The Royal Palaces of Abomey:

The Development of the Palace Complex in the Shadow of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade 

 

 

Kaitlin Arbusto 

The city of Abomey, the capital of the ancient and powerful Dahomey kingdom and currently located in modern Benin, was established in the seventeenth century by the major ethnic group of the region known as the Fon. Founded at the start of the peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the city of Abomey – the physical, political, and economic center of the Dahomey kingdom – became a stable fixture amongst the tumult raging throughout Eastern Africa.1 At the center of Abomey lies a palace complex, which was started by the palace of the first Dahomean king, King Huegbadja, in 1645. Each successive reigning monarch from the first, King Huegbadja, to the last, King Agoli Agbo I, added on to the palace complex to align himself with his predecessor. The palace complex of Abomey is inarguably the single most defining architectural element of the Dahomey Kingdom; tracing its progression from 1645 to 1900 can provide direct insight to the nuances of the Kingdom during such a difficult time in history. 

The modern city of Abomey, in the footprint of its ancient ancestor, sits in the bottom quarter of modern-day Benin, at the climatic border between the sandy beach climate of the Atlantic coast and the tropical savannah that occupies the remainder of the country. The kingdom of Dahomey was founded by refugees fleeing the Terre de Barre region of modern-day Togo. The refugees were descendants of the Agasuvi royal lineage, who fled their home state of Allada after losing claim to their land via a series of small turf wars. Occupying the land that would become the Dahomey Kingdom were a collection of small city-states, which were easily conquered by the immigrating Agasuvi.2 The kingdom of Dahomey was established upon the Agasuvi conquering of the region. 

The first King, Huegbadja, ruled from 1645 to 1685. He was the first monarch of the infant kingdom to establish permanent, monumental architecture in the form of a palace. Each subsequent monarch – King Akaba, King Agaja, King Tegbesu, King Kpengla, King Agonglo, King Guezo, King Glélé, King Behanzin, and finally King Agoli Agbo I – added onto the complex started by the first King Huegbadja in 1645. 

The Fon were avid storytellers, and much of their history was told via an oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation.3 Many of these stories were complex and contradictory and were often diluted by Western recordkeepers for the sake of perceived ease. As such, the modern established written history of the Dahomey Kingdom originates from nineteenth-century Caucasian European expeditions, who undoubtedly considered themselves superior to the residents of the land they were exploring.4 Given that the Hamitic hypothesis was generally accepted by the year 1600,5 more than a full generation before the establishment of the Dahomey Kingdom, it is important to acknowledge the prejudices and biases of those wishing to memorialize the oral history of the Fon in writing. This notion was only exacerbated by the flourishing of the trans-Atlantic slave trade concurrently. The compound effects of the acceptance of the Hamitic hypothesis and the trans-Atlantic slave trade contributed to rampant bastardization of the written history of the Dahomey Kingdom by secondary European scholars. 

Fortunately, the Kings of Abomey were able to preserve a relatively honest, if not somewhat fantasized, version of their dynamic histories for later excavation and analysis. This history is in the form of the plentiful and colorful low-relief sculptures that decorated the walls of each King’s compound within the complex. Known today as bas-reliefs, these colorful sculptures were commissioned by each King to glorify their rule and control the narrative surrounding them as monarchs. This tradition was initiated by King Agaja at the start of his rule in 1708 and continued through the virtual collapse of the city of Abomey under the reign of King Behanzin.6

The physical development and growth of the palace complex of Abomey came at a critical time in the history of the continent of Africa. Established just five years before the start of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Abomey was unique in its ability to not only survive, but prosper, in the wake of such violent turmoil.7 Royal officials situated within the palace complex, operating under the constraints of a daunting and volatile economic and political landscape, worked to establish a solid system of bureaucracy and economy that was capable of surviving the trans-Atlantic slave trade; this endeavor was extraordinarily successful.8 As the trans-Atlantic slave trade ravished western Africa’s population, agency, rights, freedom, politics, and economy, the kingdom of Dahomey, with its political and military center at its capital, somewhat surprisingly, thrived.

It is for this reason that the palace complex of Abomey, with surviving elements from each of the Dahomey kingdom’s eleven Kings, defines the city’s architecture and morphology over the course of its vast, dramatic history. This is reinforced by the elaborate nature of the bas-reliefs that densely decorated each King’s palatial walls;9 by analyzing a sample of these reliefs chronologically with the dynamic site plan of the palace complex of Abomey, it is possible to track the development of the Dahomey Kingdom from inception to collapse during the peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the face of turmoil, the Dahomey Kingdom was able to survive, thrive, and grow. This is evident when considering the growth of the palace complex of Abomey throughout the city’s tenure. Tracking the physical expansion of the Kingdom in tandem with data concerning the metrics of the trade provides an interesting backdrop for the burgeoning of the Dahomey Kingdom that seems to forgo preemptive conclusions drawn by eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century European historians. Modern architects, city planners, and international agencies have elected to superficially attempt to preserve the extent of what became the famous Abomey palace complex at the center of the city after nearly two centuries of neglect and dilapidation. Situated at the juncture between the modern Route de la Prefecture and Rue du Palais Royal were, until 1985, the relatively unmitigated ruins of the palace complex. The following will be a visual tour of the palace complex of Abomey as it developed in parallel to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, from establishment in 1645, to the city’s collapse in 1900, to the modern tragedies of 2009 and 2015. This discussion of the physical expansion of the Kingdom is based primarily on Suzanne Preston Blier’s Harvard WorldMap of Abomey, which provides an elaborate and interactive chronological history of the physical development of the palace complex. 

Consider now the accompanying animations and timeline (Slide 4). Follow the timeline of events as the palace complex of Abomey expanded from its inception in 1645 to its ultimate collapse in 1900. The graph superimposed over the timeline is provided by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database and depicts the quantity of slaves shipped from the western coast of Africa – including the Bight of Benin – from 1632 to 1886. A time lapse of this graphic is depicted in the lower left-hand video for the same period. In the middle, there is a two-dimensional plan of the main palace area of Abomey, which tracks the growth and expansion of the complex area from inception to collapse. To the right, we have the same development of the palace complex in three dimensions. Finally, in the lower left-hand corner, we have the expansion of the immediate urban landscape surrounding the main palace area of Abomey, to demonstrate the notion that the expansion of the palace complex is a paralleled microcosm of the expansion of the rest of the city at a similar pace. Note that these animations coincide chronologically; the same period of time lapses in each animation simultaneously to guarantee a level base for comparison. 

This quartet of animations explores the growth of the palace complex of Abomey, in plan and in three dimensions, in relationship to both the growth of Abomey beyond the palace walls10 and the increasing influence of the trans-Atlantic slave trade on the region surrounding the Dahomey Kingdom.11 By examining these animations in tandem, we can begin to analyze the somewhat counterintuitive growth of the Dahomey Kingdom and its capital, while much of the rest of Africa suffered politically, economically, and socially at the hands of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Expansion of the palace complex – which grew to house thousands of royal family members, staff, and council throughout each reign – directly mirrored the growth of the Dahomey Kingdom itself.12 As each King came to power following the death of his predecessor, he added to the palace complex while simultaneously conquering additional territory to add to the vastness of his Kingdom. With each successive King came new trade partners, new territories, and new subjects, particularly as the continuation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade waged on. This is illustrated here in the accompanying map in the upper-left-hand corner, which explores the acquisition of wards and land, King by King. Consider this expansion in parallel to the expansion of the palace complex of Abomey. The expansion of the palace complex effectively generated the development of the urban landscape surrounding it.

13 As the complex grows, so does the Kingdom; the palace complex of Abomey was a microcosm of the surrounding jurisdiction from 1645 to 1900. It is interesting that the expansion of the Dahomey Kingdom continued throughout the extent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In fact, by the time of the effective end to the trade in 1886, the Dahomey Kingdom and its capital – after having survived and prospered while more than four million slaves were forcibly removed from the surrounding area14 – was also beginning to crumble. The pressures of commanding European powers moving into the area after having lost revenue with the abolition of the slave trade became too much for even a strong, stubborn, militaristic power such as the Dahomey Kingdom. The collapse of the Dahomey Kingdom coincided, perhaps ironically, with the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This relationship also reinforces the notion that the Dahomey Kingdom – and the palace complex of Abomey – grew alongside the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

At first glance, this relationship seems foreign, even impossible. The Bight of Benin and the slave port Ouidah facilitated some of the largest and most frequent slave transactions throughout the extent of the trans-Atlantic trade.15 Certainly, the loss of such enormous quantities of resources in population and assets could not bode well for the infant Kingdom. And yet, as can be seen in the accompanying timeline, graph, and animations, the counterintuitive converse is, in fact, accurate. 

This was, in part, due to the monarchs’ perhaps innocent or naïve need to legitimize their rule over their new constituents. As a new government in the area after a period of political unrest in the region following the turf wars and refugee crises of the early seventeenth century, the royal household and staff needed to establish legitimacy as rulers to maintain power in their new jurisdiction.16 Seeing as the construction of monumental architecture (such as palace walls and complexes, in this instance) is a mammoth endeavor that involves deploying massive labor forces, this was an excellent and effective way for new monarchs to wield their power and exercise their rule in the faces of their new constituents. This implies, therefore, that the development of a palace complex and the surrounding urban area was an exercise in power dynamics; this is consistent with the power dynamics present between Europe, North America, and Africa during the extent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. 

By mobilizing the forces of their constituents to develop both the palace complex and the surrounding urban area, the Kings of Dahomey, in succession, established themselves as powerful, strong, capable, and inimitable rulers. Perhaps this is the reason that the Dahomey Kingdom was able to expand and thrive in the shadow of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. By establishing sociopolitical and economic order in the Dahomey Kingdom as the Europeans wreaked havoc on the surrounding region, perhaps the royal household and government of Abomey were able to maintain control over their constituent people and lands as other Kingdoms collapsed while the slave trade transpired locally and beyond. 

The power and capability of the Dahomean Kings, however, is not independent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but a consequence of it. It is not a mere coincidence, combined with good fortune and excellent leadership, that contributed to the flourishing of the Dahomey Kingdom in the shadow of the slave trade. Success and prosperity in the Kingdom does not permanently excuse the complicity of the first several monarchs. 

Instead, this prosperity suggests a dependence of the Dahomey Kingdom on the success and financial feasibility of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Records show that there was systemic resistance to the slave trade as early as the reign of King Agaja starting in 1685.17 Conflicting accounts and historiographical analyses proposed by visiting European historians in the twentieth century render questionable the motives of each King in his quest for expansion.18 Although the biases of these historians are fundamentally implicit, this notion should not go without consideration. 

The city and the Kingdom continued to flourish regardless until the vast majority of European and North American countries abolished the slave trade in the mid-nineteenth century. It is plausible that the Dahomean Kings were complicit in allowing the Europeans access to their constituents for financial and political gain; indeed, the frequency of use of the port of Ouidah and the Bight of Benin lends credibility to this theory. Perhaps, instead, these Kings were forced by European powers – much more powerful at the global scale – into complicity. After all, it is not until the reign of King Guezo beginning in 1818 that we see formalized and recorded resistance and rejection of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.19 Such futile resistance to the world’s greatest powers at the Kingdom’s infancy would surely have been met with a premature end. At the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Dahomean Kings could not simply refuse European access to their port city and still have an independent Kingdom to call home. 

What, therefore, happened before 1818? It seems apparent that the first Dahomean Kings – Huegbadja, Akaba, Agaja, Tegbesu, Kpengla, Agonglo, and Adandozan – were reaping the financial benefits of the trade while it transpired around their Kingdom. Allegedly, King Tegbesu earned nearly $250,000 annually by selling his people to European and American slave traders – an act of not mere helpless complicity, but callous enabling. This linear relationship between the concurrent rise and fall of both the Dahomey Kingdom and the trans-Atlantic slave trade suggests that the economic and sociopolitical viability of the Kingdom and its capital were contingent on reaping the financial benefits of engaging with the Europeans in this manner. 

There are a great many tragedies associated with the rise and collapse of the Dahomey Kingdom and its capital city of Abomey, not the least of which is the rampant and incessant capture of their citizens by Europeans and Americans for sale into the trans-Atlantic slave trade while several Kings stood idly by, reaping the benefits. The Kingdom, certainly, survived the worst of it, while surrounding communities fell to the pressures and horrors brought upon them by the Western world. The timing of the collapse of the Dahomey kingdom certainly aligns chronologically with the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In fact, the collapse of the Dahomey Kingdom actually coincides almost perfectly with the immediately subsequent onslaught of European colonialism in the wake of abolition. After having suffered great losses of revenue, Europeans were eager to revitalize their economies; they achieved this by invading African and Asian governments for personal profit. 

The French, in particular, set their sights on Abomey.20 With an intricate trade network already in place and the requisite fortitude to withstand massive turmoil, the Dahomey Kingdom and its capital were perfect targets for the opportunistic French of the nineteenth century. The onslaught came during the reign of King Behanzin (1889-1894), who tried in futile to resist the pressing French military. In a last-ditch endeavor to dissuade the French from invading his home, King Behanzin burned the palace complex of Abomey to the ground in 1894.21 This did not stop the invasion; the French made their way into the Dahomey capital in that same year. The King was removed from the throne, and the French instated their own monarch, King Agoli Agbo I, who reigned unilaterally until his exile in 1900.22 The kingdom of Dahomey became an official French protectorate in 1904. The palace complex was then left in disrepair for more than eighty years following the arrival of the French in Abomey, doomed to a life of ruin and disintegration after having survived incredible tumult throughout its golden age. 

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the last century in Abomey is not the lack of maintenance or preservation of the ruined palace grounds, scorched purposefully by a desperate King looking to protect his home and people from French colonial forces after centuries of violent extortion. Perhaps, instead, the greatest tragedies occurred at the hands of an organization charged exclusively with protecting this precious site from harm. After UNESCO endowed the Royal Palaces of Abomey as a World Heritage Site in 1985, the secular organization was charged with protecting, maintaining, and honoring the integrity and history of the site that had long been deteriorating. Their first maligned decision came in 1988 when, in anticipation of the centenary celebration of the reign of King Glélé, UNESCO elected to raze to the ground the remnants of his palace and that of his predecessor in favor of a new model meant to imitate the structures in their prime. 23 This attempt at restoration salvaged only the original bas-relief sculptures from the palaces of King Guezo and King Glélé.24 After the restoration, the palace complex was seemingly left virtually abandoned by UNESCO until the site was taken off of the World Heritage Danger List in 2007.25 The consequences of this abandonment, coupled with a removal of the extra layer of protection provided by the Danger List, are evidenced by the fires that ravaged the precious ruins in both 2009 and 2015.26 A city that survived such adversity, such misfortune for so many centuries, that once thrived in the face of indelible adversity, lost forever as a byproduct of gross repeated negligence.

The city of Abomey was unique for its time in that it expanded and thrived with the flourishing of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. While Europeans and Americans ravished the western coast of Africa, the Dahomey Kingdom and its capital prospered an expanded, despite massive populations of people being forcibly removed from the surrounding areas and forced into slavery via the Bight of Benin. The complicity of the monarchs for much of the Kingdom’s tenure allowed for an exchange of millions of people for their own capital gain. These transactions correlate directly with the expansion of both the palace complex of Abomey and the surrounding urban landscape.

By tracking the quantitative progress of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in tandem with the expansion of the palace complex of Abomey, a microcosm of the surrounding urban landscape and the Dahomey Kingdom as a whole, the linear and counterintuitive relationship between the flourishing trans-Atlantic slave trade and the burgeoning city of Abomey is evident. Perhaps this counterintuitive affluence and expansion can be attributed to the consecutive Kings of Abomey, who brandished and demonstrated their power enough to unify a massive population in the shadow of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Their complicity in the wake of the slave trade for much of its tenure proved to be both financially and politically viable, as the rise and fall of the trans-Atlantic slave trade coincide almost perfectly with the rise and fall of the Dahomey Kingdom and its capital of Abomey. Such resolute, if not only misguided, determination on behalf of each Dahomey King should be recognized, especially in the wake of modern negligence that has left the ancient palace complex of Abomey an abandoned, dilapidated, and manufactured version of its former prosperous self. 

1 Francesca Piqué and Leslie H. Rainer. Palace Sculptures of Abomey: History Told on Walls. (Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1999), 7. 

2 David Ross, "Mid-Nineteenth Century Dahomey: Recent Views vs. Contemporary Evidence." History in Africa 12 (1985): 309.  

3 Piqué and Rainer, Palace Sculptures of Abomey: History Told on Walls, 3. 

4 Frederick E. Forbes, Dahomey and the Dahomans: Being the Journals of Two Missions to the King of Dahomey, and Residence at His Capital, in the Years 1849 and 1850. (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1851), 42. 

5 Edith R. Sanders, “The Hamitic Hypothesis: Its Origin and Functions in Time Perspective,” The Journal of African History, 10 (1969), 52.  

6 Piqué and Rainer, Palace Sculptures of Abomey: History Told on Walls, 18. 

7 Richard Nelson Bean, "The British Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade 1650-1775." The Journal of Economic History 32.1 (1972): 409. 

8 J. Cameron Monroe, “Continuity, Revolution, or Evolution on the Slave Coast of West Africa? Royal Architecture and Political Order in Precolonial Dahomey,” The Journal of African History 48.3 (2007), 349-50. 

9 Piqué and Rainer, Palace Sculptures of Abomey: History Told on Walls, 3.  

10 Suzanne Preston Blier, "WorldMap: Abomey." AbomeyMap. http://worldmap.harvard.edu/maps/1244. Accessed May 5, 2019. 

11 The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 2012. Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Accessed May 7, 2019. 

12 Ibid., 36.  

13 J. Cameron Monroe, "In the Belly of Dan: Space, History, and Power in Precolonial Dahomey." Current Anthropology 52.6 (2011): 771. 

14 Map 1: Overview of the slave trade out of Africa, 1500-1900. JPEG. Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Accessed May 12, 2019. 

15 Ibid, accessed May 12, 2019.  

16 Ibid., 771.  

17 Robin Law, "Dahomey and the Slave Trade: Reflections on the Historiography of the Rise of Dahomey." The Journal of African History 27.2 (1986): 246. 

18 Ibid., 247. 

19 Amy McKenna, "Dahomey, Historical Kingdom, Africa." Britannica Online. July 20, 1998.  

20 Piqué and Rainer, Palace Sculptures of Abomey: History Told on Walls, 18. 

21 Ibid., 18-19. 

22 Piqué and Rainer, Palace Sculptures of Abomey: History Told on Walls, 21.  

23 Suzanne Preston Blier, “Razing the Roof: The Architecture of Destruction in Dahomey,” in Structure and Meaning in Human Settlements, ed. Tony Atkin (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 181. 

24 Piqué and Rainer, Palace Sculptures of Abomey: History Told on Walls, 21. 

25 UNESCO World Heritage Centre. "Royal Palaces of Abomey and Kathmandu Removed from Danger List." UNESCO World Heritage Centre. June 25, 2007. 

26 Blier, “Razing the Roof: The Architecture of Destruction in Dahomey,” 182.  

Works Cited 

Bean, Richard Nelson. "The British Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade 1650-1775." The Journal of Economic History 32, no. 1 (1972): 409-11. 

Blier, Suzanne Preston, “Razing the Roof: The Architecture of Destruction in Dahomey,” in Structure and Meaning in Human Settlements, ed. Tony Atkin. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2005). 

Blier, Suzanne Preston. "WorldMap: Abomey." AbomeyMap. http://worldmap.harvard.edu/maps/1244. Accessed May 5, 2019. 

Dalzel, Archibald. The History of Dahomy: An Inland Kingdom of Africa. London: Archibald Dalzel Self-Publishing (1793). 

Forbes, Frederick E. Dahomey and the Dahomans: Being the Journals of Two Missions to the King of Dahomey, and Residence at His Capital, in the Years 1849 and 1850. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans (1851). 

Law, Robin. "Dahomey and the Slave Trade: Reflections on the Historiography of the Rise of Dahomey." The Journal of African History 27, no. 2 (1986): 237-67. 

McKenna, Amy. "Dahomey, Historical Kingdom, Africa." Britannica Online. July 20, 1998. https://www.britannica.com/place/Dahomey-historical-kingdom-Africa. 

Monroe, J. Cameron. “Continuity, Revolution, or Evolution on the Slave Coast of West Africa? Royal Architecture and Political Order in Precolonial Dahomey,” The Journal of African History 48.3 (2007), 349-373. 

Monroe, J. Cameron. "In the Belly of Dan: Space, History, and Power in Precolonial Dahomey." Current Anthropology 52, no. 6 (2011): 769-98.