The women soldiers of Dahomey

Elite troops of women soldiers contributed to the military power of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The troops were dissolved following the fall of Behanzin (Gbêhanzin), during French colonial expansion at the end of the nineteenth century.

Pedagogical Unit

Historical context

The slave trade and political rivalry in West Africa


Various oral sources, confirmed by historical archives, attest to the emergence of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the seventeenth century and its consolidation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, at the same time that the slave trade was developing in West Africa.

From the mid-sixteenth century, trading posts on the coast gradually evolved into slave trading posts to meet the demand for slave labour in the American colonies and Caribbean islands.

Dahomy and its environs. R. Norris, 1793.

Introduction (part 2)

The most powerful rulers of the West African kingdoms then started to trade prisoners of war for goods imported by Europeans, deriving prestige and power from them.

Thus, the transatlantic slave trade, which peaked in the eighteenth century, changed the region’s and indeed the entire continent’s demographic, political, cultural and economic landscape.

In the space of three centuries, between 12.5 and 14 million Africans were deported to the Americas and the Caribbean.

The Slave Coast

In the mid-sixteenth century, the Bight of Benin became the main hub for the transatlantic slave trade at its height.

Until the nineteenth century, Europeans referred to this 300-kilometre-long coastal region, which stretched from the mouth of the River Volta in present-day Ghana to the Lagos Channel in today’s Nigeria, as the Slave Coast.

Millions of children, women and men were shipped out by Portuguese, Dutch, British, French and Danish traders on a journey with no return, in order to provide slave labour to plantation owners in the colonies of the American mainland and the Caribbean.

Part of a map of the "Slave Coast" drawn by the missionary F. Borghero in 1865.

Rivalry among African kingdoms  

The development of the slave trade on the Slave Coast fuelled rivalry among African kingdoms in the region, in particular between the Kingdoms of Allada, Xweda and Dahomey, which rose to prominence successively between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.

The royal elites gained prestige and consolidated their authority by monopolizing the trade in European merchandise in exchange for captives generally seized by their army in raids on neighbouring enemies (Monroe, 2011). Foreign goods (rifles, gunpowder, fabrics, cowrie shells, spirits, tobacco, pipes, etc.) traded for captives enabled the African kingdoms to consolidate their political power.

Political map of the Bight of Benin in 1724.

The goods were displayed and distributed in Abomey during public ceremonies and they strengthened the links between centralized authorities, local dignitaries and chiefs. The firearms helped to strengthen military power with regard to rival kingdoms and obtain new captives for the slave trade.

The Kingdoms of Oyo, Allada, Xweda and Dahomey

In 1716, wishing to engage alone in international commerce, and with the advantage of centralized political and military authority, the Kingdom of Dahomey rebelled against the powerful Kingdom of Allada, which controlled the coast and monopolized the slave trade with Europeans.

Dahomey attacked and conquered Allada in 1724, followed by Savi (Xweda), Allada’s vassal, in 1727, thereby gaining control over the main trade route to the coast. It transformed the slave trade into a royal monopoly and strengthened the centralized state in Abomey, the kingdom’s capital.

Expansion of the Kingdom of Dahomey (1727-1890).

Over the following decades, and until the nineteenth century, the wealth accumulated from slave trade allowed the Kingdom of Danhomey to dominate the region, despite internal power struggles, constant threats from the powerful Kingdom of Oyo, and fluctuations in the transatlantic trade.

The Gate of No Return

Between 1670 and 1860, the largest port in the region for the deportation of slaves was Ouidah (previously known as Glewe or Glehue). More than 1 million Africans were deported from its shores during the transatlantic slave trade.

The monument is now visited frequently by tourists, in particular Africans and people of African descent from the Americas and the Caribbean islands.

In memory of all the deported Africans, the Republic of Benin, in partnership with UNESCO, erected the Gate of No Return on the beach at Djegbadji, Ouidah, in 1995, at the very spot where slaves once stood on African soil for the last time before boarding.

Gate of No Return, Ouidah, Benin. Photograph by rgrilo, 2006.