Africa and the Africans in the Nineteenth Century: A Turbulent History

By Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch; Mary Baker | Go to book overview

4
Animism’s Resistance—
Openness and Introversion
Central-Western Africa

The Reformism of the Coastal Empires

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the coastal groups and immediate hinterland were in full expansion, no matter what their political organization: centralized state, city-state, kinship-based society, or even British colony (Sierra Leone). States such as that of the Asante based their power on their location between the savanna and the rain forest. The kingdoms of Abomey and especially of Porto-Novo; the peoples of the Niger River Delta and backcountry, the Cameroon coast, and the Portuguese-dominated islands of São Tomé; and the Orungu and Mpongwe living at the mouth of the Ogooué were all dependent on the Atlantic economy. While the slave trade had resurged at the end of the eighteenth century, after the downswing resulting from the American War of Independence, in the nineteenth century most of the societies, especially those along the lower Niger, were able to convert to “licit” trade.1

Some of them, such as the Abomey Kingdom and the empires in the Niger River Delta, played decisive roles in nineteenth-century politics, military, and economy.


A Small National Autocracy: The Abomey Kingdom

Royal power strengthened in Dahomey at the end of the century owing in part to the combination of remarkable domestic policy and a strong economy until the last third of the century. Like many coastal groups, the kingdom was formed when the Atlantic slave trade began to flourish in the seventeenth century. It was a strong political community of Fon language and general culture, and had a system that combined war and trade. During the dry season, the army, under the leadership of the king and various provincial chiefs, traveled into the surrounding countryside to capture prisoners for the slave trade. During the rainy season, Fon soldiers became peasants again and engaged in sub-

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