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

  • John C. Yoder (a1)

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.

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1 Catherine, Coquery-Vidrovitch, ‘De la traite des esclaves à l'exportation de l'huile de palme et des palmistes au Dahomey: XIXe siècle’, in The Development of Indigenous Trade and Markets in West Africa, Claude, Meillassoux, ed. (London, 1970), 107–23.

2 See for example Abbé, Lafitte, Les pays des nègres et la côte des esclaves (Tours, 1878), 95. Lafitte was a Catholic missionary to Dahomey in the 1860s.

3 Edouard, Foa, Le Dahomey (Paris, 1895), 265.

4 Melville, J. Herskovits, Dahomey, An Ancient West African Kingdom (Evanston, 1938), 2248.

5 Akinjogbin, I. A., Dahomey and Its Neighbours 1708–1818 (London, 1967),Argyle, W. J., The Fon of Dahomey (London, 1966), and Coquery-Vidrovitch, ‘De le traite des esciaves à l'exportation de l'huile de palme’.

6 This view was accepted by Herskovits, , who was not in Dahomey during the tune when Xwetaztù was held, Dahomey, II, 4969. 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.

7 The best explanation of the elaborate heraldry on Dahomean state umbrellas is given in Skertchly, J. A., Dahomey As It Is (London, 1874), 193–4.

8 Forbes, F. E., Dahomey and the Dahomans (London, 1851), II, 243–6. Forbes recorded the names of more than 300 official delegates attending Xwetanù in 1850. Although Forbes and other European visitors observed that thousands of people were in Abomey for Xwetaiù, Faust of these were retainers of the official delegates.

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.

10 Forbes, , Dahomey, I, 83.

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.

12 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 224–6.

13 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 213–14.

14 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 233–34.

15 For a description of the role of women in Dahomean politics see Herskovits, , Dahomey, II, 44–8.

16 Europeans called these messengers ‘half-heads’ because they shaved off all the hair from one side of their heads.

17 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 108–21.

18 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 111–14.

19 Forbes, , Dahomey, II. Other good accounts of Xwetanù are found in Archibald, Dalzel, The History of Dahomy (London, 1793), 126–39;John, Duncan, Travels in Western Africa in 1845 and 1846 (London, 1847), I, 216–52;Thomas, B. Freeman, ‘Life and Travels on the Gold Coast’, in the Western Echo, 16 07 to 31 12 1887;Richard, F. Burton, A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome (London, 1864), I, 201386, and II, 163, and Skertchly, , Dahomey, 147292.

20 Robert, Norris, Memoirs of the Reign of Bossa Ahadee, King of Dahomey (London, 1789), 222, and Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 37–8 and 223–42. Forbes made a complete listing of all the objects displayed in 1850.

21 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 4455. On alternate years the captives were slain while tied to horses.

22 Burton, , A Mission to Gelele, II, 1617. Burton observed that the quantity of wealth displayed in 1863 did not nearly equal that shown in the time of King Gezo.

23 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 8 and 42.

24 Duncan, , Travels, I, 229–36, and Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 122–7.

25 Duncan, , Travels, I, 224 and 234;Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 86134;Burton, , A Mission to Gelele, I, 336–71, and Skertchly, , Dahonwy, 247–75.

26 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 12 and 1516. See also Freeman, , ‘Life and Travels’, Western Echo, 18–3 12 1887, 8.

27 Duncan, , Travels, I, 228.

28 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 139–40.

29 Skertchly, , Dahomey, 247–8.

30 Edouard, Dunglas, ‘Contribution à l'histoire du Moyen-Dahomey (Royaumes d'Abomey, de Kétou et de Ouidah)’, études ahoméennes, XX (1957), 2651. Dunglas argued that Gezo's coup d'état succeeded only because of Da Souza's help. British records indicate that Da Souza also benefited greatly from his friendship to Gezo. Already in 1820 he had established himself as the principal trader in Dahomey. G. A. Robertson to Lord Bathurst (dated Cape Coast; November, 1820), Public Record Office, London: CO 2/11, no. 180

31 Forbes described a royal plantation worked by captured slaves. ‘Near Abomey is a royal plantation of palms, corn, etc., called Lefflefoo. It is inhabited by people from the province of Anagoo, prisoners of war, and is under the direction of a Dahoman cabooceer.’ Forbes, , Dahomey, 1, 31. For a description of the extensive trading monopoly established over newly conquered area north of Dahomey see Duncan, , Travels, I, 2825, 290, and 297; II, 2936. See also Akinjogbin, I. A., ‘Dahomey and Yoruba in the Nineteenth Century’, in A Thousand Years of West African History, Ajayi, J. F. A. and Espie, I., eds. (Ibadan, 1965), 325.

32 Burton, , A Mission to Gelele, II, 223.

33 Duncan, , Travels, I, 282–3.

34 Forbes described the elaborate defensive system designed to alert and protect a border town against invasion by hostile forces. Forbes, , Dahomey, 3, 3940. In 1863 Commodore Wilmot reported widespread anxiety caused by the constant threat of war. Commodore Wilmot to Rear-Admiral Sir B. Walker (dated Rattlesnake, off Lagos; January 1863) in Burton, , A Mission to Gelele, II, 366.

35 Freeman, who visited Dahomey in the 1840s, noted the extensive commercial cultivation of tubers near the coast. ‘The Cassada is cultivated more extensively in the provinces of Whydah than it is in the Interior districts; on account of the farina of that valuable root which are demanded by the slaveships. Some of the natives of Whydah have made little fortunes by the cultivation of the cassada and the manufacture of its farina’, Freeman, , ‘Life and Travels,’ Western Echo, 163007 1887, 8. See also Forbes, , Dahomey, 3, 323–2 and 127. Forbes listed the salaries of ordinary Dahomean citizens working for the international traders and he observed that people longed for the happier days of the past when the slave trade had been active and when there had been full employment in Whydah.

36 Philip, D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade (Madison, 1969), chapter 8. Curtin's statistics indicate that large numbers of slaves continued to be exported from the Dahomey and Nigeria region in the first half of the nineteenth century. See also David, A. Ross, ‘The Career of Domingo Martinez in the Bight of Benin 1833–1864’, J. Afr. Hist. VI (1965), 7990. Ross suggests the Dahomean slave trade continued relatively unaffected until 1848 when the British naval blockade became effective. Ross argues that some slave traders prospered until as late as 1851 when Brazil agreed to withdraw from the Atlantic slave trade. See also Freeman, , ‘Life and Travels’, Western Echo, 71312. 1887, 8. Quoting one of his own letters written in 1845, Freeman described the elaborate network of coastal intelligence allowing the Creole traders to evade easily the few British vessels patrolling the area in the mid-1840s.

37 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 108. Brackets mine.

38 For an account of the rise of Abeokuta and the alarm this caused in Dahomey see Akinjogbin, , ‘Dahomey and Yoruba in the Nineteenth Century’, 324.

39 Wilmot, to Walker, , in Burton, , A Mission to Gelele, II, 351–9. See also Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 189–92.

40 It should not be thought that the two groups had any organizational structure or that they called themselves by the names Elephant or Fly. I chose these labels, used by Dahomeans to describe military targets, because they clearly symbolized the conflicting methods and objectives of the two competing coalitions which can be called parties.

41 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 109.

43 Dunglas, , ‘Contribution à l'histoire du Moyen-Dahomey’, 77–8.

44 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 92–9.

45 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 109. Brackets mine.

46 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 109. Brackets mine.

47 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 113–14.

48 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 99100.

49 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 103–23.

50 Forbes, , Dahomey, I, 20.

51 Wilmot, to Walker, , in Burton, , A Mission to Celele, II, 366.

52 Paul, Ellingworth, ‘Christianity and Politics in Dahomey, 1843–1867’, J. Afr. Hist., v (1964), 210. See also Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 185–7; and Wilmot, to Walker, , in Burton, , A Mission to Gelele, II, 349.

53 Burton, , A Mission to Gelele, II, 276–8. See also Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 189. In the 1840s, members of the Fly Party resented British interference in the traflic of slaves and some Fly Party members were involved in the sale of slaves.

54 Burton, , A Mission To Gelele, I, 74–5 and 115. See also Duncan, , Travels, I, 138.

55 Duncan, , Travels, 1, 138. See also Newbury, C. W., The Western Slave Coast and Its Rulers (Oxford, 1964), 3942;Ross, , ‘The Career of Domingo Martinez’, 86–7.

56 Duncan, , Travels, I, 285–6.

57 Ellingworth, , ‘Christianity and Politics in Dahomey’, 204–21.

58 Thomas, B. Freeman, Journal of Various Visits to the Kingdom of Ashanti, Aku and Dahomi in Western Africa (London, 1844), 240–3.

59 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 89.

60 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 202.

61 Burton, , A Mission to Gelele, I, 375–6.

62 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 189–90.

63 Although Dahomeans consistently rejected British demands to halt the slave trade they always welcomed British negotiators to Abomey.

64 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 62–3.

65 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 189–90.

66 Burton, , A Mission to Gelele, I, 375–6.

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 Quenum

68 Forbes, , Dahomey, I, 112–15; II 175–6.

69 Ross, , ‘The Career of Domingo Martinez’, 81.

70 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 243 and 246.

71 Forbes, , Dahomey, I, III.

72 Forbes, , Dahomey, I, 53.

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.

74 Dunglas, , ‘Contribution à l'histoire du Moyen-Dahomey’, 7885.

75 Skertchly, , Dahomey, 275–89.

76 Forbes, , Dahomey, I, III.

77 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 7 and II.

78 Forbes, , Dahomey, II, 3. See also Burton, , A Mission to Celele, 1, 91–2 and 105–6.

79 Lafitte, , Les pays des nègres, 198200. See also Burton, , A Mission to Gelele, II, 104–6. See also Skertchly, , Dahomey, 1314, 25, 32–3, 45, 50–3.

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

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