Béhanzin, King of Dahomey: 12 Years of Forced Exile in Martinique #1/2 From Abomey to Fort Tartenson

tanlista, détail d'une photo en noir et blanc de Béhanzin en tenue officielle (drapé d'un grand tissus, pipe longue et coiffe couvrant les oreilles, installé sous un parapluie cérémoniel)

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Several years ago, during a conversation, there was a vague reference to an African king who had come to Martinique; I had not paid more attention to this information in the flow of words. And then some time ago, I was led to research the history of a house in Fort-de-France; however, it turns out that one of its occupants was Behanzin, king of Dahomey! Not only did I research the house, but I also discovered the story of the sovereign who made France tremble on the other side of the ocean, so feared that he was exiled to Martinique. Today, I am talking to you about the 12 years of forced exile from Behanzin to Fort-de-France. To do this, I will develop chronologically what his life and that of his relatives may have been, relying in particular on the press (with all that this requires caution as regards content).

How did Behanzin, king of Dahomey, end up in Martinique in 1894?

As the subject was unfamiliar to me, my first questions were about the history of Behanzin: who was he and how did he end up disembarked one day in 1894 on our small island?

Heir to a lineage of kings for several centuries, Behanzin was born under the name Ahokponou Nyakaja Honsinyenli in 1845 on the Abomey plateau. Son of King Gléglé and Queen Nan Akossou Mandjanou, he became the heir to the throne in 1875 under the name of Kondo. His father died in December 1889. Kondo, 45 years old, then ascended the throne and was led to rule over Dahomey; he took the name Behanzin Aïdjéré. Much more than its ancestors, Behanzin had to face the growing presence of European powers that colonized and built empires on the African continent. The Berlin conference (1884-1885) in particular worked to share Africa, confirming the French presence in the Ouidah and Cotonou region.

Royaume du Dahomey,
Source Wikipédia

Behanzin had to manage this French presence as best he could. He tried to take advantage of it through the Ouidah Agreement, concluded on 30 October 1890, which recognized France as the protectorate over Porto-Novo, in exchange for an annual rent of 20,000 francs. But this agreement was only a respite in his anti-colonial struggle. In 1892, French troops led by Colonel Doods invaded Dahomey. On November 4, Behanzin’s army was almost destroyed. Of the 15,000 men and 4000 famous Amazons (warrior women), about 4,000 were killed and 8,000 injured. Doods entered Abomey on fire. Behanzin tried in vain to negotiate, he continued his struggle with the few armed forces he had remaining. Finally, in January 1894, he voluntarily surrendered himself to the only requirement of being able to travel to France to meet President Sadi Carnot, whom he considered to be his equal. This meeting never took place. Behanzin was sent, not to Paris to the president, but in forced exile… to Martinique. For him, it was the beginning of a long journey.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Delphino Moracchini, the Governor of Martinique was consulted on 23 February 1894 to find out whether the presence of Behanzin was a problem on the small island; he did not mind. He thought that all governors had been consulted like himself. However, this was not the case! Behanzin was a powerful and influential man, so the French government sought as much as possible to keep him away from his country, but also from his continent. Martinique, a small island separated from Dahomey by an ocean, offered both a situation conducive to avoiding an escape and a climate that seemed acceptable to the fallen king. Victor Ballot, the first governor of Dahomey from 1894 to 1900, knew something about it; he was himself born in 1853 in Martinique! It was his idea for this exile destination. Thus, on March 12, Moracchini received a report confirming the internment of Béhanzin in Martinique. The former king of Dahomey was expected at the end of the month.

Behanzin « prisoner » at Fort Tartenson in Martinique

On March 30, 1894, in the late afternoon, the crowd of curious people was numerous on the Savannah and the quays of Fort-de-France to see King Behanzin. He disembarked with his suite, was received at the government hotel (now the prefecture) for the required formalities, then was taken to his assigned residence: Fort Tartenson.

Martinique, Le roi Béhanzin débarquant à Fort-de-France,
Source Fondation Clément : F014_06_143

Fort Tartenson was built between 1857 and 1873 to consolidate the defence of Fort-de-France and its bay. But in 1894, it was empty and unused. The governor thus proposed to keep the sovereign there. In addition to saving rent, the space allowed easy surveillance of its host. As the press at the time acknowledged, Behanzin was not a prisoner as such, he was free to move around the island and had to be treated according to his rank; but his actions and movements, his movements in particular, were under surveillance.

At Fort Tartenson, a space was quickly redeveloped to accommodate the king. A few partitions added in a building made it possible to form rooms in order to house Behanzin. The furnishings were minimalist; this did not escape a visitor. Frédéric Febvre described in the newspaper Le Gaulois of 11 November 1895 (p. 3/4) as follows: « a vast room lit on the courtyard on the fort side of the ramparts, 6 chairs, a carpet, a large armchair at the back, a door giving access to the King’s and his wives’ apartments and that’s all! » [une vaste pièce s’éclairant sur la cour du fort côté des remparts, 6 chaises, un tapis, un grand fauteuil au fond une portière donnant accès dans les appartements du Roi et de ses femmes et c’est tout !]. Some people had also been made available for domestic needs.

Behanzin had not come to Martinique alone. He was accompanied by:

  • 4 of his wives (he had many more!): Etiomi, Sénocom, Ménousoué, and Dononcoué,
  • 4 children (he had many more too!): his daughters Abopanou, Kpotassi, Mécougnon (15 to years old), and his son Ouanilo 9 years old,
  • its secretary (and relative) Adandédjan,
  • finally Pierre Fanou, the interpreter, and his wife Falégué.
Fort-de-France Town, Béhanzin and his familly (Martinique),
Archives Fondation Clément : F014_06_155

Béhanzin and the cathedral of Fort-de-France

While Behanzin had been exiled on the island for barely 3 months, on 25 June 1894, the President of the French Republic, Sadi Carnot, was assassinated. Throughout France, tribute ceremonies were organized. Thus, in Martinique, Behanzin attended a religious ceremony in homage to the president on July 3, 1894 in the cathedral of Fort-de-France. Behanzin had already been in contact with the Catholic world, due to the presence of missionaries on the African continent; nevertheless, it seems that he took part in his first Mass that day and that he has since then been fond of going to the building. Behanzin was thus invited to officially participate in the inauguration of the building, which was completed on July 2, 1895; then, a few weeks later, on August 21, 1895, he still attended the bell ceremony for the cathedral of Fort-de-France. He then becomes a loyal visitor to the place. Was his attraction related to the splendour of the place and the important people who frequented it or simply to the boredom of his life in exile? Did Behanzin wonder about the power of the Gods, his own and others’? I could not delve into the question, but I wonder about the relationship of the « vanquished » to the beliefs of the « winner » in such circumstances(*).

The time of rumours

Nevertheless, the life of Béhanzin in Martinique has given rise to many rumours in the Parisian newspapers. The press thus acts as a relay for a first hearsay following the arrival of the king. As early as September 1894, the headlines reported a fake Behanzin in Martinique! The real one would still be on the African continent, organizing the anti-colonial struggle in the shadows! The rumour was false, but it was not until October 1895 that it dissipated.

Other noises emerged in June 1895; this time they related to the living conditions of Behanzin. A first rumour tells us that the king being unable to endure the climate, it was expected that he would return to this or that destination. This time, there was a background of truth in the news: it is true that Béhanzin never seems to have enough warmth in the testimonies of those who visit him; nevertheless, there was never any question for the French administration to relocate him.

The other rumour probably originated from the critical, but distorted, look of Behanzin and his family’s participation in social gatherings. The press reports that Behanzin and his daughters were forced to dance to get a few favours/sweeties, in short, that they were being turned like a circus. Again, this is not true; nothing so degrading is imposed on the king. However, several accounts testify to the participation of Behanzin and his family in receptions. On April 5, 1894, Behanzin received the company’s senior officials and ladies. At the end of October 1894, the king was invited on a ship for a reception. In these moments of sociability, the father or his daughters could be led to share a few dance steps or sing a few songs. However, it is quite certain, at least I believe it is, that their presence and the way they exchanged based on their own cultural code were sources of curiosity, sometimes unhealthy, sometimes even misunderstanding by those who attended them. The mention of the naked chest of women (and also of men) thus often appears in the stories of visitors who were marked (not to say shocked) by this cultural difference.

tanlistwa, photographie, Béhanzin, ses 3 femmes, ses 3 filles, 1894
Martinique. Béhanzin, and 3 wives (Vilo-Toté, Etiam, Mounoussouai) and his 3 daughters (Abopano, Potossai, Mécougon) in fort Tartenson (Déc. 1894) Archives BNF : / [photogr.] Salles ; [photogr. reprod. par Radiguet & Massiot?], 1894

The cost of Behanzin

Another subject of discussion around the king was the cost of maintenance. After his arrival in March 1894, within 9 months, 20,000 francs had been spent to install Behanzin and his suite. This did not please Victor Ballot, Governor of Benin (colonial authority in Dahomey), because it was his administration that had to bear the expenses of the exile. He also gradually reduced the annual budget, forgetting the commitment made in 1894 to devote 14,000 francs per year to the king’s salary costs (ministerial dispatch of May 1894); the figure even fell below the 5000 franc limit, it seems, but only his son Ouanilo’s school fees stood at 930 francs per year. The local newspapers relayed this information with an allocation reduced from the equivalent of 60 to 12 francs per day. There would even have been a creol song: « Quat’femmes, Trois YChes, douze francs pa jou/ mais ni de quoi renn’an roi fou! » [Four women, three children, twelve francs a day, but that’s enough to drive a king crazy!]

The king did not go mad, but far from his lands, his life was not that of a happy man either. In the next post, I tell you about the joys and sorrows of his daily life in Martinique, that of his family and the endless hope of seeing his kingdom again.

Want to read more? Behanzin, king of Dahomey: 12 years of forced exile in Martinique #2/2 from Villa les Bosquets to Blida.

(*) At the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century, some couples from Kalinagos did not hesitate to cross the canal of Saint Lucia or Dominica to have their child baptized, without having adopted the Catholic religion for themselves (no marriage); one can suppose that among the reasons, there was the idea of protecting the child with the « gods of the winner » who, in view of the situation of domination, might have appeared stronger for some than their original gods.

French Bibliography

  • Amegboh Joseph, Béhanzin Roi d’Abomey, ABC. Paris, 1975.
  • Léger Jacqueline, Béhanzin exil d’un roi, Direction des bibliothèques départementales. Fort-de-France, 1995.
  • Louis Patrice, Le Roi Béhanzin, du Dahomey à la Martinique, Arléa, 2011.

French Archives
Archives territoriales de Martinique

  • Fonds Robert Rose-Rosette 14J.

News stories are generally reported in more or less detail in several newspapers; I only mention one each time as an example.


I got the maps from Wikipedia.

In the Clément Foundation postcard collection:

  • Martinique, Le roi Béhanzin débarquant à Fort-de-France, F014_06_143
  • Ville de Fort-de-France, Béhanzin et sa famille (Martinique), F014_06_155

In Bibliothèque nationale de France

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