Behanzin, the Shark against colonization

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Kondo Behanzin

Astute, vindictive, immoderately proud, the terms used by the enemies of Africa to describe King Behanzin give an account on the strong personality of that giant, the determination of an exceptional fighter against European occupation. Kondo the shark wrote one of the most beautiful pages of the black world’s braveness…

It is in the 59th century of African era (17th European century) that the Fon people conquered the lands of Chief Dan in present Benin and founded there the Danhomey kingdom. Danhomey means on Dan’s tummy because Abomey, the capital city, was built on the buried remains of Dan. It is the word “Danhomey” that was turned into the French sounding word «Dahomey”. The winner Fon people, being of Yoruba origin, are therefore partly of Egyptian origin like the Yoruba people [1,2]. The Fon people erected a real civilization on the conquered lands governed by Mawu (feminine side of God), the principles of God (Vodun) and the Ancestors.

The ruins of the architecture of Danhomey
The ruins of the architecture of Danhomey

The kingdom was ruled by a king using the power of divine law, supported by an assembly of men and an assembly of women as it was done in the Yoruba and Akan peoples. Contrary to what has been said, Danhomey did not make a fortune thanks to the collaboration with European slavers. As evidence, there are formal objections made by the kings against what was said of them.

Two centuries later, King Glélé signed an agreement with the French placing the territory of Cotonou under their administration. But Glélé, using his moral right on that territory, complained about the setting up of a French customs office and became unfriendly when he suffered shell shots. The angry sovereign disavowed the agreements. Forced to negotiate, the French were received by Prince Kondo in 6125 (1889) who became Behanzin later on. That was the first confrontation of Europeans with one of their most formidable opponents.

King Behanzin and his wives
King Behanzin and his wives

Kondo covered the French with insults and showed his intransigence. The French brought some armed battalions to protect their possessions in Benin. At Glélé’s death, Kondo took over the throne taking the name Behanzin which means “the universe holds the egg that Earth wants”. This is an indisputable reference to the egg of the universe creation called Suhet by ancient Egyptians and Aki Ngoss by the Fang people of central Africa. The new king chose the shark as totemic animal and took as motto “the angry shark comes to trouble the helm” illustrating his willingness to defend his ancestors’ land against the French.

Leading a 15,000 men army, the king could also rely on an army of 4000 merciless female killers. Called Minos, they were forming his inner circle and he was always flanked by them during his expeditions. Led by a female General, they were fanaticized by the sovereign’s godly personality. Thanks to their reinforcements, the French expelled Dahomeans out of Cotonou. That provoked Behanzin’s reaction and the beginning of a two year war. The king attacked Cotonou and encircled the pro-French quarters in Porto-Novo.

The Minos: here the veteran female warriors of Danhomey, it is the assembly of women that decided the entry into the war
The Minos: here the veteran female warriors of Danhomey

The French in Ouidah as well as the first delegation that had come to negotiate the end of hostilities were taken hostage by Behanzin. At the end of the negotiations, the anterior treaties were respected and the king was receiving an annual allowance for Cotonou’s occupation. Not knowing the local customs, the French went to salute Behanzin with palm tree branches, sign of pardon plea. They embarrassed themselves and that increased the king’s prestige.

behanzin 5That agreement granted both parties some time to reorganize their forces and Behanzin, breaching the treaty, attacked the territories under French administration after acquiring 5000 weapons. When he replied the French’s protestation letter, he told them « have I ever been in France to fight against you? Me, I am staying in my country”. France refused to pay the annual allowance stipulated in the agreements and President Sadi-Carnot himself appointed the French-Senegalese colonel Alfred Dodds to put an end to Danhomey.

Behanzin aware of the French decision said: “I am the king of black people and whites have nothing to do with what I do. The villages you are talking about are actually mine, they belong to me and wanted to be independent, whereas I destroyed them and you are still complaining. I would like to know how many French villages were destroyed by me, King of Dahomey». The assembly of men of the Fon kingdom rejected the entry into the war. The assembly of women voted in favour and convinced the men to ratify the decision.

behanzin 6With heavy and sophisticated armaments, Dodds led his troops comprising French legionnaires and African skirmishers and bombarded Abomey, Calavi, Ouidah and Godomey. Behanzin, leading an army where we could also find Belgians and Germans resisted heroically. Danhomey’s women and men fell down before the French military superiority. Every force was mobilized to protect the royal palace of Djehuey, in an extremely bloody fight, forcing the French to fall back.

In the morning of the 4th November 6128, Behanzin sent all his fit men and the remaining Minos to defend his capital city but the outcome was 4000 dead and 800 injured in Behanzin’s army against the occupying force. He withdrew in the maquis. Thus, Danhomey collapsed after almost 300 years of existence. Two years later, the king surrendered and was deported to Martinique with his family before being transferred to Blida in Algeria where he died in 6142 (1906). His remains were sent back to Cotonou in 6164.

Illustration of bombardments in Danhomey Source: Tidiane.net
Illustration of bombardments in Danhomey
Source: Tidiane.net
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Illustration of Behanzin’s surrender, 1894
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Arrival of Behanzin and his family in Martinique
Behanzin in Martinique with his wives
Behanzin in Martinique with his wives
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Behanzin leaving the port of Marseille to Algeria
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Behanzin’s funerals at Blida in Algeria, 1906
Behanzin’s totemic representation; the shark’s head and scales are to be noticed (Quai Branly Museum, France)
Behanzin’s totemic representation; the shark’s head and scales are to be noticed
(Quai Branly Museum, France)
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Colossal statue of Behanzin at Abomey; the king said: “I will never accept to sign any treaty likely to give up the independence of my ancestors’ land” (Image from genevieveaubenin.blogspot)

Kondo the shark whose memory is still vibrant up to date in present Benin remains one of the greatest freedom fighters that Africa has ever known.

Hotep!

By: Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)

Notes :

  • tidiane.net (Tidiane N’diaye)
  • Musée du quai Branly (Quai Branly Museum)
  • Les fondements économiques et culturels d’un Etat fédéral d’Afrique noire (The economic and cultural foundations of a Federal State of Black Africa), Cheikh Anta Diop, pages 53 and 54.
  • [1] Historian Jean Charles Coovi Gomez’s speech
  • [2] Nations Nègres et Culture (Negro Nations and Culture), Cheikh Anta Diop, pages 369 to 374
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