Sunday, June 24, 2012

Gelele, King of Dahomey - Amazon’s



Gelele, King of the Amazons
Captain Richard P. Burton, who is determined to see as much of Africa as is possible to an enterprising traveler, visited Abo­mey, the famous capital of Gelele, King of Da­homey, during the spring of the present year, 1864. He saw the Amazons; he saw the blood of the sacrifices, and stumbled over the skulls of the slain; he talked with the King; he was witness to the horrors and the meanness, the puerility and ferocity, the brutality and the po­liteness, as he says, of this African Emperor.

He was honored with the commission of Am­bassador from the British Government to this mighty potentate, and carried with him, as presents, "one forty-feet circular crimson silk dam­ask tent, with pole complete," which the mighty Gelele turned up his snub nose at; "one richly-embossed silver pipe, with amber mouth-piece," which the King could not smoke out of;" two richly-embossed silver belts, with lion and crane raised in relief, in morocco cases; two silver and partly-gilt waiters, in oak case," of which the Abomeyans had but a poor opinion;" one coat of mail and gauntlets," of the wrong size and too heavy.


Whydah, which is the sea-port of Abomey, is a notorious resort of slave-traders. Here lived. some years ago, the ingenuous Captain Canot's, friend, Mr. Martinez, who enjoyed the rank and power of a Caboceer of Dahomey, and was entitled to the marks of honor of an umbrella, a chair, and perhaps also a knife and fork. Un­fortunately for his descendants, of whom there are a considerable number, the mighty Gelele is heir to all property of his subjects, who die; and when Mr. Martinez died the Viceroy of Whydah locked up his house, took possession of his goods, and turned his children into the street. Here also lived another of Captain Canots slave - trading friends, Mr. Francesco Felis da Souza, who was more than a Caboceer, for he was a Chacha, which is as much as to say the Collector of Customs of Whydah, and died, worthy man, leaving behind him a hun­dred children.

This Da Souza family, says Captain Burton, is charged with exercising a pernicious influence over the minds of the King and people of Dahomey. It is still numerous. Our traveler gives the names of thirteen sons and four daughters who are distinguished in different ways; and besides the children, there are about a hundred grandchildren. The "patriarchal institution" appears to have flourished in this part of Africa. The daughters are too high to marry - they do worse.

Whydah appears to be an abominable, hot, and uncomfortable hole; but it serves the pur­pose of introducing the traveler gently to the manners and customs of Dahomey. For in­stance, Captain Burton got out of his hammock, on the road to the town, in the hot sun, to pay his respects to a Fetich man who sat under a ragged white umbrella, and received the white man's bow with dignity. Thereupon the two snapped fingers, which is as much as though a Yankee and an Englishman should shake hands; and when this was done, the Fetich man's two wives handed around water in small wine-glasses.

Victims of King Gelele
Water is, we learn, the greatest luxury in Dahomey. It is very scarce and, in general, only worse than the rum which the people who can afford it substitute in its place. To drink water together is therefore a ceremony, and not less than three toasts or sentiments are passed while the dignitaries, standing up, consume the glass which neither cheers nor inebriates, but only disgusts. You bow, you touch glasses, and you exclaim, "Sai diyye" - "This is water" - half of it being mud. Your compotator bows, and responds, "Sai ko" - " May the water cool your throat" - it is more likely to choke you. After some more sentiments a bottle of rum is intro­duced, "to kill the animalculae," as our soldiers in the South would say. Fortunately the chief of an embassy from a nation in good standing at the court of Dahomey is not re­quired to drink all the rum that is offered him; he may without breach of manners pour it down the throat of his favorite Kruman, who opens his mouth readily for that purpose, and lets you toss the glassful down at a single gulp. Some of the waggish kings, Captain Burton tells us, have made their servants lie flat on the ground, and swallow, in that position, a bottle of rum at a draught.

In Dahomey the mark of a colonel is a white umbrella, a somewhat inconvenient appendage in battle one would think. The higher civil and military dignitaries are permitted to wear or carry several umbrellas. When you are in­troduced to a stranger he snaps his fingers at you, which is not a mark of contempt, but a friendly salutation, equivalent to shaking hands, and much better in a hot climate, says Burton. When a company of soldiers "present arms" in honor of some passing dignitary, such as an English ambassador, they rush frantically at the object of their salute," bending low, and simulating attack ;" then the corporals advance and snap their fingers at the great man; and, finally, forming in close column, the company marches and counter-marches three times past him; halts in front of him; and finishes the ceremony with a "hideous outcry," "captain and men, with outstretched right arms, raising their sticks, bill-hooks, or muskets, to an an­gle of forty-five degrees, the muzzles in the air, like a band of conspirators on the English stage."

As for the dances, of which these people are extravagantly fond, in them they go through a whole military campaign, and describe, in a somewhat lively pantomime, the decapitation of an enemy, and many other scenes pleasant to the warrior's memory. The dance, says our traveler, is "a tremendous display of agility." He thinks, indeed, that the pantomime is more troublesome than the actual fight. "One month of such performance would make a European look forward to a campaign as to a time of rest.” It is a little odd that the dancers blacken their black faces with gunpowder, like an American "Ethiopian minstrel." The dance is enlivened by the firing of muskets, and concludes with a general drinking match. Indeed, most ceremonies and events, of whatever description, in Da­homey, are finished with a bottle of rum.

In Dahomey there are no proper names, but an infinity of titles, and every rise in rank con­fers a new name. The name of the present King, Emperor, Sultan, Tycoon, or whatever the quality of the ruler of the Amazons may be, is somewhat long. It is a mere string of titles, beginning with "Gelele via Nyonzi," which signifies "Bigness with no way of lifting;" then follow the strong names, among which are: "a Rock, the finger-nail cannot scratch it;" "Lion of Lions;" "Shadow which is never lost in Wa­ter;" and, finally, "An Animal which has cut its Teeth."

The spy system for which the Japanese are notorious exists also in Dahomey. Every offi­cer has his double; and this is carried so far that if a captain is sent to prison he must be accompanied by his legede, who is answerable that the sentence is strictly carried out, and withholds from the unfortunate prisoner the food surrepti­tiously sent by his wives. But besides this there is a singular custom which prevents the imme­diate displacement of an officer by the King, who sends, however, a new man, his intended successor, to help the old officer, and to step gradually into his shoes.

They have policemen and custom-house offi­cers in Dahomey. The latter appropriate to themselves a good share of the duties ; the former discourage crimes against the person, mur­der being a royal prerogative; but they are not able to prevent theft, which is the common vice of all Gelele's subjects.

Christianity is a recognized religion. The King not unfrequently sends down to Whydah to ask the prayers of the white men; and on St. John's Day he transmits by his Viceroy a pot of oil and a bottle of rum as his acknowledgment of the faith. This, however, does not prevent him from murdering a Christian if the humor takes him; nor does it confer any privileges upon the missionaries. The native religion is chiefly fetich-worship. There is an idol called Legba, who is adored, as are also, in a less de­gree, turkey-buzzards, the boa constrictor, and soma other creatures. They also pray to the dead; at least they appear to have the belief that when a man is sick and dying it is because his friends in the spirit land want him; and they sometimes remonstrate with these unrea­sonable spirits, and offer them, by way of ran­som for the sick man's life, certain articles of food, which are placed upon the graves of those addressed. The Danhgbwe, a small python, is sacred; it has its temples, where dozens of these disgusting animals are fed and nursed into harm­lessness. To kill one is sure to get the killer into trouble. A native who accidentally slays such a snake is placed under a hut of dry thatch, greased with palm-oil, which is then set on fire, when he must run to the nearest water, and is all the way mercilessly belabored with sticks.

You travel in Dahomey in a hammock, a not unpleasant conveyance, if the pole does not break and let the traveler suddenly down upon his head. A large company of attendants - cooks, bearers, officers, and officers' slaves, fol­low and precede the chief personage; and among these a king's messenger, bearing the king's stick as, his warrant, and a cowhide-whip as his weapon, sedulously maintains order. At every village Mr. Burton was received with a proces­sion, and in great form. This caused delay, for which the Dahomeyans do not care, there being neither railroad nor telegraph in their country. Also it caused bottles of rum to be produced by the traveler, for which they do care. On entering the village the caravan begins to shout, dance, and fire guns; the caboceer, drawn up at the roadside, sits upon a high stool, with his feet upon one lower, under a ragged white um­brella. He is commonly dressed in a waist clout, a few beads, and a human tooth or two. The British ambassador and his companion were obliged to halt before this dignitary, and pass the proper diplomatic compliments of the (lay. Water is thereupon produced by the cab­oceer's wife and fruit and filed in very moderate quantities given, for which the British embassy returned rum.

To the rum succeeded a grand dance, with a full band of cymbals, horns, rattles, and drums, to make music. Then there is singing, speech­making, long professions of devotion to the mighty Gelele, and to all his friends - a hint for more rum - then more dancing.

Every village possesses a custom-house, and Dahomeyans pay duties on everything they bring to market. The market-master, or receiver of duties, has one singular perquisite; every cock which crows in the open street he confiscates. The result is that the "bird of morn" appears in public in Dahomey invariably gagged, by means of a thong passed between the mandibles and tied behind the head. Every road is a turnpike, on which all travelers must pay toll in cowries.

The road from Whydah to Abomey showed Captain Burton a country thinly settled, falling into ruin, with more men than women or children, and with a population wretchedly poor. The reason for this is the singular tyranny of the King, who absolutely forbids his subjects to own anything. They must bot raise coffee, or sugar-cane or rice, or tobacco; they can only raise ground-nuts enough for home consumption, none for exportation. A laborer must not alter his house, or wear European shoes, or em­ploy a spittoon-holder, or carry an umbrella without special royal permission; he must not spread a counterpane over his bed, a privilege which is reserved for the princes; he must not use a chair at home; and if he chances to sit at table with a white man he dares not use a knife and fork. Only men of high influence at Ag­bome are permitted to whitewash their houses, and wooden doors are prohibited to all but the "upper ten." Near the capital, and wherever the King happens to sojourn, an absurd custom rigorously enforced actually puts a stop to all industry during half the hours of the day. Wa­ter is scarce, as we have already said. The King's wives and Amazon guards require a good deal of it, and their slaves have to carry it, gen­erally from a distance and over public and much frequented roads. Now wherever these wo­men appear, all the people at work or passing on the road must nimbly skip into the woods at one side so far as to be out of sight. To be seen by or to look at these women of the pal­ace would provoke punishment. When Captain Burton contented himself with getting out of the way an old crone cried out, "He is a white man, and knows no better" - there being, it would seem, a prejudice of color in Dahomey as well as in other countries; and another asked, "Has he, then, no laws in his own land?"

After some days' travel Burton and his party reached Kana, a country residence of Gelele, and here, after sundry delays, and with much ceremony, they were presented to him "whose smile is life and whose frown is death." He proved to be a stout, tall, middle-aged, sombre-looking; copper-colored savage. Marshaled by "Silver-Bells and Giraffe-horn," the royal ush­er, the British Ambassador entered the palace gate, having first closed his umbrella and taken of his sword.

Dahome-Dada - the grandfather of Dahomey, as Gelele is called - Captain Burton shall de­scribe in his own language. He is in the full vigor of life, from forty to forty-five, before the days of increasing belly and decreasing leg. He looks like a king of negro men, without tender­ness of heart or weakness of head. His person is athletic, upward of six feet high, lithe, agile, thin-flanked and broad-shouldered, with muscu­lar limbs, well-turned wrists, and neat ankles, "but a distinctly cucumber-shaped shin." His skull is rounded and well set on; the organs of locality stand prominently out; a slight baldness appears upon the poll, and the regions of cautiousness" are covered by two cockade-like tufts of hair, mostly worn in Dahomey to sus­pend coral, popo-beads, and brass or silver orna­ments from. His hair, generally close-shaven, of the pepper-corn variety; his beard thin, eye­brows scant, and mustaches few. The smile is pleasant, though a heavy jaw makes the face "jowly." His finger-nails are as long as a Chi­nese mandarin's. His eyes are red, bleared, and inflamed; his teeth white and sound; the lips sub-tumid; and the nose, that most telling organ of character, is "distinctly retrousse; look­ing as if all the lines had been turned the wrong way." He is marked with the small-pox, and also bears certain tattooed lines in the face. In complexion he is reddish-brown, several shades lighter than the lightest to be seen at his court.

Gelele wore on this occasion a short cylin­drical straw-hat, with a purple ribbon. A hu­man tooth also ornamented the hat, and a single bead was hung about his neck. On his arms were six iron bracelets, intended to enable the arm to fend off a sabre-cut at the head. He wore short drawers of purple flowered silk, and a body-cloth of fine white stuff. He was smok­ing a pipe, and the throne was surrounded by a crowd of unarmed women. These were the King's wives; the Amazons kept guard beyond. The women were engaged in waiting assiduous­ly upon their lord and master. If he wished to spit, they held out a plated spittoon; if be per­spired, they cooled, and fanned, and wiped the royal brow; if he sneezed, they all devoutly blessed themselves and him.

Gelele came down from his throne and shook hands with Burton in the English way. Rum and wines were next produced. Conversation was begun in the most roundabout way, for red-tape is honored also in Dahomey. No one, not even an ambassador; must speak directly with the King. He communicates with the Cham­berlain, who speaks to the interpreter, who trans­lates to the person having audience; and the reply passes to the monarch through the same channels. The health of the King and of Cap­tain Burton was drunk in three different kinds of liquor; the King turning his face from the company, and having his head concealed by a muslin curtain while he imbibed. While this was done the women cowered on the ground with averted faces, bawling out "Po-o-o !"— "Take it easy!"— and a salute was fired. They do not burn powder, however, every time the King opens a new bottle of rum.

And then the audience was over, and the Ambassador retired, with leave to inspect everything in the palace enclosure. He found the women soldiers ranged in an inner circle, the armed men without; and a battalion of young girls, lately formed, were the King's especial body-guard. These girls wore armless vests, a kind of petticoat of bright colors, a cartridge-box and belt of black leather containing powder re­ceptacles like match-boxes, a bullet-bag, and a musket of English make, in very tolerable order and effective.

Among the ornaments, or trophies, of the palace displayed in the inner court were three prepared skulls neatly mounted, and one so arranged as to serve for a drinking-cup. One of these heads had been the property of one Akia'on, an unlucky braggart of a chief, who, when Gezo, Gelele's father, died, was so imprudent as to send a message to Abomey that all men were now truly joyful, for that the sea had dried up, and the world had now seen the bottom of Dahomey. To which Gelele's reply was an attack in which the boaster was killed. His head, when properly cleaned and silver-mounted, was, with grim humor, placed in a miniature ship, to signify that there is still water enough to float it in Dahomey.

And here it is time to say something farther of the manners and customs of this black king­dom. The King is supreme lord over the lives and property of all his subjects. There is abso­lutely no rank between the monarch and the slave;  all are his ; and it is even a crime to wound one of the King's subjects - not against the laws, or against the person injured, but against the King's majesty, which is hurt in its property. In the royal presence all alike lie prostrate, or, to rest themselves, stand up on all-fours. The King is spoken of as "The Spirit." When he calls, the messenger cries, "The Spirit wants you;" when he has spoken, all present exclaim, "The Spirit speaks true." Nevertheless obedience is not the rule. The servants say, "Yes, yes," but do as they please; And the nobles, humble as they are in the King's presence, are a formidable power, whom he must conciliate.

The Amazons take precedence of the male soldiers. Yet Burton remarks, despite this un­wonted honor to their sex, these warriors insist upon calling themselves men; and here, as elsewhere in lands where Amazons are unknown, it is an insult to call a soldier a woman. In Da­homey the whole people are soldiers. Here alone the sovereign has succeeded in drawing to his army nearly every person strong enough to carry a musket. The Amazons are, or are supposed to be, vestals; by a fiction they are called the King's wives; and it is a capital crime to court them, as well as for one of them to suffer her­self to be courted. The army, both male and female, is divided into the right and left wings, so called from their position about the throne. The women have officers of the same grade as their male fellow-soldiers. In battle they are known to be the most valorous and desperate, especially in attacking a fortified position. The commander-in-chief of the male soldiers is also the royal executioner, whose duty it is not only to lead in battle, but to cut off heads in Abomey on sacrificial and other occasions. But all Da­homeyan officials are in pairs; and the mingan or captain-general has a double, as has also the she-mingan.

At the Dahomeyan court every man must have at least one mother. It need not be his own. Here men adopt a mother as in other countries women may adopt a son; and it is not even necessary that this red-tape mother should be older than her son by adoption. She may be a score of years younger. The King's actual, real, true mother is yet alive; when she dies Gelele will select one in her place. Many high officers of aristocratic tastes have two such mothers, one for the last reign and another for the present. Visitors to the capital communicate with the "mothers" of their several nations, and Captain Burton makes frequent mention of the "English mother." In order to obtain a regular supply of water he was forced to engage four "water-mothers" - women who peddle water about the streets.

Burton reduces some of the exaggerated trav­elers' tales regarding the number and power of the Dahomeyan army. The Amazons do not number more than 2500, of whom but 1700 are fully armed. These creatures are ugly, many of them old and ill-tempered. They are certainly brave, and in battle fiercely strive to do more valorously than the men. The corps is reinforced from the daughters of the land. Be­fore a girl can marry she is shown to the King; if he likes her looks she is enlisted as a soldier, and that is an end of the proposed match. They are in size larger than the men, more able to endure fatigue, Burton thinks, more muscular, and in every way fit food for powder. They are called the King's wives; but they are, we are told, often unfaithful to their compelled vows. When our traveler left Kane the King remained to adjudicate upon 150 cases of pregnancy in his corps of Amazons. It would seem that disci­pline had been somewhat lax of late.

He arrived, at last, at Agbome, the capital. It is, like other towns in this savage land, a rude and filthy collection of huts, "shanties," and houses. Life is not more comfortable there than at other points in Gelele's dominions; the water is not more abundant, nor the rum better, the people cleaner, or life more secure. In truth Dahomey is altogether a dirty, petty, murderous, half-starved, and benighted kingdom, neither useful nor ornamental, with an assassin for ruler, and a few thousands of slavish and blood-thirsty wretches for a nation.

On arriving at Agbome Burton witnessed, in part, the celebrated “Customs," the annual rites of murder; and he tells us that even these are both less horrible in manner and less grand in detail than we had been led to suppose by pre­vious travelers. They are of two kinds - the "Grand Customs" which take place only after the death of a king, on which occasions per­haps one thousand people are killed; and the "Yearly Customs," when not above five hun­dred men suffer death. The yearly customs are of two kinds - the So-Sin, which Burton witnessed, and which are held at the capital; and the 0-Sin Customs, which are celebrated in the forest. But all are much alike, and the principal features of all three are drinking, dan­cing, the distribution of cowries, and murder. The troops are paraded and addressed; the King administers justice after his fashion; there are speeches in which the nation is urged to march against hereditary enemy, the Abbeokutans ; the ceremony lasts five days and nights; and the executions even do not suffice to rescue it from the last degree of dullness - for the victims, so far from being distressed, actually appear to en­joy the prospect of having their heads cut off—being perhaps glad to be relieved, on any terms, of the miseries of life at Agbome. Burton, who was instructed not to witness the executions, nevertheless saw the wretches set apart for death. Forty of them were ranged on large stools, bound to posts, the legs, ankles, and wrists being se­curely fastened. They wore a peculiar dress, and amused themselves by remarks upon the British Ambassador, the music, and the people passing. Indeed they seemed to regard them­selves rather as spectators than as actors or suf­ferers.

Burton saw also some of these men after they had been killed; and in the engraving on the next page he has depicted these royal victims, alive and dead. Heads lying in the road as he walked out in the morning were not infrequent. So-Sin means literally horse-tie; and the name comes from a peculiar license during the five days the "Custom" lasts, when all horses may be taken from their owners and tied up, to be redeemed only with bags of cowries - the cir­culating medium of the country.

Why all this slaughter, does the reader ask? It is after all only a matter of convenience to the King and the royal family. In the first place, it would not be fit for a ruler of Dahomey to appear in the other world unattended; there­fore a thousand or two of his subjects and cap­tives must be slain when he dies, to accompany him to Hades. But when he gets to his last destination it is shrewdly believed in Dahomey that his interest in the affairs of the kingdom does not cease. He is anxious for news, and as there are no spiritual gazettes in Africa, this in­telligence can only reach him by, couriers, who are dispatched—in a double sense - once a year and oftener if important occasions arise, such as the visit of a British Ambassador, or an attack on Abbeokuta. This, according to Burton, is the true theory of the Dahomeyan "Customs"; it is a kind of spiritual post-office system; the difficulty appears to be that there is no return mail.

Altogether, Dahomey is a preposterous hum­bug. The nation is growing weaker every year by reason of the tyranny of the ruler, who claims all the young women, and suffers neither trade nor agriculture to go on uninterrupted. The King is a mere useless and brutal savage, pre­tentious, dirty, poor, and blood-thirsty. The famous Amazons are neither good-looking, vir­tuous, well-disciplined, nor nearly so numerous as had been reported; and the kingdom appears to be a most uninviting region, which neither nature nor art has made fit for human residence.

Finally, if, after this account of Dahomey, any reader has a fancy to visit Gelele, he can enjoy the pleasure of a journey from Whydah to Agborne and back, with two months' sojourn at the capital, for the moderate cost of about eleven hundred dollars; and that the Reverend Peter Bernasko, missionary at Whydah, will be hap­py to accompany him hire his servants, and provide for his other necessaries, rendering a correct account of his expenses.


Harper's New Monthly Magazine.  February 1865.
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