The High-ranking Women of Dahomey: the Mothers of the Leopard

I find the high ranking women of Dahomey fascinating (but I find most things concerning West African women fascinating so…) Dahomey was a lot more brutally complex compared to Oyo (in many ways it was a rival kingdom to it). And unlike Oyo which remembered few women by name, Dahomey recorded and emphasised not only the highest-ranking woman but wives of the King including the women soldiers. Most of us know of the Dahomean “Amazons” but influential women in Dahomey reach further than King Houegbadja’s reign where the all-woman army is said to have roots.

Abomey. Agoliagbo, new king of Dahomey, surrounded by his favourites

According to Edna Bay early oral accounts on the Dahomey’s history say that Princess Na Hangbe ruled as a regent for her young nephew after her twin brother the King Akaba suddenly died without leaving a successor. Bay reiterates that Hangbe would not have been considered king and thus would not be added to the official list of kings. Hangbe ruled for either three months or three years before she was defeated by her younger brother Agaja, whose wars of expansion extended Dahomey to the West African coast and into direct contact with European traders of the early eighteenth century. Hangbe apparently had an army and lead wars even under her brother Akaba’s reign.

Princesses played an important role in Dahomey history from the early history of the Dahomey kingdom, young royal women close to the King created a commanding role for princesses in the royal household while also paving the way for empowered, elderly, commoner women in the palace. Talk about women supporting other women (although we can’t forget power dynamics and how slavery was normal in this society). The role of princesses and other “wives” of the palace will be further examined in an upcoming post.

It was likely during the reign of King Agaja which lasted from about 1716 to 1740 that the office of the Kpojito was created. From his reign forward every King was doubled by a Kpojito, usually drawn from among his predecessor’s wives. The Kpojito is translated to mean Mother of the Leopard, she reigned beside the King and was inspired by Aligbonon’s memory (Aligbonon is the woman who is said to have been impregnated by a leopard, the descendant of this union went on to found the Dahomey kingdom). The Mother of the Leopard in Dahomey was essentially a religious and political figure who acted out an advisory role to the King but had her own wealth and followers. She had a separate court and entourage within the palace. Like the “Amazons”, the Kpojito was forbidden to be in contact with men. She acted as a intercessor with the King, giving refuge to subjects and pleading on their behalf to the King. The Kpojito was wealthy and supported by tributary villages and plantations. When she died, a woman from her birth family inherited her wealth and continued to control her estate.

The office of Kpojito was apparently drawn from examples from Dahomey’s neighbours such as the Akan, the Yoruba, the Edo. I don’t know for the Akan but the Yoruba and especially the Edo of the Benin Empire had similar structures to the Kpojito. Bay writes that a high office for women was typical of kingdoms across a broad stretch of coastal West Africa. Of course with differences depending on culture.

Adonon, the first to hold this title of Kpojito was born in a village closely associated with Aligbonon. Adonon was a commoner woman taken as a wife by an earlier king but acted as a “mother” to Agaja in the office. Her power, influence, and historical existence is attested to by dozens who claim to be her descendants. After Agaja conquered Ouidah, European traders who began to offer eyewitness accounts of his court noted the presence of wives and women slaves. According to William Snelgrave there was an elderly woman who acted as a messenger between the King and “men of the court”. This woman, officially known as the dalko conveyed the words of outsiders to the King, she had close proximity to him and the royal ministers. From an outsider’s perspective these women were capable of blocking or promoting their interests. Semley suggests that Agaja’s display of wealth in gold, imported fabrics, European goods, guns, and well-dressed women may have foretold Dahomey’s later use of women soldiers.

The reign that followed brought in King Tegbesu and Hwanjile as Kpojito. He reigned from 1740 to 1774. Tegbesu accumulated more wives, women guards and slaves as part of his palace’s bureaucracy and opulence. Interestingly Tegbesu had been a prisoner in his youth in Oyo and modelled his palace based on what he saw there. He had eunuchs, slaves with half-shaved heads like the ilari of Oyo and other titled officers that mirrored the Oyo system. Hwanjile is said to have through him initiated a religious change which lessened the tensions between religious heads and the royal family. As Agaja’s wife, she had mentored Tegbesu in the worship of deities and use of “medicines”. As Kpojito she introduced two supreme deities linked to individual kings and encouraged the use of a divination system that was derived from Ifa.

Tegbesu’s successors followed his footsteps, they had hundred (thousands its been suggested) royal wives participating in annual ceremonies to honour royal ancestors. In 1797, which I find particularly fascinating (as in I wish I had the energy to write a piece of historical fiction based on this) there was a protracted struggle between factions of women in the palace that brought King Adandozan into power. After ascending the throne Adandozan struck back by ordering princesses slain and sending those who had opposed his ascent into slavery. Public opinion grew against Adandozan for his cruelty, he was eventually overthrown in a coup in 1818 and effectively “erased” from Dahomey history. There is scarce information on Kentobasin, the Kpojito at that time.

One of the women forced into slavery by Adandozan, Agontime was honoured as Kpojito in the next reign. It’s not possible that she was ever found although attempts were made to rescue her. Around that time, the impact of the Atlantic slave trade hit Dahomey in one of several ways by marking the end of the century of powerful and influential women in the palace. This is due to a change in the ideology that lead to more emphasis on displaying women simply as wives in the literal sense as we understand it now (i.e. not as dependants of the King).

What I read

Edna Bay (1998), Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics, and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey

Lorelle D. Semley (2010), Mother is Gold, Father is Glass: Gender and Colonialism in a Yoruba Town

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