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BENIN (DAHOMEY): Carte du Dahomey, établie au bureau topographique de l‘état-major des troupes du Bénin, par ordre de M. le Général Dodds, d‘après les travaux des Officiers du Corps expéditionnaire. Échelle à 1/500.000. 15 mars 1893.



The extremely rare first edition of the first map of Dahomey (modern Benin) to feature a  serious attempt to map the country’s interior, made in the immediate wake of the French conquest of Dahomey, during a campaign led the by the hard-charging Senegalese-born General Alfred-Amédée Dodds; the map is predicated upon reconnaissance surveys compiled by the brilliant advance man and spy master, Léon Trinité Schillemans – a fascinating and critically important monument in the mapping of West Africa.


Lithograph in colours (Very Good, clean and bright, just some very light wear along old folds), 71.5 x 48 cm (28 x 19 inches).



This is the extremely rare first edition of one of the foundations of the modern cartography of Dahomey (modern Benin), being the first map that seriously attempts to chart the interior of the country.  The map was made just after the climax of the Second Franco-Dahomean War (July 1892 – January 1894), when a French expeditionary force led General Alfred-Amédée Dodds, the Senegalese-born master of counterinsurgency warfare, vanquished one of Africa’s most powerful and culturally sophisticated kingdoms.  The map was drafted by Léon Trinité Schillemans, France’s spy master and political fixer in Dahomey, and was predicated upon various reconnaissance surveys as well as intelligence gained from local sources.

The map embraces the southern half of the today’s Benin, encompassing what were the densely populated areas of the Kingdom of Dahomey, from the Atlantic coast up into the interior to just above 8°30´ North.  The coastal areas, which were under well-established French control, include the vicinities of the major cities of Porto-Novo (the French headquarters) and Cotonou (lower left), while the ‘Pay annexé’ around Ouidah (Whydah) is located to the west, while further still is the Grand Popo protectorate.  Dahomey is shown to be bordered on the west by German Togoland and to the east by the British Colony of Lagos (Nigeria).  Well into the interior, near the middle of the map is Abomey, the royal capital of Dahomey, General Dodds’ ultimate target.

The areas immediately along the coast and the lower Oué River valley, which runs from the north down to Porto-Novo, are relatively well mapped, with all towns and villages labelled, and all key roads delineated, while the nature of the topography is expressed by shading.  However, the territory beyond is shown to be progressively less known.  Generally speaking, with the exception of Dodd’s military corridor (discussed below), from the coast to Abomey, only the lines of a few itineraries, such as the route of Jean Bayol’s 1889 embassy from Cotonou to Abomey, are shown with certainty, with the land on other side assuming an enigmatic appearance.  To the north of Abomey, the terrain is mysterious, with the locations of some of villages accompanied by question marks, while mountain ranges and rivers are only tentatively placed.

The note in the lower left corner cautions the reader:

‘Nota – Les tracés en trait plein (chemins, cours d’eaux) ont é fournis par des levés de reconnaissance effectués par les Officiers.  Les tracées en trait pointellé sont uniquements des reseignements fournis par le Service politique du Corps expéditionnaire et empruntés soit à des interrogatories soit à des cartes antérieurs dont l’exactitude relative à érifiée par ce service.’ [Note – The solid lines (paths, watercourses) were provided by reconnaissance surveys carried out by the Officers. The dotted lines are only information supplied by the Political Service of the Expeditionary Force and borrowed either from interviews of local sources or from previous maps whose relative accuracy has been verified by this service].

Importantly, however, the map provides good coverage of the area along route taken by Dodds’ army as it made its way from the lower Oué River valley across to Abomey, which the French seized in November 1892.  Indeed, the map labels the locations of forts and all the major actions of the war, including the battles of Poguessa (near the confluence of the Oué and Zou rivers), Adégon, Colopa, Cana (the last real confrontation) and Abomey.  The map also notes the locations of the ‘Retrait de Béhanzin’ and the ‘Camp Dahoméen’ near Atchéribé where king retreated, following the fall of Abomey, until his surrender in January 1894.  In this sense, the present map, drafted in March 1893, only four months after the capture of the Dahomean capital, is one of the first works to visualize the French conquest of what would become Benin.


A Note on Editions and Rarity

The present map was issued in 2 editions, of which the present is of the first edition, bearing the imprint date of March 15, 1893, drafted just four months after the French took Abomey.  The first edition was separately issued in only a small print run for limited distribution and, given its fragile nature, would have had a low survival rate.

We can trace only 3 institutional examples of the first edition, held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France (2 examples:) and the Instituto Geográfico Nacional (Madrid).  Moreover, we are not aware of any sales records for examples.

The second issue of the map bears a slightly different title, Carte du Dahomey, dressée par ordre du commandant supérieur au bureau topographique de l‘état-major du corps expéditionnaire…, and is specifically noted as being the ‘Deuxième édition’, bearing the date of ‘1er juillet 1893’.  It also explicitly mentions Trinité Schillemans as the map’s author, while the present first state omits his name (although his role as the cartographer is indisputable).

Please see a link to the example of the second edition held by the Afriterra Collection:


The second edition of the map is far more common than the first edition.  It was initially separately issued; however, its print run was dramatically enlarged so that examples could be included in two excellent books on the French conquest of Dahomey, Edouard-Edmond Aublet’s La Guerre au Dahomey, 1888-1893 (Paris & Nancy, Berger-Levrault, 1894) and Jules Poirier’s Campagne du Dahomey, 1892-1894 (Paris: Henri Charles-Lavauzelle, 1895).  Thus, many examples of the second edition survive today, such that unlike the first edition, they are readily obtainable.

While at first glance the second edition of the Trinité Schillemans map of Dahomey appears simply to be a slightly redesigned version of the first issue, in reality the two maps very greatly in content, due the different context in which they were created.  The first edition of the map was produced in a frenzied wartime atmosphere, while the second edition had the benefit of being made once the French had largely subdued the country, rendering the terrain much easier to explore and map.

While both editions of the map are done to the same scale (1:500,000) and are of a similar style, in the second edition the title has been moved (from the upper left to the lower right), while an inset depicting Dahomey’s regional location, showing the major transportation routed between the coast ant the Niger River appears in the upper left.  Importantly, in the three and a half months between the creation of the first and second editions of the map, Trinité Schillemans and the French military engineers had the opportunity to extensively explore the country, gaining a much greater knowledge of the interior.

Importantly, the second edition of the map shows much of the country divided into newly established French administrative districts, including the provinces of Abomey and Allada, the ‘Pays annexé’ (Ouidah), as well as the Protectorate of Grand Popo.  Moreover, the critical corridor between the confluence of the Oué and Zou rivers and the Abomey area is mapped in much greater detail; the conjectural dashed lines delineating most of the roads on the first edition are here in many places replaced with confidently surveyed roads, while many more villages are labelled.  Trinité Schillemans’s heightened confidence in the map is revealed by the fact that the cautionary ‘Nota’ which appeared on the first edition has been removed from the second issue.

Indeed, a comparison of the both the first and second editions of the Trinité Schillemans map presents a valuable opportunity for understanding the rapid development in the European knowledge of Dahomey during the most critical juncture in the country’s modern history.


Historical Context: The French Conquest of Dahomey

What is today southern Benin was from around 1600 until the late 19th Century controlled by the Kingdom of Dahomey, a culturally sophisticated and powerful civilization of the Fon ethnic group.  Dahomey’s powerbase was centred in its capital Abomey, in the interior, while the coastal kingdoms of Porto-Novo, Cotonou and Whydah (Ouidah) were tributary states that over the generations were under varying degrees of Dahomean control.  While the coastal areas hosted Portuguese and later British slave traders, the Dahomean court often used the European presence to its advantage, selling enemy captives as slaves for healthy sums, while benefiting from maritime trade.  Over the generations, Dahomey managed to maintain its power, buttressed by a well-trained army adept at guerilla warfare.  Indeed, one the keys to Dahomean success was their ‘Amazon’ corps, comprised of elite female soldiers, led by female officers, who were amongst Africa’s best snipers and masters hand-to-hand combat.

However, the mid-19th Century brought new challenges to Dahomey’s sovereignty.  Britain’s Royal Navy often blockaded and raided the coastal areas to suppress the international slave trade.  While some British officers were sincere abolitionists, others cared little about the matter and used the anti-slavery cause as a convenient excuse as to extend British influence in West Africa.  The loss of slavery revenue was a major blow to the Dahomean treasury.  Moreover, while, the Europeans were traditionally content to merely trade with Africa via coastal outposts, in the period leading up and during the ‘Scramble for Africa’, they sought to conquer and permanently possess chunks of Africa as colonies, thus posing a mortal threat to many of the indigenous powers.

The French took the lead in Dahomey, pressuring the Abomey court to sign a Franco-Dahomean friendship and commerce treaty (1851), which guaranteed France privileged commercial and political rights in Cotonou.  In a perfect example of the imperialistic ‘divide and conquer’ strategy, France proceeded to forge close links with Dahomey’s regional tributary rulers, with the understanding that they were now to transfer their loyalty from Abomey to Paris.  In 1863, France made Port-Novo a protectorate, and in 1878 annexed Cotonou, acts that were all against the expense of the Dahomean court.  In 1883, France established a permanent naval base at Cotonou, essentially to keep the British out of the area.

At the Berlin Conference (1884-5), whereby the European powers divided Africa amongst themselves, what is today Benin was allocated to France.  However, like most of the territories ‘awarded’ by the convention, Dahomey was generally not under European control, indeed much of its interior was entirely unknown to outsiders.

In the late 1880s, France continued to expand her control over Cotonou and Porto-Novo, almost totally eliminating the influence of the Abomey court.  Dahomey’s new king, Béhanzin (ruled 1889-94) believed (with good reason) that France’ actions on the coast were a prelude to the total conquest of Dahomey.  He believed that he had to act preemptively and immediately if he was to have any hope of saving his country.

The Dahomean army was especially skilled and French victory in any armed struggle was by no means a forgone conclusion.  The Dahomeans were masters of ambush and hand-to-hand combat, while the Amazon snipers were adept a picking off enemy officers.  If a French force was to be surprised and compelled to fight the Dahomeans at closer range in a ‘melée’, Béhanzin’s troops had a good change of overwhelming what were France’s undeniable technological advantages.

In what was known as the First Franco-Dahomean War (February 21 to October 4, 1890)

Béhanzin’s forces mounted two strong, separate attacks against the French garrisons at Cotonou and Porto-Novo.  However, the French managed to maintain their defensive battle formations, and the Dahomeans were not able to draw then into any melées, and on both occasions were compelled to withdraw after sustaining heavy casualties.  These battles left the Dahomean forces severely weakened, and to forestall a French attack upon Abomey, on October 3, 1890, Béhanzin signed a humbling treaty with France, whereupon he agreed to recognize Porto-Novo as a French protectorate and Cotonou as a French possession, in return for an annual payment of 20,000 French Francs.

As it turned out, neither side was satisfied with the agreement.  Pro-colonial diehards in Paris thought that France should have topped Béhanzin, so annexing all of Dahomey, while Béhanzin could barely wait to mount a reprise, driving France out of Cotonou and Porto-Novo.

Béhanzin dramatically revamped and rearmed his forces, assembling an army of 8,800 regulars plus 1,200 Amazons.  He purchased 4-6,000 modern German and English rifles (which the Germans and British happily supplied, given their rivalry with France in West Africa).  Dahomey was inarguably much stronger than it was during the last showdown, and the French would have to ‘up their game’ if they hoped to emerge triumphant.

France appointed Brigadier General Alfred-Amédée Dodds (1842 – 1922) to be the supreme commander of her forces in Dahomey.  Dodds was an extraordinary figure who had an amazing track record of success in a wide variety of global theatres.  A native of St. Louis, Senegal, he was a Métis, being of mixed Black African and European ancestry (not to be confused with the North American term for a person of mixed European-Native ancestry); his Senegalese grandmother had married John Dodds, the aide-de-camp to the last English Governor of Senegal.  It is a testament to Alfred-Amédée Dodds’ tremendous drive and ability that he was able to rise to the heights of the French military establishment despite the extreme racism that prevailed at the time.

While Dodds was raised in Senegal, where his father was the director of the central post office, in 1862, he went to France and entered the Saint-Cyr Military Academy, graduating as a lieutenant in the marines.  His first posting was to Réunion, where he won praise for his role in containing the 1868 riots that had engulfed the island.

Re-deployed to France for the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1), he fought with great bravery and skill during a conflict that was a nightmare for his country.  His dramatic escape from German captivity following the Battle of Sedan was the stuff of legend.

Dodds returned to his native Senegal, where from 1871 to 1883 he was instrumental in suppressing local rebellions.  He became a master at anti-guerilla tactics and succeeded in forging the local trailleurs (African soldiers in French service) into a disciplined and motivated force, skills that would be ideally suited to the future conflict in Dahomey.

From 1883 to 1886, Dodds served in the Tonkin Campaign, whereupon he played a major role in France’s conquest of northern Vietnam.

In 1887, Dodds returned to Africa, where he won great acclaim for subduing an insurgency in French Guinea.  Promoted to a full colonel, he then held a senior administrative post in Toulon.  Dodds came to benefit from the patronage of the French politician Georges Clemenceau, who was later famously the leader of France during the later stages of World War I.

Given his experiences in Senegal and Guinea, Dodds was the ideal man to lead the conquest of Dahomey.  However, as the interior of that country was little known to the French, he needed the aide of someone who could quickly supply him with geographic and military intelligence, such that his army would not be unpleasantly surprised by Béhanzin’s forces.

For his campaign in Dahomey, Dodds was most fortunate to have the services of a colleague from his time in Vietnam.  Léon Jules Edmond Trinité Schillemans (1859 – 1941), who came to be known simply by his surnames ‘Trinité Schillemans’, was a soldier of unusual competence, possessing a versatile skill set.  He held a great fascination for foreign cultures, and was a stellar diplomat, administrator, spy master and mapmaker.  Shortly after graduating from the St. Cyr Military Academy, he was deployed as a lieutenant of the Infanterie de Marine (Marines) to Vietnam, where he arrived at the beginning of 1880.  There he developed a deep understanding of the country, writing the Notice sur l‘Annam (Paris, 1885), a fascinating treatise on the current affairs of central Vietnam.  He became the protégé and a collaborator of the esteemed soldier and orientalist Lieutenant Colonel Albert Bouinais (1851-1895).  Trinité Schillemans and Bouinais coauthored a fine map of northern Vietnam and its boundaries with China, Carte du Tonkin et de la frontire de Chine (Paris, 1892), predicated upon their own original surveys.

After spending over decade in Vietnam, then Major Trinité Schillemans was appointed be the ‘Chef du Service des affairs politiques’ for Dahomey, which meant that he would be in charge of diplomatic negotiations and gathering intelligence (including geographic information) to aid Dodds’ military operations.  A key problem facing the French forces was that, while the areas near the coasts and the lower Oué River valley were well known and mapped, the interior, where their army was to face Béhanzin’s forces, largely remained an enigma.  As the present maps shows, only a few itinerary routes towards Abomey were known with any degree of confidence, while places beyond essentially existed only in the realm of conjecture.  As the experiences of other European expeditions fighting in the interior of West Africa proved, a poor knowledge of the terrain could lead to catastrophe.

Trinité Schillemans worked rapidly and effectively to acquire the best possible intelligence from local native allies, traders and French veterans, and was able to gain a fine knowledge of the approximate strength of the Béhanzin’s forces and what would become the main military corridor between the lower Oué River valley and Abomey.

Dodds arrived in Dahomey at the head of a French force of 2,164 men, including seasoned Senegalese and Gabonese trailleurs, backed by 2,600 porters to carry supplies.  While the French were heavily outnumbered, they brought with them a new ‘game changing’ weapon, the Lebel rifle, wish could fire reliably at relatively close rage, while sporting a long bayonet.

Béhanzin commenced hostilities, hoping to provoke a war, by conducting low-level raids against French and allied positions in the lower Oué River valley.  Meanwhile, from June 15, 1892, the French navy blockaded the Dahomey coast, in an effort to prevent Béhanzin from receiving more German and British arms.

The Second Franco-Dahomean War (July 4, 1892 to January 15, 1894) officially commenced when French gunboats fired upon Dahomean positions along the banks of the Oué.  Dodds, advised by Trinité Schillemans and his local agents, planned to methodically lead his army from Porto-Novo up the Oué to its confluence with the Zou River, whereupon they would swing into the interior heading towards Abomey.  On the other side, Béhanzin hoped exactly that would happen, as he intended to trap the French in a horrific melée in the hinterland.

In mid-August 1892, Dodds and Trinité Schillemans were mindful that they needed to maintain their supply lines and resist being cornered by Béhanzin’s warriors as they set off from Port-Novo up the Oué River.

On September 14, 1892, the French force camped at Dogba, about 80 km upriver from Porto-Novo.  On the 19th, at the Battle of Dogba, Béhanzin’s forces mounted a furious attack, attempting to surround Dodds’ men and forcing them into a melée.  However, Dodds’ men were prepared, and in a scene that would repeat itself, they skillfully managed to avoid being pinned down, while the 20-inch long bayonets of the Lebel rifles prevented the Dahomeans from engaging them in hand-to-hand combat.  Béhanzin’s forces withdrew after sustaining heavy casualties.

The French then continued their ascent of the Oué, where at the Battle of Poguessa (October 4, 1892), they were attacked by a force personally led by King Béhanzin.  The combat was brutal, and while the Amazons fought with incredible bravery, the Dahomeans were repelled, once again in good part due to Dodds’ cool head and the Lebel rifles.

At the Battle of Adégon (October 6, 1892), near Poguessa, the French were again confronted by Dahomean forces.  Dodds ordered a dramatic bayonet charge, which brutalized the enemy, forcing them to retreat with horrific losses.  Many consider Adégon to have been the decisive event of the war, as it was there that the French broke the back of the Dahomean opposition, and when Béhanzin started to believe that defeat was almost inevitable.

At this point the French army broke inland from the Oué and started towards Abomey.  While the Dahomeans were now on the defensive, this move nevertheless escalated the risk level for the invaders, as the terrain was henceforth little known.  Trinité Schillemans and his scouts had to execute the dangerous job of gathering geographic intelligence in an active battle zone to guide the army.

Having made solid progress inland, at the Siege of Akpa (October 14-26, 1892), the French forces were surrounded by Dahomean forces.  However, Dodds remained cool-headed, confident that his men could fight their way out.  Indeed, they managed to weather the siege, while wearing down the Dahomean forces, whose attacks continually failed.

Heading further ahead, at the Battle of Cotopa (on the night of October 26-27, 1892), the French charged the Dahomean trenches.  While the Amazons fought with great vigour, leaping at the attackers, the bayonets of the Lebel rifles cut them down.  The showdown left the Dahomean army in tatters, and Béhanzin was now compelled to rely upon only a small band of Amazons and 1,500 freed slaves and convicts to defend his capital, while Dodds pressed his advantage.

At the Battle of Cana (November 2-4, 1892), the last major altercation of the war, which occurred near Abomey, Béhanzin’s forces attacked the Dodds’ army, with the Amazon snipers focusing upon taking out French officers.  However, one again, the French bayonets won the day and pretty much with it the entire war.

On November 5, Béhanzin called a truce and attempted to make peace deal, but his terms were rejected, as Dodds sought an unconditional surrender.  The Dahomean ruler then ordered Abomey to be burned to the ground, not wanting his capital to be taken as a trophy.  He then fled with what remained of his forces to Atchéribé, 48 km north of Abomey.

The French marched into Abomey on November 17, 1892 and raised their tricolour above Simgboji Palace (the royal seat which amazingly survived the inferno).  After some ‘mop up’ operations, the French managed to assume control over all of southern Dahomey, although the deep interior, from Atchéribé northwards, remained beyond their grasp.  Trinité Schillemans and his scouts proceeded to conduct reconnaissance mapping of the occupied territories, leading the present work, the first map that featured a serious attempt to chart the interior of Dahomey.

From Atchéribé, Béhanzin tried to rebuild the Amazon corps and drum up opposition to the French occupation.  However, his efforts were dealt a major blow when the French backed Béhanzin’s brother and longtime rival, Agoli-agbo, to become king, making the Dahomey into a ‘puppet regime’.  While throughout the year 1893 Béhanzin eluded capture and pursued a series of small-scale military operations, he became a marginal player, as the French consolidated their power.  Seeing the wiring on the wall, Béhanzin surrendered to Dodds on January 15, 1894, so ending the war.  The last sovereign king of Dahomey was then exiled to Martinique.

France was now fully in charge of Dahomey, and proceeded to develop the interior, all the way to the Niger River in the north.  While they allowed Agoli-agbo to remain on his token throne for a time, in 1900 France formally annexed all of Dahomey, so abolishing the 300-year old kingdom.

As for the French protagonists of the Dahomey campaign, Dodds went on to serve as the supreme commander of the French forces in Vietnam, before moving to Paris to serve on the Council of War, benefitting from his close relationship with Georges Clemenceau.

Trinité Schillemans, whose role in acquiring geographic and military intelligence was a major factor in the success of the Dahomey campaign, was made a Knight of the Légion d‘Honneur and was promoted to a senior administrative post in Rochefort.  In 1913, he was appointed as the Military Governor of Brest, France’s main Atlantic naval base.

Returning to the larger picture, Dahomey remained a French colony for the next two generations, and while the French built much infrastructure, economic development systems and social services, life for most Dahomeans remained difficult, while ethnic tensions simmered.

In 1960, France granted the country its full independence, which became the Republic of Dahomey.  However, the revived nation would suffer tremendously from ethnic conflict and economic instability, while experimenting with Communism.  In 1975, the country was renamed the Republic of Benin.  From 1990, Dahomey developed a democratic system, that while far from perfect has survived over the last thirty years.  While the situation in Benin is today challenging, it is a lot better than it could have been.


References: Bibliothèque nationale de France (2 examples:) GE SH 19 PF 1 QUATER DIV 29 P 67 (2) D and GED-1653; Instituto Geográfico Nacional (Madrid): 20-B-3; Bibliographie de la France (Paris: Cercle de la Librairie, 1893), p. 1161; Bulletin des récentes publications françaises (Paris: Librairie H. Champion, 1893), p. 469; Revue britannique: Revue internationale reproduisant les articles des meilleurs écrits periodiques de l’étranger, complètés par des articles originaux, vols. 5-6 (Paris: Dondey-Dupré, pére et fils., 1893), p. 153; SOCIÉTÉ DE GÉOGRAPHIE (FRANCE), Comptes rendus des séances de la Société de géographie et de la Commission centrale (Paris, 1893), p. 340.

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