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French Colonial Conquest of Dahomey in 1892

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: September 05, 2006 
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On July 23, 1892, Echo d'Oran, the daily newspaper serving the Algerian town of Sidi-Bel-Abes, headquarters of the French Foreign Legion, included this announcement: 'FOR DAHOMEY. The War Ministry has agreed to the attachment of a Foreign Legion battalion to the Admiralty. The battalion will leave on 4 August, will be 800 strong (400 from the 1st Regiment at Bel-Abes, 400 from the 2nd at Saida), and will be commanded by Major Faurax.

That evening, Frederic Martyn, a British legionnaire who had recently returned from Indochina, read the item as he was sitting down to a meal in a restaurant with a comrade. The two of them polished off their dinner and dashed back to the barracks to enlist for the new campaign. So did almost every other soldier in his unit.

The short announcement in Echo d'Oran had in fact been a Help Wanted advertisement, seeking volunteers from the Légion Etrangère, whose ranks were filled with men willing to die for neither patriotism nor money, but for glory, adventure or perhaps a chance at redemption for a past crime. The Legion expeditionary corps had been assembled in that manner for some years–an unorthodox procedure that seemed compatible with the unorthodox ways of France's colonial shock troops. From the numerous candidates like Martyn, the toughest and most experienced individuals would soon be chosen by hard-bitten noncommissioned officers and stoic officers, a corps d'élite equal to the demands of war in a tropical wilderness. Indeed, toughness and experience would be at a premium in what was to become one of the Legion's more rigorous and bizarre escapades, the conquest of the West African kingdom of Dahomey.

Dahomey, nestled under the shoulder of Africa's long Atlantic coastline, had been an intermittent source of interest for European colonial powers since Portuguese and Dutch explorers first grazed the Gold Coast in the 16th and 17th centuries. Dahomey conducted a burgeoning trade in slaves, taken in annual expeditions launched against its neighbors. The king paid his warriors for their captives, then sold them to European slavers on the coast for a profit. By 1887 the Dutch were long gone, but the Portuguese still retained a loose monopoly over the export of palm oil from Dahomey's ports of Whydah, Cotonou and Porto Novo. In that year, however, the Dahomean king, Glele, for reasons known only to himself, sent word from the inland capital of Abomey that the treaty rights of the Portuguese were canceled, thus creating the type of vacuum that attracted the acquisitive attention of all European colonial ministries of the time. The nation most ready, willing and able to fill that void was France.

France's interests in Dahomey were both geographic and political. Since the 1870s, military campaigns had been extending French rule south from Algeria and east from Senegal, spreading what would become the huge blotch on the map known as French West Africa. The French colonial office considered it most convenient to connect that hinterland with a port or two on the Gulf of Guinea, such as those Dahomey had to offer. As for political motivation, the French thought it was bad enough that the English were already well-established next door to this choice piece of real estate in their enclave of Nigeria, but when the Germans imposed a protectorate over Togo directly to the west, it was too much. The vocal colonialist lobby in France's Chamber of Deputies clamored for action. This was, after all, the era of La Revanche–a national movement to avenge the humiliating defeat suffered in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71–and no French government dared countenance a German move into an area of French influence like West Africa without effecting a countermove. The French consul in Porto Novo knew just the right chord to strike when he informed his superiors in March 1889 that, If France does not make a treaty with the King of Dahomey, the Germans will be installed there in very little time.

But signing a treaty with Glele was easier said than done. No sooner had a small French commercial and military presence been set up on the coast than Glele made it known in no uncertain terms that he wanted the foreigners to clear out. Those who had allowed them in uninvited, he said, were crack-brained (avaient la tête tranchée), and he had no intention of giving up Dahomean land on the coast or anywhere else.

Before a suitable reply could be framed, the old king died, and his even less diplomatic son, Behanzin, took power. It had long been the custom for Dahomey's kings to march from Abomey at the head of their army on slaving expeditions. The captives taken were then used to work the palm oil plantations or were devoured in ritualistic cannibal rites. When Behanzin began his reign with such an excursion into the coastal plain, the French, feigning righteous indignation, took several Dahomean officials prisoner at Cotonou. Behanzin retaliated by taking French hostages and attacking the town on March 4. The attack was repulsed, but in April Behanzin's army reappeared before Porto Novo, whose king had broken away from Dahomean suzerainty and sought shelter under the French flag. Again a Dahomean assault was unsuccessful. Both sides had been badly mauled, however, and negotiations were soon underway. The result was a thoroughly hypocritical document that recognized some vague French rights in the coastal ports in return for an annual 20,000-franc subsidy to Behanzin. Although neither side had any intention of honoring the treaty, both needed time to build their strength for the next round.

The pretext for continued hostilities was not long in coming. In March 1892, Behanzin once again set out on a slaving raid, this time supposedly trespassing on territory belonging to Porto Novo. When informed of the subsequent French declaration of war against him, Behanzin answered with defiance. I would like to know, he wrote, how many independent villages of France have been destroyed by me, King of Dahomey. Be good enough to remain quiet, carry on your commerce at Porto Novo, and like that we will remain at peace as before. If you wish war, I am ready. I will not end it even if it lasts a hundred years and kills 20,000 of my men. Behanzin's threats fell on deaf ears as elements of the French expeditionary force began to assemble on the Dahomean coast.

In an issue of Le Petit Journal Illustré, there is a handsome drawing of the landing of the Foreign Legion battalion at Cotonou on August 26, 1892. It depicts a column of sturdy legionnaires in immaculate white kepis and gleaming equipment marching resolutely down a long pier led by a resplendent brass band, no doubt playing La Marseillaise. In this case, a picture, while perhaps worth a thousand words, is also good for a few misconceptions. Actually, the seasick and waterlogged troops were ferried from their transport ship that day through raging surf in native canoes whose witch doctor-helmsmen brandished fetishes against the sea spirits and the sharks. Once arrived at the long jetty, the overburdened legionnaires had to grab hold of an elusive rope ladder before clambering onto dry land. Later, they were shuttled across Lake Nokue by riverboat to Porto Novo, a squalid collection of mud huts swarming with livestock at the edge of a swamp.

On hand to greet them was Porto Novo's ruler, King Tofa. As the king ascended a platform to review the battalion marching past, laughter erupted from the column. He had on, wrote Frederic Martyn, a French naval officer's cap, a richly embroidered frock coat, but nothing else whatever. Tofa was glad to see his protectors. He was a relatively enlightened monarch for the Guinea coast, having given up cannibalism sometime previously. And, as a loyal French ally, he had agreed to supply hundreds of volunteers from among his subjects to act as porters for the French, a factor considered crucial to the success of the campaign by its commander, Colonel Alfred-Amedée Dodds.

Dodds was 50 years old when he was selected to lead the Dahomey operation. A graduate of the military academy at St. Cyr, he had served his entire career in the marine infantry, les marsouins, as they were known, whose men could often be found beside the Legion in France's colonial wars. Born in Senegal, the son of a French father and a Senegalese mother, Dodds was familiar with Africa and was already on the scene when the expedition was decided upon. He proved to be a good choice, since he was one of those practical colonial soldiers so abundant in 19th-century European armies. Kept well away from general staffs, lest their common sense undermine established military doctrines, the colonials were free to practice their trade, usually effectively, in out-of-the-way corners of the uncivilized world like Dahomey.

Twenty years earlier, a kindred spirit, Sir Garnet Wolesley, had led a successful punitive expedition of British soldiers into nearby Ashantiland, and Dodds was determined to emulate Wolesley's strategy. A small force with plenty of firepower would move quickly on the enemy's capital, destroy his main army and dictate terms before the weather, disease and ambushes could decimate the invading column. To that end, the infantry must travel light. As soon as the Legion battalion arrived at Porto Novo, the heavy capotes (overcoats) and the white kepis were put away, and each man was outfitted with a white linen uniform and sun helmet. For the trek into the jungle the men would carry only a rifle, ammunition and a machete. All else was to be loaded onto the backs of Tofa's volunteers.

It is often assumed that every battle the white man fought in Africa in the Victorian era was an overwhelmingly unequal contest of modern weaponry against sword and spear, a brazen and shameful slaughter. That was undoubtedly the case in some instances, notably at Omdurman in 1898. But if the Dahomean army in 1892 suffered from any deficiencies, it was decidedly not a lack of rifles and ammunition. France's rivals in the area had seen to that. For years, from the warehouse of the Wolber and Brohm Company at Whydah, crates of German Mauser rifles had been shipped to Abomey under the noses of the French authorities. British vessels also regularly unloaded piles of Remington repeaters and shells for Behanzin's army. Nor was the trade restricted to small arms. By this time, Behanzin had been liberally supplied with Krupp field guns as well as European officers to see that his men learned how to use them. Several of those advisers–one Belgian and three Germans–had been captured by Dodds' men after a skirmish in July 1891 and executed on the spot. Those facts, together with Dahomey's warlike tradition, made it apparent that when the French took the field they would be confronted by more than a poorly armed native rabble–some hard fighting lay ahead.

The force at Dodds' disposal was small, numbering less than 4,000. In addition to the Legion battalion, it included Senegalese tirailleurs (sharpshooters), some Hausa tribesmen from the Niger River country, several companies of marines, a squadron of spahi cavalrymen from the western Sudan, plus a few artillery pieces. After leaving behind a 900-man reserve at Porto Novo, Dodds set out north along the east bank of the Ouémé River into the interior, his little army divided into three more or less equal columns of mixed white and native soldiers. At first the going was relatively easy; the villagers were friendly and the trails not too constricted. Yet, even without packs, a march through the stifling heat of an equatorial summer was tiring, and often the troops had to cut their way through tall grass or mangrove swamps with their machetes.

By September 14, the lead column had reached a point on the river opposite the town of Dogba, and Dodds called a halt to rest his exhausted men and wait for stragglers to catch up. For four days tranquility reigned in the French encampment, a large square surrounded on three sides by brushwood abatis with the western flank protected by the gunboats Corail and Opale cruising the Ouémé. Dodds and his officers had decided the place was perfectly secure against surprise attack.

On the morning of September 19, the last notes of reveille were floating through the still, inky black air when shots rang out from the surrounding forest. Almost at once, the sentries from a marine outpost came running from the trees toward the picket lines, followed by hundreds of screaming Dahomean warriors commanded by Behanzin's brother, Geo-Beo. The brunt of the Dahomean assault fell on the face of the encampment housing the Legion companies, whose men were up and on the firing line almost immediately, loosing well-aimed volleys into the dense masses of assailants. The abatis slowed the Dahomean advance, while the eccentric shooting habits of the warriors, who preferred to fire from the hip or while kneeling on wooden stools they had brought with them, lessened the effectiveness of their onslaught. Nevertheless, the attack was a near disaster for the French. The least weakening could have resulted in our destruction, wrote one veteran. Three minutes after the assault had been launched, however, we were joined by two other Legion companies, and our Lebel rifles exacted a heavy toll on the shrieking horde surrounding us.

The deadly volleys of the infantry and Opale's Hotchkiss machine gun broke the Dahomean ground attack, but the threat did not end there. Scores of sharpshooters had climbed the palm trees ringing the encampment and were now pouring fire into the French lines. Major Marius Paul Faurax had been up at the first shot and in the thick of the fight. As soon as the enemy wavered, he led a bayonet charge. His men plowed into the Dahomean warriors, pitching them aside like bales of hay. Meanwhile, the Lebels, the Hotchkiss and the artillery continued the work of destruction. By 9 a.m. even the snipers had melted back into the jungle, leaving the French to bury their dead, tend their wounded and take the measure of their adversary.

As the legionnaires regrouped after the morning's fighting, two troubling revelations awaited them. First, Major Faurax was down, seriously wounded with two bullets through the side. When his stretcher was being loaded on the boat that would take him downriver to the hospital at Porto Novo, he asked Dodds how his men had performed. Admirably, Dodds replied. Faurax would die at 4 a.m. the next day after suffering horribly from peritonitis.

The Dahomeans had left nearly 1,000 dead behind them in the clearing, and as the legionnaires approached to examine the bodies, they found that many were women. They were dressed in a blue saronglike garment that left the breasts exposed and wore a red headdress like an Arab fez. The women warriors were formidably armed with Winchester repeaters and double-edged machetes, and were invariably found closest to the French lines. Two of those Amazons, as they were promptly labeled, had been captured with some male prisoners. There was no question of mercy for them, however–the marines had already discovered the corpse of one of their own men who had been dragged into the brush, castrated and disemboweled. The two Amazons were shot along with the men and thrown onto the huge funeral pyre of cadavers, the acrid smoke of which was beginning to waft over the encampment.

The corps of female warriors was, in fact, a nearly 100-year-old tradition in Dahomey. Originally intended to serve as a kind of bodyguard to the sovereign, over time they had become the army's most ferocious fighters, renowned for their marksmanship and feared for their propensity to torture and mutilate anyone who fell into their hands. Once every three years the best families in the kingdom would present their eligible daughters before a sort of royal examination board. The prettiest were chosen for the king's harem, and the most physically fit were placed in the king's bodyguard and trained for war. It was a hard lot, but one eminently preferable to that of most other females in Dahomean society, who were treated as little better than beasts of burden. Materially, the Amazons had the best of what meager advantages Dahomey had to offer, and, though sworn to celibacy, there was always the chance they could be given in marriage to a prominent nobleman as a reward for exceptional bravery. Together with the Royal Guard, the Amazons constituted all the standing army Behanzin had, numbering perhaps 4,500 men and women. But that was only a nucleus around which 10,000 to 12,000 warriors could be gathered for war. And Dodds knew that when he crossed the Ouémé and struck out for Abomey, that host would be waiting on the other side of the river, ready to swallow his tiny expedition whole.

On October 2, under cover of a dense fog, the French expedition was ferried across the Ouémé near the village of Grede. Dodds had continued north from Dogba a little way, then doubled back to confuse the Dahomeans, whose patrols were vigilantly shadowing his march from the west bank and firing on the gunboats. The going was slow and hard. A trail had to be hacked through the forest wide enough to accommodate cannons, and Dodds insisted on trenches and night watches at every halt to prevent another surprise like that at Dogba. But if the troops felt any relief at gaining the other side of the river, it was short-lived.

At dawn on the 4th, Dodds' force was already on the move in two columns, heading north along the west bank toward the town of Paguessa. Gradually, strange sounds became audible from the surrounding tall grass and trees, mixing with the cries of jungle birds and the screeches of monkeys. The porters were nervous, claiming that Behanzin's warriors were closing in, but Dodds would not call a halt, and the long lines pushed on. Just as the sun was climbing above the highest treetops, a troop of spahis sent to scout ahead came galloping back, raising the alarm. At the same time, a fusillade erupted from the side of the trail nearest the left-hand column, killing some of the Hausa riflemen in the van and sending the rest running to the rear. Seconds later, the surrounding forest exploded with shots and screams and the rush of hundreds of bodies through the brush.

Once again the Amazons led the attack. They had been brought to a maddened frenzy by crateloads of English gin–perhaps supplied courtesy of Her Britannic Majesty's government–and were being urged on by groups of witch doctors shaking magic wands and bells. They were supported by snipers in the trees and by some of the Krupp guns as well. The Senegalese and the marines got the worst of the onslaught, fending off swarms of the Amazons, who, even after being bayoneted and disarmed, would often fight back with hands, feet, and in some instances teeth.

After the initial shock, Dodds had been able to form his men into several squares, and their firepower, supported by the 80mm cannons, proved too much for the Dahomeans. Luckily for the French that day, the Krupps were not much help to the natives, as their shells sailed over the battle line into the jungle beyond. When the Dahomeans pulled back, Dodds sent the legionnaires on a flank attack while the gunboats devastated the enemy's reserves. When the warriors retreated to some log breastworks, the French infantry charged in with cold steel to send them fleeing in confusion. The march resumed on the 5th, leaving another funeral pyre in its wake.

The journey that followed was remembered by its veterans as a 60-mile purgatory of killing heat, clouds of mosquitoes, violent storms and sudden death. Dodds had split the command into three columns for the westward movement to Abomey, and though the center column traveled a more or less well-worn trail, the flank columns were forced to hack their way through all the unpleasantness an African rain forest had to offer. Moreover, now that the columns were away from the river, water had become a problem. The men were sometimes reduced to licking stones or their rifle butts before staggering deliriously to a brackish water hole. Behanzin's warriors soon learned this was an excellent opportunity for ambushes–more than once, companies of tirailleurs, legionnaires or marines would have to trade shots with the enemy while their comrades filled water bottles and canteens a few feet away.

By October 14, Dodds' columns had reached the town of Kotopa near the Koto River. On the far side of the river lay the sacred city of Cana, a place that the witch doctors had assured Behanzin would never fall to the white man. After reconnaissance, Dodds had decided that the three lines of Dahomean defenses in front of Kotopa were too strong to be taken by storm. Leaving the artillery to bombard the town, he then took most of his infantry upriver where he thought he might be able to ford the Koto and outflank those positions. His guides did not find a ford, but the Dahomean artillery did find the French column and began lobbing shells across the river. Temporarily stymied by the impassable jungle in front of him, Dodds drew his force back from Kotopa, called a halt and took stock of the situation.

The French expeditionary corps was now down to little more than 1,500 fighting men. Almost all the marines were out of commission from fatigue or wounds, a large number of the porters had melted into the forest, and dysentery and thirst were wearing down many of the infantrymen. Time was needed for rest and to bring up supplies and reinforcements, so Dodds set up a fortified camp a day's march from the Koto, which the legionnaires christened the Camp of Thirst.

Behanzin, not realizing the difference between a tactical withdrawal and a retreat, ordered full-scale attacks against what he assumed was a beaten foe–attacks that turned into the same type of systematic slaughter that had occurred at Dogba and Grede. His warriors now had a graphic description for these strange adversaries who fought in square formations. They are like a great and evil bird, they said, who defends itself with its beak in front, with its wings to the sides, and with its claws behind.

At that point, Behanzin began to have second thoughts concerning his 100-year war. It might be preferable, he reasoned, to reach some understanding with the French as Tofa had done, rather than see half of his subjects blown to bits by artillery. The French were not his only problem–a smallpox epidemic raged, and in the countryside the slaves were in revolt on the palm oil plantations. The king sent emissaries to Dodds asking for terms. But it was too late for that–Dodds replied that he would set down terms when he entered Abomey and only then. Besides, the powerful witch doctors and the British and German advisers would not hear of negotiations. The French would not get beyond Cana, they told Behanzin.

On the 24th, Dodds' reinforcements arrived, three companies of tirailleurs, along with food and ammunition. Two days later, the French took the offensive, overrunning a line of Dahomean trenches outside the Camp of Thirst. On November 2, after crossing the Koto and leaving Kotopa a burning ruin behind him, Dodds reported: Kana, the sacred city, is only a few kilometers away from us; a mere fifteen kilometers beyond is Abomey. Behanzin will try to stop us before Kana; our entry into this town, our presence in the neighborhood of Abomey will compromise his prestige irreparably and destroy his power.

The assault on Cana began with a French artillery barrage at 11 in the morning on November 6. The city's walls, tall and thick, were reinforced by six strong bastions. The outer defenses, laid out by Behanzin's European advisers, were formidable, and for once the Krupp guns, served by German crews, delivered accurate fire. Nevertheless, by early afternoon a breach had been blown in one of the walls, and at 3 o'clock the legionnaires and tirailleurs stormed through the opening against fanatical resistance. The street fighting went on until dark and left more than 200 casualties among the French, but the next day, the tricolor floated over the sacred city.

During the following week, Behanzin and Dodds engaged in more diplomatic jousting while the legionnaires turned tourist, roaming through the grotesque and frightening temples dedicated to Cana's pagan gods, filled with nightmarish wooden idols and piles of human bones. Finally, negotiations broke off, and on November 15, Dodds, now a général de brigade, marched out of Cana at the head of 1,500 men for the last stage of the campaign.

What transpired was anticlimatic. The next day, as the column crossed the plateau on which Abomey was located, all eyes were attracted to patches of smoke and flame on the horizon, signaling Behanzin's abandonment of his capital and his attempt to burn it to the ground rather than leave it to the French.

That afternoon, Dodds' infantry moved past the smoldering outskirts into the still-intact royal compound, rising above the lower terraces of the residential section. The massive walls of the palace were surmounted by rows of skulls, and beyond that was another compound, this one with walls whose only apertures were large holes through which, on feast days, human sacrifices had been slipped to waiting crowds of bloodthirsty witch doctors and Amazons. But the legionnaires' disgust at the evidence of such savagery was probably mitigated later when they broke into the cellars of the departed King Bec-en-Zinc (a slang term for someone who is reticent about providing information), as they now called him, and discovered to their delight some excellent vintages of Bordeaux and champagne. Needless to say, these spoils of war were consumed on the spot. A final touch of irony was supplied by a tirailleur who presented an astonished group of French officers an oversized parasol he had found, decorated with human jawbones!

And so the French had taken Dahomey, and one more section of the African map had a neat little tricolor pin in it. The unfortunate Behanzin, with no more than a handful of followers, played hide-and-seek with Dodds for a few years before surrendering in 1897. He then went into exile, living on a French pension, and died in Martinique in 1906. Dodds continued his career in the marines and lived until 1922.

Today, Dahomey is the state of Benin, and the pagan rites and the Amazons have vanished, as have the French. The Foreign Legion, however, survives, and the Dahomey expedition enjoys a place in France's rich military history.


This article was written by Geoffrey Skelton and originally appeared in the December 1998 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!

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