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Some time ago, I was led to research the history of a house in Fort-de-France, and it turns out that one of its occupants was Behanzin, King of Dahomey! So not only did I research the house, but I also discovered the story of the sovereign who made France tremble across the ocean, so feared, that he was exiled to Martinique. If you haven’t read it yet, you can discover the first post about Behanzin, king of Dahomey: 12 years of forced exile in Martinique #1/2 From Abomey to Fort Tartenson which evokes more particularly the reasons of his presence in Martinique and the first years of exile. Today, I continue with the joys and sorrows of the daily life of King Behanzin and his family until his departure from the island in 1906. As in the first post, I will develop chronologically different moments of his life and that of his relatives, relying in particular on the press.
Behanzin in the stories of his visitors
For many, Behanzin was an attraction not to be missed during a stopover in Martinique; at least for visitors with a certain social importance, because people did not go to the sovereign as they pleased. In the archives, I found several French accounts of visitors:
- Louis Garaud’s visit in January 1895, recounted in his book Trois ans à la Martinique (p. 269 et seq.),
- that of a private correspondent published in Le Petit Parisien in July 1895,
- that of Frédéric Febvre in Le Gaulois in November 1895,
- that of « one of our friends » in Le Temps in April 1897,
- that of Georges Thiébaud in Le Matin in December 1897,
- that of a correspondent for the English newspaper the Globe in Le Constitutionnel in August 1901,
- that of Jean Lionnet published in Le magasin pittoresque in July 1902,
Not only was racism evident at the time, but the lack of knowledge about the situation of Behanzin and his family was sometimes obvious. For example, some visitors talk about slaves serving the king, while in fact they are wives. Some information is very approximate. Moreover, the general tone is often linked to the political opinion of the writer. Therefore, the contents should be read with caution.
Nevertheless, in the stories, we glimpse the modalities of the meeting. To go to the king, apparently an authorization from the governor was needed. On the spot, the meeting did not take place without protocol or even some kind of ceremony. The visitor was announced. Behanzin presented himself smoking his pipe under his large umbrella held by a wife, another wife holding a spittoon. He wore his long special headdress and also had in his possession a hardwood sceptre with a silver handle, a sign of his royalty. The visitor never failed to bring a small present, often cigars.
The story of Louis Garaud, former vice-rector of Martinique, who saw the king in January 1895, is the one I prefer. He is the only one to take a critical distance from his own prejudices.
« Les journaux, dans leurs cruelles fantaisies, m’avaient d’abord inspiré pour le roi de Dahomey une profonde aversion. Aujourd’hui mes sentiments se sont modifiés. Je ne crois ce roi ni aussi sauvage, ni aussi sanguinaire qu’on s’est plu à le dépeindre. Je ne peux même pas me défendre d’une naissante sympathie pour lui. N’est-il pas vaincu, dépossédé, exilé?
On m’a dit qu’en se livrant au général Dodds il avait la certitude d’être décapité. C’est le sort réservé aux vaincus là-bas. Il y avait donc une certaine grandeur à affronter ainsi la mort, après la défaite. »
[The newspapers, in their cruel fantasies, had first inspired in me a deep aversion to the king of Dahomey. Today my feelings have changed. I do not believe this king to be as savage and bloodthirsty as he has been portrayed. I can’t even defend myself from a nascent sympathy for him. Isn’t he defeated, dispossessed, exiled?
I was told that when he surrendered to General Dodds he was certain to be beheaded. That’s the fate of the vanquished out there. So there was a certain greatness in facing death in this way, after defeat.]
These few lines highlight a paradox that is found in all stories. The press does not hesitate to present Behanzin as a « bloodthirsty tyrant », a « monstrous brute », a « savage » … Also the visitors always seem sensitive to the capacity of the sovereign to receive in the rules of his rank, as if surprised that Béhanzin is not as wild as they imagine.
1896, Ouanilo, the prodigal son
The interest of the press is not only focused on Behanzin, he also turns to his son, who, in August 1896, is the subject of a dispatch on his school success. Ouanilo was born around 1885, he was about 9 years old when he arrived in Martinique. He begins his studies in Fort-de-France in the institution of the brothers of Plöermel, then he was enrolled in the high school of Saint-Pierre. The Colonial High School of Saint-Pierre was a public secular school for boys, located in the district of Le Mouillage. Ouanilo arrived by boat on December 13, 1894, for the first time in the bustling city where the crowd was waiting for him.
If Ouanilo landed in Martinique knowing only a few words of French exchanged during the crossing with the sailors, he turned out to be an excellent pupil. Thus, in October 1895, he already had a sufficient knowledge of the language to serve as an intermediary for his father. In August 1896, the press testified to his success: 1st prize for excellence in French, English, recitation and geography, 2nd prize in reading, arithmetic, writing and drawing, 1st runner-up in history, science and gymnastics!
Ouanilo thus studied with some 80 other students until the destruction of the school in 1902. After that, he continued his studies in Fort-de-France.
1897, the dismissal of the interpreter Pierre Fanou
If Ouanilo made the headlines for his brilliant results, it was quite a different story for the interpreter Pierre Fanou. In 1897, the administrator requested permission to dismiss the man and his wife.
« J’ai l’honneur de vous prier de vouloir bien m’autoriser à renvoyer au Dahomey l’interprète Fanou détaché près de Béhanzin.
Cet interprète n’est plus d’aucune utilité à l’ex-roi qui peut aujourd’hui se servir, pour ses communications avec l’administration, du concours de son fils qui actuellement, parle et écrit passablement le français.
Fanou est en outre un mauvais esprit qui suscite constamment des ennuis à l’autorité. Il a une conduite et une tenue déplorables, et contracte des habitudes d’intempérance et fréquente assidûment les cabarets et les tripots.
Béhanzin se plaint constamment des mauvais procédés de cet interprète. »
[I have the honour to ask you to authorise me to send back to Dahomey the Fanou interpreter assigned near Behanzin.
This interpreter is no longer of any use to the former king, who can now use the help of his son, who speaks and writes a fair amount of French, for his communications with the administration.
Fanou is also an evil spirit who constantly causes trouble for the authorities. His conduct and dress are deplorable, and he contracts habits of intemperance and assiduously frequents cabarets and bars.
Behanzin constantly complains about this interpreter’s bad manners.]
Thus, in 1897 Behanzin fired Fanou for his misconduct; the king now counts on Ouanilo to replace him in this role, who shines in high school.
1898, the move to the villa Les Bosquets
In 1898, it is now 4 years since Behanzin moved to Fort Tartenson with his family. But because of the geopolitical context, his relocation was requested. On 17 May, a telegram sent to Paris, signed by the acting governor M. Capest, warns that the king must be dislodged and installed in the city. Indeed, the risk of a conflict was raised by the Spanish-American War; France therefore secured its Caribbean territories militarily. All of this involves employing and rearming Fort Tartenson.
Behanzin and his family then settled in a nearby villa, now known as Villa Les bosquets. The villa is located just behind the Gueydon fountain, next to the College seminar, on the Fabre family’s land. It consists of a main house and a few small outbuildings. At the time it was a single-storey wooden house, Creole type, with a veranda around and shuttered openings(*). Jean Lionnet gives a short description :
« Une petite villa, en haut d’un jardinet escarpé. Nous entrons dans une sorte d’antichambre aux persiennes closes, ayant pour tout mobilier une table et quelques chaises, dont un rocking-chair. »
[A small villa, at the top of a steep little garden. We enter a sort of antechamber with closed shutters, with a table and a few chairs, including a rocking chair. ]
From the villa, access to the town is easy, a small staircase winds along the hill and joins the bridge over the Levassor canal. The proximity to the city allows the girls of Behanzin to go to the other side of the canal to walk through the streets, buy cloth, and exchange a few words of Creole with the shopkeepers. Anecdotes circulate about Behanzin’s discovery of Roquefort cheese and his attraction for champagne.
Some elements of daily life appear in the course of the documents. Behanzin fed on millet as much as possible, on the vegetables and fruits he had known in his kingdom. He did not master the French language, or at least if he did, he did not let anything of it show. He constantly smoked pipe tobacco and had a fondness for alcohol. He preferred to sleep on mats on the floor rather than use the beds provided. The presence and idleness of the sovereign would even have led to the creation of the Creol expression « Ou ka pran ko pou Béhanzin« . You think you are Behanzin!
1899, Behanzin booed and insulted
While browsing through the press of 1899, I was surprised to discover a French article in La Croix of June, 21 1899, which reported insults against the deposed king. F. Mury, former commissioner of the French Navy, thus made it known about Behanzin that he had been booed and called a « sale nègre » by « pas beaucoup moins nègre que lui » [« bloody nigger » by « not much less a nigger than he was »] when he arrived. I don’t know what to think of the veracity of the remarks, because the article refers to a fact that took place 5 years before! Why does it only emerge at that time? I don’t know; nevertheless, true or false, anecdotal or a reflection of a widely shared opinion, this passage is interesting because it questions the relations of the Martinican population in Behanzin.
Today, Behanzin seems rather perceived as a symbol of the anti-colonial struggle on the African continent; but at the time, he was not necessarily welcomed as a black hero by the people of Martinique. Indeed, Behanzin was known to practice slavery and human sacrifice in his kingdom. In Martinique, the abolition of slavery was barely 50 years old, and the memory of what it meant to be a slave was necessarily vivid and painful.
Another explanation is perhaps to be found in the assimilationist discourse that prevailed in Martinique at the time. Without going into detail, in the years 1820 to 1848, the struggle for the legal equality of persons led to a political process of assimilation, the first act in a long process of attempted integration into the French nation by part of the coloured elite. The political culture of assimilation in the nineteenth century sought to erase the cultural particularities of the Antilleans and tended to distance itself as much as possible from the Africans in order to conform to the European perception of the so-called « civilized » nations; as Louis Garaud reminded us, the press did not fail to present black Africans as savages or brutes . This could also explain marks of disdain towards Behanzin.
Deaths and births around Behanzin
As the years went by, the joys and sorrows of family life touched that of Behanzin in Martinique. In 1899, Adandédjan (acting as secretary and related to the king) died of chronic bronchitis on 15 May in the military hospital. Nevertheless, the family was growing. His daughter Abopanou, 24, gave birth to Frederic on 11 May 1901 (the father is officially unknown). A few months later it was Mecouillon, 22 years old, who gave birth to Gabriel on August 31, 1901, whose father was Gabriel Loriot, a government agent. Finally, Abopanou had, in 1906, Andréa, daughter of the cavalry officer Louis Souffler. Today some descendants exist from these children born in Martinique.
Requests for a return to the native kingdom
Even if life took its course over all these years, Behanzin never gave up asking for his return to Dahomey: October and December 1895, August 1896, June 1897, October 1898, March 1902? The press often reported this incessant desire. Throughout his exile, Behanzin’s health suffered and he complained about the climate, which was too cold for him. The press described him many times as « bored », but more than that, it is nostalgia that seems to have undermined him. Literally, he languished for his kingdom. After the eruption of the mountain in 1902, his demands became more and more insistent. For lack of a response from the government, the king turned to possible political support. In particular, he wrote a letter through his son to the deputy Gaston Gerville-Réache to plead for his repatriation. The letter was made public by the deputy (you can read it in L’Éclair of October 28, 1902); it then became difficult for the government to ignore the request of the deposed king. However, the response was negative. Nevertheless, from 1905 onwards, the press gave massive coverage to the request, exerting media pressure that pushed the government to give in.
1906, on the long way home
April 1906 was the end of 12 years of exile in Martinique for Behanzin and his family! The family, enlarged by births and accompanied by some members of the domestic staff (including the governess who can be recognized with her Madras headdress in the illustration) are part of the journey. On board the liner « Martinique », the small group set sail for the French mainland, before sailing to Algiers at the end of April. The family then settled not far from the Algerian capital, in Blida. But the health of the old king had deteriorated considerably. Having been back on the African continent for only a few months, he died on 10 December 1906, at the age of 61, in Algiers, without having fulfilled his dearest wish: to return to his native land in Dahomey.
It would then take another 22 years for his remains to be repatriated. Following the request of the children of the deceased, it was only in 1928 that the body was returned to the land of Dahomey, so much so that the King’s name alone made the French authorities fear his power.
(*) The villa Les Bosquets is located on a plot of land several times divided up, originally included in the Tartenson dwelling. Henri Fabre acquired from his aunt the piece of land where the villa was located on March 31, 1906, in other words, at the same time as Behanzin was leaving the place. Henri Fabre is said to have initiated the construction of the buildings as we know them today, with a house larger than the one in which Béhanzin lived and established on two levels. The land was then sold to the Colony in 1922; the house became a functional lodging for the public prosecutors.
- 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.
Archives territoriales de Martinique
- Fonds Robert Rose-Rosette 14J.
- Récit d’une visite faite au roi Béhanzin par Jean Lionnet, Le magazin pitorresque en juillet 1902, 1J64/15.
- série géographique, 1mi486.
- série géographique, 1mi1476.
Bibliothèque numérique Manioc
- Louis Garaud, Trois ans à la Martinique, [S.l.] : Alcide Picard et Kaan, 1895.
Dispatches are usually reported in more or less detail in several newspapers; I cite only one of them each time as an example.
- Le Petit Parisien du 10 juillet 1895, (récit de visite)
- Le Gaulois du 11 novembre 1895, (récit de visite)
- Le Temps du 18 avril 1897, (récit de visite)
- Le Matin du 1er décembre 1897, (récit de visite)
- Le Constitutionnel du 22 août 1901, (récit de visite)
- La Petite Gironde du 23 août 1896, (réussite scolaire de Ouanilo)
- La Croix 21 juin 1899 (affaire des insultes)
- L’Éclair du 28 octobre 1902 (supplique du roi publié par Gerville Réache)
- Le Petit Marseillais 13 novembre 1902 (réponse à la supplique)
- La République française 19 février 1906 (départ annoncé)
Bibliothèque nationale de France : Martinique. Béhanzin à Fort-de-France et une de ses femmes, photographe André Salles, 1894
Fondation Clément :
Martinique – La fontaine Gueydon à Fort-de-France, F014.04.182.
Algérie – Béhanzin ex-roi du Dahomey sa famille et sa suite. 1906. F014_06_160.
Library of Congress : King Bihuazin [i.e. Béhanzin] of Dahomey, and his two wives [standing on porch] – French government prisoner in Martinique, Fort de France, 1902, 2003680275. (Extrait en tête d’article, photo vraisemblablement prise à la Villa Les Bosquets)