home | 16-17th centuries index


previous | next

The Kingdoms of Oyo, Dahomey and Asante

From the 1640s, four inland states near the Gulf of Guinea were growing in wealth and power from the slave trade. The kingdom of Oyo, around 300 kilometers (190 miles) inland, was the most successful of these kingdoms. It benefited from terrain sufficiently unforested and free of the tsetse fly and other disease-carrying insects to allow for the breeding of horses. The Oyo kingdom used cavalry effectively in expanding southward where savanna split coastal forest. Oyo forced the coastal kingdom of Allada to pay it tribute, and it gained direct access to trade with Europeans. Oyo was a slave state, and its king used slave labor on his vast farmlands. In wars, Oyo took more slaves than it needed for the royal farms, and it traded them to the Europeans for guns, cloth, metal goods and cowry shells. It traded also with Africans to its north for horses and for more captives for the slave trade. And the kingdom acquired wealth by taxing trade that crossed its territory to and from Hausaland.

Another power in the region was the kingdom of Abomey, which was founded in the early 1600s by the brother of the king of Allada, a coastal kingdom that had grown wealthy from the slave trade. The brother, Do-Aklin, cut off village chiefs from having any say in selecting his successor. Rule in Abomey passed to his grandson, Wegbaja, who consolidated his power – while both Allada and Abomey were paying tribute to the more powerful kingdom of Oyo. In Abomey, human sacrifices were used to honor the king's ancestors – the sacrifices usually captives from warfare.

West of Abomey were the Ashanti (Asanti), who were dominated by the Denkera to their southwest, to whom the Ashanti paid tribute. The primary political unit among the Ashanti had been the village, governed by clan elders. In the 1660s, an Ashanti warrior named Osei Tutu grouped clan chiefs around him and formed an alliance with the leading Ashanti religious figure, Anokye. They created a golden stool, representing power and spiritual unity, on which the ruler of the Ashanti was to sit, and they sanctified the golden stool with sacrifices.

Osei Tutu and Anokye extended their power across Ashanti chiefdoms, unifying the Ashanti. And with the power that accrued from this unity, the Ashanti defeated the Denkera and absorbed some of their subject states. These victories gave the Ashanti contact with the Europeans, to whom they sold slaves. And the Ashanti began an expansion inland for more slaves and for gold.

Meanwhile, Oyo cavalry invaded the Abomey four times, but Abomey retained enough power to expand against Allada on the coast. The king of Abomey, Agaja, was interested in buying arms from the Europeans. Conquering Allada in the 1720s gave him access to European trading. The enlarged rule of Agaja became known as Dahomey, and it began to prosper from the sale of slaves to the Europeans.


Copyright © 2001-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.