Behanzin, the King of Dahomey, chose the strategy of confrontation to resist French occupation of his kingdom.
Dahomey was one of the most powerful kingdoms in West Africa, deriving its power from trade and its superior army. Highly organized and stable, Dahomey developed one of the most efficient systems of government in West Africa.
France, a late starter, entered the colonial race in West Africa with heightened vigor, marked by military aggression.
In 1882, a French protectorate was declared over Porto Novo, a vassal state of Abomey. By 1885, the French occupied the entire coastal strip West of Porto Novo.
In 1889, King Glele and his son Behanzin, who considered these coastal areas to be part of the kingdom of Dahomey, declared that the Fon people could no longer tolerate France's actions.
In February 1890, the French occupied Cotonou; Behanzin, now king after Glele's sudden death, prepared for war.
At this time, Dahomey had a large standing army and reserves, which could be readily mustered in times of war. It was the strongest and best-organized army on Africa's west coast and comprised of both men and women, including the Amazons, a superior and dreaded fighting force of female warriors.
Behanzin's forces attacked the French simultaneously on two fronts—militarily at Cotonou and economically by destroying the palm plantations at Porto Novo. The latter precipitated an early end to the hostilities. A treaty was signed, with the French continuing to occupy Cotonou, for which Behanzin exacted an annuity.
The peace lasted for two years. However, France was determined to annex Dahomey before the British or Germans did. Behanzin, knowing that he would have to defend his sovereignty, updated his army in the interim.
In 1892, the French, led by Colonel Dodds, a Senegalese mulatto, marched on Abomey.
After fierce fighting, the Fon army, despite using sound military tactics, could not hold back the French forces and suffered heavy losses in a lopsided conflict, determined by the superiority of the French weapons.
Behanzin's proposals for peace were accepted by Dodds, but his terms were an affront to the dignity of the Fon people, and the fighting continued. Dodds relentlessly advanced and entered Abomey, which Behanzin burned before heading to settle in the northern part of his kingdom.
Even in defeat, Behanzin was the symbol of Dahomean resistance and continued to be a serious threat to the French. In 1894, Behanzin surrendered himself to Dodds, but a national surrender was never effected. Behanzin was exiled to the island of Martinique in the West Indies and later transferred to Algeria where he died in 1906.
With Behanzin and his immediate family adamantly refusing to sign a treaty making Dahomey a French protectorate, the French installed their choice, Agoliagbo, as king. Dahomey was then placed under France's protection and it eventually became a French colony.
The independence of one of the best-organized states in West Africa ended, as Dahomey became the last of the traditional African kingdoms to yield to European colonialism.
Africans and Their History, Joseph E. Harris. Penguin USA, second revised edition, 1998.
General History of Africa, Vol. VII: Africa under Colonial Domination, 1880-1935, UNESCO. University of California Press, 1990.
Topics in West African History, A. Adu Boahen, Jacob F. Ade Ajayi, and Michael Tidy. Addison-Wesley, 1987.
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