Black History Month 2020: The King’s Dagger

October is Black History Month in the UK, an event that has been celebrated nationwide for over 30 years. Originally founded to recognise the contributions that people of African and Caribbean backgrounds have made to the UK, it has expanded to include the history of black people in general.

Those of you have visited our World Stories gallery will already know that we have collections from all over the world. Over the month of October, we’re going to take a closer look at some of the objects with hidden black histories that aren’t told within the confines of our gallery.

On display in our World Stories gallery we have a section devoted to West Africa which includes a cushion cover and – tucked away at the side –  a dagger from the West African Kingdom of Dahomey (now part of the Republic of Benin). While we know little about the cushion cover – except to say that it was obviously produced for someone of high status – the dagger dates from the early to min 19th century and is accompanied by an intriguing note in our register that claims it belonged to the “King of Dahomey”.

The King of Dahomey’s Dagger

While we have no evidence to prove whether the weapon was, in fact, ever in the possession of a West African monarch in this blog we’ll be asking who was the King of Dahomey, and why might his dagger have ended up in Warrington Museum?

The Kingdom of Dahomey

Situated on the Abomey Plateau in West Africa, the Kingdom of Dahomey was formed by settlers from a mixture of various groups that lived in the region. These groups gathered together to form a kingdom in the early 17th century and spent the next 100 years securing and expanding their new kingdom’s borders.

In the 1720s Dahomey became one of the major power in West Africa when it conquered the neighboring coastal kingdoms of Allada and Whyda. Whoever controlled these key coastal cities controlled a significant part of the lucrative Transatlantic Slave Trade with Europe and it has been estimated that around 20% of the slaves traded to Britain, Portugal and the Netherlands passed through the ports of Allada and Whyda. The capture and export of slaves to Europe became an important part of the economy of Dahomey and much of the profits went to the ruler.

King Ghezo of Dahomey (1818-1858)

This brings us to one of the possible owners of the dagger. In 1818 King Adandozan of Dahomey was deposed by his younger brother Ghezo, who ruled Dahomey for the next 40 years. Ghezo’s rise to power was supported by a prominent Brazilian slave trader called Francisco Félix de Sousa who Ghezo subsequently appointed ‘chacha’, or viceroy of trade.

King Ghezo depicted in an 1851 publication {{PD-US}}

The new king was a patron of the arts who ennobled many artisans and artists and it is therefore likely that the elaborate cushion cover on display in the museum was produced during his reign or shortly afterwards. His rule was also defined by a number of successful military campaigns, thanks in part to the expanding role of the all-female ‘Mino’ regiment.  Known as the ‘Dahomey Amazons’ to European writers these warriors were trained in battle from a young age and wielded political as well as military power in the kingdom. The Mino are one of the influences behind the the fictional Dora Milaje, the all-female military group that appears in the Black Panther comic books and film adaptations.

Group portrait of the Mino,  (Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures CC BY-SA 3.0)

Unfortunately King Ghezo’s reign was also beset with a number of domestic problems – many of them resulting from shifting attitudes towards slavery both in West Africa and Europe. Britain, which had previously been one of the most active slave trading nations in Europe, began to take an active role in abolishing the slave trade in the 1830s and sent emissaries to King Ghezo to try to persuade him to end Dahomey’s role in the trade. Ghezo refused, but as a compromise expanded Dahomey’s role in another important transatlantic trade – the trade in palm oil.

The kingdom of Dahomey continued to take an active role in the slave trade, even waging war against the nearby city of Abeokuta which opposed slavery and was known as a safe haven for people fleeing the Dahomey slave traders. Two political factions slowly emerged in Dahomey, later known as the ‘Elephant’ and the ‘Fly’. The Elephant faction, centred on the king and his principal advisors including Souza and other slave traders, wanted Dahomey to continue to participate in the slave trade. The Fly faction on the other hand was a loose alliance of chieftains and palm oil producers, supported by many women from the ‘Mino’, who wanted Dahomey to turn away from the slave trade to concentrate on the trade in palm oil.

Flag of King Ghezo of Dahomey by Di (they-them) (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The situation came to a head in 1851 when the British blockaded the Dahomey ports to force them to end the slave trade. Ghezo eventually accepted a treaty with Britain ending the export of slaves in 1852 but this lasted less than 5 years and under pressure from his advisors the trade resumed in 1857.

King Ghezo was assassinated a year later in 1858. Some sources claim he died in battle whilst others claim he was poisoned by his priests or even that he died of smallpox. Many sources claim he was killed by a sniper associated with Dahomey’s rival, the city of Abeokuta.

King Glele (1858-1889)

While King Ghezo may have owned the dagger, an alternative candidate for the previous owner of the dagger is King Glele who ruled Dahomey from 1858 to 1889. During his reign the city of Abeokuta won the war with Dahomey and the power of the slave traders was significantly reduced as the trade in palm oil began to dominate Dahomey’s economy. This may even be how the dagger had made its way to Warrington by 1868 as palm oil was already becoming important resource for the town’s industry, not least due to the presence of Joseph Crosfield and Sons who was one of the top five soap producers in the country. Much of the museum’s African collection came to us via connections with the West African palm oil trade and it’s not unreasonable to suppose that this dagger came to Warrington by this route.

1882 advert for Crosfield’s soaps which used palm oil traded through West Africa

Unfortunately we may never know whether the dagger was ever actually the property of King Glele or his father King Ghezo of Dahomey or whether this is simply a grandiose claim by the donor.

As for the Kingdom of Dahomey it’s power diminished over the late 19th century and it eventually became a French colony in 1894 having lost a 2 year war with France. France abolished the Kingdom of Dahomey in 1900, but the royal family and senior administrators continued to have a role in the colony, eventually gaining independence for the region as the Republic of Dahomey in 1960. In 1975 the country was renamed the Republic of Benin.

This new republic actually took it’s name from the Bight of Benin, a bay in the Gulf of Guinea on the West African coast. This has caused some confusion with the Kingdom of Benin, a historic state in that lies many hundreds of miles to the east in Nigeria. It is to this Kingdom of Benin that we will be turning in our next Black History Month 2020 blog post.