Karl’s Chronicles Article 17 Benin -Twelve Kings
A column of grey gunpowder was discharged into the air like the venomous spit of a cobra, but where the defensive attributes of a serpent came silent and cunning, the gunshot arrived loud and brutal. From the crumbling palace gates came cries of excitement, accompanied by the woodpecker tapping of a side drum and a shifting pool of devotees. The King made his appearance, recumbent in a gold and racing green palanquin, and racing he was. Sprinted along like gazelles taking flight, by his official transport bearers under a glittering, but rocking canopy of parasols. The royal wake consisted of drummers, female singers, finely attired dignitaries, his loyal subjects, the curious, a shaky procession of cyclists and a couple of stray dogs with little better to do. King Glele Kefa left the endless courtyards of former King Guezo’s Palace for the two-kilometre route across Abomey to King Guezo’s private residence. Commemorating two hundred years since Guezo’s ascendency to the Dan-Homey throne, in an authentic homage regarding simple sovereign transport and monarch pomp.
For Abomey, quiet and measured was the capital of the three century long Kingdom of Dan-Homey, a hundred kilometres north of Ouidah in modern-day Benin. Commencing in the 16th century, the great kingdom went onto to have a dynasty of twelve rulers, where each King founded his palace. The royal palace of King Guezo (1818-1858) and his successor King Glele (1858 – 1889) is the only complex to have survived. The remaining ten were damaged by the advancing army of the colonial French, the retreating Fon and two decades of neglect during the Kerekou revolution by his communist ideals. The current palace covers 4.5 hectares out of a total of 47 and initially surrounded by a ten-foot deep crocodile-infested moat- fragments remain, but years of natures reclaim have softened them to a faint scar. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, the complex subtly records the paradox of private magnificence and the cruel traditions of human sacrifice.
Origins of the Dan-Homey can be traced back through folklore told by the griots (story-tellers) of the Princess and the leopard from the small kingdom of Tado in Togo. Confronted by a leopard while out walking, the leopard refrained from killing her. Instead, the pair copulated. The Princess conceives a son, he later marries and has four children -three Princes and one Princess. The three Princes quarrel, leading to disputes over the Kings successor for the throne. The true son (not born from a leopard) of the King dies forcing the four under mounting hostilities to leave the kingdom. The Princess becomes infected with leprosy and is left at Do-Deme, the brothers continue to Allada, stay and form their own kingdom, but there are three of them and only one throne. A wise man tells them the oldest prince should take leadership, eliminating the familiar jealousy for power. The second brother, Zozerigbe travels east and creates his Hogbonou Kingdom at Porto Novo. The youngest Prince, Do Aklin establishes Abomey in the early 17th century. A descendant of Do Aklin murders Dan, the current Abomey King -building his palace over his corpse. This new King, Houegbaja declares a new Kingdom: Dan-Homey meaning ‘from the stomach of Dan’.
The first hall in the palace which was officially the waiting room now showcases the royal thrones. Though the majority are on display in France, the most noteworthy is from King Guezo reign. A tall white chair, set on four human skulls -war trophies which were symbolic of power over weaker conquered territories. However, all twelve altars made on the King’s death are present and were used to communicate with their ancestors — a tall black metal umbrella with the monarchs own symbol attached to the top. Akaba was symbolized by a chameleon, already old when he took to the throne. The chameleon defined an animal ‘that would slowly but surely reach the top of the highest tree’.
Each of the Kings palaces contained three rows of symbols, rather like Egyptian hieroglyphics. The first line presented objects attributed to war such as artillery, swords and guns. The middle row displayed panels of ‘war since and gods of war’ which included the God of Thunder while the final order was the Kings own symbol such as the Lion for Guezo and the Buffalo for Glele.
Glele built The House of Pearls for his father Guezo, an animist temple which would house the spirit of the King. Constructed from a variety of materials including pearls, the blood of 41 Oyo slaves, gun powder, clay, seawater, water from seven streams, gold dust and alcohol. The temple, a simple white building with a corrugated red roof, contains an inner chamber, prohibited to all but the priests. Today only cows are sacrificed in this animist form of worship, their skulls and bones stacked up along the rear of the temple. Sacrifice was a normal part of the traditions of the kingdom and none so more on the death of a King. Forty-one (considered a highly auspicious number) of his 100 wives would accompany him into the afterlife. Always buried alone, his tomb stood connected by an underground passageway to the Queen’s burial chamber. A smaller temple stands almost central in a courtyard of King Glele palace. Inside the gloomy interior are two large stones, established for fighters before heading into war. The soldiers would run their knives over the stones – not to sharpen them but to absorb spiritual force contained within the temple while receiving protective talisman and charms by a fetish priest. A soldier would announce how many heads he would return with (generally two). If he returned with more than forecasted, he would receive promotion. But returning with less, and his head could be one of them. Providing an opportunity to downplay and suppress one’s ego, the scourge of self-importance and stupidity. Like the soldiers, the King’s executioner maintained an important but perilous position. The condemned were not meant to suffer at death which meant the executioner had to decapitate in one single clean cut. If he failed and the guilty suffered an agonizing death, the executioner became the executed -every kill a potential risk.
As the Dan-Homey kings were warlords, they naturally had many enemies. The King was prohibited from spitting directly onto the ground, for an enemy could tamper with some of his spit, adding mystic powder to do him harm. One of the kings daughters would follow behind holding a closed calabash filled with ash and sand. When he needed to clear his throat, she would present the calabash at arm’s length while kneeling in submission — absorbed into the ash with the lid immediately replaced.
By 1748 the Dan Homey Kingdom had become a vassal state of the larger Oyo. A Yoruba state in present-day Nigeria – in securing its domination over the profitable slave trade. As the Dan-Homey kingdom under Agadja had subjugated the regions south to the sea, it gave them access to foreign business through the same profession. Oyo saw this as a direct threat to their lucrative commerce, certainly as Agadja ‘man of the sea’, held a monopoly on the slave market.
By the close of the 19th century, the arriving French were already making a profound impact on the region. King Gbehanzin managed to fight them off for four years until he was conquered and exiled to Martinique for twelve years. Then later removed to Algeria where he perished. The French renamed their new dominion Dahomey until President Kerekou changed it to The Republique Populaire du Benin in 1975. Today the Kings are more symbolic, having no real power, subdued under Kerekou’s two-decade revolution. The monarch does not appoint his successor from the eldest son but by the twelve families (descendant’s from all the kings) on a revolving basis, though only applicable on the death of a king. The current King is Glele Kefa.
Photography is prohibited throughout the palace complex apart from the first courtyard. The original price of 2500cfa has been abolished, and instead, a donation is appreciated. All visits are subjected to a conducted tour though you can choose a guide. Recommended is a visit to some of the of the other palace ruins. Though little is left it will present the epic scale of the Dan-Homey.
Guide: Victorien Ahonha +229 95 10 00 92/ +299 97 64 74 60 Whatsapp. Spanish, English and French. (Very knowledgable about the Dan-Homey Kingdom and is well known to the museum staff. Has a motorbike and willing to show visitors other sites in the area such as Voodoo temples and fetishes.
Zemijohn from Bohicon costs 700cfa for the 10km journey between the two. Abomey is the sleepier sister to Bohicon and indeed the more delightful place to base yourself.
Chez Monique. Mob: 22 50 01 68
Fantastic presentation of some of the best wood sculptures in Africa, including lions, life-size elephants, giraffes, masks, hippos, warriors, masquerades, religious sculptures, and figurines. Set under Teak trees with a resident mona monkey, crocodiles and antelopes across two compounds. Rooms are large but simple and rather disappointing in comparison to the creativity found in the gardens. 9500cfa for an s/c with a fan. Meals can be taken within the garden under two large pavilions. Twenty-minute walk to the palace. Off-road parking if you have your own vehicle. Worth coming for a drink to enjoy the surroundings.
Auberge d’Abomey: 97 89 87 25. www.voyageurbenin.com
Quiet and peaceful with a few rooms set in a well-established garden of fruit trees. S/d rooms with fan: 13.500cfa-15.000cfa. A/c 19.000cfa – 25.000cfa. A five-minute walk from Chez Monique. Rond-point de la prefecture.
There is a small shared-taxi station in the centre of Abomey where a selection of tired old Peugeots eventually fills up for destinations south. Such as Come for Grand Popo (2500cfa) and Lomé in Togo. For north, head back to Bohicon where transport is much more numerous. Porto Novo in the east is 3500cfa, the same for Cotonou.