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Dahomey's Royal Road

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2014


Nineteenth-century European visitors to the kingdom of Dahomey were not easily impressed, certainly not by any infrastructural refinement. So when one after another perceived grandeur in the Cana-Abomey road, it was no small compliment. For French travelers the road was “magnifique,” “superbe,” a “merveille,” “fort belle,” “vraiment belle,” or “des plus belles.” For British travelers “splendid” or—perhaps the ultimate accolade—as broad as any thoroughfare in England.

This remarkable road was the last leg of the regular route from Dahomey's Atlantic port of Whydah to the royal capital at Abomey. Its basic purpose was not to impress foreigners on their approach to the capital, as one might imagine, but to allow the kings of Dahomey to travel to and from Cana in style.

In Fon traditions Cana dates back to the origins of the kingdom in the early seventeenth century and may have preceded Abomey as tribal chef-lieu. When Dahomey was subject to the Yoruba empire of Oyo (from the 1730s or 1740s to the 1820s), Cana was the place where Oyo messengers collected the annual tribute. King Gezo (1818-58) is said to have begun his successful challenge of Oyo very early in his reign by having those messengers slaughtered.

Research Article
Copyright © African Studies Association 1999

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1 Brue, Blaise, “Voyage fait en 1843, dans le royaume de Dahomey, par M. Brue, agent du comptoir français établi à Whydah,” Revue Coloniale 7(September 1845), 60Google Scholar; Répin, , “Voyage au Dahomey,” Le Tour du Monde 7/2(1863), 80Google Scholar; Vallon, A., “Le royaume de Dahomey,” Revue Maritime et Coloniale 3(November 1861), 337Google Scholar; Nardin, Jean-Claude, “La reprise des relations franco-dahoméennes au XIXe siècle: la mission d'Auguste Bouët à la cour d'Abomey (1851),” Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines 7(1967), 99CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Centre des Archives d'Outre-Mer (hereafter CAOM), Dahomey III, dossier 2, J. d'Ambrières, report on Audéoud mission to Abomey (February-March 1891), 21; Lissner, Ignace, “De Whydah à Abomey,” Les Missions Catholiques 27(6 September 1895), 429Google Scholar; Borghero, F., “Missions du Dahomey,” Annales de la Propagation de la Foi 35(January 1863), 16Google Scholar; CAOM, Dahomey III, dossier 2b, H. Decoeur, report on Audéoud mission to Abomey, 3 April 1891, 4; Laffitte, J., Le Dahomé: souvenirs de voyage et de mission (Tours, 1873), 63.Google ScholarMorienval, Henri, La guerre du Dahomey: journal de campagne d'un sous-lieutenant d'infanterie de marine (Paris, 1893), 199.Google Scholar For Major Georges-Joseph Toutée, who traveled the road two years after the French conquest of 1892, it was still “truly an impressive-looking avenue” (“vraiment une avenue qui a grand air”). Toutée, , Dahomé, Niger, Touareg: récit de voyage (Paris, 1897), 66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 Public Record Office (hereafter PRO), FO 84/816, 22 July 1850, John Beecroft's journal, 19; Skertchly, J.A., Dahomey as It Is (London, 1874), 147.Google ScholarForbes, Frederick E., Dahomey and the Dahomans, (2 vols.; London, 1851), 1:64CrossRefGoogle Scholar (“as wide as any high road in England”), 2:88 (“as broad as Pall Mall”); PRO, FO 84/886, 19 February 1852, Louis Fraser's journal, 61 (“as broad as Portland Place”); Burton, Richard F., A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome, ed. Newbury, C.W. (New York, 1966), 168Google Scholar (“The road… may compare with the broadest in England”).

3 Norris, Robert, Memoirs of the Reign of Bossa Ahàdee, King of Dahomy (London, 1789), xivGoogle Scholar; Thomas Birch Freeman, typescript of unpublished, undated book, Methodist Missionary Society Archives, Biographical West Africa, Box 597, 163, 260; Forbes, , Dahomey, 1:65Google Scholar; Bouët, Auguste, “Le royaume de Dahomey,” L'Illustration 10/490 (17 July 1852), 42Google Scholar; Law, Robin, The Slave Coast of West Africa 1550-1750 (Oxford, 1991), 263.Google Scholar

4 Norris, , Memoirs, 16Google Scholar; Dalzel, Archibald, The History of Dahomey, an Inland Kingdom of Africa (London, 1793), 205Google Scholar; Church Missionary Society, CA2/016, J. Dawson to F. Fitzgerald, 30 November 1861 (extract), enclosure to C. Chapman to H. Venn, 20 August 1864; d'Albéca, Alexandre L., La France au Dahomey (Paris, 1895), 103CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Akinjogbin, I.A., Dahomey and Us Neighbours 1708-1818 (Cambridge, 1967), 124.Google Scholar According to some writers Cana was an Oyo outpost. See Burton, , Mission, 125–26Google Scholar; Skertchly, , Dalwmey, 118Google Scholar; d'Albéca, , France au Dahomey, 104Google Scholar; Akinjogbin, , Dahomey, 124Google Scholar; Law, Robin, The Oyo Empire, c. 1600-c. 1836 (Oxford, 1977), 169.Google Scholar

5 Le Hérissé, A., L'Ancien royaume du Dahomey (Paris, 1911), 320Google Scholar; Law, , Oyo Empire, 271.Google Scholar Law dates Gezo's revolt against Oyo to 1823. Djivo, Adrien, Guézo: la rénovation du Dahomey (Paris, 1977), 73Google Scholar, dates the “war of emancipation” to the start of Gezo's reign, i.e., 1818, and Dunglas, Edouard, “La première attaque des Dahoméens contre Abéokuta (3 mars 1851),” Etudes Dahoméennes 1(1948), 7, to 1820–22.Google Scholar

6 The French trader Blanchély visited many royal tombs in both Cana and Abomey in 1848 and described them in detail. Au Dahomey: premier voyage de M. Blanchély aîné, gérant de la factorerie de M. Régis, de Marseille, à Whydah (1848),” Les Missions Catholiques 23(6 November 1891), 547–48.Google Scholar See also Bouët, “Royaume,” 42; idem, “Royaume,” L'Illustration 10/492 (31 July 1852), 74; Nardin, “Reprise,” 123-24; Borghero, “Missions,” 16; Laffitte, , Dahomé, 63.Google Scholar Curiously, when Burton visited Cana in December 1863 the royal tombs were apparently gone. He noted only “a tradition” that Agaja or Tegbesu had been buried there, and commented: “if so, the remains have been removed to the great Agbome [Abomey] palace, where there is a single ‘family vault’.” Skertchly, , Dahomey, 124Google Scholar, said Tegbesu's grave was still in Cana but his bones had been moved to Abomey.

7 Brue, , “Voyage,” 59Google Scholar; Répin, , “Voyage,” 79Google Scholar; Vallon, , “Royaume,” 336Google Scholar; Mandirola, Renzo and Morel, Yves, eds., Journal de Francesco Borghero, premier missionnaire du Dahomey (1861-1865) (Paris, 1997), 62Google Scholar; Laffitte, , Dahomé, 6263Google Scholar; Toutée, , Dahomé, 65Google Scholar; Morienvai, , Guerre du Dahomey, 188Google Scholar; d'Albéca, , France au Dahomey, 103Google Scholar; Poirier, Jules, Campagne du Dahomey, 1892-1894 (Paris, 1895), 44.Google Scholar

8 Burton, , Mission, 126, 126n17, 201Google Scholar; Skertchly, , Dahomey, 118–19Google Scholar; Law, , Oyo Empire, 169Google Scholar; Law, Slave Coast, 326n84.

9 See Burton's, description, Mission, 262–63Google Scholar, of one such occasion; also Skertchly, , Dahomey, 118.Google Scholar

10 Burton, , Mission, 119, 126.Google Scholar

11 Bouët, , “Royaume,” 42Google Scholar; Nardin, , “Reprise,” 123Google Scholar; Guillevin, , “Voyage dans l'intérieur du royaume de Dahomey,” Nouvelles Annales des Voyages, 6/8 (June 1862), 283Google Scholar; Laffitte, , Dahomé, 63Google Scholar; Grandin, Léonce, A l'assaut du pays des noirs: le Dahomey (2 vols.: Paris, 1895), 2:151.Google Scholar

12 Freeman typescript, 277.

13 Ridgway, Archibald R., “Journal of a Visit to Dahomey; or, the Snake Country, in the Months of March and April, 1847,” New Monthly Magazine and Humorist 81(December 1847), 411.Google Scholar See also d'Albéca, , France au Dahomey, 103–04.Google Scholar

14 Forbes, , Dahomey, 2:88.Google ScholarBurton, , Mission, 114Google Scholar, more reservedly calls Kpengla “the Macadam [sic) of Dahome.”

15 Dalzel, , History, 171.Google Scholar

16 It may well be that the neglect was deliberate. Freeman (typescipt, 267) and Gezo discussed a particularly difficult part of the journey from the coast, a wooded swamp known to Europeans as the Lama (Portuguese for mud) some 15 miles south of Cana. The missionary suggested that European engineers directing local labor “would soon construct a fine road through it.” Gezo replied that local elephants would soon destroy it, but Freeman “could… plainly see that he wished for no such road there and that he considered the swamp a strong barrier against European aggression, and therefore valuable in a military point of view. And,” Freeman added, “he was right.” Indeed, when the French conquered Dahomey in 1892, they avoided the Lama.

17 CAOM, Fonds Colonies, C6/27/2, “Plan du bois des jardins et du fort de St Louis de juda… dressé par Charles pierre joseph Bullet,” 1778. See also Berbain, Simone, Le comptoir français de Juda (Ouidah) au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1942), 56Google Scholar and plate IV; Juhé-Beaulaton, Dominique, “Les jardins des forts européens de Ouidah: premiers jardins d'essai (XVIIIème siècle),” Cahiers du Centre de Recherches Africaines, no. 8(1994), 86-87, 102.Google Scholar

18 Winsnes, Selena Axelrod, tr. and ed., Letters on West Africa and the Slave Trade: Paul Erdmann Isert's journey to Guinea and the Caribbean Islands in Columbia (1788), (Oxford, 1992), 105Google Scholar; Isert, Paul Erdman, Voyages en Guinée et dans les îles Caraïbes en Amérique, ed. Gayibor, Nicoué (Paris, 1989), 126.Google Scholar See also Pierre-Simon Gourg, “Memoire pour Servir d'Instruction au directeur qui me Succédera au Comptoir de Juda,” 1791, CAOM, Dépôt des Fortifications des Colonies, XIII, Mémoires, 75, dossiers 117 and 118. Gourg, who headed the French fort in 1787-89, accused his successor Denyau de la Garenne of having the citrus trees cut down (and worse, he suspected him of up¬rooting vines that Gourg had planted inside the fort and that had begun to produce grapes). Denyau de la Garenne admits to nothing of the kind in a mémoire dated 14 January 1799: CAOM, Fonds Colonies, C6/27/1. He says the garden was more than 300 meters long and filled with fruit trees, some native to the New World, the rest in¬digenous.

19 Estimates of the road's length range in the literature from 6 to 12 miles, with most near the lower figure. Seven and a half miles is an educated guess, informed by the testimony of a dozen travelers. Very likely Dahomean monarchs knew exactly how long the road was. Le Hérissé, , Ancien royaume, 298–99Google Scholar, tells us that Agaja (1708-40) ordered measurement of the distance from his palace in Abomey to the Whydah beach.

A “bamboo” from four and a half to five meters long was used, and the distance was found to be 23,502 bamboos. This works out to between 66 and 73.5 miles, very close to the true measurement. Le Hérissé says that Agaja's bamboo still existed when the French entered Abomey in 1892. Borghero, “Missions,” 16, and Laffitte, , Dahomé, 63Google Scholar, are the sources for the information that the road was almost straight. See also Toutée, , Dahomé, 65.Google Scholar

20 Burton, , Mission, 168.Google Scholar

21 The earliest figures we have for the road's width may be Freeman's. He traveled from Cana to Abomey in March 1843 “on a fine level road, varying in breadth from ten to forty feet.” Freeman, , Journal of Various Visits to the Kingdoms of Ashanti, Aku, and Dahomi in Western Africa (3d. ed.: London, 1968), 265.Google Scholar It was not until Forbes (1849-50) and Beecroft (1850) that visitors started exclaiming at how wide the road was. Bouët (1851) was the first to guess 20 meters.

22 Decoeur's report on Audéoud mission, 4; d'Ambrières' report on same mission, 21. Répin, , “Voyage,” 80Google Scholar, and Angot (CAOM, Dahomey III, dossier 1, A. Angot's report on Bayol mission to Abomey (Nov.-Dec. 1889), 5 January 1890, 9, guessed 30 to 40 meters. Lissner, “Whydah à Abomey,” 429, who traveled the road shortly after the French conquest, put its width at 50 to 100 meters. He may have been generalizing from places where it broadened to give access to religious shrines, individual dwellings, or villages. Skertchly, , Dahomey, 152Google Scholar, mentions one spot where it widened to 100 yards.

23 Beecroft's journal, 16; Burton, , Mission, 168Google Scholar; “Despatches from Commodore Wilmot Respecting His Visit to the King of Dahomey, in December 1862 and January 1863,” Irish University Press Series of British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, Africa, 50 (Shannon, 1971), 440. Since the average carriage width was about six and a half feet, Beecroft's estimate would amount to only 13 to 19.5 feet, Burton's to 26 and Wilmot's to 78. Wilmot would appear to have come much closer to the truth than Beecroft or Burton. Elsewhere in Beecroft's journal (19), he said the road was “sufficiently broad to drive six abreast,” presumably meaning six horses pulling three carriages.

24 Burton, , Mission, 168.Google Scholar

25 Forbes, , Dahomey, 2:112n2Google Scholar; Burton, , Mission, 168Google Scholar; Skertchly, , Dahomey, 149.Google Scholar

26 Chaudoin, Edmond, “Trois mois de captivité au Dahomey: journal d'un prisonnier,” L'Illustration 48(26 July 1890), 75.Google Scholar He was apparently referring to the whole road north of the Lama (see note 16). When Toutée, Dahomé, 65, used the royal road at the start of 1895, it was “gazonné,” meaning covered with short grass like a lawn.

27 Decoeur's report, 4.

28 Fraser's journal, 61.

29 Beecroft's journal, 19.

30 Borghero, , “Missions,” 16.Google Scholar See also Laffitte, , Dahomé, 63.Google Scholar

31 Burton, , Mission, 168.Google Scholar

32 Lissner, , “Whydah à Abomey,” 429.Google ScholarMorienval, , Guerre du Dahomey, 199Google Scholar, says the road was “shaded on each side by magnificent tamarinds that almost entirely cover it.” He seems to have been the only French military memoirist to describe the road, although the final march of the French conquest in November 1892 was from Cana to Abomey. He himself explains that the expeditionary force abandoned “la grande et belle route” in a flanking maneuver to cut off any Dahomean retreat toward German Togo. According to d'Albéca, a colonial official (France au Dahomey, 106), the maneuver, was designed to avoid ambushes.

33 Lissner, , “Whydah à Abomey,” 429.Google Scholar See also Toutée, , Dahomé, 66.Google Scholar

34 Skertchly, , Dahomey, 151, 153.Google Scholar

35 Burton, , Mission, 171.Google Scholar

36 Freeman, , Journal, 265-66, 271.Google Scholar He identified the “Guinea-peach” as Sarco-cephalus esculentus. This may have been what is also known as the country fig, Nauclea esculentus, or Nauclea latifolia, the African peach.

37 Répin, , “Voyage,” 79.Google Scholar He identified the rubber trees as “Hevea Guinaeensis,” which may have been his name for one of West Africa's wild rubber varieties. He also mentions “Ficus Indica,” which could have been Burton's figs.

38 Forbes, , Dahomey, 1:64.Google Scholar

39 Beecroft's journal, 19.

40 Fraser's journal, 61.

41 Nardin, , “Reprise,” 99, 124.Google Scholar

42 Répin, , “Voyage,” 80.Google Scholar

43 Burton, , Mission, 168.Google Scholar See also Skertchly, , Dahomey, 151.Google Scholar

44 Beecroft's journal, 68; Forbes, , Dahomey, 1:31, 68.Google Scholar

45 Burton, , Mission, 171.Google Scholar

46 Dunglas, Edouard, “Contribution à l'histoire du Moyen-Dahomey (royaumes d'Abomey, de Kétou et de Ouidah),” Etudes Dahoméennes 20(1957), 77.Google Scholar

47 Burton, , Mission, 170Google Scholar; Skertchly, , Dahomey, 156.Google Scholar Skertchly challenges Burton's statement that the two villages were settled by prisoners from the conquered communities, but the example of Lefu-Lefu suggests Burton was right.

48 Forbes, , Dahomey, 1:68.Google Scholar

49 Beecroft's journal, 19.

50 Burton, , Mission, 169, 171.Google Scholar

51 Ibid., 170; Skertchly, , Dahomey, 520.Google Scholar

52 Bouët, , “Royaume,” 42Google Scholar; Nardin, , “Reprise,” 124.Google Scholar This “House of the Devil” may be the same place that Répin, , “Voyage,” 79Google Scholar, calls “the temple of the bad fetishes,… the most venerated [temple] in all of Dahomey.” See also Burton, , Mission, 68-69, 169Google Scholar; Skertchly, , Dahomey, 149-50, 469–70.Google Scholar

53 Burton, , Mission, 171, 296Google Scholar; Skertchly, , Dahomey, 469.Google Scholar See Maximilien Quénum's discussion of the various Bo deities. Au pays des Fons: us et coutumes du Dahomey (3d. ed.: Paris, 1983), 7881.Google Scholar

54 Burton, , Mission, 169, 170Google Scholar; Skertchly, , Dahomey, 150, 154.Google Scholar

55 Durton, , Mission, 169, 297Google Scholar; Skertchly, , Dahomey, 152, 157, 473.Google Scholar

56 Ibid., 150-51, 153, 156, 472. Burton, , Mission, 169, 297Google Scholar, also mentions Aizan and describes it as a street god protecting markets and town gates.

57 Skertchly, , Dahomey, 153.Google Scholar See also Burton, , Mission, 170.Google Scholar

58 Ibid., 169, 206, 297, see also ibid., 34 for an editorial comment; Skertchly, , Dahomey, 150, 472.Google Scholar

59 Burton, , Mission, 171.Google Scholar

60 Skertchly, , Dahomey, 152.Google Scholar

61 Ridgway, Archibald R., “Journal of a Visit to Dahomey,” New Monthly Magazine and Humorist 81(November 1847), 309.Google Scholar

62 Burton, , Mission, 169.Google Scholar

63 Skertchly, , Dahomey, 152.Google Scholar

64 Burton, , Mission, 170Google Scholar, 170n17; Skertchly, , Dahomey, 153.Google Scholar

65 Ibid. Toutée, Dahomé, 66, saw several little markets along the road where women sold corn dumplings (“akassa”), corn on the cob, bean fritters, smoked shrimp, salt, tobacco, palm oil, matches, and soap.

66 Forbes, , Dahomey, 1:68Google Scholar; Fraser's journal, 61. Forbes describes them as “two-and-thirty-pounder[s].”

67 Freeman, , Journal, 271Google Scholar; Vallon, A., “Le royaume de Dahomey,” Revue Maritime et Coloniale 2(August 1861), 348Google Scholar; Burton, , Mission, 173.Google Scholar See also Nardin, , “Reprise,” 100, 125.Google Scholar

68 Burton, , Mission, 173.Google Scholar

69 Ibid., 168.

70 Norris, , Memoirs, 110.Google Scholar The carriages were always pulled by people, often women. See Forbes, , Dahomey, 2: 219-20, 236Google Scholar; Beecroft's journal, 54-55; Burton, , Mission, 186, 249Google Scholar; Skertchly, , Dahomey, 157, 260.Google Scholar

71 Law, Robin, “Wheeled Transport in Pre-Colonial West Africa,” Africa 50(1980), 252–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

72 Forbes, , Dahomey, 2: 34, 38, 65, 219, 234–37Google Scholar; Beecroft's journal, 54-55; Burton, , Mission, 186, 249Google Scholar; Skertchly, , Dahomey, 260–61.Google Scholar

73 Forbes, , Dahomey, 2:65, 220, 237Google Scholar; Beecroft's journal, 33, 55; Burton, , Mission, 249Google Scholar; Skertchly, , Dahomey, 260.Google Scholar

74 Burton, , Mission, 21-22, 128, 191, 349.Google Scholar

75 Forbes, , Dahomey, 2:34, 65, 233, 237, 239Google Scholar; Beecroft's journal, 54-55; Burton, , Mission, 186, 249–50Google Scholar; Skertchly, , Dahomey, 260–61.Google Scholar

76 CAOM, Dépôt des Fortifications des Colonies, XIII, Mémoires, 75, dossier 111, “Réfléxions sur Juda par les Srs De Chenevert et abbé Bullet,” 1 June 1776, 53. Kings had already been riding in hammocks for at least half a century. In 1724 Bulfinch Lamb reported from Abomey that Agaja often went out “for his Pleasure, in a fine Hammock with gilded Awnings and Curtains.” Smith, William, A New Voyage to Guinea (London, 1744), 179.Google Scholar

77 Vallon, , “Royaume,” 337.Google Scholar

78 Bouët, Auguste, “Le royaume de Dahomey,” L'Illustration 10/491 (24 July 1852), 62.Google Scholar

79 Burton, , Mission, 117.Google Scholar

80 Duncan, , Travels, 1:216–17.Google Scholar The incident is revealing. For the trip from Cana to Abomey, Duncan spruced up: “I cleaned my regimentals, and my white servant got my horse and trappings;… I formed a very decent turn out, my regimentals being good, the same as then worn in my old regiment, the First Life Guards. I was amused at the vanity of the old governor, who showed a great anxiety to precede me, with a view of making it appear to the people that he was my superior, and that I was merely his escort. He himself was carried in an old ragged hammock by four negroes, and was dressed in an old worn-out gambroon [a twilled fabric] coat of English pattern.” Midway to Abomey, Duncan stopped and “ordered him to fall in my rear, which… he pretended not to understand.… This seemed to mortify him very much, particularly as he had always informed the people… that he was one of the greatest men of Whydah, and had been appointed by the Queen of England as governor over all white men.” Unbeknown to the pompous Scot, royal road protocol required lower-ranking figures to precede their betters. See Marion Johnson's dissection of Duncan: News from Nowhere: Duncan and ‘Adofoodia‘,” HA 1(1974), 5566.Google Scholar It is very possible that the “governor,” who according to Duncan, , Travels, 1:139–40Google Scholar, had been named caretaker of the fort many years earlier by the king of Dahomey after the English had abandoned it, had received a special dispensation to use a hammock as a sort of honorary European. Referring to the same man, whom he described as a mulatto, Freeman (typescript, 258) said he had “immunity from the degrading ceremony of prostration in the royal presence.”

81 Nardin, , “Reprise,” 123.Google Scholar Four decades later, as we have seen, Chaudoin, , “Trois mois,” 75Google Scholar, said the road was clear of stones.

82 Burton, Mission, 117n16.

83 Freeman, , Journal, 265.Google Scholar

84 See Ridgway, , “Journal,” 309Google Scholar; Bouët, , “Royaume,” 42Google Scholar; Répin, , “Voyage,” 79Google Scholar; Burton, , Mission, 169Google Scholar; Skertchly, , Dahomey, 149–50.Google Scholar

85 Freeman, , Journal, 271–72.Google Scholar

86 Beecroft's journal, 19.

87 Burton, , Mission, 168.Google Scholar

88 Ibid., 168n7.

89 Skertchly, , Dahomey, 149.Google Scholar

90 Ibid., 151.

91 Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, Mémoires et documents, Afrique, 51, Lartigue, J., “Relation du voyage à Abomey,” 2 September 1860, IVV.Google Scholar The verb Lartigue used for the king and his wives was “marcher.” I have translated that as “go” instead of “walk” or “march” because it is unthinkable that the monarch would have made the trip on foot, much less at a hectic clip.

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