Bénin #37 (1894)

Bénin #37 (1894)

Bénin #37 (1894)

What was to become known as Etablissements Francais du Golfe de Bénin combines three areas which had different political and ethnic systems prior to French colonial control. Before 1700, there were a few important city states along the coast (primarily of the Aja ethnic group, but also including Yoruba and Gbe peoples) and a mass of tribal regions inland (composed of Bariba, Mahi, Gedevi, and Kabye peoples). The Oyo Empire, located primarily to the east of the modern Republic of Benin, was the most significant large-scale military force in the region and it would regularly conduct raids and exact tribute from the coastal kingdoms and the tribal regions.

The situation changed in the 1600s and early 1700s as the Kingdom of Dahomey, which was of Fon ethnicity, was founded on the Abomey plateau and began taking over areas along the coast. By 1727, king Agaja of the Kingdom of Dahomey had conquered the coastal cities of Allada and Whydah, but it had become a tributary of the Oyo empire and did not directly attack the Oyo allied city-state of Porto-Novo. The rise of the kingdom of Dahomey, the rivalry between the kingdom and the city of Porto-Novo, and the continued tribal politics of the northern region, persisted into the colonial and post-colonial periods.

The Dahomey kingdom was known for its culture and traditions. Young boys were often apprenticed to older soldiers, and taught the kingdom’s military customs until they were old enough to join the army. Dahomey was also famous for instituting an elite female soldier corps, called Ahosi (the king’s wives) or Mino, “our mothers” in the Fon language Fongbe, and known by many Europeans as the Dahomean Amazons. This emphasis on military preparation and achievement earned Dahomey the nickname of “black Sparta” from European observers and 19th century explorers like Sir Richard Burton.

The kings of Dahomey sold their war captives into transatlantic slavery; otherwise the captives would have been killed in a ceremony known as the Annual Customs. By about 1750, the King of Dahomey was earning an estimated £250,000 per year by selling Africans to the European slave-traders. Though the leaders of Dahomey appeared initially to resist the slave trade, it flourished in the region of Dahomey for almost three hundred years, beginning in 1472 with a trade agreement with Portuguese merchants, leading to the area’s being named “the Slave Coast”. Court protocols, which demanded that a portion of war captives from the kingdom’s many battles be decapitated, decreased the number of enslaved people exported from the area. The number went from 102,000 people per decade in the 1780s to 24,000 per decade by the 1860s. The decline was partly due to the banning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade by Britain and other countries. This decline continued until 1885, when the last slave ship departed from the coast of the present-day Benin Republic bound for Brazil, a former Portuguese colony that had yet to abolish slavery.

The city of Porto-Novo, meaning “New Port,” was originally developed as a port for the slave trade. It comprised two ethnic communities, the Yoruba and the Gun. Although historically the aboriginals of the area were Yoruba speaking, there seem to have been a wave of migration from the region of Allada further west. This newcomer group brought with them their own language, and settled among the original inhabitants, their Yoruba hosts. It would appear that each ethnic group has since maintained their ethnic nationalities without one group being linguistically assimilated into the other.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Kingdom of Dahomey had begun to lose its status as the regional power. This enabled the French to gradually take over the area. The Treaty of 1851 gave France possession of Whydah (Ouidah); control was extended to Grand-Popo in 1857. In 1861, the British, who were active in nearby Nigeria, bombarded Porto-Novo, which persuaded the Kingdom of Porto-Novo to accept French protection in 1863. The neighboring Kingdom of Dahomey objected to French involvement in the region and war broke out between the two states. In 1883, Porto-Novo was incorporated into the French “colony of Dahomey and its dependencies.”

Administration of the Benin region was placed under Gabon in 1872, then transferred to Senegal in 1886 under the name of Etablissements Francais du Golfe de Bénin. The first stamps used in the region were French Colonies general issues at Porto-Novo from 1888. Sixteen French stamps were overprinted BENIN in September 1892 (Scott #1-15A). Thirteen of these received black overprints, one had a red overprint and two were overprinted in blue.  Four of the initial stamps received an additional surcharge in red or black later in 1892 (Scott #16-19). Counterfeits of all of these exist.

In 1893, thirteen of the French colonial “Navigation and Commerce” stamps received the inscription GOLFE DE / BÉNIN in the bottom tablet (Scott #20-32). These were re-released the following year in the same denominations and colors with the inscription changed to simply BÉNIN (Scott #33-45). These were printed by typography and perforated 14×13½. The Scott catalogue notes that stamps perforated 13½x14 are counterfeits. Cancellations inscribed BENIN are known from Aquoua, Kotonou (later Cotonou), Grand-Popo, Porto Novo and Whydah.

Ouidah was formally annexed to Dahomey on December 3, 1892, and the rest of Dahomey was made a French protectorate in 1894. In 1899 it absorbed the Etablissements Francais du Golfe de Bénin and two provinces from French Sudan. These last were returned to the new colony of Upper Senegal and Middle Niger the following year. Stamps issued with the inscription DAHOMEY were first issued in 1899. Porto-Novo became Dahomey’s capital city in 1900. In 1904, the territory was incorporated into French West Africa (Afrique occidentale française) as French Dahomey (Colonie du Dahomey et dépendances). This was  was a federation of eight French colonial territories in Africa: Mauritania, Senegal, French Sudan (now Mali), French Guinea, Ivory Coast, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Dahomey, and Niger.

The Republic of Dahomey (République du Dahomey) was established on December 11, 1958, as a self-governing colony within the French Community. On August 1, 1960, it attained full independence from France. The country was renamed the People’s Republic of Benin (République populaire du Bénin) on November 30, 1975, and to the Republic of Benin (République du Bénin) on March 1, 1990. I don’t yet have any stamps from the other incarnations of Benin, but I plan to include write-ups of their histories in A Stamp A Day as soon as I acquire some.

My copy of Scott #37 is, unfortunately, damaged with a significant tear at the top left of the stamp extending towards the center. It was released along with the final set of thirteen issued by the original Etablissements Francais du Golfe de Bénin in 1894 — 10 centimes black on lavender paper with the colony’s name in blue. While the cancellation is quite difficult to read, I believe it says COTONOU.

The name “Cotonou” means “by the river of death” in the Fon language. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Cotonou (then spelled “Kutonou”) was a small fishing village. Though originally ruled by the Kingdom of Dahomey, in 1851 the French made a treaty with the Dahomean King Ghezo that allowed them to establish a trading post at Cotonou. During the reign of Glele, his successor (1858–89), the territory was ceded to France by a treaty signed on May 19, 1868. In 1883, the French navy occupied the city to prevent British conquest of the area. After Glele’s death in 1889, his son Béhanzin tried, unsuccessfully, to challenge the treaty. From then on, the town developed quickly to become the largest harbor in the region. In addition to being Benin’s largest city, today it is also the seat of government (even though Porto-Novo is the official capital); it is home to most of the country’s government buildings and diplomatic services.

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