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A Note on the Abomey Protectorate

  • C. W. Newbury
Extract

In 1894 the military power of one of West Africa's most highly centralized kingdoms was broken. Six years later the last representative of the Fon dynasty which had ruled from Abomey since the early seventeenth century was deposed and exiled. Immediately after the conquest of Abomey by the French, the kingdom, somewhat reduced in area, was administered as a colonial protectorate. Attempts to rule through an indigenous paramountcy were not new in French West Africa: similar experiments were made in Senegal and in the Futa Jallon. But, compared with these better-known examples, Dahomey lacks a detailed account of administrative practice in its protectorates and a treatment of the nature of Abomey kingship at a time when the local authority structure was being reappraised by Europeans. The quick demise of an institution that had flourished for about 300 years and excited the wonder of traders and travellers calls for some explanation. How much of the Fon dynasty's fiscal and religious functions survived its loss of police powers, and by what methods did French administrators take its place?

Part of the answer to these questions lies in the decline of Abomey control of coastal trade in the years immediately preceding the conquest—a factor, indeed, which aroused the dynasty to desperate measures and occasioned French military intervention. The rest of the explanation is to be found in the contradiction between ‘protectorate’, as administrative policy, and the administrative practice of French officials at Abomey.

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page 146 note 1 For an analysis of Fon institutions, see Herskovits, Melville J., Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom, New York, 1938, 2 vols; Le Hérissé, A., L'Ancien Royaume du Dahomey, Paris, 1911. The bulk of the material for this note is from primary archive sources. For convenience, these have been abbreviated in references as follows: Institut Français d'Afrique Noire, Porto-Novo (P.N.); Missions Africaines de Lyon (M.A.L.); Ministère des Affaires Étrangères (M.A.É.); Ministère de la Marine (M.M.); Ministère de la France d'Outre-mer (M.F.O.); Ministère des Colonies (M.C.).

page 146 note 2 Treaty 19 April 1878, Études Dahoméennes, ix, 1953. pp. 28–29.

page 147 note 1 Ibid. p. 91; M.A.L. R.P. Pied, 4 April 1889. Another observer listed Glele's duties on spirits imported through Cotonou, Whydah, Godomey, and Avrekete at the following rates:

I puncheon of rum—4 cowrie piastres (= 2 fr. 50)

I case of gin —2 gallines (= 0 fr. 15)

d'Albéca, A. L., Les Établissements Français du Golfe de Bénin, Paris, 1889, p. 111.

page 148 note 1 M.A.É. Bayol, 6 December 1889, Afrique/126; P.N. ‘Rapport dressé par l'Interprète X. Béraud’, 12 March 1891.

page 148 note 2 P.N., ibid.

page 148 note 3 Among the ringleaders were Glele's favourite wife, the Chotaton of Whydah, and a Creole named Nicolas who was a ward chief at Whydah.

page 148 note 4 Arrangement, 3 October 1890, Études Dahoméennes, ix, 1953, pp. 101–2; M.A.É. Ballay, 9 March 1891, Afrique/127.

page 148 note 5 M.A.É. Ehrmann, 3 February 1892; Étienne, 27 Februry 1892, Afrique/127; P.N. Ballot, 1 March 1892.

page 149 note 1 Dodds, P.N., ‘Déclaration’, 5 January 1894, Affaires Politiques.

page 149 note 2 Ibid., 13 January 1894.

page 149 note 3 Ibid., 10 February 1894.

page 150 note 1 P.N. Puivergne, 9 April 1894.

page 150 note 2 P.N. Dodds, 15 April 1894.

page 150 note 3 Idem, 12 April 1894.

page 151 note 1 P.N. Dumas, 21 June and 21 July 1894.

page 151 note 2 Ballot, P.N., ‘Circulaire’ no. 584, 23 August 1894.

page 151 note 3 The exactions consisted of a thousand jars of palm oil, labour for the royal palace, and several hundred children as slaves. M.F.O. Ballot, 2 July 1895, Dahomey/iv/2.

page 151 note 4 ‘Ses efforts ont tendu à l'administration directe du Royaume d'Abomey au détriment de l'influence d'Ago-li-agbo.’ P.N. Ballot, 23 April 1897, Affaires Politiques.

page 151 note 5 P.N. Pascal, 23 January 1898.

page 151 note 6 Ibid., 22 June 1898.

page 151 note 7 P.N, Veisseyre, 5 September 1899.

page 152 note 1 P.N. Pascal, 30 December 1899, Correspondance M.C.

page 152 note 2 Ibid., 22 March 1900.

page 152 note 3 ‘Ils se plaignirent … de ce que les chefs de région s'arrogeaient certaines prérogatives qui leui étaient autrefois interdites par les anciens rois, et ne traitaient plus les fils de ces derniers que comme de simples particuliers.’ P.N. Maire, 12 January 1902, Abomey.

page 152 note 4 P.N. Le Hérissé, 9 June 1904.

page 153 note 1 Le Hérissé described the function of the Vigan as follows: ‘Ainsi Agonglo a eu pour enfants Ghézo et A.B.C. Ghézo a eu pour enfants Glélé et A′.B′.C′. Le Vigan d'Agonglo commande tous les descendants de A.B.C., mais pas ceux de Ghézo. Le Vigan de Ghézo commande tous les descendants de A′. B′.C′. mais pas ceux de Glélé. En outre le Vigan du dernier roi décédé doit commander tous les autres Vigans, ce Vigan n'étant autre que le roi régnant au temps de la monarchie.’ P.N. Le Hérissé, 18 June 1904.

page 153 note 2 Archives of the Haut Commissariat de l'A.O.F., Dakar. Mallan, , ‘Rapport en Conseil de Gouvernement’, May 1910, Procès-verbaux du Conseil de Gouvernement Général, 5/E/23 and 25.

page 154 note 1 Archives of the Haut Commissariat de l'A.O.F., Dakar. Ponty, ‘Circulaire sur la Politique Indigène’, 22 September 1909 and 7 April 1913, 17/G/38. For French administration in the Futa Jallon, see the excellent study by Demougeot, A., Notes sur l'Organisation Politique et Administrative du Labé avant et depuis l'occupation française, Mémoires de l'I.F.A.N., N0. 6, Paris, 1944.

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