Dahomey, an ancient West African kingdom, vol. 1

Notse's ancient kingship: some archaeological and art-historical considerations
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watch A few weaker kings succeeded him, until a freed slave took power, Mansa Sakura. Under his rule, Mali stretched to its furthest limits, from the Gambia and the Senegal river valleys in the west, to Gao in the east. Mansa Musa also encouraged the pursuit of knowledge, particularly as regarding Islam, by building and funding universities and mosques. Timbuktu flourished as a center for learning, as well as a center of the Trans-Saharan gold and salt trade. Still plagued with internal strife, Kanem struggled to hold itself together. Always rebellious, the Songhai of Gao took the opportunity to break away for good, something they fought for many times in the past without long-lasting success.

The burba was picked by a college of electors, which included the rulers of the vassal states like Cayor, Baol and Walo. Apart from sending annual gifts to the burba , these rulers were virtually autonomous. In the East, internal wars were still raging, as well as threats from cadet branches of the royal line vying for the throne. On top of that, Arabs from the east were encroaching. These Arabs enslaved and sold the Muslim citizens of Kanem and killed a brother of the mai. Harrassed from all fronts, Mai Omar ibn Idris, accompanied by his court and his followers, was forced to flee Kanem and settle south of Lake Chad, around This exodus was the foundation for the new kingdom of Bornu.

From this point on, the histories of the two kingdoms of Kanem and Bornu are so intertwined — the kingdoms often merging into one — that it is virtually impossible to separate one from the other and they are usually discussed as one: Kanem-Bornu. The decline of the Mali Empire left a political vaccuum that the Songhai of Gao were only too happy to fill. But the protector soon turned oppressor, abusing the people of the city.

Sonni Ali, the Songhai king, obliged, driving the Tuareg and any of their supporters out of Timbuktu. Sonni Ali went on to conquer his way west along the Niger, making extensive use of the river with his fleet of Sorko fishermen. Sonni Ali built many royal residences along the Niger, in Gao, Kukiya, Kabara, etc, but he never stopped long enough to enjoy any of them; he spent all his time warring. Al-Umari reported that the main income of the sultanate was from their beasts of burden, notably camels, as their Tuareg inhabitants were instumental in the carrying of goods through the desert.

Besides the Tuareg, Hausa-speaking people formed the rest of the population. When Muhammad returned from his two-year pilgrimage very early in his reign, he brought back not only the title of al-hajj , but also that of caliph. Askiya Muhammad was able to extend the empire further than Sonni Ali through the creation of a professional army, which incorporated slaves from the conquered territories.

Under him, the empire reached its fullest extent, sweeping the vestiges of Malian rule towards the west. The Mossi and Borgu peoples fiercely resisted the rule of the Songhai and were considered their worst enemies. They were the only obstacles to the Songhai expansion towards the south. Different powerful states formed the Mossi Kingdoms in the region of the upper Volta river, though their histories are imprecise and full of contradictions. Oral traditions date the kingdoms back to anytime between the 11th and 15th centuries, although the early ancestors of the Mossi peoples are thought to have come into the Volta area around the 13th century.

By this time though, it is clear the Mossi Kingdoms were a powerful collective. Despite the Songhai jihad to convert them to Islam and conquer their territory, which wrought destruction upon them around , they refused subjugation and fiercely opposed the Songhai at every turn. Under the leadership of Tengella or Temala according to Portuguese records , Fulani migrants reached the area of Futa Jalon where they challenged the authority of Mali and brought together many different ethnic groups.

They travelled north, past the Gambia and into the northern region of present-day Senegal, Futa Toro. Under financial strain and with grand ideas to create a magnificient caliphate in the Sudan to rival that of the Ottomans, the Empire of Morocco set its sights on the southern trade routes and the rich Songhai Empire. The seemingly bottomless salt mines of Taghaza, very close to Moroccan border, were the first to be conquered in The town had been forewarned of the attack and its inhabitants had fled in time to avoid any bloodshed.

Tensions rose between the sultan of Morocco and the Songhai askiya , to the point where the Moroccans sent their army through the Sahara — where half of them perished — to Tondibi, where a decisive battle would take place. Though vastly outnumbered, the Moroccans were victorious due to the superior fire-power provided by the expensive muskets they had bought from European traders. Under Moroccan rule, the once vibrant cities of Timbuktu and Gao shriveled out of neglect.

Fifty years later though, his grandson would take up the mantle and build the empire Kaladian dreamed of. In the south, in present-day Ghana, the Akan people had organized into several states within the rich kola nut and gold-filled forests and along the coasts. Denkiyra was the first to rule over many of them, growing powerful with their tight grip on the abundant trade that Europeans were bringing in from the coast. The Denkyira kings were said to have created ornaments out of freshly mined gold for every ceremonial occasion and had shields and swords adorned with gold.

The Ashanti, though, had plans brewing to consolidate their power and overthrow their Denkyira overlords…. By this time, the transatlantic slave trade was in full swing, but the concept was far from foreign to the West Africans. As in most other parts of the world, slaves always were an important part of trade and source of labor there. Domestic Slave Trade. Throughout its history, much of West Africa suffered from chronic under-population due to high infant mortality which slowed the natural growth rate to the point where it was insufficient to withstand drought, epidemics and wars.


Slave imports were a remedy to that. Slaves could be found at every level of West African society: they were farmers, miners, builders, cloth workers, cooks, salt workers, pageboys, concubines, even delegate merchants in trade caravans. In some areas, like the Hausa states, a slave could hope to gain important governmental offices. In Bornu, the army was composed mostly of state or king-owned slaves, even in positions of high military command. It would be easy to draw from this picture, and from the lack of slave rebellions in West African history, that slaves were well-treated.

But recurrent references to runaway slaves and captives, some even fleeing alone far into the Sahara desert where their chances of survival were close to none, show that many found their prospects unbearable. Transatlantic Slave Trade. So when the Portuguese merchants in Elmina castle first asked to purchase slaves from the coastal kingdoms in the 16th century, the Africans saw no reason to prevent the Europeans from participating in the slave trade.

After all, they had sold their slaves to the white-skinned North Africans before. And the coastal kingdoms, like Ashanti, Oyo and Benin profited immensely from the trade of slaves with the Europeans. Uniting the Ashanti people through the clever use of regalia and symbols of unity, such as the golden stool, Osei Tutu capitalized on the ill-will engendered by the bullying Denkyira to overthrow them.

The Ashanti became and remained the dominating empire in the Gold Coast until the British conquest. The empire grew powerful through a strong military force and a focus on gold and kola nut trade, as well as European commerce from the coast. He restructured Bambara society to revolve and be dominated by the ton , which previously had only existed to render services to the community. Kaarta was also a Bambara kingdom, founded by Massa, a renowned farmer distantly related to Biton. The semi-nomadic pastoral Fula people settled in the region of Futa Jallon between the 11th and 13th centuries.

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They practiced their traditional African religion, subordinate to the local chiefs, constantly having to negotiate for pasture for their ever-increasing herds due to European demand for wool. Their Muslim kinsmen migrated from Futa Toro in the 16th century and challenged the existing order, offering their cousins better leadership. Islam was the banner under which the Fula united in a national uprising to free themselves from political and economic subordination. There was no one state to take over in the area; they had to build a brand new one themselves, which is probably why the jihad they waged lasted so long: five decades, from to Futa Jallon was the first of many theocratic Fula states to come.

Governed by strict Sharia law, they were propelled to conquer the surrounding pagans, both because of religious conviction, as well as to collect slaves to sell to European traders. Kong also known as Wattara was established by the Dyula ethnic group and might have been the first Mande state to base its power on firearms. The Dyula had extensive contact with the Europeans as a result of the group being composed mostly of merchants. The state of Kong grew organically, under its own dynamism, out of the need to safeguard trade towns.

Of course, the protection of a trading center naturally called for the protection of its feeder routes as well, to secure the flow of trade. In the south, the Oyo Empire rose to its fullest height, backed by a mighty cavalry, with horses supplied from the north. In the s, Oyo became a major exporter of slaves acquired through raids on their neighbors.

The Sokoto Caliphate rose from a hotly debated controversy in Hausaland. Intellectual Muslim Fulani elites opposed, with various levels of zeal, this bastardized form of Islam in favor of pure religious orthodoxy. Shaihu Usman dan Fodio was an intelligent and pious young scholar who took a moderate approach to this debate, rejecting the extremist views, but also condemning complacency.

Slavery was abolished in Britain in and its navy patrolled the coasts of Africa to apprehend illegal slave shipments and set the captives free. The economies of African kingdoms suffered under this embargo on slaves, particularly the coastal kingdoms of Oyo, Ashanti, Dahomey and Benin. The Tukulor Empire clashed with the French forces who were marching into the interior from the Senegalese coast.

This empire was also short-lived, only lasting two decades before falling to the French colonial army in In the s, the American Colonization Society ACS , led by a group of wealthy white Americans, worked to resettle free blacks in Africa in part because their presence in the United States challenged the moral and legal basis for slavery. These initial black American immigrants were educated people who, in , declared independence from the ACS and founded the republic of Liberia modeled after the United States.

Acknowledgements We thank all informants for their time and willingness to take part in this study. Medicinal and magic plants from a public market in northeastern Brazil. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Toward a psychology of human agency. Perspectives on Psychological Science. Cultural domain analysis. Journal of Quantitative Anthropology. Anthropology of religion. Religion Compass. Prologue: Archaeology, animism and non-human agents.

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AN ANCIENT WEST AFRICAN KINGDOM. (2 Vols.). by Herskovits, Melville J. and a great selection of related books, art and You Searched For: dahomey ancient west african kingdom (title) Edit Your Search Quantity Available: 1. Dahomey: an ancient West African kingdom, Volume 1 · Melville Jean Herskovits, Frances Shapiro Herskovits Snippet view -

Report on International Religious Freedom. Medicinale en rituele planten van Suriname. Amsterdam: KIT Publishers; What makes a plant magical? Symbolism and sacred herbs in Afro-Surinamese Winti Rituals. In: Voeks R, Rashford J, editors. African ethnobotany in the Americas. Before the establishment of the French colonial administration during the last decade of the nineteenth century, prevalent diseases rooted in the region were poorly documented.

Information relating to health conditions originated from a variety of scattered material, both published and unpublished. The bulk of this documentary material is made up of books, reports and accounts from travelers, explorers and missionaries. Common diseases and epidemics, the way indigenous people treated them and casualties resulting from various diseases, including incidents of death among European visitors and their guides, are mentioned here and there among other observations and comments on the political, social and economic environment.

Descriptions of the symptoms of various prevailing diseases were generally vague since most of the authors of these accounts had no background training in medicine. Moreover, it is worth noting that knowledge about tropical diseases was limited in the nineteenth century. As a result, classifications and methods of diagnoses were far from accurate by modern standards.

Thus, as pointed out by Philip D. Curtin, 'fevers' as a category could cover yellow fever, malaria, typhoid and a great deal more Curtin, , p. Consequently, the exact cause of death is not always known. Efforts to improve the situation were concentrated on those diseases most feared by European visitors. This was particularly the case with malaria, yellow fever and sleeping sickness. At the turn of the nineteenth century, it was possible for the newly established French colonial administration to send out notices, instructions and preventive measures about these three major diseases.

This step was urgently needed in view of the heavy toll of these dreadful diseases among the tiny minority of Europeans in the colony. They were insistently reminded that there is no racial immunity against these diseases and that both blacks and whites are equally potential targets. However, the former, because of their relative isolation in rural areas and the low urbanization rate of the country, were not as vulnerable as the latter. Morever, the two groups had a different approach to disease and medicine.

The way the indigenous population dealt with the many diseases they were confronted with was a mystery and a source of derision for most visitors to Dahomey during the nineteenth century. According to Frederick E. Forbes , p. The doctor was always welcome and, he claimed, all white men were supposed to be doctors. And to illustrate his claim, he went on: "I worked some miraculous cures with James' powder, diarrhea powder and quinine, but am convinced bread pills would have answered as well: the patients believed and were cured" p.

Forbes' remark underlines, albeit unconsciously, the close relationship between traditional religion and healing practices. Smallpox, one of the prevalent diseases he used to buttress his opinion, is significant in this respect. More than any other disease, smallpox is perceived as a god-sent punishment that can only be cured by the specific god empowered to inflict such a punishment or by the priests devoted to its worship.

Smallpox in the Benin disease environment. If, as Forbes claims, the patients believed and were cured, it is because in pre-colonial Benin disease was primarily interpreted as a punishment of the gods for wrongdoing. The nature and severity of the punishment varied according to the nature and gravity of the offence committed. Not all doctors can treat all diseases. Similarly, they do not prescribe the same treatment for all diseases.

Benin, Oyo, and Dahomey

In the nineteenth century, religious priests were the doctors of the various diseases plaguing the area. In charge of the cults for the country's many deities, they prescribed and supervised treatment for bodily disorders resulting from offending these deities. It is within this general framework that the significance and prominence of smallpox in the Benin disease environment is to be examined. This prominence is generally overlooked in favor of the cult associated with Sakpata, the god that inflicts smallpox as a dreadful punishment to those who offend him.

As a result, a distinction is not always made between the history of smallpox and that of the Sakpata cult. While many diseases in endemic and epidemic forms plagued coastal Benin during the nineteenth century, the way they impacted Europeans and indigenous populations differed.

If smallpox, unlike malaria, sleeping sickness and yellow fever, was not the subject of major concern, it was because it primarily affected indigenous populations. Thus, while Pierre Bouche , p. Nevertheless, not much attention was paid to prophylaxis of the disease or its eradication before the advent of the colonial administration. Yet several seventeenth- and eighteenth-century accounts suggest that smallpox was the major cause of mortality among the indigenous population.

The growth of the population, as argued by Robin Law on the basis of these early accounts, was restrained not only by recurrent famine but also by disease, especially smallpox. According to Dapper in Law, , p. Tradition also has it that in the early eighteenth century, a Dahomina force campaigning in the interior was decimated by an outbreak of smallpox. The prevalence of smallpox was a major problem for European slave traders in Dahomey because of its impact on their human cargo.

In the late seventeenth century, many enslaved Africans shipped at Ouidah were found on arrival in the West Indies to be infected with smallpox. As a result, the English factor in Ouidah was instructed to be careful not to ship such infected people Law, , p. It clearly appears that smallpox was therefore deeply rooted in the Benin environment long before the nineteenth century. However, its origin and introduction to coastal Benin remains a puzzle even though it has been established that the disease "was fairly widespread along the coast of West Africa by the nineteenth century, although even recent statistics do little to establish exactly the localities affected and the routes by which epidemics spread" Quinn, , p.

Much therefore remains to be done towards better knowledge of the history of smallpox in pre-colonial Benin. What seems not to be in doubt is the interconnection between the political history of Dahomey and the introduction and organization of the Sakpata cult. Sakpata, the smallpox god. Smallpox is one of the illustrative examples that this study examines in its historical framework. On the other hand, many other scholars' interest in smallpox epidemics in pre-colonial Benin lies more in the disease's religious interpretation and manifestation than in its symptoms and prophylaxis.

Yet ritual ceremonies and healing practices are not unrelated. Unfortunately, mistaking form for content, European observers generally perceive indigenous prophylaxis through the sole lens of ritual ceremonies performed for local gods of specific diseases. In fact, "the religion of Dahomey includes several systems of belief introduced at different times and from different places, each system having its separate cult groups" Argyle, , p.

This is hardly surprising: the king of Dahomey always took the gods and religious chiefs of conquered lands to his capital, Abomey, in order to secure their protection. The perception and fear associated with smallpox are connected with the historical circumstances surrounding the introduction and worship of Sakpata in the kingdom. Smallpox is said to be the weapon of Sakpata; as a result, the introduction of this deity is also said to be subsequent to an epidemic of smallpox that swept through Dahomey.

Since the Mahi country was the major area of Dahomey's expansion to the north and the source of war captives sold to transatlantic slave traders, it was identified as the origin of the dreaded disease. Both the assumed origin of the disease and the influential position of the Sakpata cult in the kingdom pantheon are to be accounted for by the leading role successive rulers played in the expansionist policy.

It should also be born in mind that a number of unfortunate events in the kingdom were credited to the ill effects of smallpox.


Thus, according to Herskovits , p. Snelgrave , slave trader and historian of Dahomey, reported in the s that Agadja c. Both Kpengla and Gezo reportedly also died of smallpox. Understandably, the fear of smallpox and of Sakpata was increased by such high personalities among their victims. It was also increased by its assumed contribution to military retreats or defeats of Dahomean armies.

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John Duncan , v. He believed that the shameful defeat increased the fear associated with the very name of smallpox, a disease "very much dreaded on the whole of the west coast, as well as in the interior". If smallpox was so widespread and feared not only on the west coast but also in the interior, the Sakpata cult may not have originated in the Mahi country, as claimed by its Dahomean priests, Herkovits' main informants during his field research.

The likelihood of Sakpata but not necessarily of smallpox having a Yoruba origin is consonant with the history of relations between the famous Yoruba kingdom of Oyo and its rival Dahomey. It is well known that the latter's expansionist policy was met with decisive opposition from the former.

As a result of a series of defeats on the battlefield, Dahomey, though not formally conquered and integrated into the Oyo kingdom, became tributary to it for over a century, from the s to the s. The conflicting relationship between the two polities did not prevent fruitful exchange in the field of cultural and political institutions. It did not prevent inter-marriage either between their political elites. Thus, Dahomean princes, fruit of such unions and educated by their mothers, were agents of the introduction of many Yoruba traditions in Abomey. The vodun pantheon, characteristic of the Aja-Fon cultural area, incorporated significant features of the Yoruba's Orisha pantheon.

Lisa is a deity borrowed from the Yoruba Orisha also known as Osanla or Obatala. The same is true of Mawu, borrowed from Yemowo and introduced in Dahomey under King Tegbesu's reign Before acceding to the throne, Tegbesu, as a war captive, was educated in Oyo. Within the above historical context of interactions between the two cultural areas of the Fon and the Yoruba, the Sakpata affiliation is plausible, whether directly or through the Mahi country, as claimed by certain traditions.

In either case, migration played an important role. Furthermore, Pierre Verger has identified a striking illustration of the Yoruba origin of Sakpata in its ritual ceremonies, both in Africa and in the New World, particularly in Brazil and Cuba. During their initiation, devotees of the Sakpata cult are called 'anagonu' a Yoruba sub-group. The language spoken in convents of initiation to this deity is "an archaic Yoruba, still spoken by the Ana of the middle Togo" Verger, , p.

Sakpata taboos include antelope and guinea fowl, among others, because the stains of their skin and plumage evoke the symptoms of smallpox.