Dahomey, a kingdom of Africa, on the west or Upper Guinea coast, between lat. 6° and 8° 45' N., and lon. 0° 30' and 2° 30' E., bounded N. and N. E. by mountain ranges separating it from Yoruba and other' territories, E. by Egba, W. by Ashantee, and S. by the gulf of Benin. Its limits are very indefinite, being liable to increase or decrease according to the success of the sovereign in war. Its population is variously estimated from 150,000 to 800,000. The coast, which extends from Cape St. Paul on the west to beyond Badagry, is low and sandy, slopes gradually to the sea, and has a range of islands or sand bars between it and the main ocean. It is indented by two large tide lakes, Denham and Avon, the former at the E., the latter at the W. extremity of the coast line. The island of Badagry lies at the entrance of Lake Denham, between it and the sea. During the greater part of the year, when the S. W. winds prevail, landing on the coast is attended with great difficulties, and can be accomplished only by canoes. There are a number of roadsteads, but Whydah is the only accessible port.
The largest river is the Zogo, which flows S. E. into Lake Denham. The surface of the country is generally a plain, rising gradually as it recedes from the sea until it reaches the Kong mountains; but it is broken by several chains of hills which form plateaus, and occasionally by steep mountains rising abruptly. One of the most remarkable of these is Mount Gbowelly, in lat. 8° 19' N., lon. 2° 28' E., which on some sides is nearly perpendicular. Around Abomey, the capital, which occupies one of the principal plateaus, in lat. 8° N, lon. 1° 20' E., the country is broken into romantic glens and valleys, shaded by luxuriant trees and musical with running streams and waterfalls. South of Abomey are vast marshes, interspersed with lakes and streams, and overgrown in parts with mangroves, dwarf palms, and aquatic plants; and smaller marshes are frequent throughout the country. During the rainy season these are inundated and almost impassable. Between the capital and the sea stretch immense forests, in which the trees attain enormous dimensions. In the forests grow many kinds of fruit and flowering trees, including the date palm, cocoanut, and tamarind, the yellow fig and damson, the mango, mimosa, lime, wild orange, acacia, magnolia, and the shea or butter tree.
Wild grapes and the banana, plantain, pineapple, guava, and citron abound, and the convolvulus, jessamine, and many parasitical vines grow with a luxuriance unknown out of the tropics. These dense woods are filled with birds of the most beautiful plumage, and many varieties of monkeys, and are the lurking places of wild beasts and venomous reptiles. Lions, leopards, panthers, hysenas, elephants, deer, buffalo, wild sheep, goats, hippopotami, alligators, and boa constrictors of enormous size abound. Bats are numerous and large, particularly the Whydah vampire bat, which frequently measures three feet from tip to tip of wings. Of the domestic animals, oxen are small; sheep, goats, and swine are abundant, the last being of a large and superior kind. Horses are almost unknown. The rivers and lakes furnish plenty of fish, and their banks abound with, land tortoises. The seacoast is so infested with sharks that it is dangerous to go into the water. The climate generally is not unfavorable to health. A breeze called the harmattan blows for three months in the year, and greatly purifies the atmosphere.
Elephantiasis, common to nearly all the Guinea coast, does not exist in Daho-my; but the people are afflicted by a species of hair worm which penetrates the skin and works its way into the muscular tissue. Agriculture is in a primitive condition, but the soil is so fertile that good crops are raised. Along the coast and around the principal towns are farms in a high state of cultivation. Near Whydah most of these farms are in the hands of persons returned from Brazil, who learned something of agriculture there. Draining and manuring are practised, it is said, in the remote interior. Rice is raised to a large extent in the swampy lands, and, together with maize, yams, and the manioc root, which is ground into meal, forms the chief food of the inhabitants. Cotton of good quality grows wild, but not in quantity sufficient for home consumption. Sugar, indigo, tobacco, and spices are raised. Among the vegetable productions peculiar to the country are a variety of millet or Guinea corn, a legume called ca-lavances or pea-beans, a kind of ground bean, and a berry said to possess the property of turning bitters and acids sweet. Two field crops are raised annually, the time of sowing being at the equinoxes. With all these advantages of climate and soil, little is raised for export.
The manufactures are chiefly cotton cloth, pottery, mats, and rude agricultural tools, knives, and weapons of iron. Cloth is made by a tedious process, the reel being passed through the shed in their looms, from side to side, they having no knowledge of the shuttle. The web is usually about six inches wide, and is woven in strips of blue and red, the only colors used. The native smiths fabricate knives, swords, daggers, and spears from iron obtained at the European factories on the coast, but they are unacquainted with the art of tempering. Workers in the precious metals, which are obtained in the Kong mountains, show considerable skill in the design and ornamentation of trinkets. - The Dahomans are of medium height and slightly built, agile, and good walkers and dancers, but are not very strong. According to Burton, they are cowardly, cruel, and bloodthirsty, noisy and self-conceited, and given to lying, cheating, and drunkenness. The women are plain and masculine, and comparatively large and strong; they perform all the labors of the house and the field, with the assistance of slaves, the sole occupation of the free men in time of peace being hunting and fishing.
The dress of the men is a godo or T bandage, a pair of short drawers, and a body cloth, 12 ft. long by 4 to 6 ft. broad, worn like the Roman toga. Of the women, young girls and the poorer classes wear nothing but a zone of beads supporting a bandage, and over that a scanty loin cloth called a do-oo. The upper classes add an over-cloth, 12 ft. long, passed under the arms and covering the person from the bosom to the ankles. Tattooing is practised to some extent by both sexes, and the men paint themselves in red and white stripes. Polygamy is general, each man having as many wives as his means will permit. The head of the family has absolute authority over his wives and children, even to the extent of selling them into slavery; but this power is seldom exercised. Slaves are well treated, and it is generally difficult to distinguish them from members of the family. The Dahomans recognize a supreme deity, but believe that he is too great aud too high to trouble himself about human affairs. They therefore pay their worship only to minor deities, all of whom are connected with some material object. The principal deities are ranked in distinct classes. The most important is the snake god, who has 1,000 snake wives.
Next come the tree gods, of which the silk cotton (bornbax) and the poison tree are the most powerful, each with 1,000 wives. A third group are the sea gods, the chief of which is represented at Whydah by a high priest, who ranks as a king and has 500 wives in virtue of his office. Human sacrifices are made to the sea god, the victim being thrown into the water, when he is at once devoured by the sharks. The thunder gods constitute a fourth group. When a person has been killed by lightning, burial is not lawful. The body is laid on a platform and cut up by women, who hold pieces of the flesh in their mouths and pretend to eat them. Besides these superior deities there are hosts of inferior gods. Fetish houses are seen in every direction, and fetish men and women are numerous. These fetishers or priests undergo a regular education in the mysteries of their calling, and speak an esoteric language which none but themselves can understand. Nearly one fourth of all the women belong to this order. One of their chief employments is visiting the world of spirits. It is a general belief that a man when dead takes in the next world the same position that he held in this; so that a king is a king for ever, and a slave never becomes free.
When a Dahoman feels unwell, he imagines that his deceased relatives are calling him to join them, and he hires a fetish to communicate with them. The priest covers himself with a cloth, falls into a trance, and on recovering pretends to have visited the other world and delivered the message sent by the sick man. The Dahoman villages and towns are all similar in appearance, architecture beiug regulated by law. The walls are mud mixed with oyster shells to strengthen it, and built up in regular courses, each about 2 1/2 ft. thick. No walls are permitted to be more than four courses high. The sun soon bakes the mud hard, and but for the heavy rains it would be very lasting. There are no windows, but the roofs, made of grass and leaves fastened on a light framework, can be raised for the admission of light and air. At almost every door stands the legba pot, a common clay shard, which is filled morning and evening with cooked maize and palm oil for akrasu, the turkey buzzard, which like the snake is regarded with the utmost reverence. - The government of Dahomey is a pure despotism. There are two kings properly, the city king and the bush king, each having his throne, court, army, officers, and customs.
The bush king regulates tillage and commerce; the city king rules the cities, makes war, and manages the slave trade. The former is seldom seen excepting by those who visit the interior for the express purpose. His palace is about six miles from Abomey. The city king has a palace in Abomey and a country residence at Kana, an interior town of about 4,000 inhabitants, 57 m. N. of Whydah. The city king is the only one generally known to Europeans, as he alone comes in contact with the traders. He has entire control over the lives and liberties of his subjects, who invest him with the attributes of deity. None ever attempt to resist his sanguinary decrees, but each considers himself favored if permitted to sacrifice his life to the king's pleasure. In approaching him they prostrate themselves flat on the face and crawl on all-fours, kissing the earth and throwing dust on their persons. He is treated like a demigod rather than a man. When he eats or drinks he is shielded from view with umbrellas or extended cloths, while his courtiers fire guns, ring bells, and bend to the ground. If he sneezes, all within hearing burst into shouts of benediction.
When a message is sent to him, it is done in the most circuitous manner, and after passing through a number of inferior officers it is whispered into the king's ear by the dakro, a woman attached to the court, who prostrates herself on all-fours. As the life of every man, so the person of every female belongs to the sovereign. Once a year all marriageable girls are required to appear before him. He selects some for his harem, some for his guards, for some lie chooses husbands, and others he returns to their parents. The number of the king's wives is indefinite, but he has usually from 3,000 to 4,000. His body guard is composed entirely of women, forming a regiment from 1,200 to 2,500 strong. These are also nominally the king's wives, but are seldom so in reality, though like the members of his harem they are kept in seclusion. They drill in private, and when they go out a bell is rung before them, and all men are compelled to leave the road, or to turn their faces until they have passed. About one third of these amazons have been married; the remainder are maidens. They are strictly chaste, and one who transgresses is usually executed by her comrades.
They are more masculine in appearance than the male soldiers, are tall and muscular, and possessed of unflinching courage and ruthless cruelty. To inspire a feeling of emulation, they are allowed to take the scalp of a slain enemy and exhibit it on reviews and public occasions. They also fasten cowry shells with coagulated blood to the butts of their muskets, one being allowed for each man slain. Their ordinary costume is a sleeveless tunic of blue and white native cloth, terminating in a long fringe a little below the waist. From this depends a skirt falling below the knee, and beneath that a pair of short linen trousers. They are poorly armed, some of them having trade guns, but the most being furnished only with bows and arrows, swords, and clubs. Each is provided with a rope to bind prisoners. They are the best fighters in the Dahoman army, the men being comparatively feeble and worthless. The chief executioner is the highest court official. All officers are appointed in pairs, so that each may supervise and check the other. No chief is allowed to visit another in his house, and they can speak only in the street. The king's spies are everywhere, and report every proceeding to him. All property belongs to the sovereign, and when a chief dies the king inherits his title and possessions.
He sometimes confers them on the son, but oftener on a stranger, who is obliged to support the family of the deceased. Taxes are levied on all goods exposed for sale in the markets, and a capitation tax is imposed on all in proportion to rank and income. The principal part of the revenue is derived from duties on the palm oil and ivory exported, and an ad valorem duty on all imports. The circulating medium is cowries. Every spring the king makes a raid on some of the neighboring tribes, and when successful returns in two or three months with long lines of prisoners. In the days of the slave trade the greater part of these, after some had been slaughtered publicly, were sold to the European traders, who were summoned to Abomey, then the great slave market. These raids are still kept up, although the slave trade is virtually extinct on the west coast. When the king dies, his successor provides himself as soon as possible with a sufficient number of victims, and then proceeds to celebrate the "grand custom," in which as many as 500 are slain to replenish the household of the dead, those slain being supposed to rise in the next world with the deceased and to become his attendants and companions.
Besides the grand custom, annual customs also are celebrated, in which usually 60 or 80 are killed to carry news to the dead. The king whispers in the ear of each the message he desires him to convey, and the victim is then decapitated by the appointed official. The executions are attended by crowds of both sexes, frenzied with rum and excitement, who exhibit their loyalty to their sovereign by yells of welcome and by drinking the blood of the slain. After decapitation the bodies of the victims are dragged out of the town and left to be devoured by wolves and vultures. The skulls are cleaned and used as ornaments for buildings and public places. Walls are edged with skulls, they are stuck upon poles, are used as the heads of banner staves, are heaped up before the king, and the temples are almost entirely built of them. On the last day of the customs a line of soldiers stationed all the way from Whydah to Abomey transmit a rolling lire of musketry from the capital to the port and back again. - The history of Dahomey, as known to Europeans, begins early in the 17th century, when the Dahomans were called Foys and possessed a small tract of country in the interior near Abomev. In 1625 a chief of this tribe con-quered Abomey and made it his capital.
In the early part of the 18th century Guadja Trudo, an ambitious king, subdued Ardrah and Whydah, and extended his sovereignty to the coast. He opened a trade with Europeans, but had frequent quarrels with them, and finally destroyed the French, English, and Portuguese factories, and hung the English governor. He was succeeded in 1732 by his son Bossa Ahadee, whose first act of sovereignty was to put to death all persons named Bossa in the kingdom, as a punishment for their presumption in bearing his name. He died in 1774, and was followed by a succession of savage rulers, who committed shocking atrocities to supply the slave trade. About the beginning of this century the king of Dahomey ruled over a large part of the Guinea coast, but since the suppression of the slave trade he has gradually declined in importance. In 1850 and 1851 King Ghezo made expeditions against Abbeokuta, the capital of the Egbas, but was defeated and lost many of his amazons. In November, 1851, a British consul was fired upon at Lagos, while trying to negotiate a treaty for the abolition of slavery. Two months after a strong force attacked and captured the town, which was well fortified and defended by 5,000 men, and destroyed 57 guns.
A treaty was then signed prohibiting the slave trade, abolishing human sacrifices, and securing the freedom of commerce and the liberty to diffuse Christianity. The British have since held the place. In 1858 King Ghezo was succeeded by his son Gelele, who, after subjugating several of the smaller tribes, led an expedition in 1861 against Abbeokuta, but was obliged to abandon it on account of sickness in his army. In December, 1862, a mission was sent to him by the British government with a view to induce him to repress the interior slave trade and to modify the barbarities of the customs, but with little effect. In 1864 he again marched against Abbeokuta with a force of 10,000 or 12,000 men, besides his amazons, and three brass guns. The Egbas routed his army, killed 1,000, and took several thousand prisoners. This disaster was a severe blow to his power, and even threatened the existence of the Dahoman kingdom. The annual losses by war and diseases incident to it, and the loss of reproduction by so large a body as the amazons and the king's superfluous wives, have seriously affected the country.
Tracts which were formerly cultivated are now a desert, and the population is but a fraction of what the territory might support.
Dahomans - The King's Dance.