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The Precolonial State in West Africa: Building Power in Dahomey


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This volume incorporates historical, ethnographic, art historical, and archaeological sources to examine the relationship between the production of space and political order in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey during the tumultuous Atlantic Era. Dahomey, situated in the modern Republic of Bénin, emerged in this period as one of the principle agents in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and an exemplar of West African state formation. Drawing from eight years of ethnohistorical and archaeological fieldwork in the Republic of Bénin, the central thesis of this volume is that Dahomean kings used spatial tactics to project power and mitigate dissent across their territories.J. Cameron Monroe argues that these tactics enabled kings to economically exploit their subjects, and to promote a sense of the historical and natural inevitability of royal power.
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Precolonial State
in West Africa
Building Power in Dahomey
J. Cameron Monroe
As with all cultures, that of Dahomey is the product of its historic past; hence
the more this past can be recovered, the greater the insight with which its civi-
lization today can be studied.
(Herskovits 1938 : 4)
W est Africa in the Atlantic Era (The Sixteenth Through
nineteenth centuries AD) rests uncomfortably at a point of articu-
lation in scholarly debates on the origins of social complexity and
the state. A bewildering diversity of societies developed during this period, from
expansive centralized states and empires, through smaller-scale segmentary line-
age societies, whose survival rested on complex relationships with neighboring
polities and European mercantile interests along the coast ( Figure 1.1 ). Given
the historical richness of the period, and unbroken cultural continuity into the
twentieth century, West African kingdoms that emerged during the Atlantic Era
gured prominently in scholarly discussions of non-Western political dynam-
ics for much of the twentieth century (Forde & Kaberry 1967 ; Herskovits
1938 ; Law 1977b ; McCaskie 1995 ; Smith 1969 ; Wilks 1975 ). Until the past few
decades, however, scholars commonly downplayed the local underpinnings of
West African polities, attributing the rise of the rst cities and states across the
region to the arrival of conquerors and traders from distant shores (cf. Levtzion
1973 ). The precolonial state in West Africa was thus viewed largely as “a super-
structure erected over village communities of peasant cultivators rather than
a society which has grown naturally out of them” (Oliver & Fage 1962 : 47),
de ned in terms of markers of civilization introduced from elsewhere (Connah
2001 ; Mitchell 2005 ).
The core assumptions that supported these ideas have deep roots in colonial
mythologies of the exogenous origins of African civilization, and have been dis-
missed whole handedly (R. J. McIntosh 1999 ; S. K. McIntosh 1999b ; Monroe
2013 ; Stahl 1999a ), yet they have had clear and long-lasting consequences for the
archaeological study of West Africa’s past. On one hand, as anthropologists of the
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The Precolonial State in West Africa
1960s turned to archaeology to uncover material traces of the core, unadulterated
processes of cultural evolution, West African cases were deemed inconsequential
(S. K. McIntosh 1999b ). Despite the clear contributions of West African case
studies to earlier anthropological and historical visions of non-Western political
institutions, the global archaeological community largely neglected West African
examples. Rather, scholars turned to the “core” areas of “pristine” state formation
in the past (Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, the Indus Valley, China,
the Andes, etc.). In recent years, however, cultural contact has been recentered
within discussions of sociocultural change in the past (Cusick 1998 ; Stahl 2001 ;
Wolf 1982 ), and archaeologists have shifted from outlining universal evolution-
ary trajectories to tracing variable pathways toward social complexity, resulting
in a broadening of perspectives on the dynamics of complex societies worldwide
(Stein 1998 ). West Africa of the Atlantic Era has subsequently reemerged as an
ideal context in which to explore the dynamics of political centralization in the
past (Monroe & Ogundiran 2012b ).
This volume explores the rise and expansion of the kingdom of Dahomey on
the Slave Coast of West Africa from the seventeenth century until its eventual
conquest by French colonial forces between 1892 and 1894. Dahomey emerged
out of the political turbulence of the Atlantic Era, weathering the expansion of
the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the eighteenth century and a destabilizing shift
toward the export of agricultural products (chie y palm oil ) in the nineteenth cen-
tury. Dahomey thereby established itself as a principal partner in trans-Atlantic
Figure 1.1. Eighteenth-centur y political map of West Africa.
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commerce and an oft-cited example of political centralization in West Africa. A
century of serious academic scholarship on Dahomey, paralleling similar trends
in the archaeology of social complexity, has revealed a con uence of Dahomean
political, military, and ritual institutions, what I refer to throughout this volume
as the royal palace sphere , geared toward extending the reach of the Dahomean
state in powerful ways (Akinjogbin 1967 ; Bay 1998 ; Diamond 1951 ; Herskovits
1938 ; Johnson 1980 ; Law 1991 ; Manning 1982 ; Monroe 2007a ; Polanyi 1966 ;
Ross 1987b ; Soumonni 1995 ). However, this same body of research has unveiled
deep fracture lines within this royal palace sphere – fractures that resulted from
the aggrandizing tendencies of powerful factions of palace residents, nobles ,
bureaucrats , ritual leaders, and wealthy merchants ; fractures that the royal
dynasty struggled to mend over the course of two centuries.
This volume adopts an archaeological perspective on space and landscape,
enriched by oral and documentary data, to explore how Dahomean kings sought
to, and sometimes succeeded in, mending these fractures, resulting in lasting
political order over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The
central argument of this volume is that the rise of palace institutions in Dahomey
was made possible by architectural campaigns to build palace spaces that extended
the reach of the state across its rapidly expanding territories. Focusing on the
design and regional distribution of royal palaces built across the Abomey Plateau,
the political heartland of greater Dahomey throughout its history, this volume
reveals that Dahomean kings deployed a suite of spatial strategies designed to (1)
extend political and economic control down to the local level; (2) refashion pub-
lic memory vis- à -vis the emerging state; and (3) accentuate status distinctions
between ruler and ruled. The Dahomean example reveals, therefore, how states
are “built” in two senses. On one hand, this analysis provides insights into how
kings constructed a civil society from the ground up, tracing the rise and expan-
sion of Dahomean palace institutions designed to centralize power and authority
and minimize factional con ict . On the other hand, the following analysis reveals
how state political projects depend, in a very literal sense, on architectural strate-
gies designed to inculcate political order within their territorial domains. States
emerge from this analysis as a set of spatial as much as bureaucratic practices,
designed to maintain political order in the face of opposition.
Explaining how decentralized political systems transformed into centralized
states has been the focus of sustained archaeological research for more than
a century. Scholars once de ned the state in reference to a series of cultural
advancements (agriculture , urbanism , monumental architecture , literacy , etc.)
that were rst initiated in a limited number of world regions (Childe 1936 ;
Morgan 1985 [1877]). Drawing from Enlightenment-era models of government,
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The Precolonial State in West Africa
anthropologists of the mid-twentieth century examined the functional role of
political institutions, an approach that generated a range of “managerial models”
for the origins of the state in prehistory (cf. Service 1975 ). These models held
that early states emerged to resolve social and ecological problems requiring
a complex political apparatus. Archaeologists sought to identify the economic
and environmental “prime movers” that provided the stimulus for the evolution
of state management systems in the past, privileging factors such as population
pressure, agricultural intensi cation, geography, resource competition , warfare ,
and long-distance trade (Carneiro 1970 ; Sanders et al. 1979 ; Wittfogel 1957 ).
The state was viewed as a set of specialized and centralized political institutions
that evolved in response to complex interactions between multiple cultural and
environmental stimuli (Adams 1966 ; Earle 1991 ; Flannery 1972 ; Haas 1982 ;
Johnson & Earle 2000 ; Plog 1975 ; Redman 1978 ; Wright 1970 , 1994 ; Wright &
Johnson 1975 ).
During the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, archaeologists
began to reconceptualize the origins of the state dramatically. Drawing largely
from Marxian perspectives on political organization in non-Western societies
(cf. Fried 1967 ), scholars argued that political centralization was marked by the
creation of institutions designed to centralize control over a variety of spheres
of social interaction, and they identi ed the seeds of this process in a range of
prestate political formations (Earle 1977 , 1987a , 1991 ; Kristiansen 1991 ; Price
& Feinman 1995 ). The near exclusive focus on political integration as an adaptive
response to socioenvironmental stress was replaced by an emphasis on political
inequality and social hierarchy . Archaeologists increasingly sought to tease out the
range of strategies emerging elites deployed in order to centralize power in the
past (Earle 1997 ). The coordinated use of military force (Carneiro 1970 ; Haas
2001 ; Johnson & Earle 2000 ), the control of material wealth (Brum el & Earle
1987 ; D’Altroy & Earle 1985 ; Earle 1987b , 1997 ), and the promulgation of state-
centric ideologies (Ashmore 1989 ; Demarest 1992 ) were all seen as centrally
important strategies in this process (Yoffee 2005 : 38). Power, and the material
strategies for achieving power, thus took center stage in archaeological discus-
sions of the emergence of social complexity and the state worldwide.
This reorientation has had a number of unintended consequences for the
comparative study of state formation in the past. First, research on elite power
strategies has revealed signi cant variability in how leaders rose to prominence
(Earle 1997 ), suggesting alternative pathways toward social complexity involv-
ing a variety of corporate and exclusionary power strategies (Blanton et al. 1996 ;
Demarest 1992 ; Earle 1991 ; Flannery 1983 ; Flannery & Marcus 1983 ; Fox 1987 ;
Fox et al. 1991 ; Hayden 1995 ; Kristiansen 1991 ; R. J. McIntosh 2005 ; S. K.
McIntosh 1999a , 1999b , 1999c ; Trigger 2003 ). In light of emerging evidence
for variability in political structure, scholars have become increasingly sensitive
to the role of cultural and historical contingency in shaping political culture in
the past (Ashmore 1989 ; R. K. McIntosh 2005 ; S. K. McIntosh 1999b , 1999c ;
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Monroe & Ogundiran 2012a ; A. T. Smith 2003 , 2011 ; Stahl 1999a , 2001 , 2004 ;
Yoffee 1993 , 2005 ).
Second, the surge of interest in the role of elite agency has revealed a range
of political agents who actively participated in the construction of political order
in the past. As Elizabeth Brum el observed, the dynamics of gender , class , and
faction have emerged as centrally important themes in the analysis of complex
societies worldwide. Indeed, archaeologists are revealing how counterstrategies
deployed by agents from a range of political identities can both underwrite and
undermine the process of political centralization, dramatically shaping the con-
tours of political organization in the past (Blanton & Fargher 2008 ; Brum el
1992 ; Ehrenreich et al. 1995 ; S. K. McIntosh 1999b ). Power emerges as diffuse and
multicentric, rather than a resource to be captured and controlled (cf. Foucault
1980 ).
African polities are playing an increasingly visible role in this discussion (S. K.
McIntosh 1999a , 1999c ). On one hand, African contexts have illuminated het-
erarchical pathways to social complexity, in which overlapping and decentral-
ized political institutions are integrated by forms of corporate power that resist,
or at least restrain, the development of social hierarchy (Crumley 1995 ; S. K.
McIntosh 1999b ). Whereas archaeologies of social complexity have privileged
vertical differentiation, that is, social hierarchy , in gauging political organization
in the past, the heterarchy concept demands that social complexity be reconcep-
tualized “as the degree of internal differentiation (horizontal as well as vertical)
and the intricacy of relations within a system” (S. K. McIntosh 1999b : 11; see
also Paynter 1989 ). Although the heterarchy concept was rst applied in African
contexts as a counterpoint to the chiefdom , the implications for the study of the
state in Africa are clear. Anthropologists worked for the better part of a genera-
tion to identify the key processes whereby political systems rooted in kin-based
power (i.e., chiefdoms and the conical clan) transform into centralized bureau-
cratic states (Fried 1967 ; Haas 1982 ; Johnson & Earle 2000 ; Service 1975 ). Many
African societies present the unique opportunity to examine how political entre-
preneurs centralized power in the face of deeply rooted heterarchical principles
of social organization, in which a lineage-based route to power is but one of
many options (Monroe 2013 ).
Africanists have long recognized that political authority in many African poli-
ties varied between two ideological poles – the rst accentuating the powers of
kings and royal dynasties, and the second seeking to diminish the aggrandizing
tendencies of elites in favor of the corporate body as a whole (Kopytoff 1999 ;
Vansina 1999 ). Southall , for example, long ago advanced the notion of the seg-
mentary state to describe expansive polities in which the ritual suzerainty serves
as the primary integrative mechanism and in which the spheres of ritual and
political power do not coincide neatly (Southall 1988 ). In such polities, exclu-
sionary forms of power are counterpoised by various corporate associations (age
sets, secret societies, title societies, etc.). Leaders disperse wealth and services to
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The Precolonial State in West Africa
attract followers, a political model Guyer and Belinga described as “wealth in
people,” which depends on the “composition” of people, knowledge, and skills,
rather than the “accumulation” of wealth and material resources, to successfully
navigate complex social and natural environments (Guyer & Belinga 1995 ).
Rather than a hard and fast category de ned by measurable thresholds and
clearly de ned boundaries, the state has been recast as a work in progress
that depends as much on elite political maneuvering as on socioenvironmen-
tal stimuli. This re ects an overall shift in archaeological questions focused on
macro - political structure, to the micro -politics of power (A. Smith 2011 ). Indeed,
the state can be approached as an eclectic set of power strategies and political
practices, which are often overlapping and mutually reinforcing, but are always
shaped by political contest and struggle. This perspective elevates political
practice , that is, the day-to-day doing of politics, over political organization , that is,
the structured outcome of long-term political processes, as a critically important
locus of analysis in the study of systems of inequality in the past.
As archaeological perspectives on politics have shifted from questions of inte-
gration and adaptation toward questions of power, domination, and resistance ,
archaeologists have drawn from a range of material sources as a window into
the practice of power politics in the past. Archaeologists have been particularly
attentive to exploring how elites manipulated the production, distribution , and
consumption of material goods to integrate regions economically, to promote
elite-centric ideological values, and to create social ties and accentuate distinc-
tions among leaders and followers (Brum el & Earle 1987 ; Costin & Hagstrum
1995 ; D’Altroy & Earle 1985 ; DeMarrais et al. 1996 ; Earle 1987b , 1994 , 1997 ;
Feinman 1980 ; Renfrew & Shennan 1982 ; Sinopoli 1988 ; Wright & Johnson
1975 ). As a sphere of material practice that, by de nition, both re ects and con-
strains human interactions at multiple social scales, the importance of space as a
tool for shaping the outcomes of political struggle has been highlighted in recent
archaeological research on states in the past (Ashmore & Knapp 1999 ; Monroe &
Ogundiran 2012a ; Pearson & Richards 1994 ; A. Smith 2003 ).
Anthropological concepts of space and power have been intimately connected
since the nineteenth century, providing a variety of vantage points from which
to examine the origins and maintenance of state political institutions. Since the
emergence of a cultural evolutionary agenda within anthropological archaeology
in the nineteenth century, a central focus of research has been the identi cation
of material signatures of social hierarchy in the archaeological record. Scholars
of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries focused enormous attention
on the study of buildings and monuments as a window into the rise and regional
extent of ancient civilizations (Childe 1936 ; Morgan 1985 ). Such studies read
the built environment as closely determined by a host of various environmental,
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cultural, social, or economic stimuli (Trigger 1968 ). The analysis of spatial pat-
terning within buildings , across sites, and between sites within regions emerged
as primary tools with which archaeologists sought to interpret cultural patterns
in the past (Chang 1968 ). Politics and space were implicitly linked in this emerg-
ing paradigm, often referred to as settlement archaeology , and archaeologists spent
a generation identifying rules of thumb for gauging social evolutionary change
in the past (Flannery 1998 ).
In recent decades, archaeological thinking on spatial patterning at the regional
level has transformed signi cantly. For one, archaeologists have expanded their
conceptual gaze considerably to appreciate a broader range of archaeological
features produced by human social and cultural practice, providing new van-
tage points from which to examine the dynamics of political practice in the
past. Shifting away from a nearly exclusive emphasis on the study of settlements
as a discrete unit of archaeological analysis, various “landscape” archaeologies
have emerged to explore more diffuse remains of human behavior (Bintliff &
Snodgrass 1988 ; Bradley 1978 ; Dunnell 1992 ; Dunnell & Dancey 1983 ; Ebert
1992 ; Foley 1981 ; Gosden & Head 1994 ; Knapp 1997 ; Rossignol & Wandsnider
1992 ; Yamin & Methany 1996 ). Additionally, archaeological research has built
productively on anthropological interventions that theorize space and landscape
as a key component of cultural production. Such theories declare that space does
not exist a priori as a natural stage on which social processes unfold, but rather
is produced by human social and cultural practice (Hirsch & O’Hanlon 1995 ;
Low & Lawrence-Z úñ iga 2003b ). This relational concept of space and landscape
is increasingly mobilized in archaeological research to explore the dynamics of
political maneuvering in complex societies (A. Smith 2003 ).
Although archaeological use of the landscape concept has tended to focus
on material patterns at the regional scale, landscape perspectives can integrate
modes of spatial practice at multiple scales of analysis, thereby bridging the gap
that exists between individual agency and the regional and global processes in
which such agency is embedded (Gosden & Head 1994 ; Marquardt & Crumley
1990 ; A. Smith 2003 ). The study of space, diffracted into a palimpsest of cultural
practices at multiple social scales, has been coupled with renewed interest in
exploring power and inequality in archaeology more generally. This shift has
resulted in spatial archaeologies of power that are transforming our understand-
ing of how state agents extended their political reach across territories, and how
they sought to naturalize political power among subjects, providing valuable new
perspectives on the nature of political power in the past. The following discus-
sion highlights three interrelated spatial strategies elites employ to construct
political regimes, what I refer to as the spatial practices of power in complex soci-
eties. These involve strategies designed to (1) render subjects visible, and thus
exploitable , by political regimes; (2) manipulate cultural memory to establish
historical precedent for elite power; and (3) naturalize a sense of social distance
and status distinction between leaders and followers.
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The Precolonial State in West Africa
The production of space is implicated in attempts by the state to track the ow of
wealth and people across territories, thereby providing new ways of “seeing,” and
therefore potentially exploiting , political subjects (Scott 1999 ). Archaeologists
working at the regional scale have long examined the role of the state in con-
structing rural administrative facilities (Schreiber 1987 ), agricultural terraces
and irrigation systems (Kolata 1986 ; Stanish 1994 ), complex road networks (Ur
2003 ), and other modi cations to the physical environment, providing a valuable
window into the emergence of state political economies in the past. Roads , set-
tlements, irrigation systems , fortresses , and so forth combine to form a material
transcript that can be read in terms of political centralization at the macropoliti-
cal scale (Wilkinson 2003 ).
However, such features reveal the range of political strategies elite agents adopt
to extend political control across territories, highlighting how the production of
space plays an active role in shaping relations of political power. Indeed, the
construction of such features across regions provides leaders the opportunity to
restructure the nature of production , extraction, and circulation of key resources
necessary for underwriting elite authority. In the process, the production of such
spaces carves out and de nes new elds of social interaction between leaders
and subjects, creating both opportunities and controls for those participating in
the broader dynamics of civic life. The production of space at the regional scale
thereby connects political centers within territories and binds towns and their
rural countrysides, yielding complex webs of political power that materialize
elite claims over speci c spheres of social and economic activity. State-sponsored
building projects stand, therefore, as centrally important tools for expanding the
political viewshed of the state, rendering “the terrain, its products, and its work-
force more legible – and hence manipulable – from above and from the center”
(Scott 1999 : 2). Archaeological analysis of state-building schemes at the regional
level can therefore cast substantial light not only on political and economic orga-
nization of complex societies in the past, but also on the degree to which political
regimes were able to assert their agendas within local communities.
The production of space is implicated in elite attempts at establishing a sense of
the historical inevitability of political power. It is one thing for elites to construct
such regional webs of political control. It is quite another to naturalize social
inequality in the hearts and minds of political subjects. The production of space
is clearly implicated in strategies to achieve this goal as well. Thinking on this
issue has been powerfully in uenced by the symbolic turn taken by anthropology
during the 1980s. This intellectual shift resulted in a deeper understanding of the
role of space in underwriting political inequality in the past. Speci cally, scholars
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came to appreciate the active role of space in shaping cultural conceptualizations
of the world (Hodder 1994 ; Knapp & Ashmore 1999 ; Low & Lawrence-Z úñ iga
2003b ). Initially, this intellectual turn resulted in the orescence of archaeologi-
cal research that saw cultural landscapes (constructed, conceptualized, and ide-
ational) as embedded with symbolic meaning (Knapp & Ashmore 1999 ). The
built environment was seen as a form of nonverbal communication, a cultural
text meant to be “read” (Blier 1987 ; Cosgrove & Daniels 1988 ; Duncan 1990 ;
Hattenhauer 1984 ; Rapoport 1982 ).
Spatial patterns thereby emerged as a valuable analytical window into the pro-
cess of cultural production. Archaeologists explored how regional patterns and
settlement plans re ected cultural cosmologies, standing as material microcosms
of the universe (Ashmore 1989 , 1991 ; Ashmore & Sabloff 2002 ; Buikstra &
Charles 1999 ; Fritz 1986 ; Knapp & Ashmore 1999 ; Marcus 1973a ; J. Richards
1999 ; Vogt 1983 ; Wheatley 1971 ). Additionally, scholars explored how build-
ings are designed according to culturally shared principles of spatial organization
(Deetz 1996 ; Glassie 1979 ; Hodder 1994 ). Transformations in the design of space
at multiple analytical scales were read as indicative of shifts in cultural worldview,
intimately tied to broader patterns of cultural-historical change (Ashmore 1989 ,
1991 ; Ashmore & Sabloff 2002 ; Deetz 1996 ; Fritz 1986 ; Glassie 1979 ; Hodder
1984 , 1994 ; Vogt 1983 ; Wheatley 1971 ). However, initial forays into the symbolic
nature of built environments were more concerned with revealing how buildings
re ected cultural values, rather than illuminating the mechanisms whereby they
might shape those values. Indeed, this symbolic turn did little to illuminate how
subjects internalize cultural statements materialized in space, let alone explain
their role in underwriting elite claims to power.
At a fundamental level, however, the production of space is a labor-intensive
activity, and thus elite representations of space are most visibly materialized in
architectural practice (Lefebvre 1991 ), an insight with profound implications for
the study of space and power in the past (Ashmore 1991 ; Ashmore & Sabloff
2002 ; Fritz 1986 ; Innomata 2006; Lefebvre 1991 ; Moore 1996 ; A. Smith 2003 ).
Monumental spaces, in particular, provide symbolically rich contexts in which
the public can partake in elaborate displays of elite power. The performance of
power in architectural space creates emotional ties between leaders and followers
(Thrift 2004 ), ties forged not simply as a product of the conspicuous consump-
tion of labor in the form of monumental buildings (Trigger 1991 ), but rather as
a product of the particular cultural statements symbolically ampli ed in such
spaces (Monroe 2010a ). Although monumental architecture is thus often read
simply as an important vehicle for expressing cosmological symbolism, the per-
formance of power within such contexts creates powerful material links between
existing power structures and deeper historical narratives of political or cosmo-
logical origins, thereby materializing claims to political authority in reference
to deeper mythological pasts (Ashmore 1989 , 1991 ; Fritz 1986 ; Helms 1999 ;
Innomata 2006; Leone 1984 ; McAnany 2001 ). Monumental spaces thereby
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The Precolonial State in West Africa
provide contexts in which to narrate histories of power to a wide range of polit-
ical constituencies.
The production of space is implicated in elite strategies to accentuate social
distinction between leaders and followers. The aforementioned insights have
immediate implications for our understanding of how public monumental
spaces promulgate elite -centric cosmologies, thereby underwriting claims to
political authority. But what of the more subtle expressions of power politics
that unfold in monumental spaces and in less dramatic or overtly symbolic
settings? Indeed, how might the production of space have contributed to
broader attempts to shape everyday political negotiations in the past? Whereas
the symbolic power of public buildings and monuments to impact collective
consciousness is often taken for granted, only recently have archaeologists
paid attention to the mechanisms whereby space re exively shaped cultural
values in the past. Important moves to outline the mechanisms through which
this process unfolds have come from explorations into the close connection
between space, memory, and everyday practice. Potential insights into this issue
have come from realms of social theory focused on how space conditions the
physical and sensory experience of the world, thereby linking time and space
in novel ways. Critical to these have been theories of practice (Bourdieu 1977 ,
1990 ; Giddens 1984 ; Ortner 1984 ) and phenomenology (Heidegger 1982 ;
Husserl & Gibson 1962 ; Merleau-Ponty 2002 ), which highlight how historical
memory is rendered through spatial practice, an observation with signi cant
implications for our understanding of both the possibilities for and the limits
to political power in the past.
Phenomenological approaches to human sensory experience have contributed
to our appreciation of how the production of space conditions an existential sense
of “being-in-the-world” (Heidegger 1962 ), thereby shaping the cognitive dispo-
sitions of those who routinely move through those spaces. Phenomenological
perspectives on architectural space draw from a broad philosophical tradition
that advocates for “the re ective study of the essence of consciousness as expe-
rienced from the rst-person point of view” (Husserl , cited in Smith 2007 ). As
a realm of human experience, space thus emerges as the “totality of external
world as mediated through subjective human experience” (Cosgrove 1993 : 89).
As such, the production of space is a historical process in which cultural memory
is concretized in everyday experience. The production of space thereby produces
narratives that order the way people both think about and experience the world
(Basso 1996 ; Bender 1998 ; Tilley 1994 ). Buildings , monuments , and other land-
scape features shape the popular experience, perception, and imagination of that
world (A. Smith 2003 ), grounding the historical memory of communities in place
(Basso 1996 ; Cosgrove 1993 : 89).
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Theories of practice, furthermore, have contributed substantially to our under-
standing of the role of space in reifying social structures and cultural values over
time. Broadly speaking, theories of practice seek “to explain the relationship(s)
that obtain between human action, on the one hand, and some global entity
which we call ‘the system’ on the other” (Ortner 1984 : 148). In doing so, they
highlight the habitual nature of everyday human activities and the mechanisms
whereby those behaviors become routine. Archaeological applications of theories
of practice have tended to emphasize how material patterns re ect the long-term
accumulation of debris as a result of culturally speci c habitual behavior, thereby
providing a useful window into identifying particular ethnic groups in the past
(Lightfoot, Martinez, & Schiff 1998 ). However, key to a theory of practice is
the notion that people draw from a reservoir of embodied practices ( habitus )
accumulated over the course of a lifetime in navigating the world around them.
The everyday navigation of architectural spaces plays a critically important role
in this process. Indeed, scholars have noted that the built environment provides
important “structuring structures” that condition the spatial practices of those
who navigate them routinely (Bourdieu 2003 ; Donley-Reid 1990 ). Insofar as
the production of space is implicated in elite strategies to accentuate social dis-
tinction between leaders and followers, the production of buildings serves as a
powerful element of a suite of diacritical strategies for materializing power in
complex societies (Dietler 2001 ; Stahl 2008 ).
In emphasizing how the production of space materializes elite agendas, how-
ever, we run the risk of ignoring sources of factionalism , discontent, or resis-
tance that rendered such strategies dif cult to manifest in practice in the past.
Leaders face major hurdles in reshaping nonelite perceptions of the world, and it
is not clear that elite -centric building campaigns can always rewrite the “hidden
transcripts” of everyday resistance (Scott 1990 ). The destruction of urban cores,
the tearing down of walls and boundary markers, and other forms of vandal-
ism commonly noted in periods of social instability and collapse all attest to
the degree to which political subjects genuinely internalize spatially rendered
elite political agendas. Although architecture may serve as an important tool for
expressing elite power , and patterns in the production of space provide a valuable
window into the nature of power politics in the past, we must always question
the degree to which space provides an avenue for leaders to bridge the fragile gap
between power and authority in the Weberian sense of those terms.
Space itself may form concrete barriers to the quest for political legitimacy
by leaders precisely because of its utility in advancing alternative histories of
power and social organization. In some contexts, decentralized sacred landscapes
provide alternative narratives of social order that may be marshaled in opposi-
tion to attempts to impose centralized authority (R. J. McIntosh 2005 ). Space
may thereby serve as a particularly powerful source of political counter narra-
tive, playing an important role in strategies to de ect hegemonic domination
by aggrandizing elites . Political legitimacy can be generated in such contexts by
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The Precolonial State in West Africa
working through existing power structures, resulting in decentralized or het-
erarchical landscapes of power. Rather than a material statement of the success
of elite power grabs, therefore, the production of monumental spaces can read
as an index of the political worlds leaders sought and struggled to create in the
past. Archaeologists have wrestled with this issue in prehistoric or early historical
contexts, where one is largely dependent on archaeological data alone to make
inferences about the political process. Indeed, the relative ef cacy of such spa-
tial strategies can only be interpreted contextually, and in reference to multiple
lines of additional evidence. Spatial archaeologies of power have the potential to
situate archaeological patterns within a broader interpretive framework, casting
valuable light on the spatial practice of power in the past.
This discussion has introduced the intimate relationship between space and
power in the past. Rather than a simple index of political-economic relation-
ships, space emerges as a critical component for generating those very relation-
ships in the past. At an overt level, the production of space extends the politi-
cal viewshed of the state in important ways, rendering subjects visible and thus
economically exploitable by revenue-hungry elites . However, more implicitly,
architectural spaces are also powerful tools for shaping the embodied practices
and cultural memories of those who move through them, thereby naturalizing
social orders and de ning axes of social distinction. Indeed, as Edward Soja
notes, “the social production of spatiality appropriates and recasts the repre-
sentations of mental space by concretizing them as part of social life, part of
second nature” (Soja 1985 ). The production of space stands, therefore, at the
nexus of elite strategies and nonelite responses to political centralization in the
past. The foregoing discussion highlights three interrelated manners, what I
refer to as the spatial practices of power in complex societies, in which space is
implicated in elite attempts to construct and maintain social hierarchies in the
past. These spatial practices (1) render political subjects of the state visible to
economic exploitation ; (2) monopolize cultural memory to naturalize a sense of
political precedent for state power; and (3) accentuate a sense of social distance
and status distinction between elites and subjects. Within this framework, there
is an implicit scalar dimension – from political visibility at the regional level,
through the production of public memory within communities, to the enact-
ment of social distinction within more intimate spaces. As the following chapters
reveal, it is precisely through this multiscalar dimension of spatial practice that
micropolitical struggle and macropolitical structure become articulated, provid-
ing a valuable point of departure for examining the relationship between agency
and structure in archaeologies of the state.
The Slave Coast of West Africa, which spanned coastal Togo , B é nin , and south-
west Nigeria , was a hotbed of political transformation during the Atlantic Era. As
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a result, the region gures prominently in a wide range of historical scholarship
on the political consequences of Atlantic commercial entanglement across West
Africa, and has provided rich historical data with which to explore the dynamics
of political centralization in the past from a comparative perspective. An emerg-
ing body of archaeological research, furthermore, has pointed toward the Slave
Coast as a particularly rich context in which to explore the relationship between
space and power in the construction of political order in the past. Indeed, the
region was home to a range of polities in which political institutions and political
spaces were closely articulated, providing clear examples of how the production of
space was a key factor in the practice of power politics across the region (Aguigah
1986 ; Kelly 1997a ; Monroe 2010a , 2011 , 2012 ; Norman 2009 ; Norman & Kelly
2006 ; Posnansky 1981 ; Quarcoopome 1993 ). In the remainder of this chapter,
I introduce one such polity, the kingdom of Dahomey, outlining how scholars
have conceptualized the nature of Dahomean political institutions in the past,
and the potential for a spatial archaeology of power in this West African state.
At the dawn of the period, at least fteen major Aja-Yoruba polities were dis-
tributed across the region (Akinjogbin 1967 ). Oral sources claim that the dynas-
tic elites of these polities were settled in a series of royal migrations beginning
in the thirteenth century from the Yoruba urban centers of Ile-Ife , Oyo , and
later Ketu , subjugating local communities and founding centralized kingdoms as
they went (Akinjogbin 1967 : 10). By the contact era, this geopolitical landscape
was loosely integrated by complex tributary and ritual obligations that cemented
inter-polity ties between royal families within this far- ung Aja-Yoruba oecumene
(see Chapter 2 ). Within the western Aja region, the dominant polities by the sev-
enteenth century were Allada and its tributary kingdoms, Hueda , and Dahomey
(Akinjogbin 1967 : 11) ( Figure 1.2 ). Founded during the sixteenth century, Allada
was the preeminent kingdom of the three (Law 1997a ), exacting regular trib-
ute from Dahomey and Hueda and legitimizing these tributary relationships
through various ritual obligations, re ecting broadly similar strategies to incul-
cate political order across the Aja-Yoruba region during this period (Akinjogbin
1967 ). The kings of Allada and Hueda became powerful as coastal brokers for
the trans-Atlantic slave trade . Dahomey rose to power in the north as a pro-
vider of captives for this trade. Just as the competition for goods provided by
European merchants stimulated the rise and expansion of these polities during
the seventeenth century, however, the changing nature of this trade created the
potential for collapse. Growing demand for labor in the Americas in the late
seventeenth century outstripped the supply potential of the kings of Hueda and
Allada . Increasingly, traders and inland polities such as Dahomey and Oyo pro-
vided human captives for this trade (Law 1997a : 99).
As Atlantic commerce intensi ed during the late seventeenth and early
eighteenth centuries, the kingdom of Dahomey upset this regional system
(Akinjogbin 1967 ). In the early eighteenth century, following nearly a century of
expansion and consolidation across the Abomey Plateau, Dahomean conquerors
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The Precolonial State in West Africa
Figure 1.2. Seventeenth-century polities in southern B é nin.
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marched south and captured Allada (1724) and Hueda (1727). Dahomey thus
formally severed the tributary and ceremonial obligations demanded by Allada ,
established Dahomean hegemony across the region, and initiated unfettered
commerce with European merchants on the coast. Dahomey waged a relentless
series of expansionist wars and instituted major bureaucratic innovations over
the next century and a half. Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, and despite relatively constant threats from its neighbors, Dahomey
solidi ed control over its conquests and expanded control throughout its hin-
terland, emerging as an exemplar of the West African centralized state in the
Atlantic Era (Bay 1998 ; Herskovits 1938 ; Law 1991 ).
The strategies Dahomean kings employed to maintain and extend political
order until the kingdom’s eventual conquest by French colonial forces between
1892 and 1894 have been the source of much research (Akinjogbin 1967 ; Bay
1998 ; Diamond 1951 ; Herskovits 1938 ; Johnson 1980 ; Law 1991 , 1997a ;
Manning 1982 ; Monroe 2007a ; Polanyi 1966 ; Ross 1987b ; Soumonni 1995 ).
This body of research points toward the emergence of a set of political institu-
tions, referred to in this volume as the royal palace sphere , which were deployed
to advance elite political agendas in a period of global commercial integration.
Historical and anthropological research on the Dahomean royal palace sphere
has been de ned largely in terms of two key questions – the relative primacy of
either trans-Atlantic commerce or local economic factors in stimulating political
centralization, and whether Dahomean political institutions represent a radical
break or general continuity with extant principles of political organization across
the region.
Attempts to gauge the relative impact of the slave trade on Dahomean politi-
cal institutions emerged as a debate between abolitionists and pro–slave trade
authors writing on the heels of the very transformations they sought to explain
(Atkins 1735 ; Dalzel 1793 ; Forbes 1851 ; Norris 1789 ; Snelgrave 1734 ). These
authors drew from rsthand and secondhand accounts and haphazardly collected
royal oral traditions to evaluate the relationship between the slave trade and the
transforming Dahomean political apparatus. Standing in universal agreement
on the overtly military qualities of the Dahomean state, these writers asked the
central question of whether Dahomean militarism had deep indigenous roots
predating the advent of the slave trade , or was, rather, a product of ongoing par-
ticipation in Atlantic commercial exchange. Writers such as William Snelgrave
( 1734 ), Robert Norris ( 1789 ), and Archibald Dalzel ( 1793 ), advocates for the
continuation of the slave trade , argued that Dahomey was essentially an absolut-
ist and militaristic state. They provided detailed descriptions of human sacri ces
and abject servitude amongst Dahomean subjects to demonstrate the “savagery”
and “barbarism” of the kingdom. Thus, for these authors, the slave trade was a
positive force for coastal West Africa because it “liberated” Africans from the
clutches of ambitious kings . Abolitionists during this period, however, presented
a contrasting view. John Atkins ( 1735 ), for example, suggested that one king,
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The Precolonial State in West Africa
Agaja , was an abolitionist himself who sought to end the slave trade altogether.
Although Atkins and others, such as Frederick Forbes ( 1851 ), did not dispute
the autocratic nature of Dahomean society, they argued that it was the negative
impact of the slave trade itself that encouraged Dahomean militarism during the
eighteenth century.
During the early twentieth century, historical accounts were increasingly
complemented by contextually rich ethnographic and oral sources that painted
a dramatically different picture of the essential organizing principles of the
Dahomean state. These sources redirected discussion away from the militaristic
qualities of Dahomean kingship and toward a broader assessment of the nature
of Dahomean political institutions, tracing the development of an expansive pal-
ace sphere geared toward extending the political reach of the Dahomean state
in dynamic ways. In particular, volumes by Auguste Le H é riss é ( L’ancien roy-
aume du Dahomey , 1911), a French colonial of cer and amateur ethnologist, and
American anthropologist Melville Herskovits ( Dahomey: An Ancient West African
Kingdom , 1938 ), called important attention to the inner workings of a complex
bureaucratic system characterized by an elaborate series of of cial titles and
specialized administrative of ces managed under the authority of Dahomean
kings . Rather than a military despotism ruled by bloodthirsty kings , such studies
revealed a well-integrated and centrally managed government apparatus, indeed
a bureaucratic state in the Weberian sense of the term (Weber 1968 ). According
to Herskovits:
[I]t is this genius for organization that may be held in some measure to account
for the long reign of the [Dahomean royal] dynasty, for the monarchs and their
counselors came to know how to shape the institutions of the people so as to
create, strengthen and perpetuate a centralized and absolute rule. (Herskovits
1938 : 29)
The historical and ethnographic data presented in the aforementioned vol-
umes was mined by a generation of scholars seeking to shed light on the nature
of the Dahomean institutions of the Atlantic Era (Alpern 1998 ; Cornevin 1962 ;
Diamond 1951 ; Manning 1982 ; Moseley 1979 ; Newbury 1961 ; Peukert 1978 ;
Pollis 1974 ). Dahomey was thereby implicated in some of the key twentieth-
century debates on the origins and structure of state institutions. Particularly
in uential in early syntheses of these works was Karl Polanyi. Polanyi’s inter-
est in Dahomey was decidedly theoretical, concerned as he was with advancing
our understanding of a wide range of non-Western political economies from
a comparative perspective (Polanyi 1944 ). Polanyi ( 1966 ) contended that the
Dahomean government was far more absolutist than its predecessors, character-
ized as it was by a royal palace sphere that monopolized most economic spheres
within the kingdom (Polanyi 1966 : 53). He suggested that Dahomey centrally
administered Atlantic trade by implementing price- xing mechanisms and spon-
soring coastal “ports of trade” insulated from normal market processes (Polanyi
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1966 : 174). Additionally, he argued that its kings employed a number of of cials
to direct production across its rural territories. The wealth the state acquired
through “administered trade” and centrally managed production , furthermore,
was redistributed to the general public in annual state ceremonies (Polanyi 1966 :
33). For Polanyi:
The state sphere in Dahomey was closely tied to the royal household and
its palace economy. No neat division existed, nor can it in fact be introduced
between the revenues and the functions attributed to the palace on the one
hand, the state on the other. Their roles were intimately connected. (Polanyi
1966 : 53)
According to this argument, the institutional mechanisms that placed extensive
economic control in the royal palace sphere buffered broader society from the
potentially debilitating economic impact of the European presence. Dahomey
stood, therefore, as a primary example of Polanyi’s “archaic state” based on a
“redistributive economy,concepts that he elaborated on elsewhere (Polanyi
1944 ) and that became foundational concepts in the archaeology of complex
societies more broadly (see Johnson & Earle 2000 ).
Building on these ideas, and presaging similar arguments in the anthropol-
ogy of the state (Service 1975 , 1978 ), Adeagbo Akinjogbin ( 1967 ) advanced the
argument that the palace institution in Dahomey emerged as an adaptive mecha-
nism designed to cope with the destabilizing effects of Atlantic commerce . For
Akinjogbin, political authority in the Aja-Yoruba region prior to the expansion of
Dahomey was vested in leaders who served essentially ritual functions and whose
power was determined by kin-based rules of descent. Akinjogbin suggested that
it was the loosely centralized nature of kingdoms in the region that led to their
collapse (Akinjogbin 1967 : 15). In contrast, Akinjogbin proposed that Dahomey
managed to create a political system in which authority was based on centralized
military might. Military power in turn allowed Dahomey to develop a centralized
government that was successful in resisting collapse. According to Akinjogbin:
The signi cance and importance of Dahomey in the eighteenth century there-
fore did not lie in its military prowess, although it was a military state. Its
greatest achievement and therefore its entitlement to fame lay in the ability
of its rulers to keep its administration intact right through the period, in the
face of all the ssiparous tendencies rampant during the age of the slave trade .
(Akinjogbin 1967 : 205)
In this light, the rise of Dahomey during the early eighteenth century represented
a radical break with the kin-based institutions of the past, indeed a revolution in
political order de ned by palace-based institutional mechanisms that mitigated
the “ ssiparous tendencies” of a variety of political and economic forces.
The vision of Dahomey as a centralized bureaucratic state organized to main-
tain order in politically and economically tumultuous times is a compelling one.
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The Precolonial State in West Africa
Not surprisingly, the aforementioned studies are frequently cited in anthropo-
logical and archaeological discussions of the nature of early state institutions
(Claessen 1984 ; Claessen & Skaln í k 1981 ; Claessen & Velde 1987 ; Cohen 1981 ,
2006 ; Diamond 1951 ; Lenski 1966 ; Sanders 1974 ; Silverblatt 1988 ). However,
these studies suffered from the near exclusive use of published source material and
tended to collapse observed patterns across historical periods. Many such studies
also suffered from a dependence on static models of the state itself, resulting in a
degree of theoretical blindness to dynamism within the historical evidence. The
result was a series of palimpsest histories of what were complex and contingent
political and economic processes. A number of scholars, largely historians, have
subsequently devoted a great deal of attention either to debunking or elaborat-
ing upon the key arguments summarized previously. Mining archives containing
vast quantities of unpublished documentary evidence, historians have provided
valuable insights on the nature of Dahomean political institutions, insights that
have gone, to date, largely unnoticed in the archaeological literature on social
complexity and the state.
On one hand, historians have questioned whether Dahomey maintained
absolute or relatively weak control over the slave trade . Scholars have speci -
cally targeted Polanyi ’s notion of “administered trade,” presenting documentary
evidence that state control over trade was in many ways symbolic, and actual
exchanges were carried out by private merchants and of cials granted license by
the king (Law 1977a , 1989a ; Peukert 1978 ; Ross 1987 ). Some have argued that
European trade goods were imported into Dahomey in small numbers, suggest-
ing they played only a minor role in the political economy of early Dahomey
( Johnson 1980 ; Peukert 1978 ). Others have gone so far as to suggest that the
coastal trade in slaves was an economic afterthought for the kings of Dahomey,
who were more interested in acquiring captives for sacri ce to their royal ances-
tors (Ronen 1973). In his sweeping study of West African social and political
change during this period, John Thornton proposed that, although war and
trade were major concerns for West African kings during the sixteenth through
eighteenth centuries, this pattern may have resulted from internal African politi-
cal processes unrelated to coastal developments involving Europeans (Thornton
1998 : 99109).
Whereas these studies were often limited in historical scope or depth of source
material, a series of important studies by Robin Law and Patrick Manning pro-
vided systematic answers to unresolved questions. On one hand, Patrick Manning’s
sweeping analysis presented strong evidence of the importance of trans-Atlantic
commerce to the overall economic growth in Dahomey over three centuries
(Manning 1982 ). Rather than an economic afterthought, Atlantic commerce
1 See also Phillip Curtin ( 1975 : 15368) for a discussion of the economic versus political motiva-
tions in waging warfare in Senegambia , which provided the framework for Thornton’s broader
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was of central importance to the health and well-being of the Dahomean state.
On the other hand, Robin Law ’s long-term research on Dahomean economic
and political institutions systematically dismantled core arguments advanced by
Polanyi and Akinjogbin about the nature of the Dahomean political economy
(Law 1977a , 1989c , 1991 , 1992b ). Law ’s systematic analysis of unpublished archi-
val material reveals, contra Polanyi , that the region boasted a monetized market
economy as early as the seventeenth century, and highlights the role of Dahomey
as a middleman, as well as a producer of captives for sale (see also Ross 1987 ). In
this light, Atlantic commercial exchange was an important, but not the de ning
factor in shaping the structure of Dahomean palace institutions.
Similarly, scholars have scrutinized the degree to which Dahomean politi-
cal institutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries represented radical
breaks with the past. Some, for example, have argued that the Dahomean govern-
ment differed little from its predecessors on the Slave Coast. Early proponents
of this argument suggested that the kingdoms of Allada , Hueda , and Dahomey
were ideologically united by the belief in divine kingship and the practice of
royal ancestor worship (Palau Mart í 1964 ). Thus Dahomey was seen as “a devel-
opment and extension of an institution already widespread amongst a people
of similar culture” (Argyle 1966 : 55; see also Ronen 1975b ), downplaying its
innovative qualities. In contrast, others argued for dramatic political reorganiza-
tion in Dahomey, yet downplayed the role of bureaucratization in the process.
Taking primary eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources largely at face value,
and echoing many of the sentiments contained therein, David Ross argued that
Dahomey was never a centralized nation-state, as Polanyi and Akinjogbin sug-
gested, but was ruled essentially by a militaristic and predatory elite (Ross 1982 ,
1983 ). Ross thus describes the royal dynasty of Dahomey as “an Abomey-based
‘banditti’” (Ross 1982 : 269) rather than heads of a bureaucratic state.
Robin Law has also questioned the “revolutionary” qualities of Dahomean
government, drawing attention to important continuities between Dahomey
and its predecessors (Law 1987 , 1989b , 1991 , 1997a ). These included elements
of royal ideology it shared with Allada (ancestor worship and orthodox dynas-
tic narratives that linked the polities historically), as well as general similarities
among the bureaucracies of Allada , Hueda , and Dahomey. However, for Law :
The new state which developed was more despotic, and more effective in main-
taining order, than its predecessors, but differed from them more in degree
than in the principles of its organization. The constructive character of the
Dahomean administrative achievement should not in any case be exaggerated.
Although it restored orderly administration to the area of the old Allada and
Ouidah kingdoms, Dahomey remained an essentially military state. (Law 1991 :
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The Precolonial State in West Africa
Thus, although Law agreed with many scholars that centralized military author-
ity was a new element on the Slave Coast, dramatic organizational changes were
limited largely to the military sphere.
Scholarly concern for the role played by militarism in fostering political order
in Dahomey can be linked, arguably, to the nature of the sources commonly cited
to reconstruct the history of this West African kingdom. European visitors to
Dahomey were rarely given leave to roam freely, and were normally permitted
to visit the capital only during the annual state ceremonial cycle. Thus period
descriptions tend to draw attention to the more dramatic aspects of Dahomean
court life, including public displays of state militarism and human sacri ce .
As Robert Norris observed in the eighteenth century, however, because “it is
criminal in the natives of this country to discourse on politics, or to make any
remarks upon the administration of public affairs, it is dif cult to acquire any
extensive knowledge of facts and the little information which can be obtained, is
but imperfect” (Norris 1789 : 3). It is without a doubt, therefore, that many of the
less conspicuous aspects of Dahomean government went largely undocumented
by foreign observers, seriously handicapping attempts to gauge the nature of its
Historians have recognized for some time that this constraint places certain
limits on the interpretive value of written documents for reconstructing preco-
lonial African history, limits that can be balanced by the careful and critical use
of oral evidence (Miller 1980 ; Vansina 1985 ). Drawing from extensively collected
oral traditions, Edna Bay presented an additional perspective that complemented
and sometimes contradicted historical reconstructions of Dahomean state for-
mation based largely on written sources (Bay 1998 ). Bay outlined the evolution
and growth of a state apparatus that, by the nineteenth century, had established
expansive centralized control over its territory. Like Law, Bay argued that the
dynamics of state building in Dahomey were strongly in uenced by existing
political principles. However, Bay presented compelling evidence that the struc-
ture of political relationships within Dahomey was shaped signi cantly by the
need to balance the power of competing political factions that took root within a
rapidly expanding state sphere, and she highlighted the role of an important class
of female of cials in this process. Indeed as Bay suggested:
Dahomey was neither a military state nor a state with warring as its raison d’ ê tre .
A military spirit was part of a larger pattern of ritual and political strategies to
promote the well-being of the state. (Bay 1998 : 130)
For Bay, Dahomean militarism was thus a by-product of broader political strate-
gies to establish political stability in the era of the slave trade (Bay 1998 : 130).
Visions of Dahomean political and economic organization have thus shifted
dramatically over the past three centuries. Scholars have claimed its political
structure is a primary example of either a military despotism or a centralized
bureaucratic state. Its economy has been viewed as either market based or one
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in which the state maintained a not-so-invisible hand. The slave trade has been
seen as either determinate or irrelevant in the political path taken by Dahomean
kings . However, critical analysis of extensive documentary and oral data has ren-
dered untenable many of the suggestions advanced by a generation of scholar-
ship on Dahomey. For example, the suggestion that the Dahomean bureaucracy
was all-powerful in directing economic activities across its territories does not
pass the historical smell test. Equally untenable are suggestions that militarism
alone was the guiding principle structuring Dahomean political practice, or that
Atlantic commerce was a minor component of the Dahomean political economy.
In recent analyses of Dahomean political organization, furthermore, scholarly
attention has drifted away from questions exclusively focused on the revolution-
ary qualities of Dahomean political order in favor of recognizing both change
and continuity within a diverse set of elds of economic, ideological, and politi-
cal power (Bay 1998 ; Law 1991 ).
Dahomey emerges from this discussion as a centralized state with a complex
bureaucratic apparatus that struggled, sometimes successfully, often unsuccess-
fully, to set the terms of Atlantic commerce within its ports. Rather than oper-
ating in lockstep, however, this bureaucratic apparatus was riddled with deep
fracture lines, lines that were the product of the aggrandizing tendencies of pow-
erful royal, ritual , and mercantile factions the royal dynasty depended on for
survival. This discussion points toward the mobilization of a diverse set of politi-
cal strategies to balance, curtail, and co-opt political factions , paralleling current
archaeological perspectives on the evolution of complex societies and the state
more broadly.
Important, the political institutions outlined earlier were coterminous with a
speci c set of spatial practices in Dahomey. Indeed, the practice of Dahomean
politics unfolded within and around a series of royal palace sites that materialized
the various domestic, ritual , political, and economic practices of the royal elite
at Abomey , the capital of the kingdom as a whole (Akinjogbin 1967 ; Bay 1998 ;
Blier 2005 ; Herskovits 1938 ; Law 1991 ; Le H é riss é 1911 ; Monroe 2003 , 2010a )
( Figure 1.3 ). These structures served as residences for the king and his depen-
dents, who may have numbered from two thousand to eight thousand at Abomey
alone (Dalzel 1793 : xi; Le H é riss é 1911 : 2731). Their interior courtyards served
as stages on which the notable dignitaries of the day (both male and female) vied
to tip the balance of royal favor in their direction (Monroe 2010a ). Built through
a combination of corv é e and slave labor , royal palace sites were an important com-
ponent of symbolic strategies to underwrite royal authority. For one, these sites
played a fundamental role in promulgating a militaristic royal ideology (Blier
2005 ). The royal walls were decorated with images of political violence and con-
quest , and the heads of enemies taken in battle were prominently displayed along
their heights. Indeed, on one occasion, the eighteenth-century King Tegbesu
declared to his general that “his house wanted thatch” (Norris 1789 : 18), a refer-
ence to the practice of decorating the palace walls with heads taken in combat,
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The Precolonial State in West Africa
and a proclamation that it was time to go to war . However, the royal palaces at
Abomey , and the public ceremonies held before their walls, also served to pro-
mulgate orthodox narratives of dynastic origins that underwrote elite claims to
power. In this sense, the royal palaces of Dahomey were part of a dynamic sym-
bolic landscape in which claims to political authority and the threat of coercive
force were coordinated through architectural and ritual practice (Blier 2005 ).
However, the historical record is replete with references to royal palace com-
plexes across Dahomey that served a variety of functions during the precolonial
era. Abomey itself was home to eight palace structures, and visitors in the past
frequently noted the presence of additional royal complexes at the town of Cana .
In addition to oft-cited examples of urban palace complexes, however, period
sources also point to the presence of numerous lesser-known palace sites across
the Dahomean landscape. Indeed, during his brief captivity in the palace of King
Agaja at Allada , Bul nche Lambe wrote:
He likewise very often adjournes to some other of his palaces, which are some
miles distant hence; and I am told in number eleven. (Bul nche Lambe in
Forbes 1851 , 1: 186)
Figure 1.3. The king receiving guests within the royal palace of Abomey.
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These structures, referred to as country palaces by nineteenth-century observers,
performed a variety of functions crucial to maintaining royal authority. They were
variously described as ritual structures, prisons , military outposts, or centers for
the production of crafts and agricultural products. Oral accounts collected across
the plateau suggest that many of these complexes housed princes and princesses,
Figure 1.4. Aerial photograph of the royal palace of King Glele at Cana-Mignonhi.
Figure 1.5. Views of the royal palace of King Glele at Cana-Mignonhi.
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The Precolonial State in West Africa
dignitaries, soldiers, and on occasion, the king himself, anchoring the Fon royal
dynasty’s economic and political agendas in the countryside. Residential struc-
tures, administrative centers, vessels for the symbolic authority of Dahomean
kings , Dahomean palace complexes t into a general West African pattern in
which the various domestic, ritual , and political practices of the Dahomean elite
played out behind and before palace walls (Kelly 1995 , 1997a , 1997b , 2002; Nast
1996 , 2005 ; Ojo 1966 ).
Since 2000, the Abomey Plateau Archaeological Project (APAP) has examined the
spatial dynamics of power and authority in Dahomey, drawing attention to the
role of Dahomean palace complexes in this process (Monroe 2003 , 2004 , 2005 ,
2007a , 2007b , 2009 , 2010a , 2011 ). Drawing on historical accounts, oral tradi-
tions, aerial photography, and ground-truthing, the Abomey Plateau Archaeological
Project has examined eighteen palace structures distributed across the Abomey
Figure 1.6. Dahomean palaces identi ed by the Abomey Plateau Archaeological Project.
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Plateau, ranging in size from one to thirty-four hectares, in addition to well-
known examples from Abomey ( Figures 1.4 1.6 ) (Monroe 2003 , 2004 , 2007a ,
2007b , 2010a ). Surface collections and targeted test excavations, interpreted in
coordination with oral and documentary data, have dated each of these struc-
tures to within a century at minimum, and often to within the reign of a particu-
lar Dahomean king (Monroe 2003 ). The tradition of royal palace construction
can be situated, therefore, squarely in the period from the seventeenth through
nineteenth centuries (Monroe 2003 , 2010a ). Palace construction on the Abomey
Plateau is thus a decidedly Atlantic Era phenomenon associated with the rise of
the Dahomean state, representing a unique context in which to explore the spa-
tial dynamics of political power in the past.
The following chapters integrate archaeological, linguistic, oral historical, and
documentary data to explore the rise and expansion of Dahomey on the Slave
Coast of West Africa. Building on Polanyi s observation that the royal palace as
a set of institutions and the royal palace as a building were “intimately connected”
in the practice of politics in Dahomey, the following chapters examine the emer-
gence of the royal palace sphere in Dahomey, revealing how the production of
space served as a critical component of elite attempts to anchor political institu-
tions in everyday practice. The book is loosely organized into two parts. The rst
traces the origins of complex societies across the Slave Coast from prehistory
to the era of European contact ( Chapter 2 ) and outlines historical evidence for
the origins, organization, and expansion of the Dahomean royal palace sphere
over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ( Chapter 3 ). The
second section examines how Dahomean royal palace sites, distributed across the
Abomey Plateau, materialized the practice of power at the regional ( Chapter 4 ),
community ( Chapter 5 ), and architectural ( Chapter 6 ) scales of analysis. The vol-
ume reveals, therefore, how spatial strategies, materialized within and between
royal palace sites across the Abomey Plateau, served broader political strategies
Dahomean kings deployed to ground a vision of political order in politically
turbulent times.
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... Aunque los parasoles, especialmente reales, eran poco comunes en Europa, la representación de sombrillas sostenidas por asistentes negros para sujetos blancos se generalizó en los lienzos coloniales (británicos, franceses, españoles y portugueses) a fines del siglo XVII. También, existe una larga tradición en los reinos de África occidental de sombrillas o parasoles como emblemas de estatus o insignias de cargos en las cortes reales de África occidental (Adams, 1980;Monroe, 2014). Para un observador nacido en África Occidental, la indexicalidad del parasol sería clara, apuntando al estatus de élite del gato y al estatus más alto de la mujer real. ...
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Una década de investigación arqueológica e histórica centrada en las haciendas coloniales jesuitas de Nasca (Perú), ha permitido una aproximación a la experiencia cotidiana de una gran y diversa población esclavizada de origen africano. En este artículo exploro la heterogeneidad de las experiencias materiales entre la población esclavizada, colocando un análisis de la arquitectura religiosa y sus obras de arte asociadas en conversación con contextos arqueológicos más amplios de las haciendas de San Joseph de la Nasca y San Francisco Xavier de la Nasca. Específicamente, considero el arte y la arquitectura de la capilla de San Joseph del siglo XVIII a través de sus ruinas, así como un inventario realizado en 1767 durante la expulsión de la Compañía de Jesús. Al examinar los aspectos públicos de la capilla y contrastarlos con el espacio restringido de la sacristía, incluido un análisis detallado de la pintura en un dintel, cuestiono cómo las diversas experiencias sensoriales contribuyeron al régimen estético-político en constante cambio en las haciendas.
... et al. 1996). In addition to modes of integration, the agency of integration in shaping social practices, identities, memories, and historical processes has been increasingly recognized (e.g., Fisher and Creekmore 2014;Monroe 2014;Smith 2003). Households can be the key to investigating how ancient cities and social complexity were structured by strategies of integration (Peterson 2006;Ur 2014). ...
Full-text available
This article builds on recent archaeological theorizing about early complex societies to analyze the political anthropology of Neolithic and Bronze Age China in a culture-specific trajectory over the longue durée. Synthesizing the latest archaeological discoveries, I show that a series of successive declines, beginning around 2000 BC, took place throughout lowland China. This put an end to the lowland states of the Longshan period (2400–1900 BC) and provided the context for the constitution of the Erlitou secondary state (1900–1500 BC). Following the shift in “archaic states” studies from identifying “what” to investigating “how,” I focus on the strategies, institutions, and relations that undergirded and sustained the Erlitou secondary state. I explore how heterogeneous lowland populations were reorganized after collapse, how a new collective identity was created through ritual and religious performance at the household level at Erlitou, and how Erlitou’s ideologies, political system, and economic network were shaped by the upland polities and societies. Through a series of innovative practices, the Erlitou secondary state did not replicate the preceding Longshan states but instead pioneered a sociopolitical order that was repeatedly reenacted and referred to as a source of legitimacy in successive Bronze Age Central Plains polities.
... Its principles are complemented by network analysis, which interprets the interlinked system of nodes in terms of connectivity as transitory and terminal spaces [35,36]. In an African context, both methodologies have been successfully used for analysis of palace complexes of sub-Saharan Africa, e.g., in the kingdom of Dahomey in West coastal Africa [41] and at Gede on the Swahili coast [42]. ...
Full-text available
The tropical urbanism of coastal East Africa has a thousand-year-long history, making it a recognized example of sustainable urbanism. Although economically dependent on trade, the precolonial Islamic towns of the so-called Swahili coast did not feature markets or other public buildings dedicated to mercantile activities before the European colonial involvement. In this regard, Swahili urban tradition differed from other tropical Islamic cities, such as in Morocco, Mali, Egypt or the Middle East, where markets fulfilled the role of social and economic hubs and, in terms of movement, major transitory/meeting spaces in the trading towns. Yet, the Swahili urban tradition thrived for centuries as a well-connected cosmopolitan type of tropical urbanism. As research has suggested, the public role of spaces associated with trade might have been fulfilled by houses. Using approaches of space syntax and network analysis, this article studies the morphology of the houses considering whether it could have been the courtyards that simulated the role of markets thanks to their transitory spatial configuration. The results are discussed reflecting on other models of houses with courtyards, especially the modern Swahili house appearing later in the colonial era when markets began to be established, and Islamic houses known from elsewhere.
Archaeological examination of the transatlantic slave trade in West Africa largely began with investigations of European trade posts and forts on the coast and on major West African rivers. The predominant focus of subsequent work has been on African states and societies affected by or involved in Atlantic commerce and the slave trade. Major themes of research include African–European interactions and trade, political and economic effects in African societies, and the integration and consumption of Atlantic goods in daily life. Work has also expanded geographically beyond West African towns and states into hinterland and frontier landscapes far from the coast. Archaeological investigations of Atlantic era slavery developed in dialogue with the archaeology of the African diaspora in the Americas, yet their foci and objectives have not always been completely aligned. Slavery is more of a central theme in African diaspora archaeology—being the primary formative historical force in the creation of the diaspora—than it is in West African archaeology, where it is more often examined as a major feature of social, political, and economic life with uneven regional and societal effects. Archaeologists are also involved in the study, interpretation, and politics of African diaspora heritage tourism. Emerging approaches to the archaeology of Atlantic era slavery in West Africa include maritime archaeology and the archaeology of the formerly enslaved that returned to West Africa.
This article examines the sartorial culture of an African elite as a form of Afropolitanism in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century West African kingdom of Dahomey. Dahomean elites embraced cultural borrowing to layer styles and materials from European and African sources. Combining textiles and accessories associated with mobility and outsiders, elites asserted authority, power, and privilege within a local framework. Their dress practices also served as an expression of elite inclusion in a larger Atlantic world, in which Dahomey was a major participant in the transatlantic trade in African captives and, later, cash crops produced domestically by enslaved labor. By exploring the political, economic, and social contexts of elite Dahomean dress, this article reveals the deep historical roots of Afropolitanism on the continent and how the domestication of global and African commodities has long distinguished African elites from the masses. In doing so, it also shows how violence, systems of enslavement, and the accumulation of wealth fueled a Dahomean Afropolitan aesthetic of worlds-in-movement, which served to distinguish elites as citizens of Dahomey and as humans of the Atlantic world more broadly.
The Haitian Revolution was perhaps the most successful slave rebellion in modern history; it created the first and only free and independent Black nation in the Americas. This book tells the story of how enslaved Africans forcibly brought to colonial Haiti through the trans-Atlantic slave trade used their cultural and religious heritages, social networks, and labor and militaristic skills to survive horrific conditions. They built webs of networks between African and 'creole' runaways, slaves, and a small number of free people of color through rituals and marronnage - key aspects to building the racial solidarity that helped make the revolution successful. Analyzing underexplored archival sources and advertisements for fugitives from slavery, Crystal Eddins finds indications of collective consciousness and solidarity, unearthing patterns of resistance. Considering the importance of the Haitian Revolution and the growing scholarly interest in exploring it, Eddins fills an important gap in the existing literature.
The Haitian Revolution was perhaps the most successful slave rebellion in modern history; it created the first and only free and independent Black nation in the Americas. This book tells the story of how enslaved Africans forcibly brought to colonial Haiti through the trans-Atlantic slave trade used their cultural and religious heritages, social networks, and labor and militaristic skills to survive horrific conditions. They built webs of networks between African and 'creole' runaways, slaves, and a small number of free people of color through rituals and marronnage - key aspects to building the racial solidarity that helped make the revolution successful. Analyzing underexplored archival sources and advertisements for fugitives from slavery, Crystal Eddins finds indications of collective consciousness and solidarity, unearthing patterns of resistance. The book fills an important gap in the existing literature on the Haitian Revolution. This title is also available as Open Access on Cambridge Core.
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The archaeology of the immediate coastline of West Africa remains surprisingly little understood, and what research has been undertaken has often focused on questions relating to sea-based interactions and the precolonial polities lying slightly inland. This paper reports the results of excavations on Ohlinhoué, a small lagoonal island in the western Republic of Bénin. A locally manufactured ceramic assemblage was recovered, together with a small suite of artifacts, including glass, metal, shell, and smoking pipes. These archaeological data provide insights into a small-scale, likely fishing and salt-producing community in this area between sea and river. As such, they provide an alternative to historical readings relating to well-known precolonial polities and trade entrepôts that feed popular historical narratives.
What new issues arise several decades after the first academic studies? What are the answers and what sources are mobilized? This special issue proposes a historiographical review of research conducted on cities, taking into account the most recent methodological reflections on the issue of the relationship between the urban territory and the exercise of power before the 20th century, focussing on its material and symbolic aspects. Case studies in the Maghreb, West Africa’s forest and Sahelian regions and East Africa examine these stakes.
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This volume examines the archaeology of precolonial West African societies in the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Using historical and archaeological perspectives on landscape, this collection of essays sheds light on how involvement in the commercial revolutions of the early modern period dramatically reshaped the regional contours of political organization across West Africa. The essays examine how social and political transformations occurred at the regional level by exploring regional economic networks, population shifts, cultural values and ideologies. The book demonstrates the importance of anthropological insights not only to the broad political history of West Africa, but also to an understanding of political culture as a form of meaningful social practice.
This volume examines the archaeology of precolonial West African societies in the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Using historical and archaeological perspectives on landscape, this collection of essays sheds light on how involvement in the commercial revolutions of the early modern period dramatically reshaped the regional contours of political organization across West Africa. The essays examine how social and political transformations occurred at the regional level by exploring regional economic networks, population shifts, cultural values and ideologies. The book demonstrates the importance of anthropological insights not only to the broad political history of West Africa, but also to an understanding of political culture as a form of meaningful social practice.
A summary of the main approaches to the study of megaliths reveals how recent processual work that relates them to general principles fails to deal with the specificity of their variability, and their particular historical context. A systematic comparison between central and western European megaliths and central European long-houses in the 5th and 4th millennia reveals eight points of similarity. It is suggested that the tombs represent a transformation of the houses. This may be understood in relation to a transformation in the productive base and social organisation of the period.-from Author
Discusses the relative neglect by geographers of major transitions in the history of human society. Five aspects of power are discussed, namely the state and efforts made to discover its origins, the recognition of states as territorial units, the growth of states and empires, core-periphery relations, and legitimation. -after Editor
Geographers have noted and developed explanations for the regularities observed in the relationship between settlement size and settlement rank. Archaeologists have only recently begun to assess and explain prehistoric settlement data in terms of these rank-size distributions. This paper examines those aspects of the rank-size distribution model which may be useful to prehistorians, and presents an analysis of three sets of archaeological settlement data. The results suggest that rank-size distributions may not possess the explanatory value attributed to them by some archaeologists in terms of their power to discriminate between various levels of sociocultural organization. Rank-size distributions do have value in archaeology, but more comparative data are needed before they can be adequately interpreted.