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Fly and Elephant parties: Political polarization in Dahomey, 1840–1870

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2009

John C. Yoder
Northwestern University


Analysis of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Dahomean history reveals, not the existence of an absolute despotism, but the presence of a complex and institutionalized political process responsive to the needs and demands of Dahomeans from every part of the country. Each year at Xwetanù (Annual Customs), Dahomean officials met to discuss and decide administrative, military, economic, and diplomatic policies of the nation. In the mid-nineteenth century an obvious polarization developed as two groups, the Elephant Party and the Fly Party, sought to mould foreign policy. The Elephant Party, composed of the Crown, the wealthiest Creole traders, and the highest male military officials, advocated continuing the established practice of capturing and exporting slaves. Therefore, the Elephant Party wanted to destroy Abeokuta, an African rival and threat to slave raiding, and to resist England, a European obstacle to the trans-Atlantic shipment of slaves. After 1840, as slaving became more difficult and as the palm oil trade emerged as an alternative to the slave trade, the Fly Party rose to challenge the goals of the Elephant Party. Comprised of the Amazon army, shrine priests, middle-level administrators, Dahomean entrepreneurs, and trade officials (groups who were unwilling to pay the costs of a major war and who were eager to gain access to the profits of ‘legitimate’ international trade), the Fly Party counselled peaceful co-existence with Abeokuta and restored commercial relations with England. Eventually, the Fly Party was able to gain ascendancy over the Elephant Party. By 1870 the great Creole traders had suffered severe economic reverses, the Crown and the high military officers were divided over the question of Abeokuta, and members of the Fly Party had obtained positions of political and economic dominance within the country. Thus, the economic and military transformations which affected all of West Africa in the first half of the nineteenth century evoked political polarizations, coalitions, and realignments in the nation of Dahomey.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1974

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6 This view was accepted by Herskovits, , who was not in Dahomey during the tune when Xwetaztù was held, Dahomey, II, 4969.Google Scholar Akinjogbin does not challenge this position. The most recent assertion that the Xwetanù was essentially a religious event is made by Dov, Ronen, ‘On the African Role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Dahomey’, Cahiers d'études africaines, XI (1971), 513. Xwetanù is the proper Fon term for an event generally described by Europeans as Annual Customs: personal communication from Gilbert Rouget, Musée de l'Homme, Paris.Google Scholar

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9 In this paper the name Great Council is used to distinguish the large body meeting during Xwetanù from a much smaller Council of Ministers which attended to the daily affairs of government throughout the entire year.

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11 While European observers were unanimous in speaking of three separate divisions, none of the visitors gave a satisfactory description of the groups. The following portrayal is, therefore, tentative.

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67 Forbes, , Dahomey, I, 112; II, 243 and 246. Forbes referred to this group of men three times. In V. I, 112, he named three of these five merchants. In two separate lists (II, 243 and 246) all five names appeared in association with the Yovogan. Professor Jack Berry of Northwestern University assures me that although Forbes's spelling is not consistent, he is always speaking of the same five men. I have included a fourth spelling that may be the Fon word referred to by Forbes. Forbes, Forbes, Forbes, Possible Fon I, 112 II, 243 II, 246 orthography Ahojohvee Alijohvee Ahjohvee Adjovi (not listed) Hoodoonoo Khodohnoo Xodonu Narwhey Nearwhey Narwhey Nahwe (not listed) Quejah Kohjeh Kadzee Quenung Ahqueanoo Quaenung QuenumGoogle Scholar

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73 The intense and shrewd interest in British commerce expressed by Dahomean traders in Setta north of Abomey indicates that many Dahomeans linked to trade probably desired to restore normal commercial relations with England. Thus, the five men noted by Forbes were probably only a few of the many merchants forming part of the Fly Party.

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80 I wish to express my thanks for the generous help and insightful criticisms of Professor Ivor Wilks.