An Ancient West African Kingdom
IN TWO VOLUMES
By MELVILLE J. HERSKOVITS
THE AMERICAN NEGRO, a Study in Racial Crossing (A. A. Knopf)
THE ANTHROPOMETRY OF THE AMERICAN NEGRO
(Columbia Univ. Press)
LIFE IN A HAITIAN VALLEY (A. A. Knopf)
ACCULTURATION, the Study of Culture Contact (J.J.Augustin)
By MELVILLE J. HERSKOVITS and FRANCES S. HERSKOVITS
REBEL DESTINY, Among the Bush Negroes of Dutch Guiana (Whittlesey House)
AN OUTLINE OF DAHOMEAN RELIGIOUS BELIEF
(American Anthropological Ass'n.)
SURINAME FOLKLORE (Columbia Univ. Press)
Aido Hwedo, with cult-objects used in the worship of Dq, as
represented in applique cloth.
AN ANCIENT WEST AFRICAN KINGDOM
MELVILLE J. HERSKOVITS
NEW YORK CITY
5`7 9 YS
PRINTED IN GERMANY BY J.J.AUGUSTIN, GLOCKSTADT, HAMBURG, AND NEW YORK.
Dahomey, an Ancient West African Kingdom
Melville J. Herskovits
page 10, line 24, for "difference" read "differences"
page 19, note 3, for "MrSgq" read "MpngW"
page 64, line 3, for "ddkwg' read "d6kpwe"
page 67, note 2, for "adokposiv"" read "adokposiv8)"
page 76, line 30, for characterizes read "characterizes"
page 96, line 2 of table, for "strin" read "string"
page 148, line 28, for "nochinovinyoni" read "nochinovinygnivi"
page 170, line 9, for "Xwal" read "Xwalvi"
page 181, line 4, for "Da." read "DA-"
page 185, lines 4 and 5, for "M'mula" read "M-mula"
page 200, line 3, for "For man you ..." read "For each man you ..."
page 204, line 27, for "fulfiled" read "fulfilled"
page 238, line 6, for "oad" read "load"
page 239, note 2, line 5, for "unconfirme cby" read "unconfirmed by"
Plate 43b), for "toxous" read "toxosu"
page 354, line 20, for "valls" read "balls"
page 368, line 30, for "teka" read "tUka"
page 40, line 4, for "Mpng Mef" read "Mpnga, Mei"
page 124, note 1, last line, for "V" read "VI"
page 209, line 10, for "aiza" read "aiza"
page 248, line 10, for "perkaps" read "perhaps"
page 347, line 2, for "AySm5"Yred "AydmY'
page 378, line 1, for "dicting" read "dictating"
page 378, line 10, for "Ag2" read "Ago
page 390, line 18, for "Gbadl" read "GbadC"
page 407, line 1, delete "of" after "enumerating"
This study of native life in Dahomey has a dual purpose. In common
with all works of its kind, it aims at extending our knowledge of prim-
itive life in general, and of the culture of the region described in partic-
ular. In addition, it is intended to provide materials for those students
of New World Negro culture who wish to know more fully the mode
of life of the peoples from whom were drawn the ancestors of the
Negroes who today inhabit the Americas.
Dahomey is of importance from both these points of view. For the
ethnologist, it not only represents a West African civilisation that
has been almost less affected than any other by the circumstances of
European control, but it is also a culture wherein the patterns of
verbalisation of belief and practice are so deeply rooted that many new
leads suggest themselves for the analysis of parallel institutions among
other folk of the West Coast. Several such institutions which, made
explicit by the Dahomean tradition of objectification, may serve to
clarify some of the hitherto undescribed interrelations and meanings
in West African culture, can be named here.
In the field of economic life, the functioning of cooperative effort in
numerous phases of production and the taxation policy of the native
kingdom, may be cited. Examples in the field of social organisation are
the institution of the best friend, which places in relief a relationship
hitherto almost entirely ignored by students of primitive society; the
explanation of concepts underlying West African totemism; the ques-
tions raised as to the secret societies in this region; and the importance
of multiple forms of marriage. In religion the significance of the so-
called "small-pox cult" and its relation to the worship of the Earth
gods can be mentioned; together with the re-phrasing of well-worn
explanations of serpent-worship; the exposition of the multiple soul
concept that has been and remains so difficult a problem in West i
African (ethnology; the nature of the divine trickster; and the common
sanctions that make for the close interrelation that exists between I
magic and other forms of supernatural belief. Finally, in the field of v
art, the position of the artist in Dahomey offers much to those con-
cerned with the place of creative effort in a society where highly
developed patterns of conformity place many obstacles in the way of
For those interested in the background of New World Negroes, the
importance of Dahomean culture derives from its situation at the
very center of the long coastal belt where the most intensive slaving
operations were carried on. Whydah figures prominently in the history
of the early slave trade, but that its r6le as a point of export did not
mean that it was merely a port from which slaves brought from the
far interior were shipped is to be seen in the degree to which the culture
of Dahomey lives on today in Haiti, the Guianas, and elsewhere in the
New World. Unfortunately, the native cultures of West Africa have
far too often been written of in a deprecatory tone, so that the "savage"
African background has become stereotyped in references to the
ancestral traditions of the Negro peoples of the Americas to a degree
that it has attained almost universal currency in the United States,
at least, and is today accepted by Negroes no less than by Whites.
But a consideration of this Dahomean culture, with its excellence in
technology and art, its complex political and social structure, its
profoundly integrated world-view and its mythology rich in elaborate
conceptualisation, may prove of help toward a truer and more realistic
view of how far removed from the popular idea is the actuality of the
cultural heritage of the New World Negro.
Research in the field was carried on by Mrs. Herskovits and myself
from March to August, 1931. Most of this period was spent in Abomey,
the capital of the native kingdom and, as stated in the text, the mater-
ial presented here refers to Abomey custom only unless specified to
the contrary. Four weeks of the available time were spent in Allada
and Whydah, which were selected as the most advantageous centers
both for checking data and for noting variations within the culture.
The method employed was one which I have already described:
"In the field, the procedure followed in earlier investigations was
continued; a house was found... where it was possible to settle down and
quietly observe life as it drifted past the door. A number of acquaint-
ances became habitual visitors, and these, together with others whose
services as interpreters were needed... constituted those to whom
questions were referred for clarification. Agreement on all points ...
was by no means invariably found, but soundness of method in the
study of culture must recognize that there are no 'correct' answers to
questions of custom; and that the acceptance of the fact of individual
differences of behavior and point of view within the general frame-
work of a given set of traditions is the only valid approach to the
realities of human civilization."1
Because this research had the approval of the French Colonial
Office (as a result of the representations made in its behalf by M. Henri
Labouret and the International Institute of African Languages and
Cultures, to whom it is a pleasure to express my gratitude), it was
possible to live in the native city, where with the exception of a few
friendly visits with the French officials at the Residency a mile or
more away, our contacts were exclusively with the natives. Our house,
close to the market-place, had the two-fold advantage of being near
enough to the center of activities to permit of easy access to happen-
ings of interest, while at the same time, because it was of the unusual
&tage or two-storied kind, it afforded privacy for long discussions with
chiefs and commoners and descendants of slaves, and with priests and
laymen. The well in our courtyard also brought beneath our windows
groups of women and children, and on market days in particular the
courtyard was a place of great activity.
By foregoing the greater ease in living that would have been afforded
by a trained household staff recruited on the coast, we profited from
the daily and seemingly casual verification of data our Abomey men
could give, while little kindnesses led to friendships with their families
that opened other doors into the life of the city. A point of signifi-
cance was the reassurance it was possible to give concerning the
disinterestedness of the scientific ends sought in this work, since it
soon became clear to the natives that the study was being conducted
in the interest of neither the Church nor of the Colonial Administra-
tion. Whatever in this presentation reveals confidence in the integ-
rity of the ethnographer, however, must in the final analysis be
credited to the fascination that the Negro cultures of Dutch Guiana
held for the Dahomeans, whatever their rank.
In view of the realities of political and social life in Abomey today,
I have concluded it to be in the best interests of those who gave me
information not to name any of them here, but to classify them and
describe a few of the most important in anonymous terms. In addition
to those numerous persons whose names I do not know, since my
contacts with them were of the casual sort inevitable when one is
living in a populous center, I count twenty-six in Abomey, twelve in
Allada, and five in Whydah who contributed significantly to the body
of data presented in these volumes. The element of caste being as
1 Herskovits, M. J. (VI), p. 321; see also the entire section pp. 320-323.
basic as it is, it was essential first to establish rapport with members
of the native royal family, and practically all branches of the family
of Glele were visited. Ceremonies were witnessed at the compounds
of most of these chiefs; as is to be seen from the pages that follow,
the Behanzin family were especially cooperative.
1 My principal interpreter in Abomey was as interesting for the per-
sonality conflictsthat marked his life as for his philosophical insight
into the values of his own culture. Unstable and emotional though
he was, when his imagination was fired by the "Dahomey" of the
Guiana bush, he could draw tellingly on the advantages of his social
position to bring to us significant information, and would work with
a patience and tenacity of purpose that might have taxed a more
phlegmatic person. My chief interpreter in Allada was of an opposite
type-a steady, conscientious man, though also one who showed
insight, and had the imagination to see the possibilities of a study which
probed into the beliefs and behavior of his people so as to reveal to
him much of what he had hitherto taken for granted. Through him
and those whom he brought to our house it was possible to review
Abomey materials even while studying the variance of Allada custom
from that in-the Dahomean center to the north where we had pre-
Besides our household staff, the other informants comprised two
groups; one consisting of specialists-artisans, diviners, and priests-
brought by our interpreters to furnish information on whatever points
were under discussion, or visited at their homes; the other of individuals
drawn from the body of commoners and supplied us by members of
our household to discuss these same matters from a more humble point
of view. We found the middle-class diviner of one of these members of
our household perhaps the most valuable of this second group; in all
likelihood because knowing we were in communication with the
renowned diviners of Dahomey, he was stimulated to show his own
grasp of his profession. Wherever possible the points of view of priests,
devotees and laymen were sought on religious questions, while in
matters of social organisation and political life, opinions and attitudes
of the chiefly families, commoners and descendants of slaves were
gathered. In order to obtain information from women, it was necessary
because of the difficulty of finding those who could speak French to
conduct work initially with a group of four. Two of them, hospital
nurses, were interpreters, the other two were natives of Abomey. As
the work developed and confidence was established, these four often
came individually of their own volition to amplify information, or to
give an answer to what had earlier been said to be unknown. Later
still, and most satisfactorily, the women from the families of our
household staff were drawn upon to add to and verify the data gathered,
to clarify attitudes, and to explore new fields.
Since the objective of this research was to obtain a rounded portrayal
of the patterns of Dahomean culture, as much care was had to include
accounts of occurrences in ordinary life and of ceremonial significance
which because of the annual cycle did not fall within the period of
field-work, as was taken to observe those that were to be witnessed.
The same principle was followed with those happenings in the lives
of individuals that are more or less dependent on chance as to whether
they are encountered by the ethnographer. A birth, a marriage, a
death or a private ceremony taking place in the home of a friend can
easily be visited without introducing any artificiality into a situation
that is often charged with intense emotion. But because of the
distortion that occurs when a stranger invades rites of this sort from
motives that, whatever their scientific nature, can to native eyes only
appear as indefensible curiosity, it was a rule rigidly adhered to during
this field-work never to attend a private rite or a public ceremony
without an invitation from the person in charge, whether he was the
humble head of a small compound or the high-priest of one of the great
cult groups. What was witnessed and what was not will be readily
discerned in the pages that follow.
F6, the language of Dahomey, is of the first order of difficulty, both
as to phonetic structure and grammatical form and, like other lan-
guages of the region, its complexities are enhanced by its tonal values.
It would, of course, have been of great advantage to have had an
adequate command of F9, but as it would be a matter of years to be
able to carry on ethnographic work in it, only the elementary phrases
of everyday intercourse were learned. This does not mean that a
knowledge of a native language is a sine qua non in the study of all
problems bearing on primitive cultures. By the use of interpreters and
of well recognized and tested techniques, it is possible to obtain the
information needed to discover, describe and understand the institu-
tions of a people, and it is such techniques that have been employed
in this study. The text materials, however, are presented with a caveat
that they are subject to revision when a detailed study of Fa is made.1
1 FQ is related to Ewe, which has been studied above allbyProfessor D. Wester-
mann. It is not, however, Ewe; and the statements that one encounters to
That a study of five months' duration could yield the material it
did is a tribute to the richness of Dahomean culture. Yet even a culture
of this richness would not have yielded so much had the work not
been done by two persons rather than one, who had had field experience
tn cultures related to that with which they were in this case concerned.
The advantage of having a field-team of persons of both sexes is obvious,
for the line of sex division is primary and, in most primitive societies,
the most difficult one to cross. Certainly Dahomean women would
have discussed sex education with no man as they did with Mrs.
Herskovits, just as Dahomean men would not have gone over com-
parable ground with a woman. That it was possible to get fact and
folklore of the knowledge each sex has of the customs appertaining
to its own proper education for marriage, and the beliefs of each
concerning the education given members of the opposite sex, is due
solely to the fact that one member of the field-party was a man, and
one a woman. The advantages that accrue with each additional field-
trip among peoples whose cultures are related are too numerous and
well recognized to need more than mention; not so well understood
is the gain when more than one person works simultaneously among
the same people. For in such cases there is a constant interchange of
impressions and ideas concerning the work in hand that makes for a
stimulus that the lone worker cannot obtain, and which materially
enhances the use to which the actual time in the field can be put.
In writing up the data, care has been taken to draw on all possible
sources to give a time perspective to the data gathered in the field,
and I count it my good fortune that so many earlier travellers, explor-
ers and officials have devoted their attention to Dahomey. For despite
current controversies as to the desirability of employing or not employ-
ing an historical approach to the study of culture-or of a given cul-
ture-the fact remains that all relevant data must be drawn upon
in work done within the frame of reference termed scientific; and it is
for this reason that the writings of those who visited Dahomey before
me have been combed for pertinent materials. Unlike many recent
to this effect, or to the effect that the Dahomeans speak a dialect of Ewe, are
the result of a curious historical accident. The Ewe-speaking tribes are found
in eastern Togoland, a former German colony, and since German scholars
were most active in West African linguistic research, they gave to all related
tongues the name of the tongue prevailing in this colony where they worked.
However, since these Togoland tribes represent outposts of Dahomean civilisa-
tion, we have here the practice of calling the language of the larger group by
the name of the smaller, as though, for example, it were to be said that French
was a dialect of Norman, or German a dialect of Flemish.
anthropological monographs, the present work is purely descriptive.
It is to be regarded as unfortunate that we have not held to an earlier
tradition that dictated the separation in publication of ethnographic
materials from ethnological controversies, leaving the former to be
drawn on by all, irrespective of theoretical position, to document the
problems in the study of culture that transcend materials from a single
folk. It is to this earlier tradition that these volumes adhere, with but
two or three minor exceptions where comparative data or theoretical
considerations are needed to point a better comprehension of certain
aspects of Dahomean culture itself.
The text of this book was completed in December, 1934; the delay
in its appearance is due to the exigencies of arranging publication for
a work of this character. In the meantime, the following interim
papers, based on these data, have appeared:
"Population Statistics in the Kingdom of Dahomey." Human
Biology, vol. iv (1932), pp. 252-261.
"Some Aspects of Dahomean Ethnology." Africa, vol. v (1932),
"A Footnote to the History of Negro Slaving" (with Frances S.
Herskovits). Opportunity, vol. xi (1933), pp. 178-181.
"An Outline of Dahomean Religious Belief" (with Frances S.
Herskovits). Memoir 41, American Anthropological Associa-
"The Art of Dahomey: I-Brass-casting and Appliqu6 Cloths. II-
Wood Carving" (with Frances S. Herskovits). American
Magazine of Art, vol. xxvii (1934), pp. 67-76, 124-131.
"The Best Friend in Dahomey." Negro Anthology (Nancy Cunard,
editor), London, 1934.
"A Note on 'Woman Marriage' in Dahomey." Africa, vol. x
(1937), pp. 335-341.
Some of these papers came to the attention of M. Bernard Maupoil,
of the French Colonial Service, who caused them to be translated and
read to native informants. I am grateful to M. Maupoil for thus putting
the data to this test. In the text, I have commented on certain of the
points he makes in his letters to me.
While these volumes were in press, the Memoir by M. Hazoum6
and the papers by M. Bertho and M. Kiti reached me. It has been
possible to insert a few references to M. Hazoum6's book, though
mechanical considerations prevented my noting all the points I would
have noted had this interesting work been available earlier. For the
same reason, it has been possible only to make one reference to M.
Bertho's careful paper on the Dahomean divining cult, and one to the
papers of M. Kiti, whose two reports on the Goun (in the region of
Porto Novo) help significantly to fill in the picture of the regional
variants in Dahomean culture, and whose other two accounts give
important additional supporting data on religious cult-practices in
Dahomey proper. The titles of all these contributions have, however,
been placed in the list of references.
As always in work of this type, support, both financial and other-
wise, is essential if it is to be carried on with any degree of success.
It therefore gives me great pleasure to acknowledge here my indebted-
ness to the numerous individuals and organizations who have cooper-
ated in making it possible for me to do this field-work, and in lightening
the task of preparing the data for publication: Dr. Elsie Clews Parsons,
whose initial grant was the major element in financing this expedition,
in the same way as earlier grants from her had financed other field-
trips of mine; Professor Franz Boas, who, as on numerous previous
occasions sponsored my research and obtained further financial support
for it; the Social Science Research Council of Columbia University,
which awarded me a grant to match that of Dr. Parsons, and the
Northwestern University Social Science Research Council, which
made a number of annual grants after I had returned from the field for
necessary assistance in the work of preparing my field materials for
publication; the National Research Council, the American Council of
Learned Societies, and the (national) Social Science Research Council,
for grants which, respectively, made possible the taking of motion
pictures of the motor behavior of the Dahomeans, enabled me to
record Dahomean music, and in one year when adequate funds for the
purpose were not to be obtained elsewhere, helped me with secretarial
aid; and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, whose subsidy
brought this work to publication.
In the field, I received the most cordial cooperation from both the
Dahomeans with whom I was in contact, and the French officials of
the Colony. To my interpreters, and to those others who gave of their
knowledge I find pleasure in recording my deep gratitude, even though
they remain nameless here. Similarly, to the then Governor of Daho-
mey, M. Tellier, and his staff, but especially to MM. Poirier and Jaton,
the Residents at Abomey and Allada, respectively, during my stay
there, I wish to extend my sincere thanks for their numerous courtesies.
I also wish to record my appreciation for the help given me by the
officials of the C. F. A. 0., the facilities of whose factories in Dahomey
were always at my disposal, something which greatly lightened the
practical difficulties of life in this part of West Africa. The section on
economic life was read by my friends Dr. Edward Berman, Dr.
Abram L. Harris, Dr. Helen Hohman and Dr. Elmo P. Hohman. I
profited greatly from the comments made by these economists con-
cerning the organisation of the material that fell within the field of
their professional interests, and regarding certain aspects of its
treatment. I am also indebted to Mrs. P. H. Erbes, Jr., for the valuable
aid she rendered at all stages in the preparation of this manuscript,
and to Mr. Irving Breger and Miss Maudjean Gail for the drawings
from which the text figures in Volume II are reproduced. My wife
participated fully in the field-work in Dahomey. All the information /
pertaining to the woman's side of the culture was gathered by her,
and much of the data on religion and art. Her work in the field is to
no small degree responsible for the amount and quality of the data
collected, and if I have not done justice to this work in presenting it
in its present form, the fault is mine alone.
MELVILLE J. HERSKOVITS
10 February, 1938.
CONTENTS OF VOLUME ONE
Preface ........................................ .. ... iii
Illustrations ................... ........................ xvii
Note on Phonetics ..................................... xxii
PartI I. NTODUCTORY
Chapter I. The People and Their Setting ...................... 3
Sources for the study of early Dahomean culture; European
contacts with Dahomey.-The present colony andthepre-conquest
kingdom.--Dahomean history, as embodied in native tradition
and as known from written sources.
Part II. ECONOMIC LIFE
Chapter II. Production .................................... 29
The discipline of Dahomean life.-Universality of farming as
an occupation for men; making the farm, techniques and sanc-
tions; the schedule of planting and reaping.-The importance
of the palm-tree, and its cultivation.-Hunting as an occupation;
as an avocation.-Iron-working, weaving, pottery-making.-
Artists and artisans.-How the various crafts are regardedby
Chapter III. Distribution .................................. 51
The market as the most important factor in permitting the
movement of goods from producer to consumer.-The market
as a social center; as a factor in religious life.-Rotation of
markets, where and when held.-Wholesale and retail operations.
-Products sold in the markets; prices and price-fixing; cooper-
ation among sellers.
Chapter IV. The Cooperative Element in Dahomean Life........ 63
The ddkpwt, its organisation and functioning.-The dokpwggt,
his selection and duties, subordinate officials of the ddkpwe.-
Types of work done by the ddkpwe.-Cooperation among the
iron-workers, weavers, potters, and in other craft guilds.-In-
dividualism in a cooperative society.
Chapter V. Property ....................................... 78
Types of ownership; personal, family, and state property.-The
forms property may take; tools and implements; land and palm-
trees; slaves under reign of the Dahomean kings; non-material.
property.-Pawns and pawning.-The ways in which property
may be earned.-Inheritance of property; the r6le of the Best
Friend.-Types of property inherited; social situations centering
about the inheritance of property from a father, from a mother.
Chapter VI. Socio-Economic Classes in Dahomean Society ...... 96
The money economy of Dahomey.-The workers and the leisure
classes.-Economic strata of pre-conquest Dahomey; slaves, farmers,
and artisans, priests and rulers.-The condition of these classes
under European hegemony.
Chapter VII. The Fiscal Policy of the Kingdom ............... 107
The necessity for taxation in the Dahomean kingdom; expenses
of the court and of the administration.-Methods of gathering
statistics on which taxation was based; the role of the king's wives
in "auditing" revenues.-The imposition of taxes on producers,
on carriers, and on consumers; basis of taxation, proportion of
product taxed; taxes in kind and in money.- The disposition
of taxes.-Taxation as a method of social control.
Part III. SOCIAL ORGANISATION
Chapter VIII. Kinship Groups in Dahomean Society .......... 137
Dahomean social groupings in their outward aspect; the house,
the compound, the collectivity.-The dynamics of the or-
ganisation of relationship groups; beginning a family; its
growth into an extended family; relationship between an extended
family and sib.-The descriptive approach to social organisation;
relationship terminology.-Wife-naming; playmate relationships.
-The r6le of the individual in the relationship group; the
place of women in this patrilinear society.
Chapter IX. The Sib Organisation of Dahomey ................ 156
The internal organisation of the sib.-The importance of the
sib, the tphwiyg and his role. Sib taboos and injunctions; their
function in the sib.-Catalogue of Dahomean sibs, their founders,
origin-myths, and taboos.
Chapter X. The Sib Organisation of Dahomey (Continued) ..... 177
Catalogue of Dahomean sibs (continued).-The question of
totemism in Dahomey.
Chapter XI. The Ancestral Cult: Deification of the Ancestors ... 194
The secular rl1e of the ancestors; their importance in the world-
view of the Dahomeans.-Deification of the ancestors; the ideology
behind this; the ceremonies essential to this end.
Chapter XII. The Ancestral Cult: Worship of the Ancestors .... 209
The toodu and the neazawu cults; description of a neswxwg
ceremony.-The classes of ancestors "within the nesixw'"; the
tOvodu, or abnormally born, and their power. -Worship of the
Chapter XIII. Non-relationship Groupings ................... 239
Ritualized friendship; the "Best Friend."-The West African
pattern of secret societies and political control in the Dahomean
kingdom; the policy of repression in Abomey; the recent import-
ation of Nigerian societies.-Eg- rites in Abomey.-Secret societies
in the Dahomean coastal cities; the organisation and aims of
these societies.-The forms of Dahomean non-secret organizations;
mutual-aid societies, economic societies, "social" societies.-The
absence of age-classes in Dahomey.
Part IV. THE LIFE-CYCLE OF THE INDIVIDUAL
Chapter XIV. Birth and Puberty ........................... 259
Birth; precautions before birth, the accouchement, naming.-
Early life of the child, play of children, early work, ceremonials of
early childhood.-Adolescence and sex education; the girls'
"school"; initial menstrual ceremonies;the boys' social group; first
attempts at sex contact.-Fact and lore in descriptions of sex
education; men's accounts of the education of girls compared
with versions of women, women's accounts of that of boys com-
pared with those given by men.
Chapter XV. Cicatrization and Circumcision ................... 291
The social and sexual r6le of cicatrization.-The ceremony at-
tendant on making the cuts; the designs that are cut, and their
meanings.-Endurance and the prestige it brings.-The age of
circumcision and its ceremonial.-Circumcision of princes and of
Chapter XVI. Marriage ..................................... 300
Marriage-types in Dahomey, the control of children as the
determining factor in making for the categories of marriage.
-Marriages where the children belong to the father's sib; the six
categories of marriage in this class; preliminaries to each marr-
iage-type; the duties of the husband under each; the ceremonial
Chapter XVII. Marriage (Continued) ....................... 317
Marriage where children remain undep control of the mother; the
"free" marriage-types.-Betrothal and marriage rites of princess-
es; sexual liberties allowed royalty, and the relation between a
princess and her husband after marriage.
Chapter XVIII. Adjustment and Maladjustment in Marriage ... 334
The position of women married under the several categories as
seen by men, as seen by women.-Polygyny and the sex ratio.
-The desire for children.-Attitudes of women toward co-wives;
toward a husband shared with other women; the position of the
childless wife.-Divorce; the initiation of divorce proceedings;
divorce in the case of the various types of marriage.-Other
aspects of the life of the adult after marriage.
Chapter XIX. Death and the Partial Burial ................ 352
Preparations for death, notification of the family and officials,
washing the body, preliminary mourning, the "first funeral."-
Mourning for the dead between the partial and definitive burials;
the consolation offeredmourners by their best friends and others.-
Preliminaries to the definitive burial.
Chapter XX. The Definitive Burial ........................ 368
Offerings given the dead by relatives, by friends.-Taking the
body throughthe village for final visits before entombment.-The
destruction of the FA and Legba of the dead.-The actual (final)
interment.-Ceremonies and offerings following the interment
until the end of the funeral ceremonies.
Chapter XXI. The Mourning Period ....................... 387
Ceremonies performed on the day after the definitive burial; the
purificatory rites for the mourners.-The ceremony held three
months after death; the sacrifice for the dead by his best friend.
-Other types of burial than the "basic" funeral considered; in
cases of violent, and of abnormal deaths.-The economic waste
and prestige value of the funeral as viewed by the Dahomeans.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO VOLUME ONE
NOTE: Illustrations Nos. 5a, llb, 18a and b, 22a, 52a, 36a and b,
38b, 40b, 52b, 55a and b, 72a, 75b, and 81b are reproduced by
the kind permission of M. T. G. Thi6vin, photographer of Whydah,
from whom they were acquired in 1931. All others of Dahomean
scenes were taken in the course of this fieldwork. The photographs
of pieces which were collected were taken by Mr. R. W. R. Capes
Aido Hwedo, with cult-objects used in the worship of Da, as
represented in applique cloth.
PLATE 1................................................ 32-33
a) Hoeing a field. Three representative workers.
b) Detail showing the manner in which the hoe is held and the
earth is turned.
PLATE 2. .. ............................................ 32-33
Hoeing. The unison with which these men work is to be
PLATE 3................................................. 48-49
a) Planting is done by members of the entire family.
b) The heel is employed to make the hole into which seeds of
maize aire dropped. Note how the ground between palm-trees
PLATE 4. ................................................... 48-49
a) Within the city, spaces between the road and compound walls
b) Maize grows high toward the end of the rainy season.
PLATE 5. ............ ......... ...................... 54-55
a) "The greatest scourge the Dahomean farmer fears is that of
b) "The palm-tree is ubiquitous in Dahomey."
PLATE 6 ............................................... 54-55
Brass figures representing hunters.
PLATE 7...................... ........................ 54-55
Appliqu6 cloth having a hunting scene for its motif.
PLATE 8................................................. 54-55
a) An iron-worker's forge.
b) The iron-workers are usually very strong men.
PLATE 9............................... ... ............ 54-55
a) The initial step in making a large pot; fashioning the upper
b) Shaping the rim of the pot.
PLATE 10 ................................................. 54-55
a) No wheel is used to determine the circumference or thickness of
b) The vessel three-quarters completed.
PLATE 11....... ....... ................. ................... 54-55
a) "The market is the principal medium for the distribution of
goods...." The Abomey market on a busy day.
b) The Whydah market in full swing.
PLATE 12......................................... .. .. 54-55
a) "There is a constant hubbub of conversation...."
b) "The vendors of a given commodity are grouped together with
their wares spread about them ..." Calabashes for sale.
PLATE 13............................................... 64-65
a) Iron standards, destined for the shrines sacred to the ancestors.
b) "The men who sell the materials needed for charms of all kinds
sit not far from the vendors of calabashes."
PLATE 14..................... ............. .... ............ 64-65
a) Digging out earth preparatory to making a wall.
b) Any work done by the D6kpwe is always accompanied by songs.
PLATE 15....... .......................... ... .............. 68-69
Appliqu6 cloth showing D6kpwb at work; the Dokpw6g4 and his
assistant, and the food for the feast.
PLATE 16 ................ .. ............. .................. 80-81
a) One task of the D6kpwe is the thatching of roofs; arranging
b) Each phase of the work is a contest; placing the framework.
PLATE 17........... ............... .. ........... ..... ... 80-81
a) Completing the frame for the thatch.
b) Beginning the thatching; each man on the roof has a helper
on the ground who keeps him supplied with thatch.
PLATE 18....................... .. ......... .. ... ....... 80-81
a) Dahomean weaving is of the strip variety.
b) A master jeweller at his forge.
PLATE 19...................... ..... ........ ............. 80-81
a) The wood-carver is the outstanding individualist in the regi-
mented civilisation of Dahomey. Fashioning a statuette with
b) The carver regards his piece to see that the proportions are
PLATE 20. ................................................ 96-97
a) A final scrutiny of the rough form.
b) Finishing off the head with a small hand-knife.
PLATE 21.. ................................... ...... .. . 96-97
a) Scene in a farming village.
b) An elderly woman not of the upper social strata.
PLATE 22................................................. 96-97
a) A middle-class mother and her child.
b) A group of middle-class folk.
PLATE 23. ............................. ...... ........... 96-97
a) The headman of a farming village.
b) The chief of the iron-workers' guild in Abomey.
PLATE 24. .................................................. 112-113
a) A member of the royal family, distantly related to the last King.
b) Dahomean chiefs, grandsons of King Glele.
PLATE 25. ................................................ 112-113
a) The late brother of King Behanzin, head of the royal family
at the time of his death.
b) The present chief of the royal sib and his favorite wives.
PLATE 26. ............................................... 128-129
a) The chief-priest of Dq at Whydah and three of his retainers.
b) The chief-priest in charge of the Xevioso temple at Xevi6.
PLATE 27. ................................................ 128-129
a) View outside a compound near Abomey.
b) Inside a compound of the village of DjidjA.
PLATE 28. ................................................ 144-145
a) Overlooking a compound in the city of Abomey.
b) A corner of the compound; houses where the wives of the
PLATE 29 ................................................ 144-145
a) Priests of Agasa at Allada.
b) Inside the compoundwhich contains the shrine to Agasi at Allada.
PLATE 30........................................... 160-161
A copy of an iron dance-gong used in the ceremonies for the royal
totem. The original is said to date from the time of KingAgadja.
PLATE 31................................................. 160-161
a) The chief-priest of the Nesdxwb cult in Abomey.
b) A woman in charge of a Nesfixw ceremony.
PLATE 32. .................. ............................ 224-225
a) The scene of the Nesfxwe ceremony; the magically protected
b) Bringing the principal drum to the place of the Nesdxwb cere-
PLATE 33 ..................... ............. .............. 224-225
a) The high stool and umbrella of the most important reincar-
b) "From time to time, young men clad in fine garments danced
about the cleared space with a kind of trotting step...."
PLATE 34. ........................................... 224-225
a) "Two of the dancers, who wore chiefs' caps and were garbed in
white, represented Dambada Hwedo, the ancient ancestors.... "
b) "The principal variation ... was a group dance which glorified
the conquests of the Dahomean Kings in which the ancestors
had taken part...."
PLATE 35 ........... ................................ 224-225
a) One of the temples for the royal toxo&u in Abomey.
b) Paintings on the wall of the temple for Zumadunu. (Cf. Le
Heriss6, plate XX).
PLATE 36 .......................................... 224-225
Dancers for gods of various categories at a ceremony in honor
of the Tohwiyd.
PLATE 37 ............................................ 224-225
Thunder cult initiates dance for their Tohwiy6 at a ceremony
given by their sib.
PLATE 38 .............................................. 240-241
a) Scene within an Abomey compound, headquarters of the local
8gq society. The masked figure, after being whipped by the
initiates, is seen retreating through the doorway.
b) "Hunters of the night" in costume at Whydah.
PLATE 39. ........................................... 240-241
Dahomean non-secret society banners.
PLATE 40. ............................................. 272-273
a) A Dahomean twin. Note the doll carried by this child, the
image of its deceased twin.
b) Forcible feeding of a baby is resorted to if necessary.
PLATE 41. ............................................ 272-273
A FA cup with the design of a mother feeding her infant.
PLATE 42. ............................................ 276-277
Appliqu6 cloth showing mother and twins, with the ceremonial
objects of the twin cult.
PLATE 43. ............................................ 288-289
a) A pair of twins grown to maturity.
b) This macrocephalic boy is regarded as a toxasu, and is not
ignored as he goes about asking for gifts.
PLATE 44. ............................................. 288-289
a) A group of Dahomean children.
b) A young girl helps her mother as she is able. Carrying clay
from the pit to the work-place of the potter.
PLATE 45 .............................................. 304-305
Front and rear views of a brass figure on which cicatrizations
PLATE 46................................................ 304-305
Dahomean chiefs and some of their younger and more favored
PLATE 47. ............ ................................... 384-385
a) The oldest son of a man recently dead, and members of the
b) Shaving the head of a mourner.
aThe mourners salute the spirit of the dead.
b)A cock is offered by the Dokpw6g4.
PLATE 49 ........................................... . 384-385
The societies to which the children of the. dead belong come to
sing songs in honor of the deceased several months after death
PLATE 50................................................ 384-385
a) A country village.
b) The village well.
NOTE ON PHONETICS
The system of rendering the phonetic values of Fg used in this work
is, with a few modifications, that suggested in the revised edition of
the Memorandum "Practical Orthography of African Languages"
issued by the International Institute of African Languages and Cul-
tures, and in that of the American Anthropological Association,
"Phonetic Transcription of Indian Languages." It is as follows:
Consonants: b, ch (as in English "church"), d, d (cerebral d, capitalized
D), dj (as English j in "judge"), f, g, gb, gbw, h, x (as ch in
Scottish "loch"), y (as g in colloquial German "lage"), k, kp,
kpw, 1, m, n, y (as ng in English "sing"), ny, p, r, s, sh (as in
English "shut"), t, v, w, y, z (as in English "zebia").
Vowels (the so-called "Italian" values are indicated unless otherwise
stated): a, a (as English a in "hat"), e (as English e in "met"),
e, 9 (as French ein "6t"), t (as English i in "hit"), i, a (as English
au in "author"), o, a (as French "eau"), u.
Nasalisation of vowels: q, q, f, 2, 4, ~, Q, q, u.
Diphthongs: a au, ei, oi, si.
Nasalisation of Diphtongs: ai, au, es, i, oi.
Long (doubled) vowels: a-, e-, etc.
Tone: high, d; middle, a; low, d.
high to low, d; high to middle, t; middle to high, d; middle to
low, 4; low to middle, 'a; low to high, d.
THE PEOPLE AND THEIR SETTING
Although at the end of the 18th century, the observation is made in
the preface to Dalzel's History of the Dahomean kingdom that
"from Whydah beach to Abomey... is perhaps the most beaten track,
by Europeans, of any in Africa," Dahomey has nevertheless long
stood in the minds of Europeans as one of the most exotic and least
known portions of the "dark continent." Fantastic tales of its wealth,
of the extravagance of its kings, of its battalions of women soldiers
-"Amazons," as they are termed-of the cruelty of the human
sacrifices which marked its religious rites dot the literature, and have
persisted in the face of the relatively numerous first-hand accounts
of life in the kingdom and its capital.1 It cannot be said, however,
that the published exaggerations concerning Dahomean life have
gone unchallenged. In 1864, Sir Richard Burton was impelled to
protest against such statements as appeared in The Saturday Review,2
which "gravely informs its readers that 'The King of Dahome has
lately been indulging in a sacrifice of 2000 human beings, simply in
deference to a national prejudice (!) and to keep up the good customs
of the country' (!!)."3 Ten years later Skertchly, whose detention by
King Glele left him with none too friendly a regard for the Dahomeans
and their ways, wrote that "Their name ... as a nation is perhaps
the best known of any West African tribe, and the most exaggerated
accounts have been published concerning them. For example, in a
recent periodical it was stated in good faith that the king of Dahomey
had just invented a new court costume composed of the 'labels off
medicine bottles'. Ex uno disce omnes!"' That this false picture
should exist for the European public is, however, not entirely without
explanation. It was a settled policy of the King of Dahomey to reveal
no more of his kingdom to foreigners than was necessary, and once in
SA volume entitled "Lobagola" is the most recent fantasy concerning Dahomey.
2 July 4, 1863. Burton, p. xiii. 4 pp. x-xi.
his capital, the European visitor was virtually, if not actually, a
prisoner until he received from the King his "pass" to return to
Whydah. Furthermore, the Dahomean state also maintained strict
control over the traders who operated on the coast, and consequently
though those who wrote of their experiences may have given sober
accounts of what they saw and heard, there was sufficient misunder-
standing of certain aspects of Dahomean life to foster sensational inter-
pretation. Thus the paradox has arisen of one of the most visited of West
African kingdoms bearing a reputation of being one of the least known.
What are the descriptions available for a study of the life of the
Dahomean kingdom prior to its conquest by the French in 189?
A brief review of the source material may be made at this point,
since these volumes contain important complementary data to the
ethnographic descriptions which form the bulk of this work. More
specifically, 'this body of data serves here initially a two-fold purpose.
On the one hand it provides information about the Dahomean king-
dom that may be placed beside observations of Dahomean culture
made in the field at the present time. On the other it furnishes a
picture of life under the kings of the Aladaxonu dynasty that may
be compared with that given by present-day Dahomeans out of their
knowledge of native tradition relating to the earlier days of the
kingdom. It must be recognized, moreover, .that historical materials
of this type hold a value that transcends their more obvious use as
control data, since relatively little is known of such matters as the
rate of cultural change in primitive civilisations, or the extent to
which folkloristic versions of ancient customs are founded on fact.
The information in these early volumes has therefore been utilized
as fully as possible, and investigation into the literature on Dahomey
has been considered an integral portion of this study. As with all
cultures, that of Dahomey is the product of its historic past; hence
the more this past can be recovered, the greater the insight with which
its civilisation today can be studied.
One of the earliest records of what is now Dahomey, written before
the Dahomean kings had conquered their way to the coast, is that of
William Bosman, a Dutch ship-captain.' Bosman, whose work con-
1 The full titles of these volumes, which will be referred to merely by the author's
last name, will be found in the bibliography. Another book, contemporaneous
with that of Bosman, which also treats of Whydah, though only in passing, is
that of Barbot. Burton, (vol. i, p. 17) also notes a work by Thomas Phillips,
(London, 1693-94), which he describes as "a quaint old log-book," which
"supplies a good account of independent Whydah." It has not been possible
to obtain a copy of this book, however.
THE PEOPLE AND THEIR SETTING
sists of letters sent to his principal in Europe, described life on the
West Coast of Africa as he knew it, devoting considerable space to the
kingdom and city of Whydah, which was later to become the sea-port
of Dahomey. Bosman's account, acknowledged by contemporary
writers to be accurate and trustworthy, gives a vivid picture of the
late seventeenth century coastal kingdom-an important one for
the slave-traders-detailing the prosperity of its well organised and
numerous population.1 By 1724 the Dahomean army had captured
the kingdom known in the old works as Ardra, the capital of which was
the present town of Allada. An agent of the British trading company
operating on the coast, Bullfinch Lambe by name, was stationed at
Allada, and was captured by the Dahomeans and taken to Abomey.
The first European to visit that city, a letter is on record from Bullfinch
Lambe to the governor of the English fort at Whydah asking for aid
looking toward his release. Two years after the capture of Ardra
(Allada), Captain William Snelgrave arrived at Whydah to find that
three weeks before-in February, 1726-the city had been taken
by the Dahomeans. Snelgrave, looking for slaves, sailed a short
distance down the coast to a seaport named Jacquin which, then
flourishing, was later sacrificed to the ambition of Dahomey and
exists not at all at the present time. He was summoned by the Daho-
mean king to proceed under escort to Allada, and he gives the first
detailed account of the court ceremonial.
In 1744 the report of William Smith, a surveyor for the Royal
African Company, dealing with the peoples of the Guinea coast,
which he had visited in 1726, was posthumously published. His
account was followed, in 1789, by that of Robert Norris, who visited
the court of the King in an endeavor to facilitate slave-trading with
him. Between the visits of Smith and Norris, about 1760, a writer
named Atkins seems also to have gone to Abomey, but no trace of his
report could be found. Archibald Dalzel's "History," the next volume
of the series, published in 1793, gives a useful compilation of the works
of the earlier writers, and, in fact, reprints the major portion of
Norris' book. Dr. John M'Leod published his book in 1820, and this
was followed by the books of Captain John Adams and, more im-
portantly, of John Duncan, an ex-soldier, who had earlier been a
member of the ill-fated Niger expedition. Duncan's work is notable
because of his description of the country north of the city of Abomey.
1 FoA (pp. 269-270) tells how, in 1670, an ambassador from the King of Ardra
was received at the court of King.Louis XIV.
The Kong Mountains had long attracted the Europeans who had
seen them from the plateau of Abomey, but Duncan was the first to
reach them. Forbes' book, in 1851, follows that of Duncan, and in 1861
the first modern French account of Dahomey, written by a M. Wallon,
The next of the series, that of Commodore Wilmot of the British
Royal Navy, who, sent on a mission to Dahomey in 1862-63,
reported his discoveries to the House of Commons, is more significant
for one of its results than for its findings. For, on the basis of this
report, it was determined to send another mission to treat with King
Glele regarding the suppression of Dahomean slaving, and the leader
of this mission was the scholar and explorer, Captain, later Sir Richard,
Burton. Burton's book is the most valuable of all the long series of
works on Dahomey which preceded his. Possessed of great linguistic
ability, and fascinated by Fo, the language of Dahomey, he gives the
firAt comprehensible translations of the Dahomean names, and by far
the best phonetic transcriptions of his time. He had considerable
freedom to observe what was of interest to him, for, like many African
potentates, the reigning King was eager to have the facts about his
kingdom "put in a book," and Burton made the most of his opportuni-
ties. How careful were his analyses of Dahomean custom and belief
will be seen from the numerous references to his work in the pages
that follow. Eight years later, in 1871, J. A. Skertchly came to the
West Coast of Africa to collect entymological specimens. When he
arrived at Whydah, he was invited to Abomey for an eight-day visit to
instruct the King's troops in the use of a certain new type of gun. The
King, however, took a fancy to Skertchly, so that not eight days, but
eight months elapsed before he was permitted to descend to the coast.
He, too, explored the country to the north of Abomey, and during his
stay in the capital, like several earlier writers, he witnessed the annual
customs for the royal ancestors. His book is followed, in 1873, by that
of La Fitte.
In Skertchly's day, the slave-trade had finally been put down, but
the Dahomean policy of territorial expansion by conquest was the
cause of conflict with European governments whose traders operated
along the West African Coast. By 1890, the situation between the
French and the Dahomeans had become tense. On February 24, 1890,
1 This account, also mentioned by Burton (vol. i, p. 26, note 2) was, like that of
Phillips, not to be found. Burton, however, felt that the data given by
M. Wallon represented great distortion of fact.
THE PEOPLE AND THEIR SETTING
a group of nine Frenchmen were captured and later taken to Abomey.
The following year one of these, M. Chaudoin, published an account
of his three months' captivity, giving a description of conditions within
the kingdom immediately prior to its conquest. In 1890, a description
of the Ewe-speaking peoples, by A. B. Ellis, appeared. This work,
however, is of little value to one who has access to Burton and Skertchly,
on whose accounts it is almost entirely based. In 1895 a volume by
Edouard Foa was published, which though purporting to be descriptive
of Dahomey, treats almost entirely of the coastal peoples, especially
those of Porto Novo whose culture is more Yoruban than Dahomean.
Neither of these last two works, therefore, are of more than passing
interest for an understanding of Dahomean life. Some years after
the French conquest of Dahomey came the most recent addition to
this list of sources on Dahomean life, the contribution of Le Heriss6,
which was published in 1914, after the author had had some years of
contact with the Dahomean people as Administrator and Resident
in Abomey. Working under great handicaps as representative of a
conquering people, he nevertheless gained the confidence of several
Dahomeans and his analysis of Dahomean culture constitutes the
only systematic treatment to date of any adequateness.
It is characteristic of practically all the earlier writers that they
were fully cognizant of the accounts that preceded theirs. From the
time of Snelgrave to that of Skertchly, reference to the writings of
each author's predecessors is the rule. There is, consequently, a
constant checking and re-evaluation of earlier statements, which
materially enhances the usefulness of the data contained in these
works for modern scientific analysis. The early writers were captains
of slaving vessels, travellers,e-enical c-imis'o-nea of
Euupu ales,an t eet are with butfew exceptions the
day by day record 01their experiences and impression, ept the
volumes of Els7 Foandi eHeriss6 there is no a
systenicid- eau ie. All the writers were so
impressed by the complexity of the polfcTifTga-i-natiorn nd-the
s ~reittiof-the -montarchy J -t~-E".tih ions oth -Kigy-hisn -vPes,
I-lproprty, of the ceremonies associated with the royalUacesatral
cult, of the organisation of the officialdom of the kingdomad of the
ai-ny--trcupy-4heao-major portn iof tii rks; and relatively little is to
ie -gleaeduouii rmnifgthe daily life of the Dahomeans. Burton and
Skertchly, it is true, devoted space to the religious life, as did Le
Heriss6, who, in addition, studied the social organisation of Dahomey.
But, in the main, the modern ethnologist finds, despite the high
calibre of these works, only inferential evidence for the study of what
today is of far greater importance than the political administration of
a kingdom-the life of the people.
The area of the present political division of Dahomey is greater than
that of the pre-conquest kingdom. Duncan, during the escapade which
took him almost to the river Niger, was never outside the boundaries
of the present French colony of Dahomey, yet he was far beyond the
region over which the Dahomean King exercised control. The bound-
aries of the pre-conquest kingdom must therefore not be confused
with the limits of the colony of Dahomey as it is now constituted.
These boundaries at the present time comprise the regions about
Porto Novo and Cotonou which were never under the control of the
native kingdom, and, similarly, the eastern and western fringes of
the present colony which were also only nominally a part of the
Dahomean state. At its height it never attained a more northerly
spread than the eighth parallel north of the equator: in the words of
"En profondeur, il s'6tendait sur plus de 200 kilometres, depuis la
mer jusqu'aux Monts des Mahis; en larger, il ne d6passait pas les
deux lignes, presque paralleles, duKoufo Al'ouest etde l'Ouem6 a l'est."'
Burton has assessed the early estimates of the Dahomean kingdom,
and feeling that the extent and population of the kingdom "have been
grossly exaggerated," he takes up the statements of Dr. M'Leod "who
never left Whydah," Commander Forbes, and others who, he says:
"... have assigned... [to Dahomey]... the wide region between
the so-called Kong Mountains on the north, and the Bight of Benin on
the south, a depth of two hundred miles. The rivers and lagoons of
Lagos, others say the Niger, are made the eastern, while the Volta
River and the Ashantis become the western frontier. This gives a
breadth of one hundred and eighty, making a total area of 36,000
"Such boundaries may have been, although I greatly doubt them:
now we must reduce Dahome to nearly one-tenth. Her northern
frontier, bordering on the Makhis, is a water called Tevi, eighteen hours
of hammock, equal to forty miles, from Agbome, giving a maximum
direct distance of one hundred miles. On the north-eastward, beyond
the tributary Agoni tribes, are the Iketu and other Nagos or Yorubans,
THE PEOPLE AND THEIR SETTING
who have been plundered, but never subjected. To the northwestward
are the semi-independent races of Aja, of Attakpame, and others. The
extreme extent, fifty miles, narrows towards the south, giving the
province a pyriform shape. The base between Godome or Jackin, the
easternmost settlement, and the frontier between Whydah and the
turbulent independent Popos, cannot exceed twenty-five to thirty
miles. Assuming, therefore, forty miles as the medium breadth, we
obtain a superficies of 4000 square miles. Moreover, as has been shown,
this small black Sparta is hedged in by hostile accolents. 'Porto Novo'
and Badagry, to the eastward, have fallen into European hands, whilst
the Popo republics, on the west, are safe in their marshes. The people
of Agwe 'came in' last year, and were received by the King, but they
will add an element of weakness."1
Yet, when we investigate some of the statements, such as that of
M'Leod, we find that they were not in as great error as might be
"Dahomy, including the subjugated districts, extends at least a
hundred and fifty miles into the interior; its breadth is not well
ascertained. The sea-coast is in 60 12' north latitude, more or less, for
no very correct survey of this coast has ever appeared. Abomey, the
capital, lies from eighty to ninety miles north, a little westerly of this,
in about 30 east longitude.
"It is bounded by the Mahee and Ashantee countries to the north-
ward and westward; by Eyeo, to the northeast; Popoe is on the south-
west side; and several inconsiderable states, such as Jacquin and
Badagry, intervene between it and the kingdom of Benin, to the south-
Duncan is the first to mark the limits of the northern boundary of
Dahomey with any definiteness, and notes "Savalou," "Jalakoo,"
and the country of the Maxi as the outposts of the Dahomean empire
in this direction. Respect for the prowess of the King of Dahomey was
as prevalent among the powerful peoples of the north as it was nearer
the coast, however, and Duncan tells how, when he had an interview
with the King of Koma:
"a great many questions were... put to me as to how I happened
to come to Abomey, and if I had seen that great warrior, the King of
Skertchly gives what is perhaps the most specific contemporary
version of the area of Dahomey:
"The Kingdom of Dahomey is generally understood to include the
country between the River Volta in Long. 00 56" East, on the West,
and Badagary in Long. 20 53" East, on the East, and to extend north-
wards to the Kong Mountains, in about 8 deg. North Latitude. It
SVol. ii, pp. 154-155.
2 pp. 15-16.
" Vol. ii, pp. 95-96.
therefore has, according to this estimate, an area of about 15,000 sqare
miles. The actual coast line, however, extends only from Mount
Pulloy, a few miles to the west of Whydah, to Godome, about ten
miles to the eastward of that port. The boundaries are very vague,
and the jurisdiction of the King is but nominal anywhere except in the
district immediately surrounding the capital, so that the extent of
country over which the King possesses actual authority may be roughly
estimated at 4,000 square miles."'
Within this area, the people represent a unit, both culturally and
ethnically. For even though, from the earliest days, reference is made
to the various "kingdoms" found in the region, it is well to recognize
that Bosman's and Snelgrave's kingdom of Whydah had a coast line
of perhaps not more than fifteen miles and an interior depth not
exceeding twenty, that the neighboring kingdoms of Jacquin on the
east and of Popo on the West were similarly restricted in size, while
the oft-mentioned kingdom of Ardra-the present Allada-was not
much greater, and consequently one soon learns to qualify the ethno-
graphic importance of these political divisions.2
There can be no question that minor differences exist today, as
they did exist, between the cultures of the various peoples who com-
prised the Dahomean state. There are differences in speech, but
these are of a dialectic character; differences in religious belief, but
merely in the names of deities or the emphasis placed on a particular
deity; and so for all phases of culture. The most significant difference
within the kingdom were those to the north, though even here the rule
of the Dahomeans never extended into the country of the Mahomme-
dan peoples. The "true" Dahomey, however, was recognized in
-re-conquest days, as it is recognized today, as the restricted region
-immediately about Abomey, with the subsidiary area that centers
-aboutAllada. Abomey and its vicinity constituted the center of
power. Here the "Amazons" had their headquarters, here artisans and
artists lived and worked under the control of their monarch. And as
with any capital, Abomey benefited from the large revenues which,
as will be seen, accrued so plentifully to the Dahomean throne. In
Allada the kings of Dahomey were crowned, and, as is frequently
stated in the literature as well as in contemporary native tradition, the
ruling dynasty of Dahomey originated there, and took its name,
Aladaxonu-"ancient people of Allada"-from that of the city. In
1 p. 36.
2 FoA (pp. 37-38) holds that the Kingdom of Ardra stretched eastward from
its capital, Allada, as far as and including the present city of Porto Novo.
THE PEOPLE AND THEIR SETTING
Whydah, also, the essentially Dahomean character of the culture is
apparent. Despite its long contact with Europeans, it remains im-
pressively Dahomean to this day. As the only port of the kingdom,
it was an important and populous center of control, and hence, with
Allada, is to be regarded as one of the three principal cities where
Dahomean culture may be observed in its purest form.'
Recorded European contact with the Dahomean kingdom began
toward the end of the 17th century, and since the publication of
Dalzel's History, several writers have supplied lists of the Dahomean
kings. The tabulation on page 13 presents those available. That of
Norris and Dalzel is first given, then that of Burton and Skertchly, for
the latter had obviously derived his catalogue from Burton (who,
though he based some of his findings on the "History, "also checked
with native tradition); finally, those of FoA and Le Heriss6,the most
recent, are cited.
These catalogues of the Dahomean Kings show a high degree of
correspondence. That they do not show a greater one is due to the
fact that every Dahomean monarch, as, indeed, every West African
individual of any standing, possesses not one, but a large number of
names. The "Aho" of Burton, Skertchly, and FoA was in all probabi-
lity the "Oudgbadja" of Le Heriss6, for the word axo is a Dahomean
term for prince. The Adahoonzou of the oldest list is not unlikely one
of that King's "strong" names, for all the dates except those of Foa's
list coincide with but one exception, namely, that neither Skertchly
nor Burton include Adanzan, who in Le Heriss6's account, is said to
have usurped his brother's power, and to have reigned from 1797
to 1818. The reason for the omission in Burton's account-which
is the reason for its omission in Skertchly's-is explained by Burton
in his discussion of Agongolo, the seventh king, where he refers to
M'Leod's report as follows:
"Dr. M'Leod's Voyage to Africa so confuses dates and documents
between 1803, the year of his visiting Dahome, and 1820, that it is
1 It was for these reasons that the field-work reported on in this volume was
carried on in these three cities, the work being concentrated in Abomey, the
center of Dahomean civilisation, with subsidiary investigations at the other
two important localities. In these pages, however, the term "Dahomey" is
employed in the strict native sense, and refers to the "real Dahomey"-to
Abomey and its immediate vicinity-unless specific exception is noted.
impossible to make out from his pages the date of Agongoro's demise.
He says, 'an instance of this sort (i.e., setting aside the eldest son and
heir) occurred, however, at the demise of the late King, Wheenoohew
(Agongoro), when the eldest son's right of primogeniture was disallowed
because one of his toes, from some accident, overlapped the other
(Commander Forbes calls it a club-foot); and his next brother, the
present King, who, with respect to form, is certainly "a marvellous
proper man," was elected in his stead.'
"This seems to point to King Gezo, but as I have stated, Dr. M'Leod,
though repeatedly alluding to the reigning monarch, never quotes his
name. Captain John Adams (Remarks on the Country from Cape
Palmas to the River Congo: Whittaker & Co., London, 1823) leaves us
in equal ignorance, perhaps for the same reason, viz., that he did not
know it himself.
"Gaze, being a man with a peaceful character, and afflicted with
gibbosity, yielded his throne to a younger brother, Gezo, who therefore
was not, as Commander Forbes stated (Chapter I.), a usurper, and
died on July 24, 1861. Another brother, Adanzan, raised, as is custom-
ary, a mutiny: he was put down, and still, I believe, survives, a state
The last sentence gives us the explanation for the hiatus, for if
Adanzan was still living in 1863, no Dahomean would dare mention
the fact. The traditional account, however, agrees with Le Herisse's
version, which, in the above tabulation, has been filled in to account
for the time between 1797, which is given as the death of Agongolo
by Le Heriss6, and 1818, the date of the accession of Gezo. Le Herissb's
comments on this may be quoted:
"On verra que Gh6z6 n'est pas le successeur d'Agongolo. II chassa
du tr6ne son frere Adanzan, don't les atrocit6s et les injustices avaient
lass6 les Dahom6ens et don't le nom a 6t6 ray6 A tout jamais de la
dynastie. II avait eu auparavant a supporter les haines des partisans
d'Adanzan; mais il avait r6sistg a toutes les attaques."2
The Dahomeans at the present time do not hesitate to speak of the
cruel Adanzan who, taking the regency during the minority of Gezo,
so loved power that there was no extreme to which he would not go
to maintain it. All the recent writers who have dealt with the history
of the Dahomean succession seem, moreover, to have overlooked a
passage in Forbes which, written in 1851, substantiates native tradition
concerning the reign of this King. Forbes states that Agongolo:
"was succeeded by his son, Adanzah, whose fate is uncertain;
1 Vol. ii, pp. 291-293.
2 p. 19. The fullest account of Adanzan's usurpation of the throne, and how Gezo
gained his rights as King, is contained in FoA, pp. 18-21. Unfortunately, the
reliability of this vivid description is not such as to permit it wholly to be
red Abomey c. 1625
Adahoonzou1 c. 1650
Adahoonzou II 1774-1789
Adonozan 1774-1808 Kpengla
Guezou 1808-1858 Gh&z6
Gl116 1858-1889 Gl616
Gb6dass6 1889-18939 Gb6hanzifi
1 It is quite possible that Burton's and Skertchly's failure to obtain the name "Adahoonzou" in their lists of kings is
because during the time of Gezo and Glele the very name of this usurper was forbidden to be spoken, and hence other
names of this King were employed. 2 Lambe gives his name as Trudo Audati. 3 This was his "princely" name. -
4 Skertchly gives "Daho." 5 Skertchly gives "Mpengula." 6 Skertchly gives "Agongolu." -7 See Burton, vol. ii, pp. 290-291.
Sp. 11. FoA's comment on this name is as follows: "On a change ce nom en B6danzin, B6dassin, B6hanzin, etc.; il
s'appelle aussi Aidjere. Tous ces noms de rois ont, A peu de chose pros, la m6me signification. C'est la traduction d'adjectifs
tels que le Puissant, le Grand, le Fort, le Courageux, le Fatigu6, le Mis6ricordieux, le Dangereux, 1'Immense, etc." 10 The
French orthography, as given by Le Heriss6, is retained in this column, as in the one preceding. 1 Le Herissa, p. 13,
reconciles the name "Ou6gbadja" with "Aho." 12 Mentioned by Le Heriss6, but not in his list; given, however, in native
tradition. Is This King was set up by the French, but is not recognized in native Dahomean tradition, which otherwise
coincides with Le Heriss6's list.
generally hated, he was, by the will of the people, deposed, and Gezo
reigns in his stead."1
The same writer also gives the details of the deposition of Adanzan:
"On-Sih, king of Jena, died, and the heir-apparent, Dekkon, hated
and rejected by the chiefs and people, fled for protection to Abomey.
Adonajah, king of Dahomey, received him with regal state, but refused
to march an army to assist him. Adonajah's mother was a Jena woman.
The chance of so fruitful a slave hunt was too tempting to the Dahoman
people: already disgusted with the cruelties of their monarch, they,
with one consent, called his next brother, Gezo, to the throne; and
Adonajah, seized in his harem, was confined in his palace; where, it
is said, he remains to this day, a drunkard and a sensualist, enjoying
every luxury money can purchase or war seize; wanting, however, the
two great desires of our nature-liberty and power. The new monarch
instantly headed an army, and marched on what was expected an
easy conquest, attended by Dekkon."2
According to native tradition, Adanzan stopped only at the murder
of Gezo, who had been named by his father as heir to the throne.3
In the ritual of the royal ancestral cult, the names of those members
of the royal family who were sold into slavery are called and the places
to which slaves are supposed to have been sent are named. This latter
knowledge, the Dahomeans state, is derived from the experience of the
mother of Gezo who with numerous retainers was herself sold into
slavery shortly after Adanzan took over power, with the end in view
of withholding from Gezo the counsel of those who would most favor
his gaining the place destined for him.4 The accession of Gezo in 1818,
however, is well established, and there are no difficulties after that
time. The last king in Le Heriss6's list, Ago-li-agbo, is not recognized
by the Dahomeans themselves, who say that he was merely a puppet
of the European occupation and that the dynasty ceased ruling when
Behanzin was conquered in 1892.
It is not necessary to do more than sketch here some of the im-
portant episodes in the expansion of the kingdom, for the history of
1 Vol. ii. p. 89. 2 Forbes, vol. ii, pp. 24-25.
3 The native traditional account of Adanzan's reign is given in Le Herisse,
pp. 311-318. Le Heriss6 remarks (p. 318, note 1), "Adanzan aurait v6cu en
prison jusqu'au temps de Gle16." This supports Burton's statement quoted
4 See M. J. and F. S. Herskovits (II), for the details of the tradition concerning
the selling of Gezo's mother.
THE PEOPLE AND THEIR SETTING
the growth of Dahomey has been recounted in almost all of the
chronicles since the time of Dalzel.1 The history of the actual founding
of the kingdom is not known. The first mention of the Dahomeans
is made by Barbot and Bosman, who speak of the power of an un-
named kingdom to the north of Whydah and Ardra (Allada). In the
myth which recounts the slow conquest of the plateau of Abomey by
the Aladax6niA dynasty, an "historical" explanation of the origin of
the name Dahomey is given, and such is the vitality of this tale that
there is little difference between Norris' version of 1789, Le Heriss6's
rendition of 1914, variants published in the interim, and the myth as
given in Abomey in 1931.2 Norris may be quoted here:
"The Dahomans, but little more than a century ago, were an
inconsiderable nation; formidable however to their neighbours, for
their valour and military skill: they were then known by the name of
Foys; and the town of Dawhee, which lies between Calmina and
Abomey, was the capital of their small territory.
"Early in the last century, Tacoodonou, chief of the Foy nation,
basely murdered, in violation of the sacred laws of hospitality, a
sovereign prince his neighbour, who made him a friendly visit to
honor one of his festivals: he then attacked and took Calmina, the
capital of the deceased: strengthened by this acquisition, he ventured
to wage war with Da, king of Abomey, whom he besieged in his
capital, which he soon reduced; and in consequence of a vow, that he
made during the seige, put Da to death, by cutting open his belly; and
placed his body under the foundation of a palace that he built in
Abomey, as a memorial of his victory; which he called Dahomy, from
Da the unfortunate victim and Homy his belly; that is, a house built
in Da's belly.
"Tacoodonou after this conquest fixed his residence at Abomey, and
assumed the title of King of Dahomy; of which the cruel circumstance
just mentioned gives the true etymology; and from thence also the
Foys,3 his subjects, are generally called Dahomans: in the country
indeed the old name of Foys prevails; but to Europeans I believe, they
are only known by the name of Dahomans.
"Thus Tacoodonou established the Dahoman empire, which about
a century afterwards his illustrious descendant Guadja Trudo4 aggrand-
SThe best account of the political history of Dahomey is contained in Burton,
Appendix IV, vol. ii, pp. 265-302, "Catalog of the Dahoman Kings," where
the dates of their various exploits, their "strong" names, and the events of
their reigns are to be found in convenient tabular form. The "Histoire du
Dahomey Racont6e par un Indig6ne," which comprises the last portion of Le
Heriss6's volume (Ch. XII, pp. 271-352) is also of first importance, since it
contains much of native tradition and presents the Dahomean's point of view
toward the growth and decay of the kingdom.
2 Cf. among others, Dalzel, pp. 1-2, Burton, vol. i, p. 105, and Le HerissB, p. 288.
3 The present Fo, and the Efons of Burton. 4 Agadja.
ized, by subduing various kingdoms and adding Whydah to his
dominions, in the year 1727; the conquest of which is particularly
related by Snelgrave, Atkins and others."1
Though history knows little of the early kings, native tradition is
greatly concerned with them.2 The second King, Hwegbadja, is
especially important, for not only did his exploits consolidate the
conquest of the plateau of Abomey, but to him is assigned also the
rble of Dahomean culture-hero.3 The following short tale records two
of his most revered accomplishments:
In Hwsgbadja's time a chief named Aidopaxe lived in Kana, who
before he would allow a body to be buried, demanded a tribute.
People could not afford this, and so they would take the bark of the
silk-cotton tree, wrap the body of their dead relative in that, and
throw it into the bush. When they had done this, the enemies of the
man who had died would come at night, cut off the head from the
body, and the next morning they would exhibit the skull of their dead
enemy under their feet. Now Hwegbadja, when he came to Kana, saw
that the people wore only loin-cloths, and buried their dead in this
manner. He brought a weaver, who taught the people to weave large
cloths in which to bury their dead, and other cloths which they might
wear. Hwegbadja conquered Aidopaxe, and decreed that from that
time onwards the dead should be buried in the ground, and the body
of the deceased should be wrapped in a funeral cloth. Since that day
the body of a dead man has been safe from the vengeance of his
enemies, and the Dahomeans have known how to weave cloths.
The conquests of Hwegbadja were extended by his son, Akaba, the last
King to rule before historic contact with Dahomey was established.
Akaba's successor, Agadja, extended the limits of the kingdom to
the sea, so that his graphic symbol, as modelled in bas-relief on the
walls of the palace at Abomey, is the representation of a European
vessel.4 Norris summarizes the political and economic exigencies that
dictated the expansion of Dahomey southward as follows:
"I knew many of the old Whydasians as well as Dahomans who were
present when Trudo attacked that kingdom. They attributed his
enterprise solely to the desire of extending his dominions, and of
enjoying at the first hand, those commodities which he had been used
to purchase of the Whydasians, who were in possession of the coast.
1 Norris, pp. xiii-xiv. 2 Cf. Le Herisas, pp. 279-294.
a In the version of the tale quoted from Norris which was recorded during the
field-work being reported on here, it is Hwegbadja who cut open the belly of
De, and thus established Dahomey, not Dako. The same is true of Le Heriss6's
rendition of this tale. 4 Le Heriss6, plate 1; Waterlot, plate Vb.
THE PEOPLE AND THEIR SETTING
Trudo had solicited permission from the king of Whydah to enjoy a
free commercial passage through his country to the sea side, on con-
dition of paying the usual customs upon slaves exported; this was
peremptorily refused by the king of Whydah; and in consequence of
this refusal, Trudo determined to obtain his purpose by force of arms:
he succeeded in the attempt, and exterminated a great part of the
inhabitants. His conquest of the adjoining kingdom of Ardra
facilitated the acquisition of the other."1
Bullfinche Lambe's letter from Abomey provides an excellent account
of the surprise attack by means of which the Dahomeans, under
Agadja, achieved their conquest over Allada, a conquest which, as
Norris remarks, placed them in direct contact with the kingdom of
Whydah, soon to be overcome.2 After subduing the maritime coun-
try of Jacquin, Agadja returned to Abomey, remaining there until
1727. Early in that year he captured Savi, the capital of the king-
dom of Whydah, later taking the city of Whydah itself. It is not
necessary to recount here how the dissolute King of Whydah, relying
on the power of his snake deity rather than on the force of arms,
made it possible for a small detachment of Dahomean soldiers to
effect the capture of his city, for this is detailed in all of the earlier
works on Dahomey.3 What is important is the fact that this opened
the way to the sea and to unrestrained trading contacts with Europeans,
and gained for Agadja the right to sell his slaves directly to the
captains of the slave vessels who called at the port, and from them to
get, without paying the duties imposed by an intervening power, the
European goods he valued so highly.
About three weeks after the capture of Whydah, Captain Snelgrave
in the Catherine Galley came to that port.4 Since trading had become
unsettled because of military operations, he proceeded to Jacquin, and
while there received an invitation to go to Allada to see the King. In
his book he tells of his reception, narrating details of the court cere-
monial that are to be seen at the present time in the courts of the
chiefs who, to the best of their power, retain the traditions of the
"Next morning, at nine a Clock, an Officer came from the King to
acquaint us, we should have an Audience forthwith. Accordingly we
1 p. x. See also Snelgrave, pp. 5-6.
2 This letter from Bullfinche Lambe, dated at Abomey, November 27, 1724, is
reprinted in Smith, "New Voyage to Guinea"; and also in Forbes, "Dahomey
and the Dahomans." The account of the taking of Allada in the Smith volume
is on pages 185-189.
8 Especially Snelgrave, pp. 9-18. Snelgrave, pp. 19-22.
prepared our selves; and then going to the King's Gate, were soon after
introduced into his Presence. His Majesty was in a large Court palis-
adoed round, sitting contraryy to the Custom of the Country) on a
fine gilt Chair, which he had taken from the King of Whidaw. There
were held over his Head, by Women, three large Umbrellas, to shade
him from the Sun: and four other Women stood beside the Chair of
State, with Fusils on their Shoulders. I observed, the Women were
finely dressed from the middle downward, (the Custom of the country
being not to cover the Body upward, of either Sex); moreover they had
on their Arms, many large Manelloes, or Rings of Gold of great Value,
and round their Necks, and in their Hair, abundance of their Country
Jewels, which are a sort of Beads of divers Colours, brought from a far
inland Country, where they are dug out of the Earth, and in the same
Esteem with the Negroes, as Diamonds amongst the Europeans.
"The King had a Gown on, flowered with Gold, which reached as
low as his Ancles; an European embroidered Hat on his Head; with
Sandals on his Feet. We being brought within ten yards of the Chair
of State, were desired to stand still."'
His account of the appearance of a Dahomean king, the first on
record, is worthy of quotation:
"As we were almost five hours so near the King, I had a good
opportunity of taking an exact View of him. He was middle-sized, and
full bodied; and, as near as I could judge, about forty-five years old:
His Face was pitted with Small Pox; nevertheless, there was something
in his Countenance very taking, and withal majestick. Upon the whole,
I found him the most extraordinary Man of his Colour, that I had ever
conversed with, having seen nothing in him that appeared barbarous,
except the sacrificing of his Enemies; which the Portuguese Gentleman
told me, he believed was done out of Policy; neither did he eat human
The conquest of Whydah, however, was far from achieved by the
initial victory, for the inhabitants who had fled to the islands of the
lagoon near.Little Popo intrigued with the Europeans to regain their
hegemony. It is again unnecessary to detail the operations which
ensued, nor need the occasions when the Europeans, aiding one side
or the other, helped to decide the issue, be discussed here. Agadja
continued his military operations, defeating the "Toffoe" people and
also conquering the Maxi. During his reign he was constantly harassed
by the threat of the Oyo people-a people who have given the chronic-
lers much difficulty, but who may be safely identified as the present-
day northern Yoruban peoples of western Nigeria.
2 p. 75.
THE PEOPLE AND THEIR SETTING
Tegbesu, who succeed Agadja, was similarly troubled by the Oyo,
and in 1738 Abomey itself was captured by them.1 From that day
until the time of Gezo, they exacted an annualtribute of theDahomeans
which according to native tradition not only took the form of goods and
money, but of a stipulated number of young men and women who
were sent to the King of Oyo as slaves.2 In 1772 Tegbesu was visited
by Norris. The words of Norris, an eyewitness, describe the ceremonial
surrounding his reception by Tegbesu as well as the person of the King
"I was received at the door by Mayhou3; on each side of it was a
human head, recently cut off, lying on a flat stone, with the face down,
and the bloody end of the neck towards the entrance. In the guard
house were about forty women, armed with a musket and cutlass each;
and twenty eunuchs, with bright iron rods in their hands; one of
whom slipped away, to announce my arrival; and Mayhou, walking
cautiously forward, conducted me through the first court to a door,
near which were two more heads; where, he prostrated himself, and
kissed the ground; on which it was opened by a female, and we entered
a second court, two sides of which were formed by long shady piazzas:
in this we were met by Tamegah4 and Eubigah,5 who, with Mayhou,
frequently knelt down, and kissed the ground, pronouncing aloud some
of the king's titles, as we walked across this court, in which were
ranged six human heads. From this we passed through a third door
into the court, where the king was seated, on a handsome chair of
crimson velvet, ornamented with gold fringe, placed on a carpet, in a
spacious cook piazza, which occupied one side of the court. He was
smoking tobacco, and had on a gold laced hat, with a plume of ostrich
feathers; he wore a rich crimson damask robe, wrapped loosely round
him; yellow slippers, and no stockings: several women were employed
fanning him, and others with whisks, to chase away the flies: one
woman, on her knees before him, held a gold cup, for him to spit in.
"When the door, which led into this court was opened, Temegah
and his two companions immediately fell down, rubbed their foreheads
in the dust, kissed the ground repeatedly, and approached the king
crawling on their hands and knees, prostrating themselves frequently,
1 Norris, pp. 11-16 (Dalzel, pp. 71-75), gives an account of these operations
and later developments resulting from them.
2 One Dahomean tale was collected which tells how a prince, included among
those sent as tribute to Dyo (forty-one men and forty-one women is the tradi-
tional number) returns to Abomey, instructs his father how to poison the river
from which the Oyo obtain their water, and thus makes possible a victory over
them. See Burton, vol. i, p. 130, for comments on who the Oyo people were,
and vol. ii, p. 273, for a statement that the annual tribute was begun in 1747.
8 The Mefi was second of the King's officials, being ranked only by the Mjgg.
4 This official is probably the Tamega.
5 The Yovog4, or "White Man's Chief," represented the King at Whydah and
ru ed over the European factors who had trading stations there.
and throwing the dust plentifully with both hands upon their heads;
had it been mud from preceding rain, the same ceremony would have
Another short note describing Tsgbesu is also given by Dalzel who
"In 1766, when I was at the court of Ahadee, he appeared to me to
be about seventy. His person was rather tall, he was graceful in his
manners, and very polite to strangers, though the dread and terror of
his own subjects."2
Kpengla, the next King, continued the policy of expansion, but in
spite of extensive manoeuvering was unable to throw off the yoke of
the Oyo. There are several non-political incidents told of him which
show how closely he held his people to his desires. In 1779, feeling
that the roadway from Whydah to Abomey was not adequate to
permit easy transit for slaves to the coast and goods into the interior,
he gave each of his chiefs a string measuring some thirty feet, with
instructions to so widen the road in the district under his control.3 This
was achieved even though it involved putting the road through the
great swamps which lie between Allada and Abomey, and in 1863
Burton found remains of this work of 1780.4 During this same reign
a severe earthquake occurred in Abomey and Kana.5 The death of
Kpengla, caused by small-pox, is of significance because of the im-
plications such a death holds in the religious ideology of the Daho-
means.6 It will be remembered that in his description of Agadja,
Snelgrave mentions the fact that this king's face was pitted by small-
pox, and it will be seen that Kpengla was not the last King to die of
the disease. Small wonder, then, that the small-pox cult was not
cordially regarded by the Dahomean monarchs; that the cult houses
were compelled to be established outside the city walls on the ground
that "two kings cannot rule in one city"-for small-pox in its
association with the earth deities, is conceived as the scourge of the
"King of the earth."7
1 Norris, pp. 94,-95. (This is also given in Dalzel, pp. 126-127.)
2 p. 149. Norris, pp. 127-128, and Dalzel, pp. 148-149, give an account of the
last days of Tegbesu.
s Dalzel, pp. 170-171, gives the details of this undertaking.
Cf. Burton, vol. i, p. 115. The present motor road from Allada to Abomey
follows the route laid down by this King.
6 Dalzel, p. 206, notes this earthquake.
B See Dalzel, p. 203, for an account of Kpengla's death.
7 Burton, vol. i, p. 157, note 1, discusses the toll which small-pox took of the
THE PEOPLE AND THEIR SETTING 2
The events of Agongolo's reign have been summarized by Burton,
who remarks that Agongolo "is known to history as one of the most
ufrtunate of 'nnmn mrT-n. o first-hand report of the
actual appearance of this King is available, nor can any be had of that
of his illegal successor, Adanzan, since no European visitor who has
recorded his impressions visited Abomey during the reign of the latter
ruler. The only comment on him to be found in the literature is the
quotation already given from Forbes. With the accession of Gezo,
however, the fortunes of the Aladaxonu dynasty rose. In 1827, seven
years after the beginning of his reign, he freed Dahomey from the
onerous tribute to the Oyo, and he was in direct contact with the great
Ashanti kingdom, with whom he maintained diplomatic relations.2
Gezo considerably extended the empire to the west, for in 1840 his
army reached Atakpame, a city almost one hundred and thirty
kilometers northwest of Abomey, at present in the heart of the French
mandate of Togoland. He also pushed his conquests north and east,
extending his kingdom further into the territory of the Maxi, and
ravaging the country of the Nago (Yoruba) people to the east. In
1851, Gezo experienced his first serious defeat. He attacked the Egba
stronghold of Abeokuta on March 3, with an army estimated by
Burton to have numbered between ten and sixteen thousand. The
Egba commander-in-chief out-manoeuvered him, however, and he
was forced to retire, losing "by a moderate computation, 1,200 of his
best fighters."3 Gezo's death, like that of Kpengla, was caused by
the dreaded disease small-pox.
There are several first-hand accounts of this monarch written by
visitors to his court, for during his reign the European powers sought
to prevail upon Dahomey-one of the few slaving territories remain-
ing on the West Coast-to give up the slave-trade. Though he
refused to do this, Gezo is represented as a man of humanitarian
principles, and all accounts agree that he did his utmost-which in
the nature of the case could not have been much-to reduce the
number of human sacrifices during the rites for the royal ancestors.
Forbes, who visited him in 1849, thus describes Gezo and his entourage
on an occasion of state:
"His Dahoman Majesty, King Gezo, is about forty-eight years of
age, good-looking, with nothing of the negro feature, his complexion
1 Vol. ii, p. 290.
2 Duncan gives a vivid account of the diplomatic manoeuverings of an Ashanti
envoy at Gezo's court; vol. i, pp. 236-238, 243-245.
8 Burton, vol. ii, p. 298.
wanting several shades of being black; his appearance commanding,
and his countenance intellectual, though stern in the extreme. That
he is proud there can be no doubt, for he treads the earth as if it were
honoured by its burden. Were it not for a slight cast in his eye, he would
be a handsome man. Contrasted with the gaudy attire of his ministers,
wives, and cabooceers (of every hue, and laden with coral, gold, silver,
and brass ornaments), the king was plainly dressed in a loose robe of
yellow silk slashed with satin stars and half-moons, Mandingo sandals,
and a Spanish hat trimmed with gold lace; the only ornament being
a small gold chain of European manufacture."1
He also gives an account of Gezo in private audience:
"...passing through an inner court, we were ushered into the
entree of a small room, ornamented with military arms and accoutre-
ments. On a bed, covered with a very handsome mat, reclined the king.
In the room were the female ministers squatted on the ground; while,
as we advanced and the king rose, the male ministers-the mayo,
camboodee, caoupeh, and Toonoonoo-prostrated and kissed the
An earlier view of the person of Gezo is that of Duncan, who had good
reason to have a kind regard for this King. Duncan describes him as
"... a tall athletic man, about forty-three years of age, with pleasing
expression and good features, but the top of his forehead falling back
rather too much to meet the views of a phrenologist. His voice is good
and manner graceful, in comparison with the barbarous customs of the
The last great f Dahomey was Glele. The drive actuating
the political manoeuvers of tehisingcame-romthe desire to avenge
his father's defeat at Abeokuta, but this was denied him. In 1861,
three years after he attained the succession, he moved to an attack,
which a small-pox epidemic compelled him to abandon. He continued
to harass the Nago villages, however, and thirteen years after his
original attempt he again attacked the city. Burton, in a chapter
appended to his journal1 describes the severe defeat which this ex-
pedition suffered. Glele learned his lesson, and never afterwards
challenged his enemy of long standing. The description of Glele in 1863,
as given by Burton, is as follows:
"The King is a very fine-looking man, upwards of six feet high.
broad shouldered, and a pleasant countenance when he likes. His eyes
are bloodshot, which may arise from want of rest or other causes. He
is a great smoker, but does not indulge much in the bottle. His skin
1 Vol. i, pp. 76-77. 2 Vol. i, pp. 82-83.
3 Vol. i, p. 224. 4 Vol. ii, pp. 204-210.
THE PEOPLE AND THEIR SETTING
is much lighter than most of his people, resembling the copper colour
of the American Indians.
"He is very active, and found of dancing, and singing, which he
practices in public during the customs. He is much addicted to the
fair sex, of whom he possesses as many as he likes. He is about forty-
three years old."1
Elsewhere he gives an even more detailed picture of Glele, including
a careful description of his raiment:
"Like Gezo, Gezo's son and heir affects a dress simple to excess. His
head is often bare: on this occasion he wore a short cylindrical straw
cap, with a ribbon-band of purple velvet round the middle. A Bo-
fetish against sickness, in the shape of a human incisor, strung below
the crown, and a single blue Popo-bead, of little value, was hanging
to a thick thread about his neck. Despising the Bonugan-ton, or broad
silver armlets of his caboceers, he contented himself with a narrow
armillary iron ring, of the kind called 'abagan' and 'alogan', round his
right arm. Above and below the elbow of the left he wore five similar
bracelets; these ornaments were apparently invented to save the limb
when warding off a sabre-cut from the head. The body-cloth was plain
fine white stuff, with a narrow edging of watered green silk and as it
sat loose around the middle, decorum was consulted by drawers of
purple-flowered silk hardly reaching to mid thigh. The sandals, here
an emblem of royalty, showed some splendour. They were of Moorish
shape, with gold embroidery upon a scarlet ground, two large crosses
of yellow metal being especially conspicuous. Altogether, the dress,
though simple, was effective, and it admirably set off the manly and
Skertchly, eight years later, gives another account of his dress and
entourage on state occasions:
"His arms were naked, except a few rings, with fetiche bags attached,
which he wore above the elbow. He smoked a long silver-mounted
pipe, and wore a kind of Scotch bonnet, with the dragon of the Bru
Company embroidered on the sides. His feet were protected by sandals
richly ornamented with leather, and a couple of silver rings jingled
round one of his ankles. He was followed by four of his 'Leopard-
wives', or Kposi, who kept near his person during the review, while a
bevy of attendants took turns in holding a yellow and scarlet parasol
over his head. Over this parasol a gaudy tent umbrella was held by a
squadron of buxom women, who appeared to pride themselves in the
manner in which they twirled and twisted it round, in time to the
music which had at last struck up a tune something like 'Ninety-five.'
The king was a good head taller than any of the Amazons, and appeared
to take a pride in showing off his fine person before us."3
2 Vol. i, pp. 158-159.
s pp. 165-166.
1 Vol. ii, p. 234.
Behanzin, whose conflict with the Europeans resulted in the down-
fall of his kingdom, succeeded to the throne when he was in early
middle age. No European visitor except Chaudoin has left us a
picture of him during the period of his reign,1 but it is plain that his
court displayed symptoms of degeneration that marked the decline
of Dahomean power after the defeat of Gezo before Abeokuta. Like
his father, Behanzin was obsessed with the necessity of conquering
the great Egba city to the east; unlike Gezo, he permitted himself to be
drawn into intrigues against Toffa, the King of Porto Novo and ruling
member of the other branch of the Aladaxonu family, which ultimately
brought him the enmity of the French, and cost him his throne.2
In the accounts given by the old men of the conquest of Dahomey by
the French, Behanzin already is a legendary figure. He was a willful
youth, it is said, and ignored the wisdom of his father's pithy saying
that "he who makes the powder must win the battle." Because of
this, which was actually a warning not to fight the Europeans, say
the Dahomean story-tellers, Dahomey was "broken" and became a
European possession.3 Yet as a King he had command of the magic
reserved for kings, and so, the belief holds, when he saw the Dahomean
cause lost, he changed into a bird and only when he knew it to be for
the good of the Dahomean people did he give himself up to the French.
History tells us that he was exiled to Martinique and died there,4 but
the Dahomeans believe that after he had taken ship he again had
recourse to his magic, and lives on as a bird. So strongly was this held
that, it is said, it dictated the decision of the French to return the
remains of Behanzin for interment in the royal palace, though the
belief in the inviolability of Dahomean royalty is such that many
Dahomeans can be found today who tell that the bones actually buried
were not those of Behanzin. Notwithstanding this, however, two old
women crouch beside his tomb, wives who shared with him his days
of power and of defeat.
The political history of the Dahomean kingdom can thus be summar-
ized in rapid resume. It testifies to the stability of the monarchy, if not
to the ultimate wisdom of the policies of the kings. Later in this work,
1 pp. 244f.
2 An account of these intrigues and attacks, as seen from the Porto Novo side,
is given by FoA, passim.
3 The military operations of the French against the Dahomeans from 1888 to
1893 have been analyzed by Aublet and Poirier.
4 A photograph of Behanzin with his wives and retainers, taken in Martinique,
is to be seen in Ober (facing p. 160). Hazoum6 (p. 4, n. 6), states that he
died in Algiers, and not in Martinique.
THE PEOPLE AND THEIR SETTING 25
the internal organisation of the kingdom, both as it can be deduced
from the accounts of eye-witnesses, and as it can today be reconstructed
from the versions given by native informants in Abomey will be
detailed. For the ethnologist, however, political phenomena represent
only one phase of cultural activity. Life in Dahomey goes on today
little different from the way it was lived before contact with Europeans.
We may now turn, therefore, to an examination of the economic
pursuits of the Dahomeans, of their social organisation and the daily
round of their individual lives; to an analysis of their religious beliefs
and ritual, and of their art, as well as to a consideration of the internal
politics of the kingdom. In doing so we shall attempt to understand
the inner life of Dahomey, hidden yet always present, as it existed
from the days of the early travellers who from 1700 were in contact
with these people.
Dahomean culture is characterized in all its aspects by a rigidity of
structure that manifests itself in a consciously close organisation of
society. This regimentation of life was in evidence when the first
Europeans visited Abomey, and all the early accounts comment upon
the techniques of social control that were operative, and the response
to discipline which they called forth.Indeed, it is this genius for organi-
sation that may be held in some measure to account for the long reign
of the Aladaxonu dynasty, for these monarchs and their counsellers
came to know how to shape the institutions of the people so as to
create, strengthen and perpetuate a centralized and absolute rule.
Such organizations as secret societies, for example, were prohibited
during the period of autonomous rule, for it was logically felt that the
manipulation of possible avenues for the expression of discontent by
those who found a constant discipline uncongenial might serve to
undermine the completeness of the control which the monarch exer-
It is not strange, therefore, that this is reflected in the inner life of
the people, where it expresses itself in terms of a ready response to
discipline, and above all in the acceptance of the stricture that the path
to ultimate satisfactions lies in constant application to the task at
hand. For the Dahomean, it must be understood, exhibits a capacity
for hard work that is in striking contrast to the stereotype of the
tropical Negro.1 How intense the application which the farmer gives
to his fields, what long hours the iron-worker spends at his forge, and
how constantly the weaver applies himself to his loom, will become
1Bosman, p. 318, states of the Whydah folk that "Whereas the Gold Coast
Negroes indulge themselves in Idleness, ... here, on the contrary, Men as well
as Women are so vigorously industrious and laborious, that they never desist
till they have finished their Undertakings; and are continually endeavouring
after Work, in order to get Money." Burton, whose opinion of the Dahomeans
was anything but high, writes (vol. i, p. 119) "The general aspect of the country
confirms the general impression that the Dahomans were, for negroes, an in-
dustrious race, till demoralized by slave hunts and by long predatory wars."
evident as this discussion develops. Furthermore, this traditional
view of hard labor as praiseworthy is held by women as well as men.
A woman who sells in the markets often first walks thirty, forty or
more kilometers to the centers of wholesale distribution where she buys
her wares, and then transports her burden to the market on her head;
or, arrived at the market at daybreak, she spends long hours selling
her goods; while, the day over, there still remains for many of the
sellers the evening meal to be prepared. Boys and girls are encouraged
early in life to occupy themselves with the tasks that will be theirs
when they are grown, and thus the ideal of hard work is inculcated.
This attitude is perhaps best reflected in the saying "Every Dahomean
man must know three things well: How to cut a field, how to build a
wall, and how to roof a house." It will be seen, when the organisation
of the young men is discussed, how no one, and symbolically not even
the King himself, might hold himself exempt from the command to
participate in the cooperative labor of farming and house-building.
The occupation most widely practised in Dahomey is the cultivation
of the soil.1 The fields are made ready at the end of the dry season,
and the amount of labor involved in the task of "cutting the ground"
depends on whether the earth had previously been cultivated. But
even where the preparation of a field means planting land in use the
year before, the work is difficult enough. Baked in the heat of the
dry season, the earth becomes hard and parched, and is no simple
matter to hoe. If the plot, however, is on land never before under
cultivation, the work is far more arduous, for the small bush and timber
must be cut down so that the underbrush may dry preparatory to
burning over the land before the ground is broken.
Work of this kind is only done by the men, who cut the trees and
brush, supervise the burning, and hoe the earth.2 The hoe used has
a broad blade measuring nine to twelve inches across and about the
same in length. The handle, at most no more than three feet long,
makes necessary a stooping position while hoeing which, in turn, allows
1 This is true despite Burton's statement (vol. ii, pp. 165-166) that, "Agriculture
is despised because slaves are employed in it."
2 Burton, speaking of the practice of clearing the ground by burning, under the
date of February 15th, 1864, says (vol. ii, pp. 193-194) "All was sunburnt, and,
in many places, black with the fires whose smoke and glare, rolling up from the
east and southeast, had not infrequently, during the last fortnight, rendered
my observations unreliable." His statement (vol. ii, p. 165) that "the women
ridge the ground neatly with their little hoes" is contrary to practice at the
present time, if it does not represent a false observation on his part. Cf. Fob,
pp. 135ff., for a description of coastal agricultural technique and a list of the
the worker to give his strokes greater force and precision. An in-
dividual is never seen hoeing alone, the smallest number observed in
a field being two; but more generally three or four men work together.
More than four constitute a d6kpwv, a group of men engaged in
cooperative labor.1 The work is done with a rhythmic swing, the soil
being broken by the cultivator as he moves backward, step by step in
a straight line, forcing the edge of his hoe into the earth and throwing
the dirt to one side with a twist of the blade as it comes up. This
produces the typical Dahomean field of long straight rows of earth,
a foot or more high or, if yams are to be planted, of rows which consist
each of a series of small hills.
Before the actual labor of clearing a new field is undertaken, however,
other requirements must be met than those having to do merely with
the availability of the site selected for cultivation, for the farmer must
ascertain what supernatural beings watch over the new land and how
to assure the aid of these beings for an abundant crop. He therefore
takes a sample of its soil to his diviner, who, as a first formality throws
the palm-kernels to consult Fate whether the new ground may be
cultivated.2 If the answer is favorable, a sacrifice to the Earth is then
made, wherein the suppliant, taking earth from the projected field,
moulds it into a human head with caury-shells for eyes, and placing
this head on the ground offers it palm-oil, the blood of a chicken, and
finally maize mixed with flour and water. This ceremony is performed
while he is alone in the field, and the figure is left there to disintegrate.
With the Earth gods thus initially placated, he returns to the diviner
to determine the identity of the guardian spirit of the field. The
diviner calls separately on the various gods until one of them is
designated by Destiny as the field's tutelary spirit.
It may be assumed that the spirit, in this instance, is Dambada
Hwedo, a powerful deity of the ancestral cult believed to reside in
great trees.3 The man who is to work the field will then name for his
diviner the great trees found upon the land, and the diviner proceeds
to discover the one sheltering the spirit, which then becomes the
shrine of the protecting deity. The owner next pours palm-oil over
the trunk as a libation and places an azqy-a girdle made of palm-
fronds-about the tree and thereafter makes an offering of palm-oil
at this shrine at the beginning of every native week adding also,
1 See below.
2 The bokd6n, who is the interpreter of Destiny, or Fate, plays an important role
in Dahomean life. For the details of the Fate cult, see below, vol. ii, pp. 201-222.
3 See below, pp. 207-208.
a chicken from time to time. Having concluded the initial ceremony,
he may begin the preparation, and later, the cultivation of his field,
but during this period, and also later when the crops are being harvested
he continues his weekly libations of palm-oil,' and awaits signs which
will indicate whether the spirit of the field is a well-intentioned one.
This is manifested in various ways. Thus, if a child falls ill and recovers
after a chicken has been sacrificed to the spirit of thefield, it is accounted
a good omen, but the decisive test is, of course, a large yield. If,
however, a succession of harrassing incidents trouble his family, and
sacrifices at the tree do not remedy matters, he sees in this a demon-
stration that the spirit is unfriendly, and, after consultation with his
diviner, the field may be abandoned.
When for five or six years a field produces good crops, and the owner
prospers, it is his obligation to visit a priest of the cult of the guardian
spirit of the field, and from him to ascertain the type of ritual necessary
to "establish" this spirit as a beneficent "public" deity. Among other
things he must give a ceremonial dance, hiring drums and providing
food for all who come. In token of its increased importance, he builds
for the spirit a small shelter against the trunk of the tree, and from
this time onwards, unless the owner of the field is a priest of this
particular spirit, he may himself not sacrifice to it, but must summon
a priest of the cult to offer his sacrifices for him. The tree itself be-
comes communal property, and any one is permitted to worship at
the shrine erected at its base-to leave gifts of food, or small pots, or
whatever else is acceptable to the god. At the same time, the spirit of
the tree, it is believed, will not forsake the one who had first worshipped
and "established" it, but will continue to show marked favor toward
him and his family.
Once the field has been supernaturally sanctioned and the trees that
are not sacred have been cut down, or the brush of the last season has
been cut and allowed to dry, if it is an old field; when later the dried
brush has been burned and the earth turned with the hoes, the work
of sowing the seed is begun. If the field is to bear cassava, a bit of the
stalk is inserted into each separate hill. For those crops, such as maize,
that require the sowing of grain, the work is easier, and both men and
women take part. Proceeding along the rows, the planter, carrying
a calabash filled with seeds under one arm, stamps his right heel in
the raised soft earth to his right, and stepping back drops three or
1 That is, he makes his libations every four days, since the Dahomean week is of
a) Hoeing a field; three representative workers.
b) Detail showing the manner in which the hoe is held and the earth
Hoeing; the unison with which these men work is to be noted.
four grains into the hole, while with the toes of the same foot, he
brushes the earth back over the seeds. He next takes a step with the
right foot, and turning to his left, repeats with the left foot the same -
movements on his left side, thus going down the field until the tw6
rows on either side of him are planted. Other crops are planted along
the same rows to take advantage of the spaces not filled by the maize.1
Thus gourd seeds are planted between the stalks so the vines might run
along the ground parallel to the rows; and beans are also planted with
maize to allow the shoots to climb the stalks.
A field when carefully worked yields for from fifteen to twenty years.
t When it becomes exhausted, its owner may either relinquish it entirely
or allow it to lie fallow for a period of time, resuming its cultivation
when the soil is again fertile. Djidja, some twenty-two kilometers
north of Abomey, for example, is a farming center. The village lies
surrounded by large fields, and it has a wholesale market to which
sellers of cereals in the retail markets of Abomey and nearby cities
come. Much of the land about the village proper was not being
cultivated in 1931 because, as explained, this land had been exhausted
through too intensive use, and would have to lie fallow. The length
of time is not fixed, but there are tests by means of which the cultivator
ascertains when cultivation may be resumed. In one instance, a
farmer when asked how long a given piece of land would lie fallow
bent down, tasted a bit of the soil, and observed that several more
years were needed before it could be reclaimed; but farther along
the path he repeated the same test, and indicated that it should be
ready to bear crops the following year.
One general principle of agriculture is that yams exhaust a field
after some three years of planting, another holds that millet must
never be planted in the same place in successive years. A few months
after yams have been planted, maize is planted about them, the belief
being that the roots of the yams nourish the maize, and those of the
maize the yams. Yams, requiring fertile soil for successful cultivation,
are grown in the great farming areas removed from the cities, for neither
the land near cities, nor the plots of ground pressed into cultivation
within settled communities possess enough strength to support
,TheDahomean farmer not only practises simultaneous- i-
cation in a 'o on o crops. Thus, if he plants
peanuts in April, he will plant maize in the same field the next season.
1 Cf. Forbes, vol. i, pp. 30-31.
T thpnryi about the maize together,
is an illustrate n of native reasoning ba on n red fact for th
od value soil. Tradition, however, dictates that the cultivation
*of a plant that grows u e o o y t at of a creeper
growing a.ongi no eiuround. -er
the extent to which agriculture is carried on testifies to the basic
character of farming as a Dahomean pursuit.2 In the city of Abomey,
for example, there are few spaces not occupied by houses, roads, or
compound clearings where at the beginning of the rainy season
people are not at work preparing the ground.3 As the season progresses
patches of maize, of millet, of beans and of other crops are everywhere
to be observed in the city, and as one travels into the country but
little bush is to be found, for cultivation is so intensive that it is not
until a distance of thirty-five or forty kilometers is reached that
uncultivated stretches are to be seen.4 Even the palm-groves are not
left idle, for crops are planted between the trees.
There is a well-recognized calendar of agriculture which, following
the seasons, is based on the variations in rainfall during the course of
the year.5 The great rainy reason begins in March and ends about
July. After a short dry season, the second rains, coming in September,
continue for a month or two, and are followed by the great dry season.
With the first rains of March, the clearing of the fields is begun. In
April maize, beans, peanuts and cassava are planted; during May millet,
sorgho and cotton, and in June white beans and peas. Throughout
July the growing crops are tended, and maize and yams are harvested,
1 Duncan gives a further example of this empirical agricultural knowledge of the
Dahomeans (vol. ii, p. 249): "They never consider the utility of selecting any
particular sort of seed; but after my return to Abomey, the King, who is a
great agriculturist, informed me that the latest corn known will, if planted in
the proper season, ripen in less than four moons, and also told me that the time
of ripening had in many instances been mistaken, from a want of knowledge,
and planting the corn too soon before the rainy season."
2 Cf. Bosman, pp. 315-316. Forbes, however, reports (p. 30) that the Daho-
means keep but a "tithe of the land in cultivation."
3 So intensive is this cultivation in Abomey, that the space between a road or
path and a compound wall, though no wider than a few feet, will be planted.
4 In the ceremonies to be described below, there will often be reference.to
processions going to the "forest." These "forests," which every cult-group,
every diviner and every sib must possess, are actually mere clumps of trees
with undisturbed brush growing about them. No forests, properly speaking,
exist anywhere near Abomey.
5 Cf. Burton's description of the manner in which he observed agricultural work,
particularly at Whydah, (vol. i, pp. 24-25). His dates coincide with those
given here. See Duncan, vol. ii, pp. 16-17, for comments on agricultural
technique to the north of Abomey.
although the maize to be eaten is gathered much before this, since by
July the ears are so matured that the grains are too hard for human
consumption, even when boiled.
The last of July and all of August covers the period of the great
harvest, when everything except millet, which must grow a month
longer, and cotton, is gathered. Cultivation is resumed in September,
when all those seeds of April are once more planted for the second
annual harvest. These mature in December when everything in the
fields, including the cotton, is harvested. January witnesses a total
cessation of agricultural work. It is the time for hunting, and not until
the end of February when the hunting season is over does the time
approach for planting yams. In March, the men turn again to the
preparation of the fields.
fhe crops are tender by thewmpn who weel the field and watch
4 over the growing plants. Ants are not greatly feared, since a column
marches in a narrow straight line across a field, doing small damage;
1 birds are kept away by the children who accompany their mothers to
the field. Thereatest scourge of the Dahomean farmer are the locusts,
which co eating everything green and destroying
te prospect of any hare When a plague of locusts appeared in the
time of the kings, the royal diviners were consulted to advise what
sacrifice would cause the gods to divert the swarm. Generally this
resulted in driving a person out of the country, as a scapegoat. The
one selected was richly dressed and, laden with silver bracelets and
fine cloths, was sent away forever beyond the borders of Dahomey.
'Death was the penalty if he came back, for it was believed that the
locusts went with him, and that his return would bring them into the
Not every day of the Dahomean four-day week1 is devoted to work
in the fields, for on Mioxi no farming is done. Violators of this custom
incur the wrath of the Thunder gods who kill offenders with lightning.
The story is told of a man whose house may still be seen in Abomey
who, being ambitious, was cultivating his fields on this day, when a
bolt of lightning struck and killed him. Abstaining from work in the
fields on Mioxi is held by Dahomean tradition to have originated from
the fact that in ancient days a great battle was fought on this day
between two groups of Dahomeans. When the two factions became
reconciled, they took an oath that neither they nor their descendants
would work the fields on the day that witnessed such bloodshed.
1 See below, pp. 51-53.
arvesting, as well as the task of caring for the crops, is in the hands
of teo nen. When the harvest is too great for the women of a single
family to care for, the head of that family may invite the relatives of
his wife or wives to help with the work. This is a festive occasion, for
those who have been invited come singing songs, and are given gifts
to repay them for their aid. There are no public ceremonies attendant
upon planting, only the usual offerings of palm-oil for the guardian
spirit of the field, who is asked to see that good crops are again vouch-
safed the cultivator. The spirit receives his rewards when this care
has been demonstrated by the size of the crop, for to quote one Daho-
mean, "It is then we return thanks for what the gods have given us;
the Dahomean does not give gifts in advance."
The harvest ceremonies vary with the type of crop. Some of the
first grains of millet harvested are ground into flour and put in water,
and with this the shrines of the ancestors are sprinkled. Fate is con-
sulted at this time to determine whether animals or strong drink should
also be offered at the ancestral shrines and, when the sacrifice called
for is that of animals, whether these should be wild or domesticated
ones, with the choice narrowing until the particular animals desired
are named. "The new year has begun," is said when the millet harvest
comes, and many marriages occur at this time, because while the
millet is growing it is not thought an auspicious time for marrying.
Theyamharvest in Julyis also an occasion for ceremonial observances.
There is no special personage who takes a given first yam in a given
district. Each utilizes the first yams of the season he has obtained,
Whether from his own field, or those bought in the market. Then'
following his status, he performs the yam ceremony. If one is
a diviner, the deity GbAdi must first "eat" of the yams before he
himself partakes. To feed Gbads, there must be kola nuts, drinks,
kids, pigeons, chickens, akdcs (dumplings of corn meal), and snails, as
well as many new yams. The rite proper begins in the evening, with
the diviner alone before his gods. He takes a knife and cuts the first
yam, saying, "Thus I kill the yam." Half of it is for Gbdui, half for
F&.1 At this time he kills all the sacrifices. In the morning, the yam
is pounded in a mortar, and made into a dish called agg, which is
passed around with akdes to everyone who knows his Destiny.2
About the middle of the morning, after the new yam has been passed
2 In the idiom of Dahomey, this would signify "Everyone who has his FA." See
below vol. ii, pp. 218-219, for a discussion of those who would be included
in this category.
about, songs are sung to the accompaniment of gongs: "There is no
fire in the oven; the oven stays quiet," and "May GbAdi and FA kill
all our enemies." This continues until early afternoon, when the cere-
mony is ended.
Men who are followers of the gods of the Sky, Earth, and Thunder
pantheons, and of the lok6 tree, but not of the toxasu1 or Aido Hwedo2
-that is, the deities who "eat" yams-perform a different ceremony.
With the new yams given to such deities, the worshipper must provide
two chickens, as well as beans. A yam is cut in seven pieces, three for
the deity, three for his followers, and one for the deity who stands
before all shrines and all houses, Legba.3 The two chickens are sacri-
ficed to the god, and must not be eaten by the devotee, who without
drums or singing alone officiates at this rite.
The third type of ceremony is that performed by the women of each
compound in worship of the deities Yal6de and T6kp6din, when shells,
one ram, three white chickens, akd8a and the new yams are given as
offerings. Yal6de is given two hundred and forty-one cauries with
a "thunder stone" (a neolithic type of celt), and a stone containing
iron ore, and to these are added "things of the gods."4 The ram for
Yal6de is killed, the tail being cut off and placed on top of the caury
shells. One chicken is killed for the Earth deity found in the iron ore,
another for the god of Thunder, with whom the "thunder stone" is
associated, while the third chicken is killed for T6kp6dfin. Many
white kolas are thrown, with both meat and shells offered to the gods.
One stew is prepared of pounded yams and the flesh of the ram; another
of pounded yams and the meat of the chickens, and all the women and
their children are summoned to come and eat. The most important
dish, that made of ram's meat, is for the children; the women eat the
chicken and yams. This festival, continuing for four days, provides
pounded yams each morning for the children, and each afternoon
for the women. A priestess for Yal6de leads the dances and there is
much singing. After the dance the women give the head and tail of
the ram to the children, who go dancing through the village with these.
Men may and do watch this ceremony, but they do not take part in it.
Some of the first yams are always given to the ancestors, but this
is a quiet rite in which only the descendants of a given ancestor
participate, and where only a chicken is sacrificed. There is still
1 The spirits of the abnormally born, who are believed to live in the rivers.
2 The rainbow-serpent.
a See below, vol. ii. pp. 222ff.
4 No specific information as to the nature of these was obtained.
another type of ceremony, performed by those who engage in black
magic, but it was not possible to obtain more than the information that
such persons also feed their evil spirits the new yams. Every man who
has his "full Fa"-that is, who knows his Destiny-must feed it
first when he divides the newly ripened yams, because it is by con-
sulting his Destiny that he learns when to give these yams to his god.
A definite order of precedence is observed if a person must perform
more than one of these ceremonies. A woman devotee of either one of
the Earth or Thunder gods, and also of Yal6de, must give first to the
deity, and last to the god of the women.
The palm-tree is today ubiquitous in Dahomey, and furnishes one
of the most important crops.' Palm-trees are not farmed in the
ordinary sense, as they grow without much care. They are planted
from sprouts gathered in the bush where the seeds of wild palm-trees
have fallen. Once planted, the palm-tree forever remains the property
of the one who has planted it, and of his descendants, even though the
land on which it grows had been abandoned by himself or his heirs,
and is being worked by another. In the main, this would constitute
an exceptional case, for when a man has planted palm-trees on his
land he is loathe to allow anyone else to occupy it, and sows it withmaize
or beans or peanuts or some other crop which does not need the rich
soil that the yams must have if they are to thrive. Every year the
brush about the trunks of these trees must be cleared away before the
field in which the trees stand can be burned over, for otherwise the
trees would be killed.
An important reason why the palm-tree enjoys this preferred
ownership status is that six years must elapse before a tree matures,
and during this time a certain amount of care must be given it. Once
matured, however, a tree calls for little attention, bearing its kernels
twice a year. The larger harvest is during the period between
November and March, the smaller one between July and September.
The fruit in which the kernels are contained is sold, for the actual
pressing of the kernels and manufacture of the oil is a specialised
technique, and even an owner of many palm-trees will buy what oil
he needs for his personal use. It is not strange, therefore, that this
1 This was not always the case; indeed, a number of embassies to the King of
Dahomey had as their purpose to persuade the monarch to encourage the
cultivation of the palm-tree so that the sale of palm-oil might furnish an eco-
nomic substitute for slaving. It was predicted several times that palm-oil
operations would be very successful in Dahomey, a prediction that time has
valuable source of revenue which requires so little care should hold
such a high place in the Dahomean economy.1
A measure of this regard, however, may well result from the place
of the tree in the religious life. For every Dahomean, whatever his
social and economic status, owns at least that palm-tree under which
his umbilical cord is buried, and though in Dahomey there is not the
magic association found elsewhere in Africa between a tree and the
person whose umbilicus is buried under it, yet it is not without signifi-
cance that a palm-tree should be chosen.
Agricultural produce yields the greatest proportion of Dahomean
foodstuffs, while the raising of animals to provide meat is only of
secondary importance. The major portion of the territory occupied
by the kingdom lies south of the open country inhabited by pastoral
peoples, for though the northern edge of the coastal forested belt is not
far from the city of Abomey, the traditions which give agriculture
primary importance stretch on well into the open prairie-like country
occupied, since the earliest times of European contact, by the Maxi.
Hence only a few of the large domesticated animals are to be seen in
Dahomey. Though early travellers occasionally mention seeing horses,
these are practically non-existent in the kingdom, and there are no
herds of cattle of any size. The few cattle that are to be observed are
of the long-horned, humped variety and have usually been driven
into the country to be slaughtered, or are the property of chiefs,
or are found where European communities offer a market for milk.
However, the Dahomeans are and have been quite familiar with cattle
through contact with cattle-keeping neighbors to the north, and this
is evidenced by the fact that these animals figure in the folklore, as
in the explanatory tale which tells why a white bird is always to be
seen following a grazing cow.
In the main, it is the smaller domesticated animals that are raised,
though their presence is only incidental to the principal occupations
of their owners. Chickens are found everywhere, and, less prevalently,
ducks and domesticated guinea-hens. Sheep, goats and pigs are all
used for food and figure in religious ceremonials of one kind and another
or in the sib mythologies, which would seem to indicate that they have
a deep-rooted place in Dahomean culture. Thus, rams, sheep and
goats are sacrificed for the gods of the Sky and Thunder pantheons,
while chickens, which constitute the most common form of sacrifice
are given to almost all gods and spirits. Turkeys flourish here as
1 Skertchly, pp. 33-34, gives a description of the method of making palm-oil.
elsewhere in West Africa, but although they are found in considerable
numbers, they are regarded as more or less exotic, and have never been
activelytaken into the culture. Aside from the chicken, the domesticated
animal found most frequently is the pig. Its flesh is considered a
delicacy by the Dahomeans. Indicative of its importance in the life
of the people is the fact that it is one of the totemic animals "respected"
by one and perhaps two Dahomean sibs.
It is probable that the consumption of the meat of wild animals
exceeds that of domesticated forms. In consequence, when considering
the production of economic goods, hunting is an occupation which
may not be neglected. As will be seen when the taxation system of the
monarchy is discussed, the hunters constitute a distinct occupational
group, which, in the time of Dahomean autonomy, was recognized
as such and subjected to taxation by the King. There are two types
of hunters, the professional hunters and those for whom hunting is
more or less a pursuit to be indulged in during the leisure afforded
by the dry season. Each village has its groups of huntsmen and each
group of hunters has its chief. A "great hunt" is still held once every
year and, in the season of 1931, it was said that several thousand men
participated. This hunt is held in the Dagbe forest, east of Abomey,
which is a kind of hunting preserve. The men who participate come from
all parts of Dahomey; to quote an informant, "They come from as far
as Whydah, Cotonou and Save." Current report had it that during this
hunt of 1931 several men were so severely wounded that it was necessary
to take them to the hospital at Abomey, and it was stated in this
connection that these hunts invariably occasion a number of casualties.
It is no simple matter to differentiate the economic aspects of
hunting from its complementary character of bringing its participants
into close touch with the supernatural beings of the forest, and for a
Dahomean to view the hunt merely as an economic matter of killing
animals to be sold for food is almost an impossibility. As will be
shown, hunters are held most versed in magic, and their adventures
in the forest have made them the instrument by means of which
human beings have obtained medicine. Regard for supernatural
sanctions is marked in all phases of their professional life. While men
are on the hunt, their wives may not eat meat and they must not say
to anyone, "My husband is away hunting," but simply, "My husband
is not at home." If a hunter's wife does eat meat, she will soon after
have news of the death of her husband; if she makes the tabooed
statement, she places him in danger of attack by wild beasts.
The chief-priest of Adjagbwe, the spirit worshipped by the hunters
of Abomey, receives a hind-quarter of every animal killed in the hunt.
Since each hunter must come to this priest to obtain or renew his
spiritual power before going on the hunt, the count to see that the
total number of offerings tallies with the kill is carefully made, for the
sale of this meat in the markets yields the principal revenue of the
priests of Adjagbw6. Were any attempt made by a hunter to withhold
from them their due, and he were discovered, he would face grave
spiritual danger when he next went on the hunt.
Hunting is done by special groups of men, each group comprising
the hunters of a given village, and each headed by a chief, called
degq (hunt-chief). The degq is chosen anew each year and the choice
rests on that hunter, young or old, who has made the most distinguished
record in the past year, especially on the great hunt. It must be
understood, however, that a distinguished record is not established
by the number of animals killed, but by the supernatural experiences
a man has had. When the degc is to be selected, the hunters of a
village gather under a tree sacred to the hunt, known as the gbetis4.
This may be any kind of tree-silk-cotton, baobob, fig tree, lolc6
or any other. Under it a great earthen vessel is placed containing a
mixture of water and millet, and each hunter stands beside it as he
recounts his adventures of the hunt. A man who lied would be killed
by the god of the hunt either instantly or during the following year.
The assembled villagers listen to his story, and as he concludes, the
drums sound, while he plunges his hand in the earthen vessel, and,
holding in his cupped hand some of the mixture of millet and water,
he calls out, "Whosoever is worthy to drink with me, let him come
forward." Should another open a recital of his deeds, and these appear
altogether unexceptional, the degq sends him away in the middle of
his tale and calls for others more worthy to compete with the first
one. The hunter whose adventures are acclaimed as surpassing all
others-his supernatural adventures, it must once more be emphasized
-is selected as degq for the following year.
Certain animals are held to possess supernatural powers with which
the gods have endowed them as rewards for acts worthy of commen-
dation in very ancient times, or because of totemic kinship. Such
animals, when killed, must be accorded special recognition. Thus,
when a man brings down an antelope, he must tear off a leaf from the
nearest tree, and without paying further attention to his kill, must
start to find his degc. He may neither speak nor eat nor drink water
until he has accomplished his errand, and a feast must be held to honor
the spirit of this antelope. How living are the beliefs about the super-
natural adventures met with by hunters is indicated by the stories
that are current of certain hunters one sees about Abomey. The wife
of one old man, regarded as one of the greatest hunters living, herself
now an old woman, is pointed out as having been transformed from
a snake into a beautiful girl and given him as a wife in gratitude forhis
help to a python whose mate was being taken by another serpent.
When the robber python and the unfaithful python-wife had been
killed, the snake for whom this service was performed thus rewarded
him with the hand of his daughter. The folklore of hunting is rich in
assertions of the magic of animals that hunters meet in the bush.
There are animals a man may kill; there are animals a man may not
kill; and there are animals that may be killed only if the hunter gives
a sacrifice when one of them has been brought down. One day a
hunter killed an animal called afiqkf; the afiqki, when shot, will not
fall to the ground unless he is given something. Now this hunter had
nothing to give the animal he had killed, but, since it had been mortally
wounded, it finally fell, and the hunter began to cut up his kill. As he
busied himself with this, the afiqki changed into a man, who, picking
up two pieces of the meat the hunter had cut, took them to the hunter's
wife, telling her that her husband wished her to have this meat cooked
for his return. The woman, thinking the messenger to be one of her
husband's aides, did as she was bidden. When the hunter came home
and ate the meat his wife had cooked, he fell ill. Upon learning how
the meat had been brought to his wife, he called the degq of the village,
to whom he recounted what had happened. The degq, however, told
him nothing could be done for him, for he should have gone to his
diviner to ascertain whether or not the meat of afiqk might be
eaten. So, on the third day, the hunter died. Thus it is that afiqk
is not like other animals. If a hunter kills him, a diviner must be
called to tell what sacrifice is to be given before the meat can be cut
up. More than this, no ordinary hunter may kill afiqck. To do so is
reserved for the degq.
A hunt itself is described in another tale:
When they are ready to go hunting, they take the young hunter to
the bush, and say to him, "Have you no mat ?" and then they tell him
to gather leaves to make a mat. At night they take the degq's gun and
clean it. At first cock-crow the young hunter gets up and cooks for the
older ones. When all have eaten, each takes his gun and goes hunting.
The degq, carrying his gun, leads them. When they reach a place
where there are animals, he places each of the hunters in a tree, so that
they cannot be seen. He himself climbs the highest tree of all, that is
farthest in the bush, and spies out the situation.
If one of the younger hunters kills a large animal, he must go to the
degq to tell him, and when the degq arrives where the body lies, they
make sacrifices and place charms, putting powder into the nose and
ears of the animal and on its feet, so that the spirit of the animal will
not trouble the young hunter.
Then the degq begins to cut up the animal, and each takes his portion
and leaves. The degq follows them, but he carries nothing. When they
reach the place in the bush where they are camped, they find wood and
build a fire and dry the meat. Two or three pieces are cooked for the
degq, for he must be the first to eat of such animals; after all have
eaten they have a dance called sogbwe, and as they dance they sing:
Fiys chiys diye fiy& (a)gbo chiyene
Avovi gbwet5 xosogbw6
Gbodo fiye dokp6 agb6 chiys nedodon6
Fiye nye chiye diye.
Let me remain where the buffalo is found,
The cloth of the hunter who plays the sogbwg drum is torn.
There, where agbo dwells in that place so far away,
Let me remain.
The following day they again go to hunt. Once more each takes his
place. Let us suppose a buffalo passes. Now there was a new hunter
who had never shot an animal, and he began to shoot. Those who were
in the trees climbed down and ran to where he was, and, when the
degc arrived, the young hunter showed him the place he was when he
shot at the buffalo. Now the degq has a charm to find animals who
escape when the hunters shoot at them. So he put the cord of this
charm around his neck and made himself invisible, that he might
follow the tracks of the animal. Agbo was in hiding, ready to attack
the hunter who would come at him. When the degq approached, the
animal was about to throw himself at him to kill him, but the degq
called to him, "Remain there." Agbo remained in his place, unable to
move because of the power in the charm. The degcg then took up his
gun and shot at agbo. Agbo fell, and shut his eyes. He fell, rose, fell,
rose, and fell again for the third time. The degc now had no time to
re-load his gun, so he took his knife and approached the animal to try
to kill him with the knife. As the animal saw him come he tried to
throw himself against the degQ, and at this, the degc dropped his gun
and ran away. He called another hunter who was as brave as he, and
this hunter took his gun and shot at the animal and killed him. Then
Agbo nyi gbweto gbodji gbi sosotq yigb6
Gb6 do dekpl6 gbwe wud6
Xos6t4 hi id6 uyaxwani
Mi tado layonu gbo mi ichina v6 dogbwe d(.
-Agbo will catch the hunter who throws down his gun.
A child who wishes to learn how to hunt,
S When he buys a gun, should first kill a wild pigeon
(before he goes on a hunt).
If I do not return (from the hunt), my life will be ended.
After this they began to hunt again. One of the hunters saw a
monkey and shot at it. He thought the monkey was dead, but this
was not so, for the animal had hidden behind a tree. This hunter did
not call the degq. He approached the monkey to dispatch it with his
knife. The monkey broke his arm and threw him to the ground and
strangled him. After the hunt, when the hunters gathered, they found
this one was missing. Now after a hunt if someone does not come, they
shoot in the air, so that the one who is missing may hear and know
where to come. They shouted and hallooed, but the absent hunter
did not come. They began to search for him in the bush. Now, after
he killed the boy, the monkey went a short distance and he, too, died.
At last they found the dead monkey and the boy. Then the degq
called all the hunters together. The degq said to them, "Before you
shoot at an animal, you must know the animal you are trying to kill.
Whether it is a monkey or a dove or an antelope or a panther, you must
know how to kill it, or you will die."
In addition to farmers andhunters, numerous crafts exist inDahomey,
the craftsmen constituting important groups of producers in the
economic system. One of the outstanding crafts is that of the iron-
workers. Iron-workers are organized into "forges," each group
operating in a separate quarter of the city, or in a separate village,
where their houses are found near the long, low, rectangular, open-
sided shelters where the forges are erected. The iron-workers do no
smelting. They know traditionally how iron is made, but say they
no longer use the technique of their ancestors. Smelting, they state,
"has not been done for a thousand years, ever since the White man
came to Africa." As far as could be observed, scrap-iron is used almost
entirely, and they do not disdain any piece of old metal that may
come to hand. One man was seen cutting a rust-covered bar of iron
with a cold-chisel preparatory to heating it in the forge; there were
some old automobile parts lying about, and the wheel of what looked
like a sewing machine. Discarded rails are much in demand. This
scrap, heated and hammered out again, is for the most part made into
hoes and bush knives, though in one quarter of Abomey gongs and
belled knives for ceremonial purposes are manufactured by a special
"forge." The bellows are not of the double pump-type found, for
example, in Nigeria,1 but are the simple European type to which is
attached a chain manipulated either by the iron-worker himself, or
by a small boy who, as a member of the family, will become a member
of the guild when he is grown. The air is forced through a chamber of
clay at the base of the fire, and in this way the requisite temperature
is obtained. Charcoal is employed in making the fire, the coals being
heaped up just at the place where heat is required by the use of a small
metal shovel with a wooden handle. New pieces of charcoal are taken
out of a calabash where they are kept, and are individually put on the
fire by hand. The bellows, which are made of leather, are taken home
to guard against their being stolen at night or on the days sacred to
G6, the god of iron, when no work is done in the forges. A stone is
used for an anvil, but before it can be put to such use it must be
consecrated, after which it will serve for many years, being set deeply
into the ground. When a new anvil is put into place, it is an occasion
both for religious ceremonial and general jollification among the
ironworkers.2 Repair jobs involving the use of iron are apparently not
disdained. In one of the forges visited in Abomey a worker was
making a part for a trap brought to him for repair. At the next forge
an old man was heating and bending some small pin-like objects,
with which he rejoined the parts of a cracked calabash. Next to him
was a man making hoes; another was making an implement resembling
Weaving is another important Dahomean industry.3 Indeed, the
weavers, with the iron-workers, are held as the most honored of
Dahomean craftsmen. Weaving is done on the narrow loom usual to
West Africa, although in Dahomey the strips are not as narrow as,
for example, in Nigeria or on the Gold Coast, but are often as much as
fifteen inches in width. Cloth is made, in the main, from thread of
native manufacture, for spinning is a widespread industry, followed
by old people of both sexes. The weavers, like the iron-workers, have
separate shelters for their looms near the compounds where they live,
and as with most craft-guilds, the trade is followed by members of
given families. Weaving is done in raffia as well as cotton, so that
three general types of cloth are produced; cotton cloth, raffia cloth,
1 The iron-workers, as seen at the present time, fit almost entirely the des-
cription given by Dalzel (Introduction, p. xxv). The only difference to be noted
is that in his time the Dahomean iron-worker employed the double pump-type
bellows. Cf. also the descriptions given by Skertchly, pp. 316, 386-388, and
by Fo&, pp. 126-128.
2 Of. Burton, vol. i, p. 98, note 1.
3 Cf. Dalzel, Introduction, pp. xxiv-xxv.
and cloths woven of both cotton and raffia. The last named type
constitutes the finest Dahomean weaving, both from the point of
view of technical excellence and of design, and it is so regarded by
the Dahomeans themselves. European contact has greatly lessened the
demand for native weaving, for the cloths worn by the Dahomean
today are usually European cotton prints made in imitation of Javanese
batik designs. However, marriage cloths, and most particularly
certain of the cloths offered at funerals may not be of European
manufacture, so that in the making of these the cloth-weaver main-
tains his supremacy.
Men carry on iron-working and weaving, but the women control
pottery-making, the third of the principal crafts.1 Pottery manu-
facture was witnessed at the village of Umb game, some ten kilometers
from Abomey, one of the three principal centers of pottery-making,
each of which is situated where the best clay is found. In this
village, the potters specialize in large storage pots, about three feet
in height and of a diameter of two feet at their widest point. The
young girls bring calabash trays of freshly dug clay on their heads
from the clay-pits. This clay, after being kneaded with tempering
material, is taken as required by the principal potter and her assistant.
For large pots the rim is first made. The mass of clay on the ground
is gradually worked up and thinned until the upper five or six inches
of the pot are finished. No turning device is employed, the potter
walking about the pot as she shapes it, using no guide to determine the
accuracy of the circle which is to form the mouth of the pot. When the
rim has assumed recognisable shape, the lip is formed; this is done by
wetting the clay and then taking a folded wet cloth and fashioning the
edge of the rim with it by pressing with thumb and forefinger on the
outer and inner surfaces of the clay. The finished portion is now left
in place on the ground for some days to be dried by the heat of the sun.
When the initial hardening process of this upper portion has been
accomplished, the woman is ready to finish her pot. Turning over
the sun-baked top so that it rests on the lip, the potter uses a curved
bit of iron to scrape off the dirt that clings to the edge which has been
on the ground. The potter's assistant brings her a large piece of
kneaded clay, which, after working in her hands for a few moments, she
adds to the finished top. Walking about the pot, the potter gradually
works the clay higher and higher, the wall being thinned and shaped
until the pot has been molded and rounded as far toward the bottom
1 Cf. Burton, vol. ii, pp. 113-114, and Foa, pp. 130-131.
of the pot (now uppermost as she works it) as the amount of clay
she has added allows. She next takes out a piece of wood from a
water-filled calabash, and smoothes the surface of the finished portion.
Another supply of kneaded clay is now ready for her, and this is
coiled on to what has just been finished, this time without waiting for
the completed section to dry. The amount of clay added at this time
is considerably less than before, and the potter is able to work faster
as the circumference of the portion she is shaping becomes smaller.
One hand is held inside the pot, one outside, and the process is repeated
as before. A third time fresh clay is added, and, as she rapidly
approaches the bottom of the pot, a fourth, until the opening is no
larger than the size of her arm. After the inner surface of the pot
has been given a final brushing with the hand, she works with three
fingers inside, then two, then one, and finally rounds off the bottom
with a bit of clay the size of the tip of her forefinger. The potter now
takes a bit of wood three-fourths of an inch in diameter and three
inches long into which teeth have been cut, giving it the appearance of
a small corn-cob. Rolling this over the pot with the palm of her hand
she thus stipples it, to provide a roughened surface that permits the
safer handling of these large vessels. The pot is allowed to remain in
place until the sun dries and hardens the clay; it is then put into a
storeroom until there is an accumulation of sun-baked pots. Other
potters have been similarly engaged and when enough pots to warrant
a firing are ready, the women of the district gather and the kiln is
prepared. The clay is originally gray in color, but comes out of the
fire a reddish brown, and is then decorated with black and white
circles painted about the mouth.
Aside from large storage jars, numerous other pottery forms are
made. There are bowls and small pots for daily use, and, in addition,
the ceremonial pottery for the serpent-cult, for the cult of twins, and
for the Earth deities. These latter are made by groups of women at
localities other than that where observations were made, since in
the manufacture of pottery, as in other crafts, specialisation is the rule.
In addition to the workers in these three fields, there are those others
who may perhaps be classed as artists rather than craftsmen. These
include those who make objects of brass, silver, and gold; those who
clothe chiefs and the devotees of the gods and who stitch designs on
ritual cloths, state and ceremonial umbrellas, and on cloth hangings;
those who carve calabashes, and those who do wood-carving. These
groups do not figure greatly in the economic life of Dahomey, though
n as a whole, the totality of their products assumes a not un-
impressive figure. The brass workers, who also work in precious
metals, are members of one family group and are affiliated by blood
and by a bond of common interest with the iron-workers. The task
of this group is to make objects to beautify the dwellings of the
members of the upper classes, and their designs were certainly in the
days of the monarchy, and to a great extent today, the result of
individual inspiration. The cloth-workers-"tailors," as they are
termed-are similarly members of a family guild. Like the jewellers,
as the workers in precious metals may be regarded, their task was
essentially to supply the appliqued umbrellas, caps, hangings, and
banners, that were the devices of royalty in the days of the kingdom
and are today the appurtenances of the chiefs,1 and to clothe the
members of the religious cults. The calabash carvers are even a more
restricted group than the preceding ones, and their output is small.
The finely traced designs which they work into the surfaces of cala-
bashes are highly prized by the Dahomeans, and fall naturally into
the class of objects which would be termed luxuries, since their
product is used to convey messages of young lovers, and to enclose
gifts rather than for keeping small objects of everyday use. Such
calabashes there are, but these are not ornamented, and are raised
in great quantities by the farmers as a secondary crop.2 The wood-
carvers comprise a final class of producers. These must be divided into
two groups, however-the artists who make the statuettes that adorn
the temples or are used as magic house-guards, and those who make
the stools, mortars and pestles the Dahomean uses in his everyday life.
This does not mean that a wood-carver may not belong to both groups,
but from the economic point of view the two must be distinguished,
for the artistic products are a negligible element in the economic
/ The rank accorded the various crafts by the Dahomeans may be
indicated at this point. The evaluation of an upper-class Dahomean
places the weavers in the highest rank of all the crafts, because their
labor supplies the shrouds in which the dead are buried. After these
come the smiths who make as--"altars" for the ancestors-the
z hoes used in tilling the ground, and the bush-knives and other weapons
employed in fighting. The cloth-sewers are ranked next, for they dress
1 Cf. Forbes, vol. ii, pp. 34-35, and Burton, vol. i, p. 137, note 1.
2 Cf. FoA, p. 131.
3 For a consideration of the purely artistic aspects of the products of these last
groups of producers, the section on Art may be consulted.
a) Planting is done by members of the entire family.
b) The heel is employed to make the hole into which seeds of maize
are dropped. Note how the ground between palm-trees is utilized.
a) Within the city, spaces between the road and compound walls are culti-
b) Maize grows high toward the end of the rainy season.
PRODUCTION ( 497
the gods, and on ceremonial occasions, people as well. After these are
the calabash carvers since, as this informant explained it, "they
write the letters we send," this reference being to the use of decorated
calabashes as acrostic devices in sending love messages.1 Then come
those who prepare palm-oil, for "without oil we cannot have our soup;
and the Dahomeans love their soup."
.n another category, and ra a ns come the
Sgrave-diggers. ese men, who are all professionals and whose position
s8-e reditazy,-were respected even by the King-before whom,
however, they were never permitted to appear-since the grave-
digger not only digs the grave, but washes the corpse, dresses and
buries it. They do no other work, except when the dokpwig4 calls
them to do their share of the communal labor.2 They may not leave
the country, nor sleep without a roof over their heads. In still another
category come the makers of stools-"for without stools people could
not sit down"-and the makers of the figurines for the shrines to the
gods, both of these being highly respected.
the women -pottesaid to hold ft r
makers of coo ig utensils, and of the ceremonial pottery for the
cults of the gods. The men who weave baskets were ranked after the
otters, but as an afterthouf atr-htit it. s added that-q ~ fmetr8s-wor!,
the spinning oc on surpasses in importancethat of the potters
niii vgen_ more important than the work of the grave-i gers,
because shrouds are made from the cotton they spin. The jewellers
are less vau taios,, -according tihisit, because whereas
all people use articles of clothing, not everyone can afford to buy
luxuries. Apart from all of these stands the occupation of farming,
since, as has been noted, every Dahomean is a farmer and no matter
what his occupation, whether craftsman or not, he cultivates a plot of
To be compared with this listing is that given by the son of a
petty chief, who, by trade, was an iron-worker. As might be expected,
the blacksmiths are here placed highest, the reason given being that
if they did not make the necessary tools, the farmer could not cultivate
his land, the wood cutters could not cut their wood, the calabash
carvers could not carve their calabashes, and so on through the list
of other occupations.3 After them are placed the farmers because
1 See below, vol. ii, pp. 344ff.
2 See below, pp. 65ff.
8 Cf. Burton, p. 98, note 1, "The blacksmith in these lands is not an object of
superstition; the highest craftsman is the King's Huntoji or silversmith."
they "feed mankind." Then, when a person possesses tools with which
to make the ground yield, he thinks of covering his body, and hence
the weavers come next. The other crafts follow these three-but all
are important, for the potters furnish utensils and sacred urns, the
cloth workers dress statues of the deities and their devotees, as well
as people in general, and so on. Grave-diggers, said this man, are a
class apart and are not to be considered when the other occupations
are under discussion. But this informant was careful to point out that
grave-diggers, like all others, are dependent on the iron-worker, for
without their hoes they could not make the graves in which they bury
These ratings of occupational worth are given to illustrate the
varying attitudes toward any aspect of culture among individuals
living within a given civilisation, and how the focus is most generally
on the individual's own group, his own occupation, or his preoccu-
pation. That these attitudes take shape in outward behavior as well,
can be seen by observing the members of these guilds among themselves
and in their relations with those of their community who follow
Then marxkt ip th. prinnipf mPflium for thp diftrih ion-ofti o f nomic_
goods, affording a channel through which the products of farmers,
artisais aand craftsmen flow to the ultimate consumer, and through
which compensation is returned to the producers. Yet more than an
economic significance attaches to this institution, for the market-
place i als a.center for aonial nativit.ig a.n a plae whe
rites are held.
To understand the routine of the market, the Dahomean week, with
/ its division into days, must first be analyzed. As has been reported
for a neighboring group in West Africa,1 two systems run concurrently;
one is based on a week of seven days with four weeks to the month,
the other on a week of four days having seven weeks to the month.
The markets are held according to the four-day system,2 which is
also the one employed in determining days of good and evil omen,
and the dates for religious ceremonials, and which, in all probability,
represents the indigenous time-divisions of the Dahomeans.3 The
four markets, which give their names to the days of the week, are
Mioxi, Ad6kwj, Zogodi, and Adj&xi.4 That market which is held
by tradition to have been the first established on the day it is held
gives its name to that day, and is regarded as the most important of
the markets that occur simultaneously in different parts of Dahomey.
1 Cf. Spieth, Ewe, p. 311.
2 Cf. Forbes (vol. i, p. 55), "At Toree, a large fair is held every fourth day, where
goods are exchanged, and passed into the interior."
3 There seems to be no good reason for questioning the assumption, usually made
in the literature, that the seven-day week was taken over from European, or
according to Le Heriss6 (p. 355), Mohammedan sources. Bosman, though he
reported in 1699 that, "The Negroes live in a manner by guess, making no
manners of Distinction of Times ..." yet informs us that they "very well
know that every three Days there is a great Market-Day" (p. 324).
SOCf. Burton, vol. i, pp. 222-223, note 1. The order of market-days is the same
as given here, except that Burton's list begins with Adjhxt, Mioxi coming
second. See also Le Heriss6, (pp. 354- 355), for the time and location of markets.
The days of the seven-day week have the following names, beginning with
Monday: T6nl, Tata, Az&gh, Lamisf, Ah6sfz4ir, Sibi, Vodi4.
The principal Mioxi is held at Kana, a town which since the time of
the Aladaxonu dynasty has been one of the most important religious
centers of the kingdom. Because of the veneration in which the Kana
market is held, and because of its traditional age, Mioxi is regarded
as the first day of the week. Thus, though the most important market
at Abomey is held on this day, yet it takes its name from the Kana
market, to which it is regarded as subsidiary. Other subsidiary
Mioxi markets in the region of Abomey are held at Umbigame and
Djfdja. The principal Ad6kwl market is held at Savak6; others are
at Idjesi and Ekpota. The principal Zogodd market is held at Bohicon,
a town that has grown considerably in importance since the occupation
of Dahomey by the French, because it is situated on the main line
of the railroad, as Abomey is not. This, in turn, has caused Bohicon
to become the Europeanised trading center for the densely populated
region which includes the city of Abomey itself. Other Zogodd
markets are held at Tqndji, Bolizo, Dim6shi, M6chi, and Aod6. The
Adjhxi market takes its name from the fact that the principal market
of that day was established in the region west of Abomey known as
AdjA, near the present administrative center of Parahwe. Other
markets are held on this day at Kulikams and OkQgsa.
It has been stated that each day of the four-day week has spiritual
association, being good or bad for certain religious or secular activities.
Mioxi is not good for agriculture,1 or for devotions at the shrines of
the gods, since it is believed that on Mioxi the deities do their own
marketing. For this reason, ceremonials for the gods are not begun
on the first day of the native week, because it would be both dis-
courteous and futile to come to their shrines when they are not at home.
Though offerings of food are never given to the gods on Mioxi, it is
a propitious day for offerings to Destiny, FA. A child born on Mioxi
will have a scabrous head, because of the effect on him of the noise
made in the market-place. Ad6kwi is not held to be favorable for
ceremonies for the dead or for funerals; similarly it is considered
inauspicious for the beginning of any rites of the ancestral cult. It is,
however, good for agriculture and for hunting. Zogodf is the most
favored day, one on which one may begin any venture; and it is held
especially propitious for marriages. On it one gives food to the gods,
to the ancestors, and to the spirits that actuate one's personal charms,
for it is said that on Zogodd the gods listen to all men. Adjaxi is
also favorable, in the sense that there are no special prohibitions
1 See above, p. 35.
attached to it, but it is particularly auspicious for sacrifices to the
ancestors and gods, though for such a matter as the initiation of a
venture, it is less auspicious than Zogodi.
The most important factor when a new market is to be established
is the assurance that the supernatural forces that rule the lives of
men will permit it to prosper. Ax'izc, or the market aiz4, is the name
given to the spirit which protects the market. The aiz4, which is
found before every compound, at the gates of every city, at the
principal cross-roads and entrances to every district in the country,
as well as in every market-place, has as its function the protection of
all groups of human beings. In outward form it is a mound of earth
under which are buried definite objects to insure the specific guardian-
ship that is required. In market-places, this mound is most often
beside a sacred tree.' Essentially, the market shrine is made in the
same way as any other aiz4, which would indicate that the spirit
that rules the market is different only in degree from those others which
care for the diverse forms which human groupings may assume. The
functions of the market aiz4 are particularized by placing in its mound,
beside the ingredients basic to any aiz, earth from seven of the great
markets,2 and a specimen of each commodity to be sold-that is to
say, of all produce, food, cloth, metal, animals, and, in the days of
slaving, slaves-everything that can possibly be sold in the new
market being given as an offering, in accordance with the principle
of sympathetic magic. As in all other phases of life, diviners are
consulted before a market is established, to disclose whether or
not the gods favor the establishment of this new venture. Once
established, the aiz4 is treated much as other supernatural powers;
thank-offerings are tendered it for good business, while one may
even upbraid it if the day's returns have been scanty. A woman
coming to sell in the market may say, when passing the aiz4, "If I
sell all my cakes of akcdd, I will give you a present," and, if this is
achieved, the offering is placed near the mound with an expression
of thanks at the close of the day. Otherwise the suppliant either does
not trouble to look the way of the ax'izq, or makes the blunt observation
that since it has not helped with sales, it can expect nothing from the
1 The making of an aiz& will be described in detail in connection with the con-
sideration of religious life, on pp. 301-303, vol. ii., below.
2 Though seven bits of earth are necessary, the earth may come from any seven
The market aiz4 figures in many important ceremonies. For
example, in the rites performed for cult-initiates when they emerge
from their seclusion of many months in the cult-house, the three
places to which they are symbolically lead during the ceremony are
the mountain, the river, and the market-place. Later, as agamasi,
a rank intermediate between the novitiates and those who have
completed the training for membership in the cult-group, they beg
alms and demand gifts from the sellers and buyers in the market-
places. As soon as twins are able to walk, it is prescribed that they
must be presented to the spirit of the market. When the lok6 deity
"comes to the head" of a person who has gone through the initiatory
rites the new follower of the deity is taken, to.the accompaniment of
the beating of drums, to the aiz4 of the market. When a child is born
whom a diviner declares to be the reincarnation of the first human
offspring of the supernatural founder of the sib, the tohwiy5, the
elaborate ceremony which releases the mother from the taboos imposed
upon her as "wife of the tohwiyS" have largely to do with announcing
that fact to the ax'izq, and asking it, as one of the most powerful
spirits, to notify all the others powers that this woman has earned
her release by the performance of the duties laid upon her. The
detailed description of this rite1 shows clearly that not until the
principal participant is to be taken to the market-place are the crucial
questions that establish her right to release from her taboos asked of
her. These rituals indicate to what extent the non-economic aspect
of the market bulks large in Dahomean thought, and show its corre-
spondingly important r6le in the daily life of the people. Yet, at the
same time, it must be made clear that this association of the market
with religious rites goes along with, but in no wise affects its place
as affording the primary channel for the distribution of economic goods.
In the main, the flow of products from dcer to consumer is a
irctne, thebi .. .tances .being the producer ofwhat
he sells. This is true of all craftsmen, for even though the ironorker
seiirrhoe-that has been cooperatively made by all the fellow members
of his forge, it still means selling the product of his own hands, since,
as will be explained, he gives the major portion of his time to working
the iron of the others in return for their labor on his iron when his
turn comes to receive this. Occasionally, also, a member of a company
of weavers or potters will be entrusted with the sale of cloths or pots
produced by all the members of his group. But in such a case the
1 See below, pp. 234-238.
a) "The greatest scourge the Dahomean farmer fears is that of locusts... ."
b) "The palm-tree is ubiquitous in Dahomey."
Brass figures representing hunters.
Appliqu6 cloth having a hunting scene for its motif.
. L -1 Z' ,
a) An iron-worker's forge.
b) The iron-workers are usually very strong men.
a) The initial step in making a large pot; fashioning the upper portion.-
a) The initial step in making a large pot; fashioning the upper portion.
^ ,. ." *3' -" '" -
'. . .. ' .
"., : ..
b) Shaping the rim of the pot.
b) Shaping the rim of the pot.
a) No wheel is used to determine the circumference or thickness or a pot.
b) The vessel three-quarters completed.
a) "The market is the principal medium for the distribution of goods ..
The Abomey market on a busy day.
b) The Whydah market in full swing.
a) "There is a constant hubbub of conversation...."
b) "The vendors of a given commodity are grouped together with their
wares spread about them ...." Calabashes for sale.
seller does not act as middleman, but only as agent, and a strict
accounting must be made with the owner of each piece of goods when
the market is over and the member of the group returns home.
Perhaps the only type of wholesale market supplying middlemen
t i market. Such aone is to be seen, for example, at
Djidja, noreast o mey. This village is the center of an im-
portant farming region where the gletanu, or great cultivators, have
their farms. Some of these farms comprise areas of from fifteen to
twenty-five or thirty kilometers in length and several kilometers in
breadth. Large farms specialize in the raising of some single food
staple. One may produce millet, another maize, and a third yams,
although in some exceptional cases, all three crops may be grown by
the same planter. Under the old regime, every dignitary had a number
of plantations and was therefore one of the gletanu. Yet in the main
the cultivators of large areas were, and still are, men who live on their
farms, tilling them with the aid of their families and, in former times,
of their slaves-men who rarely come to the centers where the great
markets are held, and all of whose life is given to hard work. These
men belong to the great Dahomean middle class, and in the pre-
conquest days, if their families were not large they acquired slaves or
pawns to help them. The descendants of these slaves today have their
own fields, but are still under obligation to work a half of each day
for the descendants of the masters.
The isolation in which the gletanu liv is emph by th Dahom-
__ w fiW.i...MT-dIe- It was stated, for example, that many of
the large cultivators have never been to Abomey-"I know some
who have never seen a bicycle or heard .an automobile horn." In
speaking of the life of these farmers, the tale was told how one of them,
drafted for road work near Abomey, had to be sent home because he
could not accommodate himself to the conditions of city life.
This feeling between urban. and ruraLfolkisa demonstrated by the
rarro-ga n n f tne peo f-Abomey when.they visit the villages,
w on stand, the villagers show all the typical reactions
of ~Enuropea-peasat-- towa cifty dwellers-fthey are suspicious,
'evasive, Ion-respo nsivt-t seems strange that at the present date
there are regions in the coastal belt of West Africa where the sight
of a White man is a novelty, but when the White man visits these
outlying farming communities he encounters attitudes of curiosity
that even the discipline of a village chief, somewhat accustomed to
the canons of life in Abomey, cannot quell.
To the wholesale markets where the gletanu dispose of their products
teefore, come those who resell at retail. The buyers at these wholesale
--markets are principally women, Tor there are few- w o
-engage in ra-e.--The produce is piled high, and the womeiY, ringing
their containers, buy the provisions they need for the next day's
selling. Prices are not fixed by agreement between the gletanu, but
rather by means of a careful watch kept on the retail market by each
man individually. Agents are sent incognito to Abomey to buy grain
in the open market, and if, for example, a wholesaler's agent were to
buy a measure of meal for one franc, the price to the market-women
would be set at eighty centimes. Other circumstances, such as weather
conditions and crop prospects, also govern wholesale prices. Thus,
when the rains fail to come, the gletanu close their granaries, and either
refuse to part with what they have on hand in order to preserve their
stock of grain for the next planting, or if they sell at all, they do so
at high prices. On the other hand, if the rains should come during
an incipient drought when prices are high, the cost of produce would
fall sharply, and trade would be resumed. As far as could be ascertained
combinations of the large cultivators to fix and maintain prices do not
wholesale markets are relatively quiet affairs, lying remote
From the city, no ave nomeans oTfransporting theirgram
over Tongdistances and, therefore, sell their produce inV ithm erkts
situated close to theirjarma -The life of the women who sel too stuffs
in the market is consequently very difficult. Rising, as all women do,
before dawn, the market-woman places several large calabashes on
her head and sets out for the wholesale market, often carrying wares
both ways, for she finds it profitable to take articles made in the city
to sell in the region where she buys her produce. Thus a woman of
Abomey may take pots to the market at Adji and there buy maize,
returning home with the maize the same night to sell it the next day
in the Abomey market. Often women do business in more than one
market; an Abomey woman may not only sell in the market of that
city, but also in Bohicon. The means of transportation is on foot and
when it is considered that Bohicon, the nearest center, is ten kilo-
meters from Abomey, that Djfdji is more than twenty and Adja
almost thirty, it can be seen that the time of the women traders is
well filled. Those who sell pottery use the three days that intervene
between markets to bring their wares to the market-place, and often
Make the trip between the market towns and the place where they
manufacture their pots several times a day. If a woman has a baby,
the infant may be carried on her back. Her stock is always transported
on the head and one can see a woman carrying as many as three large
calabashes filled with millet or cornmeal or yams, one calabash atop
I id that almost half of all the Dahomean womeell-in-the
markets. When their presence i not required at their business, som
-ofthese-may tnd ie ie ,-but-mny-wom pre r not to do
agriculture, buying whatever food they require for themselves and
their children in the open market, and providing themselves with
money by engaging in trade. A large proportion of the women who
are not in the markets occupy themselves with preparing commodities
that are sold there; thus, the women who make akdsia have need of
all their time to prepare this food, for which they must first grind
the millet-flour before it can be left in water, and made ready to cook.
Other women make yam-flour, or they manufacture flour from manioc,
or they prepare yams to be fried, while still others make cereal
A market begins abouteight o'clock in the m -The place
wke"re-iLine is "kept clean on the days when trading is not done
there. The wide clearing, free of grass and with but a few trees to
afford shade, has only some thatched shelters or, at the present time,
two or three substantial iron-roofed pavilions provided by the French
government, so that the greater part of the clearing stands exposed
to the glare of the sun. By nine o'clock in the morning a fair proportion
of the traders have come; by ten the market is in full swing. It has
been estimated that as many as ten thousand people pass throug'ftl1e
Abomey market-place on some market days.2 Those who sell sit on
the ground on mats, or on low stools, the vendors of a given commodity
grouped together with their wares spread about them. So closely are
they grouped, indeed, that the buyer or onlooker must pick his way
carefully as he moves about. There is a constant hubbub of con-
versation, punctuated by laughter or the sound of voices raised in
argument over the price of some article. As the day advances and
1 Forbes, vol. i, pp. 114-115, writes as follows: "This was the market-day at the
four-day market at Torree; and all Whydah was on the road, carrying foreign
cloths, salt, saltfish, rum, and tobacco, to exchange for corn, palm-oil, peppers,
live stock, fruits, vegetables, and country cloth." Tori is about fifteen kilo-
meters from Whydah.
2 On one occasion, during the time required to bicycle from Bohicon to Abomey
(from about half-past eight to nine o'clock in the morning) two hundred and
thirty-eight persons were counted en route to the Bohicon market.
Lthe heat of the sun increases, temporary shelters are erected, short
poles being thrust into the ground and mats laid over them.
Towards noon and into early afternoon the crowd becomes more
and more dense, so that the market is at its height by two o'clock.
After this the crowd begins to thin; people drift toward the side
streets leading away from the city, and women who have been so
fortunate as to dispose of their produce leave. In the main, though,
the streets are filled with buyers carrying their purchases home-a
new calabash on the head filled with cloth or holding a new hoe; in
one hand two or three chickens, in the other a rope attached to a goat
or sheep that has just been bought. By five o'clock the movement is
strongly away from the market-place, and, as darkness sets in, quiet
settles down over it. Early the next morning eight or ten women are
to be seen sweeping away the debris of the preceding day. Each has
a palm-leaf broom, and, bent low as she wields it, moves along step
by step in time to the strokes. When the women have finished, they
leave traceries on the ground of a series of designs made by the regular
semi-circular sweep of the broom, while the open space, spotlessly
clean once more, is ready for the next market.1
To detail the wares sold in the market-place would be to catalogue
those elements in the material culture of Dahomey that are trans-
portable.2 Near the center of the Abomey market, on the south side,
the mat-makers are found. These are usually men, and each constructs
a little booth of his mats in which he sits as he awaits his customers.
There are several kinds of mats to be found here-the finely woven
sleeping mats, the mats used in the ceremonies for the deities, the
mats that hang in doorways. Nearby are the sellers of native cloth,
who have piles of folded material on the ground near them ready to
spread out for any interested customer. The greatest activity is to
be found on the northern and western fringes of the market-place,
where a line of trees gives shade. At the western side of the market,
the sellers of live animals take their place, with their chickens, ducks,
and guinea-hens, goats, pigs, and sheep. The sellers of foodstuffs are
found along the northern border. As has been indicated, both cooked
and uncooked foods are available. Of the former, one finds akcisa,
yams-freshly fried for each customer-and in season boiled ears
1 Duncan, vol. i, p. 120, comments on the cleanliness of the Whydah market.
2 Duncan, vol. i, pp. 121-122, gives an unusually complete list of the commod-
ities he found for sale in the Whydah market, while elsewhere (vol. ii, pp.
3-4), he details what was on sale in the village market of Bamen north of
Abomey. See also Foa, pp. 143ff.
of corn. Of the raw foods, corn meal, millet, yams, sweet potatoes,
cassava, beans of various sorts, and peppers both fresh and dried
are all offered. Here, too, sit the sellers of palm-oil. Little fruit
besides oranges, limes, bananas, coconuts, papaya and pineapples are
observable, and these not in very large quantities, for the Dahomeans
are not a great fruit-eating people.1 Beverages are also for sale in this
part of the market, both those of European origin sold in bottles,
usually non-intoxicating, and native palm-wine.
At the eastern end of the market are stationed the tradesmen.
Under the roofed shelters are the butcher shops, where the day's kill
of pork, veal, mutton and occasionally beef is sold, besides such game
as may have been brought by the hunters to the market for sale.2
Here also one finds the iron-workers with hoes, axes, machetes and
smaller knives on display, as well as the iron standards which are
destined for the shrines sacred to the ancestors. Nearby are to be
found the unornamented types of calabashes large enough for holding
grain, or small enough for drinking cups, or, in the days before the
introduction of European chinaware, of a size for eating. These
calabashes are brought to market on the heads of the men, and come
from the farming districts where they have been harvested, dried,
and their inner pulp removed. The bowl-like gourds, cut in half, are
put one inside the other until a stack six or eight feet high has been
made. Four long, narrow pieces of wood are arranged to form a frame
and the rope with which these sticks are attached prevent the
calabashes from falling, making it possible for a man to carry a large
number of them at once. The men who sell the material needed for
charms of all kinds sit not far from the vendors of calabashes. The
ingredients for sale, arranged in front of each seller, include the skulls
of monkeys, the long bones of various animal forms, bits of the pelt
of leopards and other felines, dried herbs, pieces of curiously twisted
iron, thongs of different lengths, creepers of special kinds, and such
other ingredients as will be detailed when an analysis of the charms
which were actually collected is given.
Under the nearby shelters, in addition to the butchers, are the
sellers of European cloth, their gaily printed lengths both piled beside
them and displayed suspended from wires strung between the posts.
1 See Burton, vol. ii, pp. 163-164, for the vegetables and fruits he found in the
2 Burton, vol. ii, p. 164, lists the wild animals that were available in his time for
food, and elsewhere (pp. 162-163) details the kinds of meat that could be
Here, too, one finds such evidences of European contact as repairers of
bicycles, and the tailors who operate European sewing machines and
make the trousers and shirts worn by Dahomean men. These latter
two groups, however, are always in their places whether there is a
market or not, for the shelters they occupy constitute their permanent
workshops. Finally, in the north-central portion of the market, on
the west side of the permanent shelters, are found those who sell
pottery. The various types are segregated, those who sell great storage
pots, or small paired pots for twins, or whitened, elaborately decorated
pottery for the cult of the founder of the royal sib, or double pots used
in the worship of the snake deities, being grouped. Thus one can find
in the market everything needed by the native for his everyday life.
The only exceptions are those products of European manufacture that
are sold in the shops kept by natives, which flank the market-place,
though even of these commodities, sugar, salt, kerosene, thread, soap
and matches are sold in the market.
In addition to the great markets, there are other means of distribu-
tion which, though individually insignificant, probably account for
a considerable proportion of the total business transactions. Reference
here is to the permanent subsidiary markets, where buying and selling
is restricted almost entirely to food staples, cooked foods and other
bare necessities of life, such as salt and sugar. Markets of this kind may
vary in size from those where two or three women sit under a tree at
the juncture of two bush paths, to evening markets, such as that of
Abomey, held every day in the great market-places themselves. The
small roadside markets operate during the day and sometimes until
a short time after darkness has fallen; the evening markets begin
shortly after dark, and last until past ten o'clock. None of these are
regarded as falling in the same category as the great gatherings to
which the word "market" is to be properly applied, but are rather to
be thought of as permanent outdoor shops where the Dahomean can
be sure of supplementing the staples he has neglected to buy at the
The manner in which prices are determined, and the extent to which
the price charged for a given commodity is fixed or variable, depends
on how the trading in that commodity is carried on. Retail prices in
some cases are n 'ib trade societies. Thoughisar St
be determined, these do not exisEt e ~ e vendors of foodstuffs at
\Abomey, in the markets of the coastal cities ofWhydah and Porto
Novo those who sell the same product have definite organizations.