-rung ladder covered with calico, picked
out with pink reliefs. He was accompanied by four wives. One held
a parasol, which was repeatedly changed, and this she constantly
twirled. The second was the spittoon bearer, who also fanned the
King with a yellow silk kerchief, assisted by the more substantial hide
circles of other women who stood below and around the heap. The
other two opened and piled upon the diwan the green, blue, pink and
speckled muslins with which Gelele would 'change cloth to-day.' It
was waxing late, and royalty had become fatigued and impatient: the
King testily snatched the bundles from the hands of his wives, and
worked at them in double quick time."2
A similar scene can be observed today at any native ceremony where
a chief who is a member of the royal family appears. The solicitude
which the women show for their husband attests the extent to which
each wishes to be in his good graces, and speaks volumes concerning
the purely human situation which exists within the harem where
1 Two folk-tales were recorded, the moral of which was that no man must
touch one of the King's women. 2 Vol. i, p. 253.
THE CULT OF THE ROYAL ANCESTORS
Just as the King of Dahomey constituted a category apart in the
social whole that comprised the population of the kingdom, so the wor-
ship of the spirits of the dead kings was a thing apart from the
worship of any other category of ancestors. It has been seen how
the general class of tovod4 encompasses the nesixwd, the souls of the
princely dead. Over all these, in the world of the dead as in the world
of the living, the souls of the dead rulers of Dahomey hold their exalted
position. Their spiritual importance was reflected in the implicit
acknowledgment of their active collaboration with their living des-
cendant in the ruling of the kingdom. Thus their cult daily required
a sacrifice as a matter of routine thank-offering for the King's awakening
in health to the new day. When their advice was desired concerning
any matter of policy, or when a remedy was sought for some unfavor-
able condition in the kingdom, or when a campaign was to be launched
against an enemy, or when a crisis of any kind impended, sacrifices
proportionate to the issue at stake were made at the tombs that
marked their graves, and they were called upon to manifest their
wisdom and will. The most spectacular phase of the worship of the
dead kings, however, was in the great public annual "customs,"
which have been witnessed in part byn-many travellers,-and-in their
entirety by Burton and Skertchly, both of whom have left. long and
detailed accounts of them. The term "customs" itself, a word firmly
fixed in the literature, has been defined by Burton, who states:
"The word 'Custom' is used to signify the cost or charges paid to the
King at a certain season in the year. It is borrowed by us from our
predecessors on the West African Coast-the old French-who wrote
coutume, and the Portuguese costume, meaning habit or usage."'
Continuing, he enumerates the different types of customs which were
held, dividing these ceremonies into two categories, the "grand"
1 Vol. i, p. 228.
customs and the yearly ones.1 Of the grand customs, which are really
bhe' "d- fiitive" funeral ceremonies of a King, he speaks as follows:
"The Grand Customs are performed only after the death of a king.
They excel the annual rites in splendour and in bloodshed, for which
reason the successor defers them till he has become sufficiently wealthy.
The 'History'2 which was not written in the days of details, gives
cursorily some terrible accounts of the slaughter and of the barbarities
which accompanied it. 'In the months of Jan., Feb., and March (1791),
the ceremonies of the Grand Customs and of the King's coronation
took place; the ceremonies of which lasted the whole three months,
and were marked almost every day with human blood.' Captain
Fayrer, and particularly Mr. Hogg, Governor of Appolonia, were
present; and both affirm that not fewer than five hundred men,
1 Both Burton (vol. ii, pp. 58ff.) and Skertchly (pp. 270ff.) describe two kinds
of yearly customs, and, in this connection attribute to the King a dual role;
in one instance, he is Ahosu, the Town-King, while he is, at the same time,
Addokpon, the Bush-King. Skertchly (pp. 271-272) who gives the best
account of this dual r61e of the King, states the reason for it in the following
"So great a monarch as the king of Dahomey could never soil his hands
by commercial dealings; but since the wealth of the king and country
depended upon the sale of slaves and palm oil-the former being an
exclusive royal monopoly, and the greater part of the oil exported from
the country coming also from the king-how could these be sold without
demeaning the monarch to the position of a petty trader ? There was
the rub. Gezu surmounted this difficulty by the invention of the Bush
king, who could take all the onus of ignoble trade, leaving the true monarch
to rule over his subjects and spend his revenues. Gezu's 'double' was
called Gah-qpweh, the first two words of a short proverb, as most of the
Dahomean names, or rather titles, are, viz., Gah, market-day, qpweh,
coming; 'plenty of things will be there,' being understood as completing
the sentence. Addokpon, the alter ego of Gelele, is an egotistical strong
name. Addo, a yellow popo bead, imperishable by fire, kpon, look at it,
i.e., Behold the eternal.
"All the oil and palm kernels sold at Whydah are the produce of
Addokpon's plantations, but Gelele buys the rum, powder, and cloth;
a very convenient arrangement for getting a good name for spending
money, since Addokpon sells only, whereas the generous Gelele does
nothing but buy. Nevertheless at the Customs Gelele has by far the
largest share of tribute, Addokpon being put off with a very meagre
He also indicates how the Bush-King has all the officials which the Town-
"Addokpon has his Ningan, his Meu, and other officers like Akhosu,
the town king, besides a large establishment of Amazonian guards and
ministers. In short, he may be called the 'double' of the Akhosu, and
whatever is done for the king in public is thrice repeated; first for the
Amazons, then for Addokpon, and thirdly, for Addokpon's Amazons.
Visitors to the court are received by Akhosu, but it will be seen in a future
chapter that before I was permitted to visit the interior I had to be
received by Addokpon."
However, no indication of this dual rl6e and function of the King was given
in descriptions of the monarchy obtained from present-day Dahomeans in the
course of the field-work being reported here.
2i.e., Dalzel's work.
THE CULT OF THE ROYAL ANCESTORS
women, and children fell 'victims to revenge and ostentation, under
the show of piety. Many more were expected to fall; but a sudden
demand for slaves having thrown the lure of avarice before the King
he, like his ancestors, showed he was not insensible to its temptation.' "1
The yearly customs, which, as Burton correctly states, "were first
heard of by Europeans in the days of Agadja (1708-1727), although
they had doubtless been practised many years before him," he sub-
divides into two general types, the Atto and the So-sin, which occur
in alternate years.2 Skertchly, who witnessed both customs, gives the
most detailed list of the sub-divisions, tabulating four general "cus-
toms" each with five to seven special rituals, occurring on as many
The most dramatic aspect of the customsto the European observer
at least, was that ofhuman-saerifioe -E-Qbes describes in the following
words the victims to be offered:
"There was much to disgust the white man in the number of human
skulls and jaw bones displayed; but can the reader imagine twelve
unfortunate human beings lashed hand and foot, and tied in small
canoes and baskets, dressed in clean white dresses, with a high red
cap, carried on the heads of fellow-men.
"These and an alligator and a cat were the gift of the monarch to
the people-prisoners of war, whose only crime was that they were
of the nation of Attahpahm, which nation Dahomey had picked out
for destruction; and vae victims! These men were not soldiers, but
agriculturists, not living in the protection of a town, nor found under
arms, but discovered peaceably in possession of their farms; they had
seen the aged of their families murdered, and the young and strong
seized, and being chosen, were to become the sacrifices to the vitiated
appetites of the soldiers, made by the monarch, who, to show his
liberality, presented able-bodied, strong men as victims.
"When carried round the court, they bore the gaze of their enemies
without shrinking; at the foot of the throne they halted, while the
mayo presented each with a head of cowries, extolling the munificence
of the monarch, who sent it to them to purchase a last meal, for
tomorrow they were to die."4
Burton also has given us in somewhat greater detail an account of the
dress and deportment of the victims intended for the slaughter:
"In the turret and in the barn were twenty victims. All were seated
on cage stools, and were bound to the posts, which passed between
their legs; the ankles, the shins under the knees, and the wrists being
1 Vol. i, pp. 228-229. 2 Vol. i, pp. 230-231. 3 pp. 178-182.
4 Vol. ii, pp. 41-43.
lashed outside with connected ties. Necklaces of rope passing behind
the back, and fastened to the upper arms, were also made tight to the
posts. The confinement was not cruel; each victim had an attendant
squatting behind him, to keep off the flies; all were fed four times a
day, and were loosed at night for sleep. As will be shown, it is the
King's object to keep them in the best of humours.
"The dress of these victims was that of state criminals. They wore
long white nightcaps, with spirals of blue ribbon sewn on, and calico
shirts of quasi-European cut, decorated round the neck and down the
sleeves with red bindings, and with a crimson patch on the left breast.
The remaining garment was a loin-cloth, almost hidden by the 'camise.'
It was an ominous sight; but at times the King exposes without
slaying his victims. A European under the circumstances would have
attempted escape, and in all probability would have succeeded: these
men will allow themselves to be led to slaughter like lambs. It is, I
imagine, the uncertainty of their fate that produces this extraordinary
nonchalance. They marked time to music, and they chattered together,
especially remarking us. Possibly they were speculating upon the
chances of a pardon."'
That the number of those sacrificed at the annual customs was nothing
like as great as that which was claimed by those who did not carefully
investigate the matter is to be seen in reading the later literature on
Dahomey. Thus Burton states that in the So-sin customs of Abomey
(1863-1864) a total of thirty-nine were sacrificed.2 Skertchly's account
not only fails to indicate that any more were sacrificed during the
customs which he witnessed,3 but devotes some space to minimizing
the reports which earlier writers had circulated:
"A serious misconception has arisen with respect to these victims,
some reports having gone so far as to say that the king picks out the
required number from his subjects haphazard, or at best chooses those
whose influence might be...getting too great to be permitted....
Other accounts state that the victims are prisoners of war. That some
may be such is very probable.. .but with.. .few exceptions the
victims sacrificed at the Customs are criminals... Much of the horror
of this barbarous practise is therefore taken off when we consider that
nearly all the capital punishments inflicted in a year are carried out
during the Customs; and I doubt not that if we were to hang all our
murderers at one period of the year-say at Christmas-the list would
1 Vol. i, p. 233. This account is substantiated by that of Skertchly, pp. 189-191,
2 Vol. ii, p. 68. On p. 15, however, Burton states that the "presumed total ...
will be seventy-eight or eighty."
3 On p. 239, he notes thirty-six victims during the So-sin customs of 1871,
a figure which, however, should probably be doubled.
THE CULT OF THE ROYAL ANCESTORS
be as long a one as that of Dahomey. How long is it since human
crania were actually to be seen on Temple Bar ?"1
Since so much has been written concerning human sacrifice in
Dahomey, accounts given at the present time may throw light both
as to the amount of sacrifice and the reasons for it. Despite the
testimony in the quotations just cited, natives who speak of the
matter almost unanimously assert that large numbers of persons met
their death at the hands of the executioner, so that it is perhaps
possible that the recorded accounts only tell of the more spectacular
and public sacrifices. Every morning, as has been noted, the King,
it was said, asked the Mig42 for two slaves, a man and a woman,
whose spirits were sent to thank his ancestors for having permitted
him to awaken to a new day on earth. Before the door of the King's
compound were many hundreds of slaves, and if any kind of ceremony
demanded human victims, the required number of these slaves were
executed. According to royal Dahomeans who may, of course, have
exaggerated figures when speaking of past practices no longer possible
of execution, the King gave his ancestors ten or more slaves for any
ceremony of usual import. The greatest number were killed at the
death of a King who was said to require a sufficient retinue for the
next world to establish in miniature a replica of his kingdom. Thus
a dokpwigd, a representative of each army corps, a weaver, a smith,
a womn-rpotter, a cloth-worker, awood-carver, a farmer, and a man and
woman from each village in the kingdom were sacrificed. The agqntag, ,
the crier who officiated at his funeral, was also killed, while between
one hundred and two hundred of his wives were buried with him, as
well as all those who carried the coffin and one of the akovi who
officiated at his funeral ceremonies. Human sacrifices were likewise
offered whenever the King gave food to his ancestors, when he author-
ized a new market to be established, before he went to war, and on
his return from a campaign. Sacrifices were also made when a King's
palace was built, the heads of these persons being cut off and the blood
mixed with the earth of the palace walls. When a well was dug a man
and a woman were killed to ask permission of the earth to dig.
What were the reasons underlying this reckless waste of life ? These
become somewhat clarified when the questions of human sacrifices to
the gods, or of human offerings made by those other than the King
are investigated. For, when this is done, it becomes apparent at once
that private sacrifices of human beings, or human offerings to the
1 pp. 192-193. 2 Cf. Burton, vol. ii, p. 15.
deities of the Dahomean cult groups, were rarely made.1 One reason
given for this was the fact that any animal which is sacrificed to the
/ gods must be eaten, and in spite of the fact that Snelgrave and other
early writers report rumors of cannibalism, it is to be seriously doubted
whether the Dahomeans ever indulged, even ritually, in the eating
of human flesh.2 No prince had a right to sacrifice human beings;
certainly no ordinary man. Indeed, it was pointed out that though
there are men and women who practise evil magic and who have
charms which require human blood to kill, it was also unequivocally
stated that anyone other than the monarch who was found to have
sacrificed a human being-except in the few instances where a private
sacrifice of humans was authorized by the King-would himself be
beheaded and his possessions confiscated. These special exceptions for
private sacrifice are soon enumerated.
Occasionally, if an epidemic occurred in a given region, a man or a
woman, whichever the diviner stated was desired, might be trussed
and thrown into the bush. However, if someone wished to take the
evil on himself by releasing the victim, no action would be taken
against either the person who was released, or the one who had saved
him. Belief in the efficacy of the practice of offering a scapegoat was
so general, however, that such rescue was rare indeed. Human sacri-
fice was authorized when an aiz4 of an important sib or extended
family was established, the King permitting one man and one woman
to be given. When the aiz4 of a district was set up, authorisation was
obtained from the King to sacrifice two men and two women for it.
The case of a market aiz4 is somewhat different, for since the King
instituted all markets, the large number of those who were sacrificed
may be regarded as having been killed for the King himself. In the
case of sacrifices to the deities, there were also instances when human
sacrifices were made to the gods, but always with special permission
of the King. When a vodiy shrine was made,3 one man and one woman
were offered, for the skull and the jaw bone of this pair were needed
to give "force" to the vod4 that had been instituted. One man and one
woman were given annually at the temple of the Sky deities, situated
in the Djena quarter of Abomey, not far from the royal palace and
1 Two tales, each of which tells why human beings are no longer sacrificed to
the deity Da, were collected.
2 Cf. Skertchly's account, p. 367, of "the nearest approach to anthropophagy"
he witnessed-a ceremonial "eating" of the flesh of the sacrificed captives
at the Attoh customs.
3 See below, pp. 172-174, for details and significance of this.
THE CULT OF THE ROYAL ANCESTORS
within the walls of the palace of Tegbesu. This, however, again
partakes of a royal sacrifice, since tradition ascribes to the mother of
TEgbesu the bringing of the cult of the Sky gods to Abomey from Adjt.
As mother of the King, it was she who ordained these sacrifices. The
only other instance where human beings were killed for the gods was
on certain occasions when the King contemplated a war. If the royal
diviner so prescribed, a given deity was promised that if he brought
success to the enterprise, he would be well rewarded; on the return of
the army, if the campaign had been successful, a number of men,
perhaps ten, were killed.1 In addition, however, several hundred
would be offered to the spirits of the royal ancestors.
Thus human sacrifice is clearly seen to have been a royal prerogative.
In essence, indeed, it is to be regarded essentially as an economic
phenomenon. This may be best indicated by the-folelwing- raconing-
which reflects the Dahomean's point of view concerning the matter.
All persons sacrifice to the deities and to their ancestors on the proper
occasions. If a man is poor, he sacrifices beans and corn meal and
perhaps chickens to his ancestors; if in better circumstances, he
begins his sacrifices with these, with the knowledge that fortune is
capricious, and that, since a man never knows when he may be reduced
to giving the ancestors this humble fare, he deems it best not to allow
them to lose their taste for these. A wealthy commoner, however,
follows these initial sacrifices with a goat or a sheep; if he is a prince
or an important chief, he kills a bullock for his ancestors. The most
expensive "animal," however, was a human being, hence it was to
the richest and the most powerful person in the kingdom, the King,
to whom the right to make this costly sacrifice was reserved. Con-
cretely, the native reasoning may be rephrased in the following
manner; when any being, human or supernatural, devotes himself
to favoring the ventures of a man, that man must make known
his gratitude for such service. The tangible way of expressing such
gratitude is by gift-giving. Good form demands that a man give
according to his means. It follows, therefore, that whereas the destitute
man can only offer beans or corn or millet, and the poor man can add
to these only a chicken, a man of wealth can also offer sheep and
bullocks, while when "blood" offerings are required of a King, then
he must offer the costliest of all "blooded" creatures-human beings.
Thus the matter of human sacrifice, as viewed by the Dahomean,
resolves itself into another example of how in this culture the
1 These gods were most often Xsvioso, Lisa and Gi.
conspicuous utilisation of wealth offers a means for maintaining
It so happens that those ceremonies most often witnessed-often
against their will, it must be said-by the Europeans who came to
Dahomey during the reign of the native monarchs, were those which
entailed the greatest amount of human sacrifice. The absence of
accounts of rituals performed in honor of the gods or for the ancestors
of common folk is as conspicuous as is the richness of detail in the de-
scriptions of the royal "customs." This being the case, it is unnecessary
here to recount the native version of the ritual worship of the royal
ancestors, particularly since the period of field-work in Abomey did
not extend into late July and early August, when the attenuated
forms of the "customs" as practised at present might have been
witnessed. Needless to say, even as described by enthusiastic Daho-
means, the present-day ritual lacks much of the elaborateness that
characterized it when the monarchy functioned. Thus it is no longer
possible to station soldiers so close to each other that the "firing to
Whydah"--the sending of successive gun-shots from Abomey to
Whydah and the return salute-can be carried out, much less can the
form of this "firing" which was detailed by a royal informant be under-
taken at the present time. This account, which differs from most of
those of the contemporary writers, is significant whether viewed as a
traditional record of an actual occurrence, or as indicating how
folkloristic elaboration may result from an inability to carry out a
cherished tradition. According to this account what is termed in the
literature "firing to Whydah," was, after a manner, incidental to
insuring the King's having sufficient supplies for the customs. It was
related that during these rituals, soldiers, slaves and citizens were
stationed along the ninety-mile route between the two cities at no more
than arms' length. If the supply of rum or cloths or gunpowder was
running low, the message was given to the first man of the long chain,
telling him what was desired, and he would repeat this to the next
man and thus the message would travel rapidly to Whydah, with the
supplies passed on from hand to hand along the same human chain,
in a few hours-two or three hours would be necessary, it was said,
1 See Burton, vol. ii, pp. 169ff. Skertchly's description of the huts from which
the guns were fired is given on p. 83, while on pp. 421-422 and 427-428, he
gives the location of some of the huts, and the details of the "custom" of 1871.
Though the firing witnessed by Burton and Skertchly occurred during the
month of January, the account given by natives at the present time sets
July as the date. This is corroborated by Forbes (vol. i, p. 18).
THE CULT OF THE ROYAL ANCESTORS
to bring a case of gin or a supply of cloths or gunpowder from the
coast to Abomey.1
This display of man-power at the royal command was only one of
the final details of the long ritual that stretched over an appreciable
period of time, a ritual so deeply patterned that the essential rites,
described by all those who visited Dahomey during the days of the
monarchy, have persisted despite the overthrow of .the kingdom.
How the basic outlines of these ceremonies persist was indicated when
a rite for the soul of Behanzin, the last King of Dahomneyiwa wit-
nessed, even though this was not a part of the annual customs. It
was rather a ceremonial marking the anniversary of the burial of
Behanzin, and carried out by his sonDaha, who might have succeeded
him as King, and who now holds the office of chief of a quarter in
Abomey. The place where the commemorative rite took place was in
the compound where stood Behanzin's palace, now this chief's com-
pound, and where the remains of this King were finally brought to
be buried.2 Because a description of this ceremony brings the chain
of accounts of ceremonials for the royal dead to date, and because it
was of a type that has not heretofore been described in the literature,
it may be given in detail.3
It occurred on April 14, 1931. The etiquette of the occasion demand-
ed that several bottles of alcoholic beverages be brought by each
member of the party, including the interpreter, as an offering to the
dead. As seems to have happened to all Europeans who had attended
Ceremonies of royalty, the inner courts were not yet prepared, and
it was necessary to wait for some time. While waiting outside the
1 That this may not be such great exaggeration is evident when the following
excerpt from Skertchly, where he gives the origin of gun-custom, is considered
(p. 421): "During the reign of Gezu the Great, the Chacha, wishing to amuse
the king with some novelty, conceived the idea of stationing men at short
distances along the road between Whydah and the capital, and sending by
them a present to the king, much in the same manner as the post was conveyed
in India. The idea so tickled the fancy of Gezu, that he determined to inaugu-
rate a state ceremony of a similar character, and he instituted the singular
telegraph which, among the English on the coast, is generally called the 'Gun
Custom.'" Also compare Skertchly, (p. 428), who gives a first-hand account
of this rite: "Meanwhile cries were heard approaching from the distance,
and at last the gun firers stationed near us yelled out some unintelligible war
cry, and running towards their neighbour received from him a parcel swathed
in matting. This was a present to the king from the Bwekon-hwe-gbo palace,
which had been passed from hand to hand by a number of runners stationed
along the road. At intervals similar parcels arrived from all the palaces..."
2 Behanzin is said to have died an exile in Martinique; though Hazoum6 (p. 4,
n. 6) states that he died in Algiers.
3 The rite most similar to this in the literature is Glele's "Sin Kwain" custom,
given by Skertchly, pp. 383-413.
entrance, two old women were to be seen sweeping the approach to
the palace. They walked back and forth over the cleared space,
weeding out every blade of grass that had sprung up, even in the
corners against the walls. Daha, the chief, was not seen until the third
inner court of the palace was entered, and when first encountered was
not yet dressed in his ceremonial robes. The court-yard itself was
rectangular in shape. At the northern end was a rectangular building
with two wide doors facing the court-yard; two or three !steps, reaching
across the entire front of the structure, led up to these doors, which
were screened by cloths. Inside this were the ase, the altars for the
ancestors whose spirits were to be summoned to receive the offerings.
At the center of the long wall that marked the western edge of the
court-yard was the door through which all those coming from outside
the palace entered, while directly opposite this entrance was a long
open portico where the chief and his wives were later to be seated.
There was another entrance at the center of the south wall of the
court-yard which led to a fourth court, and it was through this that
the chief and his women entered and left the court-yard while the
ceremonies were in progress. At the northeast corner of the enclosure,
beside the shrine for the ancestors, stood many large calabashes of
food, and near them five or six elderly women sat on the ground, and
busied themselves with filling other calabashes from these large ones.
When greetings were exchanged with Daha, his visitors were escorted
through the door in the southern wall, then through several other
court-yards, until the inner space where the tomb of Behanzin is
situated was reached. A realisation of the vastness of the enclosure
which constituted the chief's compound and the complexity of its
ground-plan was had as door after door was traversed, each being
carefully opened and shut by its guard. The court-yard leading to the
site of the royal tomb was apparently close to those where the wives
of Daha were lodged, for over the walls came the sound of the voices
of many women, talking excitedly as they prepared themselves for
the approaching ceremonies.
The tomb of Behanzin itself is like those of the other kings, which
are located in the reconstructed royal palace. It consists of a large
circular house, the walls of which are completely hidden by the
thatched roof which, coming to a point over the center supporting
pole, descends to make overhanging eaves so low that the thatch
brushes the ground. The circumference of the outer edge of the thatch
is considerable; a rough estimate-if was not possible to take measure-
THE CULT OF THE ROYAL ANCESTORS
ments in a place as sacred as this-would be about one hundred and
twenty feet. The tomb is entered by a low door, which is so concealed
by the thatch that it is necessary to crawl on all fours to pass through
it. The Dahomeans bared their shoulders, but since from the earliest
times it has been the rule that it is sufficient for a foreigner to show
respect in the manner dictated by his own customs, the removal of
hats by the visitors was sufficient. Once inside, some moments were
required to accustom the eyes to the darkness, which was in such
contrast to the glare of the sunlight outside. Gradually the outlines
of a bier covered over with rich brocaded velvet was seen, filling the
center of the tomb. What was under this velvet could not be discerned,
but the grave is said to be directly beneath the bier, and four old women,
three queens and the queen mother, crouched beside it. Two of them
were wives of Behanzin, the same women who hold the royal umbrella
over their husband in the enlarged photograph of the King which, in
its frame, stood facing the entrance at the foot of the bier. The rest
was darkness-dark walls, the dark smooth earthen floor. Following
native custom, a gift was given for the custodians of the tomb, and
in accordance with the further requirements of polite Dahomean
usage, word of this gift was immediately transmitted to Daha, who
publicly expressed his appreciation.1
On returning to the large compound where the ceremonies were to
take place, it was evident that the arrangements for the rites were
almost completed. At the center of the north half of the court-yard a
young bullock lay, thoroughly trussed, while attached by means of a
rope to one of the legs of the larger animal was a young white goat.
The bullock was tied in such a manner as to make it impossible for
him to move, the mouth as well as the legs being secured. Obviously
in great discomfort, the animal lowed from time to time, and in the
silence of the court-yard this sound was echoed by the bleating of the
goat.2 Before the ceremony actually began it was possible to go
behind the curtain which concealed the ancestral shrine at the north
end of the court-yard, and to see the as^ of Behanzin. This was made
of silver and brass, and, worked with artistic skill,it was an object of
more than common beauty. Another of the group of assembled asi was
especially fine. Surmounting its iron standard was a representation
1 Skertchly describes the tombs of the kings as they existed in Glele's time,
pp. 392-393, 398-400.
2 The object in securing an animal in this fashion is to insure that when it is
killed, its muscular contortions will not impede the ready flow of the blood
into the waiting calabashes.
of the Universe, conceived as a closed calabash held between two
hands and ornately carved with proverb symbols, the whole being
surmounted by an egg-shaped object in silver. From inside this
shrine when looking to the right, old women were to be seen con-
tinuing the work of arranging in large calabashes the constantly
increasing offerings of food, both cooked and uncooked.
While the altars were being inspected, denuded palm branches had
been laid end to end so as to outline a large rectangular space in front
of the eastern portico, where Behanzin's son and his entourage were
shortly to take their places. These palm branches marked the boundary
of the space into which no man other than the chief might penetrate,
and within which the chief and his wives alone might move. These
palm branches, termed "bamboos" in the literature, are not without
historical interest, since they are mentioned in every account of royal
ceremonies from the earliest days of European contact. In all descrip-
tions of the court, they figure as guards separating royalty from
commoners and retainers, women from men, and their use is lodged
deeply in Dahomean ritual.1 Just south of where the "bamboos"
were laid, a large state umbrella had been raised and chairs placed
for the white visitors, and from this point the ceremonial was witnessed.
No objection was made to a request that photographs be taken of the
ceremony, for it has always been the desire of Dahomean rulers to
have full records made of ceremonies for the ancestors. Soon Daha,
attended by a number of his wives, entered the court-yard from the
south door and after once more greeting his visitors, seated himself
on his couch, his women about him, one holding a parasol over his
head, another a fan, and yet another a cuspidor. The preparations
were complete; the participants who had been waiting either in the
outer court-yards or beyond the entrance might now be admitted.
A few moments after the chief had taken his seat, men in long
robes, decorated with an insignia on the left shoulder or on the back,
began to enter. They came through the door leading from the first
courtyard, one, two, or three at a time, and as each man appeared,
he walked to the "bamboos" and prostrated himself facing the chief,
kissing the earth several times. Each then arose and took his seat on
the steps of the ancestral temple at the north end of the court, in front
of the curtain. Most of these men were well advanced in age; some
were priests, but a larger number were members of the royal family,
1 Their use in the Sgi ceremonies in Dahomey will be recalled. See vol. i, pp
THE CULT OF THE ROYAL ANCESTORS
collateral relatives of Behanzin and his sons, for this ceremonial
was in no sense a public one. After they had gathered, they remained
quietly sitting in their places for a few moments, when one or two
of them inspected the manner in which the bullock was tied, and
apparently not entirely satisfied, trussed the animal yet more securely.
This group of elders, numbering more than fifty, now arose in a body
and together came once more to the edge of the "bamboos" opposite
-Daha, prostrating themselves Three times in-unison.' neof these men,
the chief-priest of-the ancestral cult, who had acted in this capacity
during the nensixw ceremonials that had been observed, was also in
charge here, for he either gave instructions to those who came to him,
or himself approached the "bamboos" to ask what was the desire of
the chief.' When this occurred the priest knelt at the outer edge of the
barrier, while one of the older wives of Daha also knelt, facing him,
just inside the line. He whispered his message into her ear and she
arose to deliver it to the chief, soon returning with the answer which
she delivered kneeling and in a whisper to the questioner. This again
represents a pattern that has been noted from the earliest days; thus,
a quotation from Snelgrave, who comments on the manner of cere-
monial address between Agadja and his subjects, shows how this
method of communication between the King and his retainers was
employed at the time of first Dahomean contact with Europeans:
"I observed, there were a great many of the principal men of the
court and army present, all prostrated on the ground; none being
permitted to go nearer than within twenty foot of the King's chair; and
whatsoever they had to say to his Majesty, first kissing the ground,
they whispered into the ear of an old woman, who went to the King;
and having received his answer, she returned with it to them."2
After the group had prostrated themselves befor-e-he-ehiefthe-elders
returned to the house where the asj stood, and nowthe actual-prayers
began, a priest leading the chanting with unison responses fromthe
others, while from the second court, unseen by those observing or
participating in the actual ceremony, some musicians began to sing,
accompanied by flutes, gongs and drums. Several officiants next
entered the west door, preparatory to killing the bullock, and from
the upper end of the court, where the food-offerings were still being
arranged for presentation to the spirits of the dead, some of the women
1 This man was an elder brother of Daha, and thus himself also a son of Behanzin.
a p. 38. Perhaps the most detailed list of those inside and outside the "bamboos"
at a "custom" is given by Burton, vol. i, pp. 166-169.
brought a calabash of food to Daha for his inspection. In front of the
ancestral shrine, where the sacrifices were to be given, another large
state umbrella stood, though it sheltered no one. On its valances,
which swung in the wind, the insignia of Behanzin, appliqued in red,
were to be seen. Behind the cloth which concealed the altars, the
chant of the priests became louder and was heard as a litany, the leader
intoning, the chorus responding. After perhaps fifteen minutes of this,
a chorus of men began to sing softly, accompanying their song with
hand-clapping. During this period one of Daha's wives went back
and forth between the chief and the men for whom he had messages,
while from time to time someone would separate himself from the
singing group, come to the "bamboos," prostrate himself, and ask
a question. When he received his reply in the accustomed fashion from
one of the women, he would return. On one occasion an especially
old man took up one of the palm ribs and, holding it before him, came
close to Daha and talked directly to him. Three of the principal wives
now joined the other women who were apportioning the food-offerings,
to supervise the arrangement. These women wore pink blouses of the
same material as the chief's great-cloth, and tunics of black satin on
which three wide green stripes were sewn. Their hair was combed
out so that it stood on end, and each wore a hair-band of red or yellow.
The other wives did not wear the satin striped tunics, but all had on
ihew cloths and all wore head-bands. In addition to his great-cloth,
]Daha himself wore sandals with heavy silver ornaments, his chief's
Scap, while his wand of office was held in his hand or placed about his
neck. When the singing had continued some fifteen minutes, three
men, clad in short trousers and blouses, whose task was to kill the
S sacrificial animals, entered the court-yard. The bullock was examined
r/ nd trussed still more tightly, and then, while one of the men held a
Large calabash beneath the neck of the animal, another skillfully slit
the veins and the blood gushed forth. The same was next done with
the goat, which was held by one of the men, while the other slaughtered
it; to one side, the third man now killed two chickens. The blood of
the bullock, the goat and the chickens was carried in the calabashes
into the shrine where the altars stood, and over these altars the blood
was poured while the curtain, which had been raised, was lowered.
The food was then brought there, the curtain was again lowered, and
an officiant cried out "Zan! Zan!" and again, after short intervals,
"Zanku!-Night! Night! Night!" This represented the old ceremony,
recounted so often, which was carried out when the King ate or drank,
THE CULT OF THE ROYAL ANCESTORS
for no one might see him, and travellers tell how a cloth was held
before him while all prostrated themselves and chanted, "It is night !"1
The women brought calabash after calabash of food into the curtained
shrine, and from each of these containers some of the contents was
taken to be put on the asf. When these proceedings had been completed,
the curtain was again raised, and the elderly men once more settled
themselves on the steps while drinks were being distributed to them.
The body of the bullock, in the meantime, had been dragged off along
the ground to one side and out of the court-yard by an entrance-way
at the northeastern corner to the place where the meat was to be
cooked and, later, distributed.
The body of the goat had been removed with that of the bullock,
but this meat was nott6 -b-e~~ien~a sonsf special significance
w-hich merit a digression.2 In discussing the worslip-'otI ancestors,
it has been stated that provision is specifically made to include all
those whose names have been forgotten when offerings are given, and
that one group of spirits in this category, a group of some importance,
includes the souls of those who were sold into slavery. The reactions
of Dahomeans, when they heard of the existence of a large Negro
population in the United States, no longer slaves; when they were
told of peoples in the West Indies and Guiana who, living in freedom,
had preserved many of the customs of their aboriginal African cultural
background, was always a striking one. It had been said, for instance,
in discussing one sib, "You have nearly all the people of this family
in your country. They knew too much magic. We sold them because
they made too much trouble," while of another, it was said, "This
family has strong men. They are good warriors, but bad enemies.
When they troubled our King they were caught and sold. You have
their big men in your country." But the fact that the souls of those
who had been enslaved figured prominently in the ancestral cult was
1 One of the few exceptions recorded was in the case of Skertchly, whose account
(p. 426) shows how unusual was the mark of favor be thus experienced; "I
found, however, that I had then to drink health with Addokpon through the
medium of Gelele; and a second toast was gone through; ... During this
ceremony... the cloth usually held upbeforetheking was so disposed that we
could see each other, while the royal person was obscured from the vulgar
gaze. I at last sat down, overpowered with this mark of the Royal favour,
as even the Ningan and the Meu are not allowed to see 'the lion' drink."
Compare also Burton, vol. i, pp. 163-164.
2 At the time this ceremony was being witnessed, no special mention was made
of the significance of this offering, and it was not until the last week of field-
work in Abomey was reached that a concluding discussion of the Dahomean
traditions of slaving operations brought out the reasons for the sacrifice of
never mentioned. The reason for this reticence, however, became
clear when the facts were finally revealed, for this phase of the ancestral
cult is held to be among the most esoteric portions of the ritual. To
give an adequate description of this rite, it is essential to sketch the
Dahomean tradition concerning the enslavement of the mother of
Gezo by Adanzan.1 To deprive Gezo of the counsel of his mother,
Adanzan, who, it is claimed, was a usurper of the throne, sold her and
sixty-three of her retainers to the Portuguese. They were sent to
Brazil where, the tale tells, they found many Dahomeans. From Brazil
she and eleven others were sent to "Ame'ika" and "because she
was sad and no longer young," she was sold many times. It is said
she spent twenty-four years in "Ame'ikA," and while there, founded
the cult of her Dahomean deity. Gezo, when he took his rightful
place, dispatched his Portuguese friend Da Souza to Brazil to
find her. After an extensive search, she is said to have returned
to Dahomey with six other Dahomeans, at a date which is placed at
eighteen years before the monarch's death, or about 1840. How much
of this is myth, and how much fact, it is impossible to determine;2
what is important in this connection, however, is that the New World
place-names mentioned in the ritual that was observed and which
is to be described immediately, are said to have been learned when
upon her return Gezo's mother related her adventures.
Coming now to the sacrifice of the goat, whose meat may not be
eaten by living beings, it will be remembered that a chant was men-
tioned as having been heard from behind the curtain. The words of
this chant, pronounced as the blood was poured over the altars for the
souls of the unknown dead, were in part as follows:
"Oh, ancestors, do all in your power that princes and nobles who
today rule never be sent away from here as slaves to Ame'ikg, to
Togb6md, to Gbuli, to K4nkinu, to Gbulfviv, to Yarira. We pray
you to do all in your power to punish the people who bought our
kinsmen, whom we shall never see again. Send their vessels to Whydah
harbor. When they come, drown their crews, and make all the wealth
of their ships come back to Dahomey."
As this was said, an old man called out, "And is that not a just payment
for what they have taken ?" To this the reply, in which all joined, was:
1 West African traditions of the slave trade as they exist today have been
discussed in M. J. and F. S. Herskovits, (II).
2 See Hazoumb (pp. 27-32), for another version of this tale, which has the
more historically plausible ending that Gezo's mother was not found. His
envoys are said, in Hazoum6's account (p. 32. n. 1), to have visited Brazil,
the Antilles, and Havana.
a) The ceremony for Behanzin; members of the royal family as spectators
at the rite.
-4 V Ct~~~'
b) Those who take part in the ceremony prostrate themselves on entering.
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. .. -' ._
--% ..? t*..f ,* _' 7.'_ _.
;. -- .'/'-- K ,- :
... ....r'"^^""O ', o
a) Sacrificing the animals for the ancestors. The men at the left are holding
the goat given to the souls of those sold into slavery.
b) The body of the bullock is removed, to be prepared for the feast.
The participants come to salute the chief.
Daha, the son of Behanzin, dancing.
THE CULT OF THE ROYAL ANCESTORS
"Yes, yes, yes! And it is not enough. The English must bring guns.
The Portuguese must bring powder. The Spaniards must bring the
small stones which give fire to our fire-sticks. The Americans must
bring the cloths and the rum made by our kinsmen who are there, for
these will permit us to smell their presence. Long live Dahomey! You
who have not succumbed to slavery here, act so that those three...
who died for the cause of our country in Brazil be kept in the memory
of all Dahomeans, and give us news of them by White strangers who
come to Abomey."
At the point where the account of the ceremony to Behanzin was
broken off, the elders were seated on the steps of the patio containing
the asf of the royal dead, drinking the drinks that had been distributed
toathem. When all had finished, they came forward in a body, and once
again prostrated themselves before Daha. Four of their group were
particularly abject in their manifestations of submission, and each
in turn groaned to the chorus of moans emitted by the other three.
This was twice repeated, after which an old woman left the chief and,
squatting before them, talked in a scolding voice, while the four
continued to groan but did not reply. Finally she threw coins on the
ground before them and went away. Those Dahomeans who were
present merely as spectators laughed heartily at the performance,
Which enacted the captives' supplications for their lives before sacrifice,
and the gift to them of money for the world of the dead. That some
of those destined for sacrifice were extended clemency by the King
at the customs in the days of the monarchy is attested in the writings
of contemporary observers,2 and that this performance dramatized
a rite which, in the olden days, would have resulted in the death of
three of the four, was made plain when the ceremony was later dis-
cussed with informants.
During this time the drums had been sounding intermittently in
the court yard adjoining the one where-the- remmny- was taking
place. Several more men, whose rank had not been sufficiently high
to permit them to enter the inner court to share in the ceremony and
partake of the food, came in. After they-,had prostrated themselves
before Daha, five different groups of musicians also entered. From the
1 The sacredness of this rite is indicated by the fact that the three names
pronounced at this point, though given by the infornmant, were the only ones
about which a promise not to reveal them in publication was exacted.
2 Cf., for example, Skertchly, p. 368, where he states that ten out of fourteen
victims destined for sacrifice were reprieved by Glele, six of them being
"dashed" to him, and two each given for "the service of the outside and
inside Ningans," where they were to be "set to work as scavengers."
entrance at the northeast corner of the court-yard where the calabashes
of food had stood, a group of singers emerged. These singers, who
were women, took their places within the "bamboos," but outside
the pavilion which sheltered Daha and his wives, kneeling in such
order that they constituted about ten rows of five each. All the
women in the first row, and several in the second row, were dressed
in white tunic blouses, on which were appliqued the figure which re-
sembles a maltese cross and which, in elaborately worked form, is
to be seen painted in many places on the compound walls of the
restored palace of the kings, and in the court-yards of chiefs who
belong to the royal sib. Six of these women, four of whom knelt in the
first row, had silver horns fastened in their hair, and represented ranking
Amazons of the days of the monarchy. The first orchestra to be
heard consisted of drummers, who played large drums. These men
moved opposite Daha, outside the "bamboos," and, after playing
for him, drumming his "strong" names and those of Behanzin, moved
off toward the wall which divided this court yard from the one from
which they had entered. The second orchestra, equipped with gongs
and smaller drums, advanced in their place, played, and retired.
The third was composed of flutists and singers, the fourth comprised
chanters who carried wands, and the fifth consisted of those who
accompanied their singing with gongs only. Each group performed
in turn and went aside.
It was next the turn of the women inside theAm barrier to sing.
The first row was made up of soloists, one of their number leading
the rest of the singers, who composed the chorus. The women squatted
on their heels on mats provided for them, but as the soloists sang
their parts, they raised up on their knees, falling back in their original
position while the chorus in turn assumed this position. The effect
of this was to give the singers a rhythm of movement that ac-
companied the purely musical rhythms of their singing. In addition
to these movements of the body, however, they gesticulated as they
sang, moving their hands and pointing at Daha, at the courtiers, and
at the spectators, and dramatizing the words of their song with gestures
and grimaces. Now horse-tail switches were distributed to the women
of the front rank, and these were waved back and forth to emphasize
the rhythms of the songs. As the singing went on, these rhythms
Quickened and the gestures became more emphatic. They were singing
Songs in honor of the chief and his ancestors, and were summoning
Daha to dance for the spirits of those who had gone before him. How
THE CULT OF THE ROYAL ANCESTORS
closely this adheres to the ancient pattern of royal ceremonies is seen
from the following:
"Towards the evening, some 2000 amazons were collected in close
column, under arms, and in their front all the ladies of the royal
family and harem. Mingled with the procession would be groups of
females from various parts of Africa, each performing the peculiar
dance, of her country. When these were not being performed, the
ladies would now seize their shields and dance a shield-dance; then a
musket, a sword, a bow and arrow dance, in turns. Sometimes one
would step forward and harangue the monarch in verse, whilst the
chorus was taken up by all, the amazons and the rest of the people;
and, lastly, having expended all their praises, they called upon the
king to come out and dance with them, and they did not call in vain.
"The monarch, although a stately figure, is by no means a good
dancer, yet what a king performs courtiers will ever approve. Loud
shouts of applause crowned the royal exertions, and amid the din of
firing, shouting, singing, and dancing, his majesty, hidden as usual by
cloths from public gaze, drank to his sable thousands of wives. The
dance was a working of all the muscles of the body, the hands and
feet moving to a quick step; there is nothing graceful, nor strikingly
active, while to dance well requires great muscular labour."'
,-Daha now came forward,-as hadicthe King ithe-acqount just quoted.
Close behind him was one of the most comely of his wives, dressed
in a yellow cloth, who held his umbrella over him as he moved. Her
steps, like his, were dance-steps and as she followed him, she contin-
uously twirled the umbrella. His wand of office, the curved sceptre,
was placed over his shoulder and as he danced the drums beat their
rhythms ever more strongly, the manner of singing became more and
more excited, and the volume of song ever greater, for the women who
sat within the portico and were not of the chorus joined the others.
The kneeling courtiers swayed from side to side, marking time with
their hands, holding the three middle fingers stiffly out from the palm
as a gesture of applause. Daha danced slowly, his great-cloth gathered
over his shoulder, his sceptre, now held in his outstretched hand with
the peculiar ritually awkward movements of the royal dancer, as
he executed decapitating gestures first on his left and then on his
right side. As he continued his dance his audience became ever more
excited, the singing became even louder than before.2 Another wife,
somewhat older and more experienced than the one in yellow, now
1 Forbes, ii, pp. 39-40. See also Burton, i, pp. 241-242, 253-255, 256, and
2 Compare with this the descriptions of the deafening acclaim rendered a
dancing King to be found in writings of almost all the travellers.
took the parasol from the one who had held it, and she, too, danced
with her husband, keeping better step than had her predecessor. Daha
twice circled the space enclosed by the "bamboos" in a counter-clock-
wise direction before he retired to the portico, where several of his wives
solicitously wiped the perspiration from his face and otherwise at-
tended him. He did not sit down, however, for the songs of the chorus
still summoned him, and once again he danced. This time, when he had
finished, the men moved the palm ribs toward the portico, narrowing
the space allotted the women so that the male performers might have
more room, and with six or eight opening the dance, this group continued
for perhaps one-half hour a much more energetic performance than that
of the chief, with a constantly changing personnel. Twice the chief of
the ancestral cult, himself a son of Behanzin, as stated, performed,
each time coming to spectators and friends to shake hands and receive
congratulations on his dancing, which was the finest seen.' Inside the
"bamboos," the woman who had taken the parasol from the wife who
first had held it continued her dance, once even crossingthe "bamboos"
to dance with the men.
It is unnecessary to detail the remainder of the ceremony, which
continued after this initial period of dancing that took place in the
early afternoon. Many groups, waiting outside the compound of this
chief to pay their tribute with singing and dancing to the spirit of
the dead King, were summoned in turn. The ritual itself was complete
when the sacrifices had been made and the blood poured on the altars.
The rest of the day, given to feasting and drinking, singing and dancing,
was not of ceremonial importance comparable to the occurrences early
in the day, and to describe its happenings would be merely to repeat
the formulae of obeisance and dance which each group offered.
In this ceremony, it was thus possible to witness, in compressed
form, many of the ritual aspects of the royal Dahomean ancestral
cult as they exist at the present time. Human sacrifice no longer
obtains, it is true, but the songs, the dancing, and the behavior of the
chief, his wives, his retainers, and the commoners all correspond to the
accounts of eye-witnesses at the ceremonies for the royal ancestors.
As a one-day ceremonial,2 and merely an anniversary of burial, it is not
to be thought of as comparable to the annual "customs," which, though
1 Compare this description with that of the dance witnessed by Burton, and
described by him in vol. ii, pp. 6-7.
2 The family of Behanzin had, as a point of fact, been impoverished by the
great rituals which took place several years before the one described, when
Behanzin's body was returned for burial in Dahomey.
THE CULT OF THE ROYAL ANCESTORS 69
they cannot always be carried out every year, are today observed as
often as finances permit. The importance of their continuation, as
illustrated in the ceremony described above, is in the evidence this
offers of the vitality of the indigenous civilisation even among those
of Dahomey who have the closest contact with European culture. It
strikingly demonstrates that the royal family, deprived of its aboriginal
political prerogatives, still keeps alive the traditional ceremonies
demanded by worship of its kingly ancestors.
WARS, CONQUESTS, AND THE CENSUS
Of the forces which contributed to the stability of the monarchy,
the army was of first importance. By means of its "conquests"
which added to the revenues of the kingdom both through the sale of
captured slaves and the additional labor-force provided by the captives
retained to work the land, and through the appeal to the imagination
of the exploits of the warriors, the army symbolized national vitality,
and strengthened faith in the divinely ordered rule of the dynasty.
Though but little data are to be found in the literature concerning the
source of the revenues which provided for the armed forces, many
facts are given which depict the externals of army organisation. These
will be drawn upon as first-hand validation of present-day accounts
when the manner in which the forces at the King's command were
organized is described.
In treating of an institution that no longerxist, such validations
from the pen of contemporary observers are obviously of first importance.
Yet valuable as these are for corroboration of all aspects of army
organisation, operations and control, it is not possible to find comment
in the literature on other important aspects of military life, as, for
example, the methods of recruitment, concerning which there are
only indications that all males were potential soldiers.
The account of army recruiting to -be given-i -4tis-hapter provides
an arresting illustration of how a non-literate people established a
system of bureaucratic control that borders on the fantastic, allowing
even for any elements of idealisation that might have entered into the
account.1 Before dealing with the method of taking the census and
1 This description of the mode of taking the Dahomean census, already published
(Herskovits, V), was sent to M. Maupoil, who reported that his informants
disagreed largely with this account. That this may have been due in part, at
least, to the method of checking employed is a permissible deduction; in a
letter dated April 10, 1936, M. Maupoil writes, "J'ai interrog6 & ce sujet une
veuve de Gl616, et le roi Ago-li-Agbo lui-meme; j'ai interrog6 de vieux cour-
tisans .... Ago-li-Agbo et sa suite ont mis un bon moment A se remettre de
l'Fmotion que je leur ai cause en lisant votre article ..." In view of the
historically established reluctance of members of the Dahomean royal family
WAR, CONQUESTS, AND THE CENSUS
recording the resulting statistics, and with the various interlocking
devices employed to give an inner check on army quotas based on the
count, a summary of the references in which estimations are made
regarding the size of the Dahomean population before the conquest
may be given.
The reported number of persons who actually lived in the kingdom
during the period of its autonomy varies with the reporter. Forbes'
stated that "the population of the kingdom of Dahomey does not
exceed 200,000 of both sexes." Burton2 reported Wallon as estimating
it at 900,000. Wilmot3 reduced Forbes' estimate to 180,000, which
Burton himself "would further diminish" to the figure of 150,000,
adding, "of whom, perhaps four-fifths are women and children."
Skertchly4 felt Commodore Wilmot's estimate to be a better one than
Burton's and himself placed the number of women and children alone
at 130,000. All agree that the number of people in the country was far
below that which it was capable of supporting, Burton putting the
"The population is thus not a third of what the land could support.
The annual withdrawal of both sexes from industry to slave-hunting
and the Customs at the capital, the waste of reproduction in Amazons,
and the losses by disease and defeat, have made the country in parts
The census of 1931 gave the population of the present canton of
Abomey, comprising the city and its surrounding territory as 83,645.
It is not unlikely that this represents some understatement of the
number of people who actually live at the present time in Abomey
and vicinity, since a head-tax is assessed by the colonial government,6
to reveal information concerning their methods of administering the king-
dom to outsiders-and it must be remembered that M. Maupoil was known to
his informants as a member of the French Colonial service-it is strange that
anything written here was admitted. For flat denial is what would be expected
of any Dahomean--or, indeed, of any West African-when presented, even in
private, with materials of much less esoteric quality concerning his culture.
It is not without some significance that the account of the census and of the
taxation system of the kingdom (given above in Ch. VII) were volunteered on
the very last day of this field-work in Abomey, and developed rather incident-
ally out of questions aimed at clearing up points on various phases of Daho-
mean culture that were still in doubt. Even more significantly, this infor-
mation was given privately, in the seclusion of the second-story room of the
house where headquarters for this field-work were maintained.
1 Vol. i, pp. 14-15. 2 Vol. ii, pp. 155-156.
3 Reported by Burton, loc. cit. 4 pp. 43-44. 5 Vol. ii, pp. 155-156.
6 4,844 males were reported as living within the present confines of Abomey
itself, and 6,249 females.
and the number of those in a compound was given by the head of each
compound. Certainly the estimates of all those quoted, if Wallon,
whose figure showed so large a deviation from those of the others,
be excepted, are to be considered with the fact in mind that the op-
portunity of the early travellers to see the whole of the kingdom was
restricted, and that they never penetrated into the regions of Zagnanado
to the east and Adj9 to the west. All approximations can only be
tenuous in the extreme, but it is felt that the figures given in the
literature are probably too low, and that a population of from between
250,000 to 300,000 for the kingdom as a whole would seem a more
With these preliminary considerations, the account-gives-by-Daho-
means of the method of taking the census may now be given. Though
in its details this may once more reflect an idealisation that has
grown up in the years since the native monarchy was overthrown,
the account is nevertheless important because, like the data already
presented concerning the taxation program of the monarchy, it gives
information not heretofore available of the inner workings and ad-
ministrative aspects of a West African kingdom. Whether or not
organisation of a similar type existed in other West African kingdoms
cannot be said. Only future investigation can show whether the system
to be described here of collecting and maintaining population statistics
is an unique one, or whether it was paralleled by the practices of other
West African dynasties.1 Knowledge of the total count of Dahomeans,
like that of other vital questions concerning the kingdom as a whole,
was confined to the King and two of his trusted officials whose duty
it was to see that the records were well kept and adequately guarded.
Not even the crown prince might know until his accession the total
number of those over whom he was to rule.
When the elaborate funeral ceremonies of a Dahomean King had
ended, and the enstoolment of a new King was achieved, he made a
tour of the grounds within the palace walls. Inspecting house-after
house, he finally reached a long, low building, having-many doors.2
1 An attempt was made to probe this question during a short stay among the
Ashanti of the Gold Coast. It was agreed that while no such elaborate ma-
chinery as will be described for Dahomey existed, the King, through his chiefs
of villages, was fully apprised of his resources in man-power. Women and
children, however, were not counted among the Ashanti.
2 In the earlier published account this was named the Aido Hwedo house. M.
Maupoil points out, however, that in both Le Heriss6's and Waterlot's plans
of the royal palace, this name is given to a court-yard. Since M. Maupoil's
native informants stressed this fact, the denomination is deleted here.
WARS, CONQUESTS, AND THE CENSUS
As the King approached, two officials, old men belonging to the
entourage of the previous King, who were standing in front of this
building caused all who accompanied the new monarch to retire. As
these two conducted him into the first room, they showed him sacks
filled with pebbles, which represented the population of Dahomey
-men, women, and children-during the reign of Hwegbadja, who
died in 1680. For every succeeding King, so the account goes, there
was a similar chamber, containing similar sacks. As the two old men
led their new royal master through the rooms, they pointed out how
the size of the sacks for each reign was greater than those which re-
presented the population of Dahomey during the preceding King's
tenure. They recounted to him the conquests of each of his ancestors,
and impressed him with the manner in which these had increased the
number of people in the kingdom.
When they reached the room which contained the sacks of pebbles
that represented the population of Dahomey during the reign of his
father, the two elders said to the new King: "Young man, kneel!"
and, as he knelt there, they continued, "Young man, all your life you
have heard 'Dahomey, Dahomey,' but you have never until today seen
the true Dahomey; for Dahomey is its people, and here they are."
Then, pointing in turn to each of four sacks of white raffia with pebbles
in them, they said, "In this sack is the number of men which today
we put in your hands; here the number of women; here the number
of boys; here the number of girls. You must never allow the contents
of these sacks to diminish; you must see to it that these pebbles in-
crease in number. You must keep in your mind the small sacks of
Hwegbadja, and how much larger are those your father has left you.
Every year, we will come here with you to count the pebbles, and to
see if you have increased their number, or reduced it. Young man,
rise! We did not give you this thought to discourage you!"
They gave him a very old gun-tradition has it that in the time of
Hwegbadja they gave him a hoe-handle, the weapon with which the
Dahomeans are said to have fought in early times-and said, "Fight
with this. But take care, that you are not vanquished." Then they
sang for him songs which might not be sung outside this place and
told him to meet them there again the following year.
In this way, the new King was apprised of his obligation to maintain
and increase the numbers of his subjects. The manner in which actual
statistics were compiled, however, constitutes the major point to be
considered here. As has been seen, the Dahomean kings eschewed the
method of direct inquiry. Just as, according to native logic, a tax
based on information derived from direct questioning about the number
of palm-trees, or sheep, or goats a man possessed, or the number of
hoes he manufactured, or the number of animals a hunter killed, or
the loads a porter carried, would naively ignore the motive for falsi-
fication of the figures, so a census, as such, was also viewed as affording
cause for suspicion and misinformation. The Dahomean belief in
the inadequacy of direct questioning as an administrative technique,
was never so clearly revealed as in the following comment, "In the
days of Hwegbadja, our people did not have guns. They had to fight
with hoe-handles. And they could not write. Still they had the
astuteness to obtain information in a roundabout way." The annual
campaign which Dahomey waged against one of its neighbors offered
the opportunity of beginning the population count.
Shortly before operations of a new campaign were to start, every head
of a collectivity was instructed to report the number of men under him
to the head of the village, who placed a corresponding number of pebbles
called k', in a small sack. In this count were included all males over
the age of thirteen, because all above this age were considered men.
About ten or twelve days before mobilisation, the village chiefs,
with their sacks of small stones, came before the Mijg4. On each sack
was sewn a symbol which indicated from which village it had come,1
so that there would be no difficulty in identifying it. The villages of
the southern part of the kingdom about Whydah reported to the
Yovog4; near Allada five sub-chiefs received the sacks from the chiefs
9f villages in that region; among the Maxi, two; in the region of
Zagnanado, two; in Atakpame, one; and in Adja, two. All the sacks
sent to these district chiefs were also brought to the palace at Abomey,
and any chief who disclosed the number of pebbles he brought to the
palace did so at the peril of his life. The essence of this system, as a
matter of fact, was its secrecy. The power of Dahomey lay in the
number of its inhabitants, and this was held to be information for the
The sacks, then, were brought before the Mijga, who, however,
only received their bearers, since he did not have the right to count
1 These devices-over two hundred of them for the district of Abomey-
Sshowed some characteristic of the village concerned. At Umb6game there was
a great tree under which a temple had been built, where swallows were always
to be found; hence the sign of this village was a swallow. For Sinve, where
baskets are made, the symbol was a basket. For Zumi, where clay is found,
the device was a pot.
WARS, CONQUESTS, AND THE CENSUS
their contents. This was done by an official called the K6t5. The
village-heads of the district of Abomey, each with his sack of pebbles,
were conducted to the King himself by one of the King's wives called
Dak616 to whom this service was specially delegated, and who, with
the K6t6, had already counted the pebbles and knew how many men
were to be found in each village. As each chief prostrated himself,
the King would indicate the army corps to which the men from his
village were to be assigned. Nothing was said at this time as to the
number to go, but after the campaign, the commander of each corps
would indicate how many men had been sent him from each village,
and if the number was not equal to one-half of the counters in that
year's sack for that village, its chief was strangled.
This procedure informed-the-patce-f-h-numer of males in the
kingdom. Theemnumeration of the women came next. After the
troops had been mobilized, there was a period before the army set
out for the battle, during which its organisation was perfected. When
the men had been assembled for six days, every unit-commander
was instructed to obtain from each of his soldiers information
regarding the number of his wives, whether his mother was alive or
dead, and how many unmarried daughters over thirteen years of age
were in his family. In accordance with the principle of indirection
already enunciated, the real purpose for which this information was
desired was not indicated, the soldiers being told that the King wished
to know those who had been left at home, so that if a man were killed
on the battle field, his dependents could be recompensed for their loss.
-The army chief, using pebbles to indicate the number of women
dependent on his soldiers, village by village, reported to the palace,
where the sacks were placed in charge of a woman who kept check on
the affairs of the army. When this count had been finished, the army
began its campaign. When the "war" was over, every commander
was asked how many men he had received from each village, being
confronted with the village-chiefs, each of whom, as a control, was
asked also to tell the number of men of his village who had gone to
the war, and the number who had returned. At the same time, before
a commission presided over by one of the principal war-chiefs, the
heads of the army-corps confirmed the numbers of women and girls
over thirteen reported by the men from each village. Thereupon,
each village-chief was told to indicate the day on which he would
again appear before this court with the heads of those collectivities
from which men did not go to war.
It must be understood that every Dahomean man was regarded as a
soldier. Hence, on the date set, when the village-chiefs and their heads
of collectivities again appeared before this commission of war-chiefs,
they were told that the King wished to know the number of women
and girls belonging to the men who had not complied with the order
to go to war. It was stated that this information was desired so that
a levy of women and children might be made, for the men who had
disregarded the call of the King were no longer desired as soldiers,
but that, in their places, these women were to be enrolled in the army.
The result of this count was to complete the enumeration of the women
of the kingdom, pebbles being set aside for these, village by vil-
With the pebbles by means of which the count was kept in the
hands of the proper officials, the manner in which they were cared for
within the palace itself may next be considered. Thirteen cases,
called akpoti, each divided into two parts, were kept in a room of the
long, low house that has already been described, and were watched
over by a woman entitled Dqgbadji who was charged with their care.
When a birth occurred during the year, a pebble was placed in the
proper part of the first box, according to whether the infant was a
boy or a girl. At the end of the year, the woman in charge took the
markers out of the thirteenth box and threw them away, for after
a child had reached fourteen years of age, he was regarded as an adult
and was included in the annual count. The pebbles in the twelfth
box were put into the thirteenth, those in the eleventh into the twelfth,
those in the tenth into the eleventh, and so on until the second had
been emptied into the third, the first into the second, and this last one,
now empty, was ready to receive the pebbles which would indicate
the births of the ensuing year.
Inside the palace walls there was another house named Agbodji,
watched over by a woman called Ndinh. This house contained similar
cases, but these, which numbered fifteen, received the pebbles which
marked the deaths of Dahomean citizens. When a chief came to report
deaths, he was asked the age and sex of the persons who had died.
These reports were brought at short intervals during the year to the
proper officials. For the region about Abomey they were told to the
Mijgg, and for the other districts of the kingdom to the chiefs who
ruled over them. When a report was made at the palace, if the death
was that of an adult male, a marker was placed in the fourteenth box;
if it was a woman who had died, one was put in the fifteenth. If a boy