Dahomey-French Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

France’s growing demand for economic, diplomatic, and military expansion along the coast of West Africa led to a series of wars with the Dahomey kingdom. The Dahomeans put up one of the stiffest resistances to European incursions of any sub-Saharan African people, but the wars eventually led to a complete French conquest, the exile of Dahomey’s king, and the establishment of a French protectorate.

Summary of Event

After the establishment of its Third Republic in 1871, France sought overseas economic growth. In 1879, it began expanding its empire in Africa. The French started by advancing inland from Dakar, their coastal trading outpost in Senegal. They declared a protectorate over Tunisia, expanded into the Congo Basin Congo Basin;and France[France] , and sent an army into the Sudan, thus creating the basis of an empire in Africa that would eventually encompass most of West and Northwest Africa, large parts of equatorial Africa, and the island of Madagascar. Dahomey Kingdom French Empire;and West Africa[West Africa] West Africa;French colonization of Behanzin West Africa;and European imperialism[European imperialism] West Africa;Dahomey [kw]Dahomey-French Wars (Nov., 1889-Jan., 1894) [kw]French Wars, Dahomey- (Nov., 1889-Jan., 1894) [kw]Wars, Dahomey-French (Nov., 1889-Jan., 1894) Dahomey Kingdom French Empire;and West Africa[West Africa] West Africa;French colonization of Behanzin West Africa;and European imperialism[European imperialism] West Africa;Dahomey [g]Africa;Nov., 1889-Jan., 1894: Dahomey-French Wars[5665] [g]Benin;Nov., 1889-Jan., 1894: Dahomey-French Wars[5665] [g]France;Nov., 1889-Jan., 1894: Dahomey-French Wars[5665] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov., 1889-Jan., 1894: Dahomey-French Wars[5665] [c]Colonization;Nov., 1889-Jan., 1894: Dahomey-French Wars[5665] Dodds, Alfred A. Glele

Along the coast of Dahomey, in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, French merchants wanted to trade without interference from the ruler of the Dahomey kingdom, Glele. France wanted to protect its palm-oil Palm oil trade by establishing protectorates and signing agreements especially at Cotonou, a trading town strategically located on a large sandbar between an intercoastal lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean. The French claimed to have signed treaties with the rulers of Dahomey in 1868 and 1878, giving them a protectorate over Cotonou. However, it is unclear whether King Glele knew of the existence of the treaties, as they were signed by local Dahomean officials. Nevertheless, the French used the disputed documents to claim control of Cotonou.

The French initiated the first Dahomey-French war. In November, 1889, Dr. Jean Bayol, the French lieutenant governor of Senegal, was sent to the capital of Dahomey, Abomey, to reassert French claims to Cotonou and the nearby town of Porto Novo, over which France had already claimed a protectorate. Meanwhile in Paris, the French foreign ministry portrayed Dahomey as a barbaric society to generate popular support for its invasion.

When the French delegation arrived at Abomey, King Glele was ill, so his son Prince Kondo carried on negotiations. Kondo would not accept France’s offer of compensation for Cotonou and would not cede any territory to the French. Bayol then asserted what he called “protectorate rights.”

After King Glele Glele died at the end of the year, Kondo succeeded him, using the regnal name of Behanzin. Determined to resist French aggression, King Behanzin sent troops toward the coast as the French moved troops to Porto Novo and Cotonou. In February, 1890, Bayol arrested Cotonou’s Dahomean officials and took control of the town in the name of France. Behanzin then sent part of his army toward Porto Novo and Cotonou. On March 4, the Dahomeans attacked Cotonou in two columns of three thousand troops, including one thousand of their famed female soldiers. The French met their charge with cannon and machine-gun fire. Nevertheless, the women’s Women;Dahomean warriors unit breached the French lines and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Despite their bravery, the Dahomeans were repelled. They suffered losses of 127 dead inside French lines and several hundred dead beyond the lines. French losses were only 8 killed and 26 wounded. Although this first Dahomey-French war ended with the French in control of the coast, the French position was not yet secure. Behanzin still commanded fourteen thousand troops, including two thousand elite female soldiers.

Both sides sought negotiations. Several French delegations went to Abomey. On October 3, 1890, Behanzin signed what was called an “arrangement.” It conceded the French control of Porto Novo and the right to remain and trade in Cotonou, but the latter town was to remain under Dahomean sovereignty, and Behanzin was to be paid twenty thousand francs annually. However, because of the growing expansionist mood in Paris and the French desire to link Dahomey with French possessions to the north, the “arrangement” did not result in peace.

Afterward, the French continued to fortify their positions, while Dahomey bought modern weapons from German merchants. French emissaries who visited Abomey were more interested in intelligence gathering than negotiations. Meanwhile, the French assumed that their presence in Cotonou meant they owned the town, while Behanzin believed that he still held jurisdiction. In March, 1892, the Dahomean army raided several villages twenty-five miles north of Porto Novo. The French saw this as an invasion of their protectorate and sent a gunboat up the Weme River. About eighteen miles north of Porto Novo the gunboat exchanged fire with Dahomean troops.

This incident precipitated the second Dahomey-French war. Although Behanzin claimed the gunboat had violated his territory, the French parliament declared war. The French Ministry of the Marine appointed Colonel Alfred A. Dodds Dodds, Alfred A. , the commander of troops in Senegal and a veteran of France’s Indochina wars, as commander in chief. The French estimated that the Dahomean army had twelve thousand soldiers armed with four thousand rapid-fire weapons and six thousand old-fashioned muskets. They also realized that Behanzin was preparing defensive positions. On May 28, Dodds arrived in Porto Novo and ordered the coast blockaded to prevent Dahomey from receiving additional arms. He saw only one course of action: a march on Abomey, some seventy miles to the north.

Dispersed along the coast, the Dahomean army did not know where the French would strike. On August 17, Dodds left Porto Novo and moved north along the left bank of the Weme River. His force consisted of 76 officers and 2,088 regular troops, including 930 African soldiers from Senegal. They were organized into five companies of French Marines and four companies of Foreign Legionnaires from Algeria. They placed five gunboats and two hundred supply canoes on the river. Over the course of their first fifteen miles up the river, they faced little resistance and built defensive fortifications to protect their supplies.

Meanwhile, as Behanzin received information on the French troop movements, he ordered his forces eastward to await the enemy. The first major battle in this war occurred at Dogba, halfway between Porto Novo and Abomey. The French units formed a square on an elevated hill beside the Weme. As they had done in the major battle of 1890, the Dahomeans attempted a swift frontal assault, attacking at dawn on September 19. The charging troops encountered a heavy artillery barrage and machine-gun fire. Female Dahomean sharpshooters fired from trees and killed one French officer before the French return fire put them out of action. The Dahomean attack was finally stopped fifty yards from the French line, and then French gunboats rained fire on the retreating Dahomeans. The battle at Dogba Dogba, Battle of (1892) was a disaster for Dahomey.

The French then continued north, fighting from village to village. Their aim was to cross the Weme River and head northwest to Abomey. French losses mounted but were insignificant compared to those of the Dahomeans, whose heavy losses included many women soldiers. The French marched in a defensive square formation, prepared for an attack from any direction. Progress was slow as they had to clear defensive fortifications. With fighting almost every day, it took the French another month to reach Abomey.

With the military situation looking grim, King Behanzin sent a peace mission to Dodds. The French commander mistrusted the king, thinking he was stalling for time while preparing his defense of Abomey. Finally, the battles of November 2-4 at Cana, a sacred city near the capital, broke Dahomey’s power. The remaining women’s units were in the center of the battle. The French killed many of them with a powerful bayonet charge. Dahomey suffered four thousand dead and eight thousand wounded.

The fighting stopped after Dodds agreed to negotiations. Behanzin was willing to surrender his coastal possession but wanted to maintain an inland kingdom. Now promoted to general, Dodds proposed the creation of a French protectorate, the surrender of Dahomean weapons, and an indemnity of 15 million francs to be paid by Dahomey. Behanzin officially accepted these terms but surrendered only a few weapons and paid no indemnity. Believing Behanzin merely to be stalling, Dodds prepared his final assault. On November 16, he marched on Abomey, where the French encountered an unexpected sight: The capital was burning. Behanzin had evacuated the city and set it on fire. The remaining Dahomean troops and the king had disappeared. Dodds returned to Porto Novo. French casualties were 81 dead and 436 wounded, and the wars were still not over.

The French began what they called a “pacification” campaign to secure the countryside. By January, 1893, all major Dahomean towns were occupied. Nevertheless Behanzin would not surrender. He hoped to maintain some type of autonomy on the Abomey Plateau. With some northern regions still not under control, Dodds considered another campaign. In April, 1893, he left for Paris to consult with the government. He returned in August with a mandate for the total destruction of Dahomean power.

Thus began the third war. After landing on the coast, Dodds headed north with three thousand soldiers. Behanzin could not mount significant opposition, and many Dahomean officials surrendered. Behanzin could not be located, as he had help from the local population. The French were frustrated. In January, 1894, Dodds ordered the burning of areas suspected of aiding the king. Realizing that holding out any longer would cause needless devastation and suffering, Behanzin finally surrendered. The French made his brother Agoli-Agbo Agoli-Agbo a figurehead ruler. They exiled Behanzin to the island of Martinique in the West Indies and later to Algeria, where he died in 1906. The entire kingdom was under French control.

Significance

During the decades leading up to the Dahomey-French wars, the French and the Dahomeans were on a collision course. France was expanding trade on the West African coast, while Dahomey was determined to protect its territory. The French eventually destroyed the kingdom of Dahomey, which had been founded during the seventeenth century. The kingdom and the region around it eventually became a colony with the name of Dahomey within French West Africa French West Africa , and its political system and economy were subordinated to the interests of France. The wars represented a high point of French imperialism and low point for the people of Dahomey, who became colonial subjects. In 1960, Dahomey finally regained its independence. In 1975, it changed its name to the Republic of Benin, after the Bight of Benin in the Gulf of Guinea. (It is not related to the Benin Kingdom in neighboring Nigeria.)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alpern, S. B. Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey. New York: New York University Press, 1998. Popular history of female soldiers of Dahomey, from their role as palace guards to regular infantry in the Dahomey-French war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bay, Edna. Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998. Well-researched study focusing on Dahomey’s political evolution and the political and military role of women.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edgerson, Robert. Warrior Women: The Amazons of Dahomey and the Nature of War. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000. Analysis of the role of the elite female soldiers in the Dahomean army.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Manning, Patrick. Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa: 1880-1985. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Excellent survey of the political, economic, and cultural history of French colonialism in Africa.

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