Urbanism on West Africa’s Slave Coast
Archaeology sheds new light on cities in the era of the Atlantic slave trade
Kingdom from the North
Whereas the expansion of Atlantic commerce in the 17th century introduced new political opportunities for Allada and Hueda, competition for Atlantic wealth in the early 18th century led to collapse. The kingdom of Dahomey, a northern client of Allada and a supplier of human captives through its own military campaigns, upset this regional system. Following nearly a century of Dahomean expansion and consolidation across the Abomey Plateau, Dahomey rebelled from Allada in 1716. Its soldiers marched south and conquered Allada in 1724 and Hueda in 1727, laying waste to both capitals and razing much of their respective countrysides. Free from Allada, Dahomey took control over the primary trade route to the coast and emerged as an exemplar of the West African centralized state in the Atlantic Era. Throughout this period, Dahomean monarchs waged relentless campaigns to define the terms of the slave trade, often facing serious opposition from coastal merchants and elites. Whereas Allada and Hueda disintegrated under similar pressures, over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, successive Dahomean kings solidified control, despite multiple contests for power, constant threats from the neighboring Oyo Empire in Nigeria and the turbulent dynamics of trans-Atlantic commerce.
Strategies employed by Dahomean kings to maintain and extend political order until the French conquest in 1894 have been the source of much historical research. Studies have highlighted the expanding role of military and bureaucratic institutions in Dahomey, as well as the intensification of ritual practices involving the public display and distribution of wealth acquired in Atlantic commerce. Importantly, the structure of urban life was altered dramatically by Dahomean expansion. Savi and Allada were largely depopulated following Dahomey’s conquests, and the port town of Whydah expanded dramatically. It became the primary port of trade in the region, reaching a population of 30,000 people by the mid-19th century. Archaeological research on the Abomey plateau, Dahomey’s political heartland, is revealing that Dahomean cities in the 18th century emerged as centers for a variety of ritual, economic and political strategies designed to integrate rural communities in decidedly new ways.
Although the nature of pre-Dahomean settlement on the plateau is poorly understood, it is clear that by the 18th century two Dahomean cities rose to dominance across the region: Abomey and Cana. Abomey, an expansive community settled around a marketplace and a series of royal palace compounds, emerged as greater Dahomey’s political capital and home to as many as 30,000 in the 18th century. Nearby Cana also became a significant center on the plateau in this period. It was a major node in regional administration and interregional trade routes, with significant regional markets and as many as 15,000 inhabitants in the 18th century. Historical population estimates suggest 21 to 33 percent of the plateau’s population lived at Abomey and Cana, with the remainder in smaller towns and villages ranging in size from a dozen or so families to no more than 1,000 inhabitants. Like Grand Ardra and Savi to the south, these Dahomean cities sat atop a hierarchy of settlements on the Abomey plateau.
Archaeological studies on communities containing the remaining 67 to 79 percent of the population on the plateau are only beginning. However, insights on regional settlement practices have been revealed by the Projet Benino- Danois d’Archéologie (BDArch), an international team of archaeologists led by Klavs Randsborg of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and Alexis B. A. Adandé. BDArch has identified subterranean structures across the Abomey Plateau and immediately adjacent areas. Carved out of solid lateritic rock with locally available iron tools, the structures typically have cylindrical entryways, which often lead to multiple interconnected chambers. BDArch has dated these features to the late 17th to early 19th centuries, corresponding to the era of the slave trade and the rise of Dahomey. Although their function remains unclear, the structures very likely served both as wells for water storage and as refuges for families during slave raids against Dahomey. They provide a valuable perspective on the regional extent of settlement in this period.
Archaeological research conducted by the University of California’s Abomey Plateau Archaeological Project, which I have directed since 2000, is shedding light on urban-rural dynamics in Dahomey by focusing on royal palace sites. As was the case in Hueda, royal palaces defined the urban landscapes of cities on the Abomey Plateau, standing as material statements of royal power and authority. At a primary level, these structures housed the king and his dependents, who may have numbered up to 8,000 in Abomey alone. Palace sites played a major role in royal ceremonies called the Xwetanu [Way-ta-nu, in the local Fongbe language], or Annual Customs. The Xwetanu involved the annual veneration of the royal ancestor cult, requiring the sacrifice of hundreds of human captives and the ceremonial distribution of wealth, much of which was acquired through Atlantic trade.
Archaeological research I have conducted within a number of these sites has highlighted the importance of European trade goods for reinforcing elite power in Dahomey. The discovery of large quantities of trade goods such as ceramic tableware, bottles of alcohol and tobacco pipes within palace compounds at Cana confirms that, as was true in Hueda, imported commodities played an important role in symbolically underwriting the Dahomean elite’s claims to power. Survey and test excavations recently conducted at rural sites in Cana’s hinterland, however, are not finding such imported material in similar quantities. This pattern indicates that like Hueda, the circulation of Atlantic wealth in Dahomey was largely restricted to the royal-palace sphere. In these respects, archaeological evidence for Huedan and Dahomean urban-rural dynamics are quite similar.
However, lesser-known palace structures distributed across the plateau tell a different story. Historical accounts suggest that such complexes were devoted to manufacturing or agricultural pursuits. They also served as waypoints along trade routes and housed soldiers. Rural palaces thus served as critical nodes in the elites’ strategies to establish political order across Dahomean territories. Since 2000, the Abomey Plateau Archaeological Project has identified and examined 19 previously undocumented palace structures on or immediately around the Abomey Plateau, in addition to the nine previously known from Abomey itself. Fragments of European imported goods, accounts obtained recently and in the past from local people and contemporary observations have all been used to date each of these structures to within a century at minimum, and often to within the reign of a Dahomean king. In all, these palace sites date from between the 17th and 19th centuries, identifying palace building as a decidedly Atlantic- Era phenomenon associated with the rise of Dahomey.
The regional distribution of such sites reveals that a different urban-rural framework developed over time in Dahomey. As was the case in Hueda, 17th-century palace construction in Dahomey was limited to the capital, Abomey, which served in this period as the central node in its sphere of regional influence. Provincial elites were thus left largely to their own devices and were tenuously integrated into Abomey’s political orbit. Soon after it conquered its southern neighbors, however, Dahomey vigorously built palaces in towns and cities along the major highways that the kingdom used to deliver human captives to the Atlantic coast. This distribution suggests that Dahomey waged a relentless campaign to project its authority beyond the capital in ways that were decidedly different from those adopted by Hueda in the 17th century. Dahomey’s success at securing control of important nodes in interregional trade allowed it to centralize the export of human captives, and thus control access to the exotic cloth, ceramics and other desired products received in return.
Later, in the 19th century, palace construction expanded elite influence substantially, this time deeper into Abomey and Cana’s rural hinterlands. The largest palace complexes were built at Abomey and Cana, and smaller satellite facilities were constructed at various points in the rural areas. These patterns suggest that Abomey and Cana served as administrative centers from which royal power was evenly distributed across the regional landscape in this period. Just as the southward expansion of Dahomean palace construction in the 18th century can be explained in terms of royal attempts to link urban centers in a chain of control from the capital to the coast, the 19th-century pattern can be explained in terms of international forces that engulfed the region.