Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving "Port," 1727-1892

Article excerpt

Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving "Port," 1727-1892. By Robin Law. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004. Pp. xi, 297; 5 maps. $49.95 cloth, $29.95 paper.

Ouidah in French, Whydah in English, Fida in Dutch, and Ajuda in Portuguese originally was called Hueda, Peda, or Glehue depending on the local language. Robin Law has done careful local research integrating oral traditions and official archives from Benin, Britain, and France.

Law's first chapter covers the origins of Ouidah until its conquest by the Kingdom of Dahomey in 1727. Facing competing local accounts of the founding of the town and without European documents to choose among them, Law proposes that religion may hold the key.

Chapters 2 and 3 cover the Dahomian conquest. The Yovogan, "Chief of the Whites," was supposed to control and tax the European forts, the local merchants, and the population. As such, he was the point of contact between the Kingdom of Dahomey and European traders. Since Law is arguing that Ouidah was not a neutral port of trade as proposed by Karl Polanyi but rather a dependency of Dahomey, the degree of control by the Yovogan was crucial. Out of thirteen officials in the first four decades, most were executed or deposed. While these punishments show that kings were attempting to assert control of their Yovogan and merchants, the incentives for Ouidah to become a neutral port of trade were very strong.

Chapter 4 discusses the operation of the Atlantic slave trade. African kings had enough influence to force European powers to respect the neutrality of Ouidah, even during their wars. Though Britain outlawed the slave trade to its colonies in 1808 and France did so in 1818, the slave trade between Portuguese colonies South of the Equator and Brazil legally continued until 1839, when it was finally outlawed in Britain's treaty with Portugal.

Chapter 5 shows that Francisco de Souza used his Portuguese nationality to prolong the slave trade in Ouidah. In this he had cooperation of the Yovogan. Even after Portuguese slave trading became illegal, de Souza continued it through his agents in other ports.

Chapters 6 and 7 discuss the transition from slave trading to palm oil after 1840. Law argues that the palm oil trade did not interfere with the slave trade, but rather became a cover under which banned trading could continue. Slaves could be bought for easily transportable silver coins, which could then be exchanged for British manufactured goods imported for the palm oil trade. …