The kindom of Dahomey was one of the greatest on the African continent for 300 years before it was annexed by the French colonial powers. Located in what is now southern Benin, its last monarch was Béhanzin Hossu Bowelle who fiercely resisted the French until for the survival of his people he surrendered himself to the French.
Béhanzin Hossu Bowelle or the ‘King Shark‘ was one the most powerful kings in West Africa at the turn of the 19th century. He was the eleventh king of Dahomey, and the last independent ruler of Abomey before French colonization.
Born in 1844 in Abomey, Béhanzin ruled from 1889 to 1894. His name, Kondo, was changed to Béhanzin after he succeeded his father Glèlè. His personal symbols were the shark, the egg, and two coconut palm trees, while those of his father were the lion and the ritual knife of Gu. His name actually meant ‘the egg of the world or the son of the shark‘. His great love for the freedom of his country, culture, and people led him to courageously and fiercely defend the land of his ancestors. He led the resistance and fight for the Dahomey’s freedom.
Dahomey was one of most powerful kingdoms of West Africa, deriving its power from trade and its superior army. Dahomey’s army was one of the strongest and best-organized armies in West Africa and was comprised of both men and women, including the Amazons, a superior and dreaded fighting force of female warriors. At the time, Béhanzin masterfully led an army of 15 000 men and 5 000 Amazon women. One of the Amazon leaders was Seh-Dong Hong-Beh (which means “God speaks true“) who led an army of 6000 amazons against the Egbafortress in Abeokuta in 1851.
In 1882, France declared a protectorate over Porto Novo, a vassal state of Abomey, without consulting with the indigenous people, as was (and still is) the practice with European colons. By 1885, the French occupied the entire coastal strip West of Porto Novo. In 1889, King Glèlè and his son Béhanzin, who considered these coastal areas to be part of the kingdom of Dahomey, declared that the Fon people could no longer tolerate France’s actions.
In February 1890, the French occupied Cotonou; Béhanzin, now king after Glèlè’s sudden death, prepared for war. Béhanzin’s army, with rifles supplied by the Germans, were getting too strong for neighboring French colonies. Béhanzin’s forces attacked the French simultaneously on two fronts—militarily at Cotonou and economically by destroying the palm plantations at Porto Novo. The latter precipitated an early end to the hostilities. A treaty was signed, with the French continuing to occupy Cotonou, for which Béhanzin exacted an annuity; he made France pay for the use of Cotonou port. The peace lasted for two years.
However, France was determined to annex Dahomey before the British or Germans did. Béhanzin, knowing that he would have to defend his sovereignty, continued upgrading his army in preparation for renewed war.
He declared a treaty made with France by his father, Glèlè, in 1868 null and void, and from this war began. In 1894, Béhanzin was defeated by Colonel Alfred-Amédée Dodds, a Senegalese mulatto, who was sent to fight against him with powerful French armed forces. Béhanzin, not wanting his people to be massacred, surrendered his person to Dodds, without signing any instrument of national surrender or treaty. Béhanzin thought that he would get a chance to talk to the French president and find a way or sign a conciliation agreement for his country. Unfortunately, the French tricked him and instead of going to France, Behanzin was exiled to Martinique. With Béhanzin and his immediate family adamantly refusing to sign a treaty making Dahomey a French protectorate, the French installed their choice, Agoli-Agbo, as king. Agoli Agbo, the puppet, did not last more than 6 years (when he asked for more freedom to rule, he was deported to Gabon). Dahomey was then placed under France’s protection and it eventually became a French colony. Béhanzin died in 1906 in Algeria. In 1928, his son, Ouanilo (who was also France’s first African attorney in 1920) had his body moved to Dahomey.
Béhanzin once said: “You can remove a man from his country, but you can never remove his country from a man’s heart, or erase a great man from history.” Béhanzin truly loved his people, and when he saw that his army was being massacred by the French, he cried for his beautiful and strong amazons, and pronounced the most beautiful ode to them: “Where are now the ardent amazons who were inflamed by a mighty anger? … Who will praise their splendid sacrifices? … Who will tell about their generosity? … How could I accept any sort of abdication without them? How could I dare presenting myself to you, brave warriors, if I signed the general’s paper?… for the survival of my people, [I agree] to meet in his country, according to his promise, the president of the French.”
In explaining his defeat to the French, Béhanzin said: “Despite the legitimacy of our cause, our courage, and determination, they could only win and take the land of our forefathers because of the force of their science.”
It was indeed through superior intelligence gathering, superior weaponry, subversion by some members of the royal family who had been corrupted by bribes, and a campaign of psychological warfare and an unexpected attack strategy, that the French finally succeeded in defeating Dahomey, one of the last traditional African kingdoms to succumb to European colonization. (Adapted)