Urbanism on West Africa’s Slave Coast
Archaeology sheds new light on cities in the era of the Atlantic slave trade
An Alternative to the Slave Trade
Radical change swept across West Africa during the 19th century. In particular, royal revenue from the slave trade declined dramatically. First Denmark (1803), and then Great Britain (1807), the United States (1808), Holland (1814), France (1818), the Netherlands (1818), Sweden (1824), Spain (1835) and Portugal (1836) abolished the import of human cargo from West Africa. Between 1797 and 1804, European forts at Whydah stood abandoned. In 1807 the British Navy’s West Africa squadron began enforcing a decades-long embargo on slave-trading ships along the coast, supported on occasion by the U.S. Navy. This resulted in a dramatic decline in the volume of human cargo leaving the Slave Coast’s shores. At the same time, European emissaries encouraged West African states such as Dahomey to develop commerce in agricultural products, chiefly palm oil, which was increasingly sought in Europe as a raw material for soap, candles and industrial lubricants.
This change had a profound impact on the ability of states across the region to maintain political order, leading to what Antony Hopkins of the University of Texas called a “crisis of adaptation” in Economic History of West Africa (1973). This crisis was rooted in the ways that trade in palm products had a democratizing effect that undermined elite power. Whereas the economic and political capital required to participate in the slave trade largely restricted this pursuit to the elite class, palm products could be produced at the local level and sold piecemeal, allowing anyone with a pot and a palm tree to become an active participant in Atlantic trade. Small-scale planters and traders in many West African kingdoms were able to accumulate vast quantities of wealth rivaling that of kings—a potentially destabilizing social process.
West African royal dynasties were forced to make new economic choices during this time. Some, such as Dahomey, weathered the transition. As demand for humans as commodities was replaced by the demand for labor to produce commodities in Dahomey, the nature of political and economic organization transformed dramatically. Dahomey continued to wage military campaigns and take captives from neighboring polities, but those captives were put to work in large-scale agricultural production. In addition to increasing the domestic slave population, this economic transition expanded local markets and the relative wealth held by rural communities. The outcome was the overall ruralization of the Dahomean political economy.
The Dahomean government responded with a tax system that targeted agricultural production and regional markets. Officials ran major Dahomey markets and were responsible for collecting duties and maintaining the market infrastructure. In addition to taxes levied on market goods, however, a network of tax-collecting posts, called denun, was created across the kingdom to collect duties from traveling merchants. Frederick Forbes, a British Naval officer who twice visited Dahomey between 1849 and 1850, wrote:
Taxes are heavy to all parties, and farmed to collectors. The holders of the Customs have collectors stationed at all markets, who receive cowries in number according to the value of the goods carried for sale. Besides these, there are collectors on all public roads leading from one district to another, and on the lagoon on each side of Whydah; in short, every thing is taxed, and the tax goes to the king.
Dahomean royal complexes built in this period can be viewed as central nodes in a tightly integrated urban-rural landscape, serving as staging centers for taxes collected by rural officials from merchants at local markets and along major trade routes. Complexes located at greater distance from Abomey received taxes on locally traded goods such as pottery, cloth, animals and, indeed, palm oil. These taxes, which might be in kind or in currency, were then transported on to Abomey.