Chances are you watched the movie Black Panther, many of the scenes in the film are pure fiction but there was indeed a very powerful kingdom in Africa whose history probably inspired many of the film’s characters. Away from the screens the history of the Dahomey Kingdom which forms present day Benin is filled with legends and extraordinary tales of gender equality, blood, sweat and tears.
The Legend of the Black Panther
The exact origin of the first King of the Dahomey Kingdom has always been grounded in myth. Legend has it that there was a princess in Tado (North-East part of Togo). Her name was Aligbonu. One day a great warrior from Ife a Yoruba city saw the princess fetching water from a river. As a commoner he wasn’t allowed to approach her so he used his magical power to turn himself into a black leopard (Black Panther). They had sex (others say she was raped) and a child who also had the supernatural leopard spirit in him was born. His name was Agasu.
Agasu later tried to take over at Tado but was defeated and fled with his mother to Allada. Agasu became the Tohwiyo (spiritual founder). The mother became the Kpojito a title that literally meant translated to the one who gave birth to a leopard.
Upon Agasu’s death, a war erupted among his 3 sons. Eventually it was agreed that Teagbanlin would go found another state, one remained and Gangnihessou also known as Dogbagri would go to the Abomey plateau.
The Legend Of Dahomey
Gangnihessou arrived at the Abomey plateau in AD1600. He ruled for 20 years, at the time he was not considered a King, rather he was more like a chief. Dako who some believe was a son to Gangnihessou while some claim was a younger brother usurped power in 1620.
Legend has it that the vicious Dako asked for more land from an adjacent chief called Dan. Dan replied: “Have I not given you so much land and yet you want more? Must I open my belly for you to build your house upon?”
Dako responded by by bludgeoning him. He went on to build his home on the grave of Dan. Thus he built his home in Dan’s belly hence Dan-ho-min which became Dahomey.
Dahomey – The Pioneers Of Gender Equality
Since the Kingdom was believed to have been started by a mother and son duo, women took an elevated position in all the affairs of the kingdom. The women of Dahomey had a unique position in their society which involved full participation in the political, social and economic affairs of the kingdom.
The King always had an equally powerful female partner whom he worked with. The most important of these was Hwanjile. She had been taken in as a slave but ended up being an Ahosi , the wife of King Agaja. She helped Tegbessou ascend to the throne despite him being younger (1732-74). Hwanjile was a deeply religious woman who also introduced two new deities Mawu and Lisa which were given supremacy over the pantheon of Dahomean gods.
The Kgojito was a very powerful office that was usually occupied the mother and not the wife so that it could stand alone as an equal without any insinuation of dependency. It had the power to settle social, political and religious disputes.
The highest political offices were opened to females who belonged to the anato (free men or owners of the land). Among the gbonugan (Ministers or Secretaries in US) , every office had a man and woman who were co-equals. The Prime Minister (Migan) also had his co-equal called the Nae-Miganon.
Dahomey was also one of the very few if not only place in West Africa at the time where a woman could establish her own compound. Rich and important women were admitted to membership in the gbe, the cooperative-insurance society. They could have control over their own sexuality their lifestyles.
There were priests and priestesses but again the females were considered more powerful. this was because of the Hwanjile factor who is credited with introducing the most powerful deities of the kingdom.
The All Female Amazon Army Brigade (Agodojie)
These were a highly trained, mobile and ruthless crack unit of the Dahomey military. They were renowned for their heroism. Chastity was a requirement an they could only marry after retiring from the unit. Violating this rule was punishable by death.
These women were recruited from different sources. Some were captured slaves, some were volunteers while some were children of the Kingdom who had shown traits aligned with combat.
The Agadogie (amazons) usually returned from forays and raids as far as present day Nigeria with slaves and captives. All captives of the Amazons were exclusively of the King because the crack unit was served as the King’s.
These women were renowned for their bravery but most of they were feared for their ruthlessness. They were known to use various torture techniques to break down their captives for information and infamous for decapitating their kills for literal head counting.
Violence, Torture And Ruthlessness
There were cases of in today’s terms ruthlessness, either on the subjects or on defeated warriors. If they fought anyone who was powerful and defeated them, they would do many things like cutting off their enemy heads and hang them on the horse’s neck and ride through the kingdom. Sometimes they would shove a hot steel ball in your anus.
Oral history has it that one of the kings defeated four people, cut off their heads and put the skulls at each of the legs of his royal chair to show that they were now under him. Another defeated king’s head was attached to the flying whisk which the Dahomey king used to chase away flies. If you were a warrior, before going to war you would sharpen your sword before the king in a special room and promise the king a number of enemy heads you would bring, if you brought less heads than you promised you would settle the debt to the king with your own head.
There are structures which still stand today which were built through mixing human blood with clay. When one of the king’s mother died, they built, the wall around her grave with human blood. Even when the original king died 17 of his wives were buried with him.
The legacy of slavery
The Dahomey Kingdom survived on sheer force. They were built by force and they thrived on subjugating neighboring kingdoms. Slavery was a norm in this kingdom. Slave markets existed and transactions were done publicly.
The social structure of Dahomey had the King and royal family on top followed by the nobles and free men who were called the anato. At the bottom were the slaves called the kan-nou-mon.
There were many ways people became slaves in Dahomey. Some people were kidnapped from other states. Some were captured prisoners of war. Others voluntarily sold themselves into slavery because of economic reasons or being cast out in other kingdoms. Some were born into slavery although there was a general rule that all people were born free in the kingdom.
International trade of slaves did not start until 1730. During the reign of the third king of Dahomey, King Agaja (1708–40), the kingdom was attacked four times by the more powerful Oyo Kingdom. This weakened the kingdom resulting in Agaja realizing he had to concede and pay tribute to the Oyo and also ditch his resistance to international slave trade. He however decreed that only the King had monopoly over the trade.
From 1730 , the reign of Tegbessou (1732-74), Kpengla (1774-89), Agonglo (1789-97), Adandozan (1797-1818) and Guezo (1818-58) slave trade flourished with thousands of captives passing through the kingdom.
Today, Benin stands where Dahomey used to be. We have had extraordinary joy watching the Black Panther movie. The rich but sometimes brutal legacy of the Dahomey Kingdom continue to fascinate us. Hopefully more scholars and visitors will take more interest in Benin.