In the place where Benin is today, people lived as early as the Stone Age, initially as hunters and gatherers, later as settled farmers. Around 1000 BC There was a flourishing trade in West Africa that reached as far as the Berbers in North Africa and even as far as Carthage. Gold, leather and fabrics were sold. This was how powerful empires could emerge in West Africa.
Kingdom of Dahomey (ca.1600-1900)
One of the empires in West Africa, albeit one of the smaller, was the Dahomey Kingdom. It was founded around 1600. It developed from the city of Abomey, now located in southern Benin. After all, it encompassed an area that stretched from present-day Ghana to western Nigeria. In the north, the border was about 150 kilometers from the coast, which is almost half of today’s Benin in length.
The rulers of the Dahomey kingdom were the Fon people. The first kings were called Gangnihessou, Dakodonu and Houegbadja. Houegbadja founded the palace in Abomey and developed a religion that became typical of Dahomey. There were twelve kings in total. They were very powerful.
The country grew through wars and conquests. The neighboring kingdom to the east of Oyo (in what is now western Nigeria) could not be conquered – on the contrary: from 1730 Dahomey had to make tribute payments to Oyo. Once a year slaves, animals, clothes, weapons and pearls were delivered to Oyo. In addition to a men’s army of warriors, there were also women’s regiments, the Dahomey Amazons or Mino.
From slave trade to palm oil
Dahomey’s wealth was based on the slave trade on the coast. In the hinterland people were robbed and sold. The same fate threatened prisoners of war.
As slavery was gradually banned in more and more countries, the trade in palm oil continued to increase from 1840 and replaced the slave trade as the main source of income. However, there were still slaves in the country: They were not sold overseas, but were forced to work on the plantations. The Oyo empire fell apart and from 1823 Dahomey’s tribute payments to Oyo ceased to exist.
Colonization in the 19th century
As on the entire West African coast, the Europeans set about establishing colonies in what is now Benin. French, British and Portuguese came first as merchants.
King Glélé, who ruled from 1856 to 1889, signed a treaty with the French to keep out the British (who had banned the slave trade early on) and ceded a small area on the coast near Cotonou to France. From 1892 the French conquered the whole area, and in 1900 Dahomey became part of the French West Africa colony. The last king of Dahomeys, Béhanzin, was deported to the Caribbean island of Martinique.
In 1958 Dahomey became an autonomous republic. On August 1, 1960, it gained full independence from France. Conflicts between peoples and a difficult economic situation were the main problems facing the country. The first president, Coutoucou Hubert Maga, soon ruled dictatorially. Several military coups followed, most recently in 1972 by Mathieu Kérékou.
Dahomey becomes Benin: 1975
Kérékou became the new ruler and transformed Dahomey into a socialist country. In 1975 he renamed it to the People’s Republic of Benin. The reason was that the name Benin should be neutral for all peoples living in the country, while Dahomey referred to the people of the Fon. The name Benin comes from the Kingdom of Benin, which, however, lay in the area of today’s Nigeria (in the southwest) and to which there is no historical connection or territorial overlap.
Republic of Benin 1990
In 1989 the socialist course was ended. Benin became a democracy. Kérékou remained president until 2006, only interrupted by the term of office of President Soglo (1991-1996). Thomas Boni Yayi was President of Benin from 2006 to 2016. He was succeeded by Patrice Talon in 2016.