Revue Africaine des Livres

Centre de Recherche en Anthropologie Sociale et Culturelle

Wives of the Leopard, Gender, Politics and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey
by Edna G. Bay
University of Virginia Press, 1998, 350pp. ISBN 0-8139-1791-3 – ISBN

Wives of the Leopard is probably the last book published on Danxome, although it was published by the Virginia University Press as far back as 19982.Given the rapid pace of review of fresh ideas in the academic world, writing about this subject some ten years after publication might look anachronistic. However, I presume that, for most of us, this book remains very current for two critical reasons: firstly, while it may constitute old stuff for the Anglophone academia, their francophone colleagues may yet not be very conversant with it. Secondly, for us Beninese, this book raises such vital questions that transcend time and space.
This is what justifies a critical review of the book cited above. Professor Bay’s intellectual process is original in many regards. Obviously, some authors (and no less prominent ones) have written on the women of Danxome3. Unlike the authors of previous publications that focused on the role of the Amazons, she subtly reminds us that the Amazons are but the trees that hide the forest. Indeed, she considerably widens the scope of our insight into the public life of women in Danxome by situating this celebrated corps of fighters in its natural context, that is the bustling life of Abomey palaces where thousands of women are milling up and down attending to various duties4. Professor Bay portrays these human hives as a distinct world whose organisation is articulated around some basic principles meant to create equilibrium between the two main pillars of a skilfully designed structure, represented by the king and his kpojito or the queen-mother. This situation is the reflection of the equilibrium in the universe, which is articulated around the primordial duality of male and female beings. The palace therefore constitutes a microcosm of the kingdom, a wider stage for the alliance of opposites: Alladaxonu/Anato; woman/ man; Coast/Abomey; Kutomè/Gbetomè5.
Professor Bay’s intellectual methodology is original for yet another reason: her approach is a clear departure from the usual treatment of sources, insofar as her process aptly blends an exhaustive investigation of written material on Danxome with carefully selected oral sources. What we have been accustomed to so far is the seesaw movements between the two sources, which pretend to be blissfully ignorant of one another. For instance, Robin Law and John Reid declare, in plain language, their scepticism of oral sources and have consequently gone on to produce voluminous publications using explorers’ records and the accounts books of European trading companies6.For his part, Maurice Glèlè Ahanhanzo produced his monumental reconstruction of the history of Danxome using solely the royal family’s traditions7. Professor Bay has signalled the end of this dialogue of the deaf by proving that it is possible to tap on both sources in order to scientifically reconstruct the history of Danxome while maintaining fully historical objectivity. Far from being contradictory, the sources would rather complement and validate one another. At first, one would not trust that a foreign historian would be able to successfully conduct such a delicate field research without succumbing to the pitfall of superficiality. The fact that she has been able to successfully and aptly carry out this work is a testimony to her ability to develop a good deal of empathy – a trait that is rare to find among ‘Africanists’ today. Now, what exactly is the book about?
The main proposition contained in this clear and easily readable book is the fact that, when the Alladaxonu, a small group of invaders got to the Abomey plateau, they were confronted with a serious problem of political legitimacy. To entrench its political domination, this minority ruling class needed to establish an authority that was politically and culturally acceptable to the majority of the local population. They used a two-pronged approach to achieve their objective. At the cultural level, they tried to create a link with the Fon people through the contrivance of the royal lineage by making Dako the first king and by claiming a mythical lineage from the leopard, consistent with a widely-touted myth in the plateau area8. From the political point of view, the Alladaxonu’s strategy was to multiply alliances with the other ethnic groups in the plateau area, using women from the royal lineage reputed to be faithful and sexually liberated; these traits proved useful to the Alladaxonu’s bid to increase the size of their group9. Indeed, rather exceptionally for a patrilineal society, children of princesses are automatically considered as part and parcel of the royal pedigree. Generally speaking, the buffer role later played by the kpojito is consistent with the double allegiance exhibited by women living within polygamous family setups: they are usually promoting the interests of their husband’s families as well as their own10.
This is the way one should understand the role played by kpojito Nan Hwanjilé in stabilizing the kingdom under the reign of Tegbesu, and by other kpojitos in the periodic reorganisation of the leadership teams that successively seized power in Abomey11. Hwanjilé, a woman of humble origin from Adja whose kinship to both Nan Adonon, Agaja’s mother, and to Princess Aligbonon has been demonstrated by Professor Bay, achieved the daunting task of consolidating the rule of Tegbesu through bold religious reforms. These reforms culminated in the introduction of the worship of two divinities, Mahu and Lissa, who determine the destiny of Kutomè, the kingdom of the dead. Thus, this reform confirms the ideological belief in the binary balance that is difficult to achieve in the real world. Like Mahu/Lissa, the king and his kpojito constitute a couple that rule over and promote the prosperity of the visible world by sustaining its harmonious existence. Hwanjilé therefore constitutes the ideal kpojito that all other kpojitos shall emulate by organising, on behalf of their royal partner, a coalition of men and women that stood out by their character and their loyalty to the reigning king.
According to Professor Bay, kpojito, which translates into ‘mother of leopard’, does not apply to the king’s biological mother. It is a title bestowed on the female partner of the ruling couple. However, in the nineteenth century, the normal functioning of this institution, which is considered as the nerve centre of the political life of the kingdom, was becoming burdensome. A new trend was borne out of the strengthening of patriarchal authority. Its characteristic was the rise of the royal lineage thanks to the introduction of new supportive cults, namely Fa and Nésuxwé12. However, a close look at the history of Danxome would reveal that the changes in the ideology are the culmination of a series of reforms that pertains to the economic domain.
The main promoters of these economic reforms are Europeans, Afro-Brazilians and former Yoruba slaves who became the upholders of the new patriarchal order. The loss of women’s political influence in Fon culture, which manifested itself in the traditional role of a spouse overriding that of a sister; was a harbinger of the political and economic decline of Danxome. In the meantime, the kingdom was under the threat of the imperialist designs of France13. That tragedy unfolded against the background of an economic crisis that was caused by the failure of the palm oil trade to offset the loss of income that resulted from the discontinuation of the slave trade.
Brilliant and convincing as this interpretation of the history of Danxome may sound, I shall, for the sake of convenience, attempt to consider the issues arising from it under three headings:
  • The kpojito institution;
  • The prosperity of Danxome in the eighteenth century;
  • The hypothesis of the decline of Danxome in the nineteenth century.
The kpojito, as the female partner of the ruling king, does not seem to be an institution that is still alive in the memory of the different social groups in Abomey. If the king was ever given a dual personality, this could only be in the minds of the nineteenth century visitors from Europe and must have been influenced by a readjustment that was required by the agrarian reform of the 1840’s. As we know, the reform itself was linked to the growth of the palm oil trade14. Before that period, there was no oral record confirming the fact that the king was sharing his power with the kpojito. Based on the information garnered from members of the royal family, the kpojito title is given to women who have mothered a king. Of course, it could be assumed that the effective entrenchment of the patriarchal order in the nineteenth century had removed the status quo ante from collective memory. Were that to be the case, the carefully preserved memory of Nayé Adonon and Nan Hwanjilé should not have survived.
Nowadays, the meaning of the term kpojito has even expanded to cover all mothers of princes. In the past, tradition had it that, following the demise of the king’s mother, her position was to be occupied by a member of her family. It was therefore not unusual to see the position of kpojito being occupied, these days, by male descendants15. The most telling example is that of Daah Aligbonon who was often seen in public donning women’s apparels. Naturally, the surrogate kpojito was granted all the privileges accorded to the real female kpojito during official ceremonies. That did not mean that the female kpojito played a political role. The honour bestowed on the title bearer derives totally from the fact that she is the king’s mother, or a surrogate king’s mother.
Exceptionally and thanks to her religious clout, Kpojito Hwanjilé, biological mother of Tegbesu, played an important political part in the process of stabilizing the kingdom in the wake of the political crisis that shook it during the first half of the nineteenth century. Beside Hwanjilé and Nayé Adonon, who were highly revered in Abomey tradition, hardly had any other kpojito enjoyed the same political or cultural stature. One cannot therefore conclude that each and every kpojito ruled in partnership with her son. It could not have been otherwise, since succession to the Abomey throne is strictly patrilineal. In neighbouring patrilineal kingdoms, where, as in Danxome, there are matrilineal traditions that lay emphasis on the role of women, this role is purely symbolic and is limited to cultural events such as granting of names to the Wassangari princes by the Gnon Kogui16. It is only in matrilineal societies such as among the western neighbours, the Akan, where the queen-mother has the last word regarding the choice of the next king, that she plays a highly political role. One can recall that the function of the queen-mother among the Akan can be performed by the mother of the next king or by one of the aunts or sisters, based on their position in the order of succession.
In Danxome, the kpojito enjoys no visible role, either in the process of choosing the Vidaxo who is the heir apparent or in the crowning ceremony of the king17. This fascinating book leaves the reader with a universal perception of women that is consistent with the author’s own understanding but has no bearing on the actual status of women in nineteenth century Danxome. Meanwhile, it is an established fact that the modern concept of women derived from the successful cross fertilisation of Roman law and Germanic customary law concepts that bestowed a privileged status on women. This special concept was transplanted to America, and was carefully sustained by the first batch of European migrants, made mainly of males for whom women had a high value, given their scarcity. In the case of Danxome, where the circumstances of the slave trade imposed a different kind of scarcity, namely of men, it would not be perhaps judicious to look for the same interpretation regarding women.
The idea of a golden age of the Fon culture, during which women enjoyed great authority and which is limited to the eighteenth century only, also seemed to be drawn from mythology. Throughout the eighteenth century, the Alladaxonu enjoyed no respite from the fierce struggle for their survival. As stated in Werner Peukert’s book, slave trade statistics revealed that Danxome had never reached the number of slaves recorded in the older kingdoms of Allada and Ouidah18. What is more, the political crisis that followed the conquest of the coastal area by Agaja and the Yoruba invasions continued until 1740, not to mention the Hweda’s guerrilla attacks that lasted much longer19. A more cautious analysis would show that there were only fifty years left for the partnership between the king and his kpojito, suggested by Professor Bay, to be forged.
After the year 1740, Tegbesu, with the assistance of his mother, Kpojito Hwanjilé, made an attempt to usher stability into the kingdom. However the efforts deployed in the economic sector failed to produce positive results, given the fact that his rule coincided with the shifting of European powers from the Slaves Coast to the Gold Coast following their restructuring of the trans-atlantic trade20. The situation became more complicated in the twilight of his reign, forcing him to wage a desperate fight against the increasing diversion of trade to the Kingdom of Porto Novo; even his successor Kpengla did not succeed in stemming this trend21. It is known that the crisis got acute under Kpengla and his successor Agonglo, nearly causing the fall of the entire kingdom. Where then is the prosperity that contrasted with the decline of resources of the 19th century? Besides the deceptive calm, signalling stormy days ahead following the religious reforms carried out by Nan Hwanjilé, all regimes after Tegbesu have faced palace coups. Except for Agonglo, whose rule was cut short by his assassination, all other successors to the throne in the eighteenth century were confronted with problems, unlike those in the nineteenth century, whose succession from father to son ran smoothly22.
It seems rather far-fetched to suggest that the fortunes of the Abomey kingdom declined in the nineteenth century, given the overall prevailing context of lean days. The assumption, bequeathed by the abolitionists, that slave trade is often associated with prosperity is traceable to a lack of understanding of the process of acquisition of slaves. If, as numerous studies attest, the king is a major supplier of slaves, the fact remains that he is not the only one. Furthermore, these slaves are not exclusively spoils of war that only the king could wage. If, therefore, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries cannot be compared in terms of prosperity and stability, it becomes hard to validate the argument that the decline of Danxome in the nineteenth century was a result of its breach of the kpojito system. The war waged by the people of Dahomey against the French and their loyalty to Béhanzin confirm beyond any doubt that the culture was very much alive, notwithstanding the emergence of fresh class contradictions following the introduction of the palm oil trade23.
Incidentally, the litmus test for the ‘deconstructionists’, or for the process of deconstruction, is their attitude regarding historical causality. Is the application of causality limited to ideology only or to all systems? Interestingly, one can now recall the example of Michel Foucault attempting to trace, in Les Mots et les Choses, the intellectual development of Europe over many centuries without the slightest reference to the economic system underpinning such development. In the absence of total causality, proponents of this analytical method quite often fall back on ‘diffusionism’ as a way of explaining history. Thus, to explain the decline of Danxome, Professor Bay refers to foreign agents who, in her view, were the bearers of the new patriarchal mentality. The Fon culture has always been a cosmopolitan one, thus it would be hard to prove that eighteenth century Danxome is less patriarchal than nineteenth century Danxome. The acceptance of new cults such as Nésuxwé and Fa could also be explained by the coming to light of contradictions underpinning the economic domain. However, Professor Bay did not volunteer much information on this. It is only in the penultimate page of her book (p. 320) that she partially lifted the veil covering the economic system of which Danxome is only a link, which she calls commercial capitalism24.
Probably out of the inhibition induced by political correctness, she remains vague on the real aspects of this commercial capitalism. What manner of capitalism is this that sells its children, and indulges in making human sacrifices without any qualms? Tackling these issues effectively would entail a complete change of perspective, that is, instead of looking at the structure through an institution, namely the kpojito, one should look at this institution as a component of a structure confronted with the problem of diachrony.
Clearly, these few comments do not, in any way, diminish the quality of Professor Bay’s book; and I do recommend its adoption by institutions of learning. In spite of this reader’s irritation in the face of inconsistent uses of the expressions ‘palm oil’ and ‘oil palm’, and of the insufficient references to buttress serious assertions, and what I consider to be a wrong definition of ‘Galobas’, and the slight discomfort of the Fon listener in hearing ‘Badahu’ in place of ‘Bahadu’, one can still endorse the conclusion reached by Professor Curtin that Wives of Leopard is by far the best book that has ever been written on Danxome.


1 The first version of this text was presented at the academic review day of the Department of History and Archaeology on 15 June 2003. I wish to express my gratitude to all the colleagues who contributed to the discussion generated by the presentation. Their inputs have contributed to the enrichment of the rather rough original text.
2 G. Edna Bay, Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics, and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey, Charlottesville & London: University of  Virginia Press, 1998.               
3 Suzanne Preston Blier, ‘The Path of the Leopard : Motherhood and Majesty in Early Danxome’, Journal of African History, 36, no.3 (1995), 391-417; Hélène d’Almeida Topor, Les Amazones, Paris, Rochevigne, 1984; Amélie Dégbélo, ‘Les Amazones du Danxome, 1645-1900’, Mémoire de Maîtrise d’Histoire, Université Nationale du Bénin, 1979 ; Robin Law, ‘The Amazones’ of Dahomey, Paideuma, 39 (1993), 245-60.
4 Bay, Wives of the Leopard, pp. 9-13.
5 Ibid., p. 11 ; the pair Kutomè/Gbètomè signify the country of the dead/the country of the living.
6 See Robin Law, The Slave Coast of West Africa 1550-1750, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1991; John Reid, ‘Warrior Aristocrats in Crisis : The Political Effects of the Transition from the Slave Trade to Palm Oil Commerce in the Nineteenth-Century Kingdom of Dahomey’, Ph.D dissertation, University of Stirling, Scotland, 1986.
7 M. Glèlè Ahanhanzo, Le Danxome, Paris, Nubia, 1974.
8 Bay, Wives of the Leopard, p.74.
9 Ibid., pp.16-21.
10 Ibid., pp.18-19.
11 Ibid., pp.81-96.
12 Ibid., pp.250-59.
13 Ibid., pp.81-84.
14 See Edna Bay, ‘On the Trail of the Bush King: A Dahomean Lesson in the Use of Evidence’, History in Africa, 6 (1979), 1-15.
15 Information obtained from Mrs F. Lucie Guézo, aged 75.
16 See Robert Cornevin, La République du Bénin, Paris, Editions Maisonneuve et Larose, 1981, pp.168-169.
17 See Glèlè Ahanhanzo, Le Danxome, pp.106-114.
18 Werner Peukert, Der atlantische Sklavenhandel von Dahomey 1740-1797: Wirtschaftsanthropologie und Sozialgeschichte, Wiesbaden, 1978.
19 Ibid.
20 See Colin Newbury, The Western Slave Coast and its Rulers, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1961, pp.25-26.
21 Ibid., p.27.
22 For an analysis of the rules of succession in Danxome, refer to Glèlè Ahanhanzo, Le Danxome, pp.85-105.
23 See C. Coquery-Vidrovitch, ‘Le Blocus de Ouidah (1876-1877) et la rivalité franco-anglaise au Dahomey’, Cahiers d’études africaines, 1962, vol. 2, no.3 :373- 417.
24 See Bay, Wives of the Leopard, p.320.


Anselme GUEZO


Pages  7-9

Africa Review of Books / Revue Africaine des Livres

Volume 04 N° 02,​ Septembre 2008