Dahomey and Oyo

Royal palace at Abomey (Dahomey), after a fire in 1895. Source: La France au Dahomey – New York Public Library

Dahomey and Oyo were connected kingdoms in what the Nigerian historian IA Akinjogbin called the “Aja-Yoruba commonwealth”, spanning the southern-central parts of what are now the Republic of Benin and Nigeria. Both became very powerful kingdoms in the region in the 18th century. Oyo was the more powerful, and its cavalry and army were such that Dahomey was forced to pay tribute to it from the 1730s until 1819. Each kingdom had complex administrative machinery and a growing state apparatus that also thrived with the increase in international trade in this era.

Dahomey paid tribute to Oyo for many decades in the 18th century, but at the same time was feared by surrounding smaller kingdoms. Its access to European trade and its dominance over the kingdoms of Allada and Hueda made the port of Ouidah the major trading port in the whole region throughout the 18th century. For Oyo, meanwhile, trading access to the coast often required mediation through Dahomeyan territory. Customs and beliefs of the two kingdoms became intertwined, through their shared interests in trade, and their intermediary position between trans-Atlantic and trans-Saharan commerce. Moreover, customs and beliefs in one influenced the other, which is why it is appropriate to look at them together.

The peoples of Dahomey and Oyo were famous in particular for their cloth production. Oyo cloths were exported far afield, even to Brazil, while int he era preceding the rise of Dahomey in the 1720s the cloth production of the Fon peoples of the neighbouring kingdom of Allada was also exported widely. In the later 18th century Dahomey was active on the global stage, sending its ambassadors to Brazil and Portugal.