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45. Procrastination in Benin during 1850 to 1900

FEB. 16, 2022


This episode, Ryan tries desperately to put off the necessary talk of slavery by procrastinating with talk of peanuts, snakes, voodoo and anything else he can think of.

In this episode Ryan introduces us to Benin, on the voodoo coast, the Venice of Africa... the Republic of Benin!

Formerly known as Dahomey, Benin is not to be confused with the Kingdom of Benin or Benin City – both of which are in southwestern Nigeria (also West Africa)

Benin is a slim country with the widest part just 202 miles (325km) and a total area of just 114,763 sq km – five times smaller than France but home to 11million people.

The landscape is flat, with the coast in the south, then plateaus and flat lands sloping towards a mountain range in the North, which contain gold which accounts for 20% of exports, with cotton, cashews, textiles, and seafood representing the rest.

Benin is home to the largest population of lions in West Africa, which you can see in Penjari natural park.

The official religion of Benin is Vodun (or voodoo) and 17% of people still practice it, giving the area the name ‘the voodoo coast’.

History of Benin

The history of Benin begins with three areas which had distinctly different political systems and ethnicities

Two kingdoms started up around the same time, in the early 1100. In Southern Benin, The Allada Kingdom emerged when an ethnic group known as the Aja migrate from Tado (a village in Togo) down the Mono River. By 1500, 200,000 people lived there

Meanwhile in Eastern Benin came the Oyo Empire. This was allegedly founded when a prince who lived in modern-day Nigeria found himself wandering the southern shore until he reaches a place called Bussa.

There a local chief gave him a large snake with a magic charm around its neck and tells the prince to follow it until it slithers into the ground.

The prince did so, and when the snake slithered, he set up his new kingdom called Oyo.

There was a third kingdom established though, which was possibly more notable, the Dahomey.

In about 1600 - the Fon people settled and by 1700 - The Kingdom of Dahomey was fully established.

In 1708 - King Agaja ascends the throne and makes some radical changes and creates a military force with an army of 10,000 professional soldiers - visiting Europeans describe the Dahomey army as the African Sparta.

Well-armed, the Dahomey traded with Europeans for weapons like muskets, cutlasses and even twenty-five cannons and they also made use of an elite all-female unit of soldiers called Ahosi, (the king's wives, or Mino, "our mothers") but which Europeans nicknamed ‘the Dahomey Amazons’.

Unsurprisingly, by 1727, Dahomey became the singular power in the region, but in 1732, the Oyo Empire battled Dahomey over control of the Gold trade along the coast… and win.

Dahomey became a vassal of Oyo, paying tribute, and recognising their King for the next 80 years.

In 1850, though, the nation’s decline begins. Dahomey suffers a defeat from Abeokuta, a Yoruba city-state. Then Dahomey tries to attack the tiny but important Kingdom of Porto Novo – but they have a deal with France for protection, starting the the First Franco-Dahomean War.

This war ends quickly with French victory and a second Franco-Dahomean War does much the same.
In 1904 the country is annexed into French West Africa and becomes the colony of French Dahomey, which in turn in 1958 - becomes a self-governing colony called the Republic of Dahomey.

1060 saw independence achieved, followed by two rebranding events - 1975 – the country was renamed the People's Republic of Benin and in 1991 the Republic of Benin

Ryan procrastinates further- introducing snacking in Benin.

Kuli-kuli is the national dish of Benin. It provides nutrition, protein, and sustenance to the poor and malnourished and is made of ground, smashed peanuts shaped into balls and deep-fried in peanut oil. Mixed with salt, pepper, and some spices, they form delicious and nutrient dense balls.

And more procrastination – snakes!
Ryan and Pete were joined by the good people of Toms’ Talking Reptiles who brought two beautiful serpents along and taught us many fascinating hiss-tory facts.

Snakes are worshipped and revered in Benin, especially pythons, and are important religious symbol for followers of Vodun.

The rainbow serpent called Dan is an important deity which serves as a middleman between the living and the spirits.

According to legend, in 1700, a king of Dahomey took refuge in a forest and while he was hiding, some pythons prevented him from being captured. When he survived, he built three monuments in their honour and today, there is a Temple of Pythons in Whydah which is a concrete building with a pit filled with sixty royal python snakes.

The snakes aren’t fed, though they are let out once a week to prey upon chickens and mice and when they occasionally make their way into local homes, they’re treated as ordinary guests and then returned to the temple.

Procrastination comes to and end – Ryan talks about the Slavery Trade

Europeans arrive in the area in 1472. They meet with the Dahomians and a trade agreement is made for carved ivory items like saltcellars, spoons and hunting horns, exotic art.. and.. slaves.

Soon the French arrive too, with much the same request and Dahomey becomes known across Europe as the major supplier of slaves.

Porto-Novo, Whydah, and a number of other water-front towns establish themselves as the principal ports for exporting slaves, and eventually the whole area is nicknamed the "Slave Coast"

By 1680, there is an explosion in the number of African slaves brought over. By the mid-1700s, at the start of the American Revolution, slavery was common across all 13 colonies with three million captive Africans having arrived.

After the war, slave labour was not crucial to the Northern economy so in January 1807, the U.S. Congress passes an act to “prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States…from any foreign kingdom, place, or country”

One year later (1808) Britain’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade is over and others follow suit.

But this was not the end of the slave trade.

British Royal Navy boats were sent to patrol the waters off the coast of Dahomey forming a blockade to prevent any boats getting in or out to prevent illegal slaving, but ships were still finding their way through.

Throughout the 1860s, a total of 24,000 slaves were transported, compared to 102,000 people per decade in the 1780s.

One of these, was named Kossula, also known as the Last Slave.

Three brothers (Jim, Tim and Burns Meaher) had a shipyard on the Alabama River and were keen slave owners and anti-abolition.

One night, the brothers were drinking with a wealthy gentleman from New Orleans when the Meaher’s bet him that they could successfully smuggle Africans into the US and enslave them - despite the slavery act having been in effect for fifty years.

They hired one of their business acquaintances, a man called Captain William “Bill” Foster to make the run to Africa and gave him $9,000 of their gold and he headed towards Dahomey in the Clotilda, a ship designed for carrying lumber.

On March 4, 1860, Foster and a crew of 11 sailors slipped out of Alabama waters heading for Whydah. There was a hurricane, a small mutiny and other adventures, but in July 1860, he anchors off the shore of Whydah.

Meanwhile, in Bantè, a small village and home to the Isha tribe of the Yoruba people of West Africa, one member of the community called Kossula was preparing to be wed.

But then three strangers from Dahomey arrived and they demanded the village hand over half of all their crops.

They refuse and the men leave. But the next day the Great gate to the village was smashed open and a great wave of soldiers rushed in wielding guns and knives.

Villagers were murdered in brutal ways and others captured as slaves, including Kossula.

The captured were made to walk, tied in a line, for days to Dahomey, whilst beside them the invaders carry the severed heads of their victims.

The captives were taken to Whydah where Kossula saw the ocean for the very first time, before being imprisoned in a barracoon (a Catalan word for ‘hut’), which was a slave warehouse.

After three weeks and many deaths in the hut, a man walked into the Barracoon and Kossula is shocked at his white skin.. this man was Captain Bill Foster of the Clotilda

The voyage to America

When Foster arrived on shore, he had been met by “six stalwart blacks” each delegated to carry him in a hammock to meet the Prince of Dahomey.

Foster made clear what he was after, and he was shown the barracoon at Whydah, overflowing with people to choose from:

"we went to the warehouse where they had in confinement four thousand captives in a state of nudity from which they gave me liberty to select as mine, and offering to brand them for me, which I forbid"

He did, however, make his selection for his human trade. For every male he choose a female, eventually selecting one hundred and thirty souls.

Foster paid for a total of 125 men, women and children in the end, buying each for $100.

As Kossula and the slaves boarded the Clotilda, each of them, to their horror and shame, were stripped naked and led below decks, into the cramped dark and manacled to the boat which set off for America.

On day two of the journey to America, an English cruiser chased them, but they escaped. Over the next 13 days Kossula and the rest of his people remained naked, chained, in the dark, with no room to move.

After seventy days , the Clotilda finally sailed into US waters

On July 9, near the Alabama border, Foster left the ship and travelled overland by horse and buggy to meet with the Meaher brothers to make his illicit trade complete.

“Lights were smothered, and in the darkness quickly and quietly” the captives were transferred from the Clotilda “to a river steamboat and taken up the Alabama River”

To hide his guilt, Foster burned the Clotilda which sank to the river bed.

In the end, though, it was not enough.

In 1861, the federal government prosecuted Meaher and Capt. Foster for illegal slave importation, but the case was dismissed due to ‘lack of evidence from the ship or its manifest’

The enslaved people were freed, though. The captured Africans created a town called “Africa-Town”. This has since been renamed Plateau, but the town is still predominantly African in both culture and population.

Kossula outlived all the other captives from the Clotilda, becoming known as the last slave in America, his own words immortalised in the incredible book ‘Barracoon’ by Zora Neale Hurston

Kossula lived for sixty-seven years as a free man, the only man alive who had the memory of his African home, the horrors of a slave raid, the barracoon and a life in slavery

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