Tag Archives: Africa

The Annual Customs of Dahomey

In the kingdom of Dahomey, a Fon empire in West Africa, there was a yearly celebration called the “Annual Customs”. Here’s a report from the time:

The military operations of the French against Dahomey have caused public attention to be directed more than ever before to this little-known country, whose name for many years has been a synonym for savage cruelty, for of all the tales of barbarity which Africa has given to the world, and they are innumerable, no one has ever exceeded the story of Dahomey. The atrocities which are an every-day sight in this out-of-the-way corner of the Dark Continent are all the more terrible in that they are perpetrated in the name of religion, and every massacre, however hideous, is really a sacrifice.

The religion of the Dahomans is a form of nature worship. They believe in one great supreme being, whom they consider too far removed from earth to concern himself in the least about human affairs, but who delegates his power to a host of inferior deities, who have their homes in the fields, the forests, the springs; who preside over the crops, the rains, and the sunshine. To these sacrifices are annually made with great pomp and ceremony of things as precious as the worshipers can procure. Nothing is more precious than human life, and the King, who rules Dahomey like a demi-god, being regarded as such by his people, makes every year such sacrifices as he deems becoming to the dignity of a monarch who terms himself the brother of the stars. These annual sacrifices are called the “customs,” and every year from sixty to one hundred victims are put to death, partly in honor of the gods and partly to carry news to the dead.

The Dahomans believe in the immortality of the soul, and also that every soul enters the other world in precisely the same condition in which it leaves this; that a king is forever a king; that a slave can never hope for freedom. Every year, when the season for the “customs” approaches, a certain number of persons, sometimes the King’s own subjects, sometimes captives taken in war, are selected for the sacrifice. The native Dahomans are alone intrusted with the duty of bearing the King’s messages to the dead, and each, in turn, is brought to the King on the great day of the festival. The supreme ruler of Dahomey whispers into the ear of the doomed man the message he is to convey to the other world, and he is immediately decapitated. In Dahomey no sanctity is attached to human remains. The bodies of the victims are dragged to the suburbs of Abomey, the Capital, where clouds of hungry vultures wait for the coming feast, and in a few hours nothing is left of the unhappy victim but the bones. Nor are these interred, and hundreds of acres of ground in the vicinity of the Capital are strewed with the whitened relics of mortality. The skulls alone are preserved; carefully cleaned, they become trophies, and are seen everywhere in the vicinity of the Capital, on door posts, on poles, on the cornices of the houses, while the walls of the temple are almost entirely composed of these ghastly reminders.

If you didn’t read that: every year, in the central holiday of the society, the King of Dahomey sacrificed dozens of slaves.

This account is from 1893, so it can’t mention the other part of the rite; it had already died out by then. In earlier years, however, the king sold some of the still-living slaves to European traders. In 1893, of course, slavery was banned in almost all Western-held land.

The account concludes:

The French war in Dahomey is a part of a long conceived plan to build up in the western part of Africa a French coloinial empire of grand dimensions. Already in possession of Algiers and Tunis, the French aspire to the control of the Western Sahara, the Valley of the Niger, and a large part of the Guinea coast. The Sahara is by no means the desolate sandy desert that has been depicted in schoolbooks, but abounds in oases which are capable of supporting a large population. Experience has shown that in many places water may be obtained by sinking artesian wells, and this being the case, the desert may yet blossom like the rose. A railroad has already been projected to connect the Algerian possessions of France with the coast of Guinea, but complete subjection of the hostile tribes of coast and interior is a necessity before such a line can be built, to say nothing of its maintenance. Tho French military operations against Dahomey are therefore in line with the French progress southward through the Sahara; Dahomey must be conquered before the French African empire can exist. Many months ago the war was begun by French aggression from the French colonies in Guinea, and has beengoing on with varying success ever since.

The Amazons fight well, and the character of the country through which the French have been forced to make their way renders progress very slow. Having passed the coast, they are now penetrating the forests and mountains a few miles inland, but the Amazons are skillful in bush fighting and the French are placed at no small disadvantage, having repeatedly fallen into ambuscades. Of their ultimate success but little doubt can be entertained, for their superiority of weapons and their military training gives them an advantage that the untrained courage, even of the Dahoman Amazons, cannot overcome, and their conquest of the county will remove one of the most appalling blots on the face of the earth. Civilized races are not commonly gentle in their dealings with savages, and the stories from time to time made public of French cruelty to their prisoners may be all true; but even when all this is taken into the account, the establishment of a responsible government in Dahomey and the abolition of the horrid sacrifices will rid Africa of one of its most terrible curses, the wanton destruction of life.

One year later, the French won their war, and Dahomey was made a French protectorate. Ten years after that, French Dahomey was incorporated into the empire. It became independent in 1960, and, like most postcolonial countries, became the site of a proxy war between the world powers: there were a number of coups d’état, ending in the establishment in 1975 of a Soviet-aligned Marxist-Leninist state, the People’s Republic of Benin. The leader of the coup, Mathieu Kérékou, is an interesting character: he allegedly admitted the failure of Marxism in 1989, instituted democracy, and stepped down, only to be re-elected in 1996.

But there’s something else to note here: there is no more human sacrifice in Benin.

The University of Massachusetts

It was Banda himself who chose the name “Malawi” for the former Nyasaland; he had seen it on an old French map as the name of a “Lake Maravi” in the land of the Bororos, and liked the sound and appearance of the word as “Malawi”. On 6 July 1964, exactly six years after Banda’s return to the country, Nyasaland became the independent Commonwealth of Malawi.

Barely a month after independence, Malawi suffered the Cabinet Crisis of 1964. Banda had already been accused of autocratic tendencies. Several of Banda’s ministers presented him with proposals designed to limit his powers. Banda responded by dismissing four of the ministers. Other ministers resigned in sympathy. The dissidents fled the country.

Malawi adopted a new constitution on 6 July 1966, in which the country was declared a republic. Banda was elected the country’s first president for a five-year term; he was the only candidate. The new document granted Banda wide executive and legislative powers, and also formally made the MCP the only legal party. However, the country had already been a de facto one-party state since independence. In 1970, a congress of the MCP declared Banda its president for life. In 1971, the legislature declared Banda President for Life of Malawi as well.His official title was “His Excellency the Life President of the Republic of Malaŵi, Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda.” The title Ngwazi means “chief of chiefs” (more literally, “great lion”, or, some would say, “conqueror”) in Chicheŵa.

Banda was mostly viewed externally as a benign, albeit eccentric, leader, an image fostered by his English-style three-piece suits, matching handkerchiefs, walking stick and fly-whisk. He also spoke no Chichewa, and relied on a translator, John Msonthi. In June 1967, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Massachusetts with the encomium ” … pediatrician to his infant nation”.

Within Malawi, views on him ranged from cult-like devotion to fear. He portrayed himself as a caring headmaster to his people. However, this was a mask for a government that was rigidly authoritarian even by African standards of the time. Banda himself bluntly summed up his approach to ruling the country by saying, “Everything is my business. Everything. Anything I say is law…literally law.”

Although the constitution guaranteed civil rights and liberties, they meant almost nothing in practice, and Malawi was essentially a police state. Mail was opened and often edited. Telephones were tapped, and calls were known to be cut off if anyone said a critical word about the government. Overt opposition was not tolerated. Banda actively encouraged the people to report those who criticized him, even if they were relatives. Opponents were often arrested, exiled (like Kanyama Chiume) or died suspiciously (like Dick Matenje or Dr. Attati Mpakati).