AFRICAN POET-KING WHO DEFEATED FRANCE FROM HIS THRONE OF GOLD (1841-1906) Behanzin was the most powerful ruler in West Africa during the end of the nineteenth century. He strongly resisted European intervention into his country. This was done with a physically fit army which included a division of five thousands female warriors. He is often referred to as the King Shark, a Dahomeyan surname which symbolized strength and wisdom. He was also fond of humanities and is credited with the creation of some of the finest song and poetry ever produced in Dahomey.
Whatever the cause, war began when Behanzin declared the treaty he had made with France null and void. This treaty was an outgrowth of one that had been made in 1868 by his father, GliGli, who had ceded Cotonou to France. By virtue of a subsequent agreement made in 1890, France had agreed to pay 20,000 francs in gold annually for the use of this port.
Behanzin, it is charged, deliberately turned his back on attempts at amicable settlement. When the French envoys arrived at his palace of Dioxene with presents from M. Eitenne, secretary of colonies, it is reported he brushed the presents aside, saying contemptuously, "We have cases full of that in Dahomey." When told of the workings of the system of government in France, it is said that he took his pipe from his mouth and laughed loud and long, saying that he much preferred his own, which was quicker and more original. " Dahomey," he asserted, "has never ceded Cotonou to France, and if the French do not get out at once, I will drive them out myself." War began. In the first few engagements Behanzin was victorious. France, realizing that she had a difficult enemy to cope with, selected her best colonial fighter, Colonel A. A. Dodds, a Senegalese mulatto, and sent him against Behanzin. Behanzin defied Dodds. To a letter demanding submission, he replied:
Fxance wishes war. Let her know that I am stronger and more determined than my father. I have never done anything to France that should make war on me. I have never gone to France either to the wives or daughters of the French. If they wish to take them I will cut down all the palm trees. I will poison them. If they not what to eat, let them go elsewhere. Every other nation, English, Portuguese, can come into my kingdom. But the I will drive them away. I am the friend of the whites; ready to receive them when they wish to come to see me, but prompt to make war whenever they wish.
Behanzin and his warriors fought bravely, but they proved no match for the well-armed forces of the French, except in hand-tohand combat. At Atchoupa, during a fierce storm, a force estimated at 7000 warriors and 200 amazons hurled itself at the French. The women fought with supreme courage, preferring death to retreat. Clinging to the legs of the French troops, they brought them to earth and poignarded them.
Describing the battle, an eyewitness said:The Dahomeyans showed a tenacity and bravery unheard of. But their dash was broken by the discipline and the marksmanship of the Senegalese sharpshooters. The entrance to the fort bore witness of the rage with which the Dahomeyans fought.... It was heaped with the corpses of men and women warriors.
At Djebe and Kana the amazons charged the machine guns, falling dead at the very feet of the French gunners. A few days later Dodds captured Dioxene, Behanzin's largest palace.
Behanzin now sought peace, the more so as two of his neighbors, the Egbas and the Gesus, had joined the French. He sent three envoys to Colonel Dodds, offering an indemnity of $5,000,000 and free trade at the port of Cotonou. As a peace token, he sent cattle, gold, and two silver hands of superb Dahomeyan work, asking Dodds to take one of the hands and cross it with his own in a sign of friendship. Dodds, in return, sent biscuits and conserves, saying that he was willing to make peace on condition that Behanzin permit him to hoist the French flag at Abomey, his capital. Behanzin promptly refused. After a stiff battle, the French captured Abomey, or rather its ruins. Behanzin had fired the town destroying his palace with all its wonderful art treasures. His throne of beaten gold was undamaged, however. Later was presented to King Toffa, in recognition of his loyalty. With Behanzin in flight, Dodds namod Behanzin's brother, A Agbo, king and told the Dahomeyans that henceforth they under the protection of France.
Soon afterward Dodds sailed for France. But hardly had he arrived when Behanzin was again on the warpath. Returning, he defeated Behanzin. On January 24, 1894' with the last remnants of his army gone, Behanzin walked coolly into the French camp, his long pipe in his mouth, and gave himself up. He was given a glass of rum--"which he drank as an ordinary mortal would"--was bustled off to the coast, and thence to France. Later he was exiled to Martinique. For many years he vainly sought permission to return to his native land. Finally he was permitted to live in Algeria. He passed away at Bleda in 1906' at the age of sixty-five. In 1928 his son, Prince Ouanilo Behanzin, removed his body to Dahomey, the prince himself dying on the return trip to France.