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In the Bones of the Kingdom: Abomey

The history of Benin and the history of Abomey aren’t all that different, Benin’s original name, Dahomey (“In the belly of Dan”) being the name of the kingdom whose royal palace was in Abomey. So early one Saturday morning we drove up to see it.

Abomey’s reputation is larger than life. Says Stewart Butler, “With walls made of blood and thrones of human heads, the royal city of Abomey is ... after Timbuktu and Zanzibar ... the most celebrated of old African towns. [The name] was once whispered in fearful awe by the citizens of the surrounding kingdoms as well as in the civilised drawing rooms of 19th century Europe. Its kings, descended from the son of a princess who slept with a panther, were protected by the only genuine Amazon army the world has ever known, and they lived a life of extreme brutality.”

Travelers head to Abomey for a glimpse of the throne set on human skulls, or the palace walls painted red with blood, and inside the palace we found a variety of exhibits of old thrones, the hammock king Gbehanzin was carried around in, and some French lithographs of the kingdom around the time they were sacking it (1892, and the Dahomeys nearly won the battle). We passed from courtyard to courtyard under the blazing African sun while a guide explained the exhibits to us in rather inordinate enthusiasm. The guide focused more on what attracts a Beninese audience than a skeptical Westerner like me, who found the legends hard to swallow: given a scepter depicting a dog riding on a horse under an umbrella, the guide explained how the king had ridden into enemy territory undetected because of a charm that had turned him into a dog (Apparently the umbrella didn’t blow his cover: I wonder if my Afri-mutts could take the equestrian challenge as well?)

What impressed me most was what went unsaid, and most of what I learned about Abomey I learned from Butler’s book. Left unsaid was the following: the former royal palace of Abomey, home of one of Western Africa’s most powerful and feared tribes, was nothing more than a handful of crumbling courtyards. The king burnt what he could to ensure the French couldn’t take it, and what made the palace and the kingdom awesome -- the brutality and death, the disregard for human life, the capacity for inflicting massive destruction -- were long gone. What has replaced it is more mundane but no less brutal. The image that will most stay with me from the adventure is of the dead motorcyclist, crushed on the road to Dassa under an 18-wheeler that left the rider’s ruined body and the remnants of his motorcycle horrifically mutilated. A handful of sad onlookers had gathered at roadside to mourn the friend they lost to a society unwilling to enforce or obey basic traffic rules.


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