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By: Maria Kotova

Editor: Akshay Singh

SP_Feb2: News

February 2024

The political and economic nature of the kingdom of Dahomey has varied substantially from the 18th century until now. In the 18th century, Dahomey was one of the most influential kingdoms of West Africa known for its large military unit and its key role in the slave trade (“The History of the Kingdom”, 2019). European interventions in Dahomey mark several significant changes in the country’s history from pre-colonisation to a French West African colony and finally an independent state. This paper analyses the effect of two main European interventions on the economic and political decline of Dahomey. First, Dahomey’s independent history before 1852 is described. The second part examines the economic changes following the British naval blockade. Lastly, the positive and negative effects of French colonisation are evaluated. The paper concludes with a significant contribution of European interventions to the kingdom’s relative decline and highlights that interventions are helpful to the extent that they connect with the local culture.

Dahomey in the 19th Century

The kingdom of Dahomey in the 19th century can be characterized as a powerful monarchy with a particular focus on its military. Dahomey was founded in the 17th century by Adja invaders and following conquest, was ruled by nine kings (Lombard, 2018). Tribal groups were unified around a military culture of protecting and expanding the kingdom’s territory with a standing army of around 12000 soldiers. The Agaja were female warriors of Dahomey dressed in sleeveless tunics. An absolute monarchy was installed but the culture and tradition limited the power of the royal family. The king was seen as a symbol of the kingdom and arts and crafts aided to highlight his glory. Annual customs ceremonies served to craft national spirit and stimulate economic exchanges. Overall, the kingdom was unified around their king and patriotic about its land. 

Dahomey’s economy relied mainly on the slave trade with Europeans. British employees of the African Company first visited Dahomey in 1724 (Lombard, 1967). From then on, economic trading treaties with Europeans served as one of the greatest sources of wealth. Under King Agaja’s rule, the kingdom flourished and occupied valuable coastal slave trade areas. When he died in 1740, Dahomey supplied up to 20% of the total slave trade (“The History of the Kingdom”, 2019). Thus, the kingdom was politically and economically stable.

British Naval Blockade

In 1852 the British intervened to suppress the established slave trade (“The History of the Kingdom”, 2019). Previously Dahomey’s major partners in the slave trade, the British had taken an active stance for the abolition of slavery (Lombard, 1967). Dahomey attempted to continue the trade, but British warships took control of the ports; the naval blockade was lifted only after King Gezo agreed to end the slave trade (“Dahomey”, 1920). A forced end to the slave trade was a blow to Dahomey’s economy (“The History of the Kingdom”, 2019). Nevertheless, the king managed a smooth transition to trading palm oil. Though a less lucrative resource, Dahomey’s agriculture was naturally rich in palm oil (“Dahomey”, 1920). 

The British suppression of the slave trade resulted in a short-term decline of the economy but was arguably beneficial in the long run. The British military intervention halted established trade routines that Dahomey’s economy had relied on; however, an accomplished gradual transition to palm oil minimized the short-term economic loss. From an ethical standpoint, trading palm oil is more sustainable and humane compared to the slave trade (Pleasants, 2010). Furthermore, pragmatically, the transition would have needed to occur sooner or later given the emergence of contra-slavery movements in the 18th century. Although, possibly the British applied unnecessary force. Hence, the British blockade did not contribute significantly to Dahomey’s later decline. 

French Colonisation

The French saw economic opportunities in Dahomey, leading to the French West Africa colony. Around 1880, European nations began expressing interest in Africa’s resources which they decided to take advantage of by sharing the continent in a scramble for Africa (Shryer, 2003). Following the “General Act of the Berlin Conference”, French rulers selected Dahomey for its valuable trade routes at the Nile (Shryer, 2003). To establish a protectorate, the French attempted to dominate the territory physically and King Gelele responded with peace treaties. However, later the French took advantage and demanded a protectorate, leading to combat and military unrest. After the Second Dahomean War in 1892, the majority of the Dahomean army was defeated by the sophisticated weaponry of the French and their use of psychological warfare. African leaders were removed and the French West African Colony was established officially in 1900 (Shryer, 2003).

Some positive outcomes of French rule included improvements to infrastructure (“Dahomey”, 1920). The French government developed railroad schemes starting in 1898 with a plan to build 950 km of railroads (“Dahomey”, 1920). Furthermore, there was an increase in postal connections and telephone systems.

Nevertheless, French colonisation exploited Dahomey’s soldiers. A planned policy of assimilation that would make Dahomeans equal to French citizens was abandoned and French law did not protect Dahomeans (Shryer, 2003). Dahomey soldiers were drafted into the French army expanding French military power. Around 30,000 men died during combat in the two world wars. Soldiers were used as cheap labor with marginal compensation when not fighting. Opposition to French rule was evident in riots such as those following increased head-tax mandates.

French colonisation also contributed to a culture of seizing military power which hindered democratic political institutions after colonization. During the 1960s Benin – the newly established nation of Dahomey - gained independence; however, a period of unrest followed including numerous military coups and not a single functioning government (Shryer, 2003). A resemblance is observed with other Western colonial territories gaining self-rule in the 1960s; imperialist influence continued with reinstated sovereignty (Marker, 2016). Newly formed governments perpetuated unjust treatment towards minorities that they adopted from colonial practices in attempts to preserve dominant status. Masson and Smith (2020) argue that it is erroneous to perceive a nation regaining its political power as the end of colonialism; instead, colonial dynamics persist post-imperialism with implicit schemas of subordination leading to an automatic colonial mentality (David and Okazaki, 2010). Furthermore, new authorities lacked governance skills and national institutions (Marker, 2003). Thus, the newly sovereign Benin faced economic problems and cultural cleavages but mainly it confronted an ingrained culture of seizing military power, colonial subordination, and lack of governing experience. Thus, the French conquest brought a disintegration of the monarchy (Lombard, 1967).


Hence, European interventions have had a significant impact on the kingdom of Dahomey - the current nation of Benin. Pre-colonisation, Dahomey was characterized by military expansion, a slave trade economy and a monarchic united rule. The British naval blockade ended the slave trade, however, arguably Dahomey’s transition to the palm oil trade was beneficial in the long term. French colonization had a positive effect on the infrastructure but also contributed heavily to Dahomey’s economic and political decline. French colonization brought military unrest, loss of lives of soldiers in the two world wars, and the psychological pain of a lost culture which contributed to a colonial mentality of seizing military power. Hence, interventions are helpful as long as they connect with the local culture but not if they act to oppose local institutions (Ronen, 1971).


Dahomey. Great Britain. Foreign Office. Historical Section. (1920) London, H.M. Stationery office. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

David, E. J. R., & Okazaki, S. (2010). Activation and Automaticity of Colonial Mentality. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40(4), 850–887.

Lombard, J. (1967). The Kingdom of Dahomey. In D. Forde & P. M. Kaberry (Eds.), West African Kingdoms in the Nineteenth Century (1st ed., pp. 70–92). Routledge.

Marker, S. (2003). Effects of Colonization [Text]. Beyond Intractability.

Masson, F., & Smith, L. H. (2019). Colonisation as collective trauma. In T. Kleibl, R. Lutz, N. Noyoo, B. Bunk, A. Dittmann, & B. Seepamore (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Postcolonial Social Work. Routledge. 

Pleasants, N. (2010). Moral Argument Is Not Enough: The Persistence of Slavery and the Emergence of Abolition. Philosophical Topics, 38(1), 159–180.

Ronen, D. (1971). Constitutions, Republics and Social Reality: The Legacy of French Rule in Dahomey. Africa Today, 18(2), 77–81.

Shryer, C. (2003). The Roles of the Military in the History of Benin (Dahomey): 1870-Present. University of Wisconsin-Superior McNair Scholars Journal, 4, 81-108.

The History of the Kingdom of Dahomey. (2019, November 18). Black History Month.

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