Dahomey (today’s Benin) was a culturally sophisticated kingdom, rich in resources, defended by one of Africa’s most powerful militaries, that included the famously formidable female ‘Amazon’ warriors. While the country had been ‘awarded’ to France by its fellow European powers during the Berlin Conference (1884-5), the French only controlled the coastal areas, with most of the territory still solidly under the rule of the indigenous monarchy.
Over the coming years, France struggled, with difficulty, to extend its control from into the interior, at the expense of the Dahomean kingdom. Matters came to a head during the First Franco-Dahomean War of 1890, whereupon French forces managed to drive back a powerful Dahomean offensive, compelling the country’s ruler, King Béhanzin, to make Dahomey a French protectorate. Yet it was clear to Paris that Béhanzin was intent on overturning this arrangement as soon as possible, while France desired to gain complete control over the entire country and its natural resources.
The present highly attractive, separately issued map was made towards the beginning of the Second Franco–Dahomean War (July 1892 to January 1894), a brutal conflict in which the French armies, led by the brilliant Senegalese commander, Brigadier General Alfred-Amédée Dodds, eventually succeeded in conquering the country.
The map was made from an original design by Jules-André-Arthur Hansen (1849 -1931), a highly talented French cartographer and artist of Danish descent, with the assistance of Gustave Fraipont (1849 – 1923), a prominent Paris poster artist, who drafted the pictural views. The map was made in order to introduce Dahomey to the French general public, and to convince people that the country needed to be ‘civilized’.
The map is a veritable pageant of imagery, jam-packed with fascinating facts and figures on Dahomey, a land that was then almost entirely unknown in Europe, save by a small number of army veterans and old ‘Africa Hands’. The composition is dominated by the main map, which shows Dahomey in the centre, coloured pink; to the west is German Togoland, coloured green; while the east, reaching as far as Lagos, is British Nigeria.
The map shows that the coastal areas of Dahomey labelled as ‘Territoire Française’, featuring the major centres of Porto-Novo, ‘Kotanou’ (Cotanou) and ‘Ouidah’ (Whydah); while the inland regions are controlled by Dahomean kingdom, from its capital ‘Abomey’. While Hansen employed the best sources gleaned from explorers’ itineraries and texts’, the scene shows that the lands beyond the littoral regions are not well known (they would not be properly charted until the military cartographer Léon Jules Edmond Trinité Schillemans surveyed later in the war), with generally only major towns noted, and labeling the routes of the few explorers who had permeated what was still largely a realm of mystery, with the conjectural courses of river and large blank spaces.
The supposedly fearsome nature of the Dahomeans is indicated by the inclusion of the detail ‘Royaumes ravage par le Dahomey’ (kingdoms ravaged by Dahomey), along the Dahomean-Nigerian border, suggesting that King Béhanzin’s troops dealt harshly not only with the French, but also with ‘fellow’ Africans. This was surely added for propaganda purposes so that the French public would have less sympathy for the Dahomeans as their country’s armies fought their way towards Abomey.
Amidst the map is a chart detailing the highly seasonal climate of Dahomey, which switched from near drought to torrential rains. To the right, is a topographical profile showing the elevation of the country in a line from Cotanou to Abomey, while further right is a lengthy box of text, ‘Notice sur Dahomey’, noting the country’s location, climate, natural production, population, religion, language, commerce, currency and routes of communication. In the upper right, is a map of Western Europe and West Africa showing the greater French influence in the latter and the various methods of communication between Paris and the colonies.
The ‘Titres de Vues’, drawn by Gustave Fraipont, include seven pictorial views of Dahomey, including the pier at Cotanou; a longboat clearing the sandbar at Cotanou; the hazards of clearing said bar (a capsizing longboat); male and ‘Amazon’ (female) Dahomean warriors; the interior of the ‘Temple of Serpents’; the Gate of Abomey with severed human heads on pikes; and a collection of Dahomean arms. The selection and context of these vignettes served a propagandist objective, as especially the scenes of the snakes and the severed heads portrayed the Dahomeans as ‘savages’ who needed to be ‘civilized’ by France.
Even though the map seems to have been issued in a reasonably large print run, separately issued and fragile, it has a low survival rate. It is today quite scarce, with an example appearing on the market only once every three to five years or so.
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 of 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 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 to October 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 them 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).
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 Ouémé River valley. Meanwhile, from June 15, 1892, the French navy blockaded the Dahomey coast, 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 Ouémé. Meanwhile, Dodds planned to methodically lead his army from Porto-Novo up the Ouémé to its confluence with the Zou River, whereupon they would swing into the interior heading towards Abomey. On the other side, Béhanzin had 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 Ouémé 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 Ouémé, where at the Battle of Poguessa (October 4, 1893), 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 Ouémé 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, once 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 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.
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: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Société de Géographie, SGE SG Y D-610.