Dahomey was once known as the ‘Slave Coast’ where human sacrifices were done on a large scale contrary to earlier write ups by Europeans in the 1700s about this great kingdom that referred to one or two killings of people.
For instance, references made of Allada and Whydah before their conquest by the Dahomey talks of human sacrifices without much detail or emphasis.
“Dapper, refers to the killings of concubines and servants at royal funerals in Allada, and later accounts of Whydah record the sacrifice of wives and slaves at royal funerals there also, as well as the practice of substitutionary sacrifice, the killing of a man to preserve the king when ill.”
Later detailed accounts of the kingdom indicate human sacrifices were done on a rather large scale.
An English trader in 1727 allegedly witnessed the massacre of 400 war captives in a Dahomian ceremony. Some say his report stated 4,000 human sacrifices instead after the kingdom’s conquest of Whydah earlier that year.
The death of a royal was an excuse to kill more humans as part of their customs. It is reported that the “funeral ceremonies for King Kpengla, who died in 1789, involved, over a period of two years, the killing of some 1,500 persons, many of them war captives.”
A temple in Abomey has a tomb where a king was buried with his wives. The king was known to have about 200 wives and custom demands the king to be buried with his wives. When he died 41 women were killed to join him in the afterlife – a practice they believed in.
In addition, there was a custom known as the ‘Annual Customs’ or ‘Watering of the Graves’ where war slaves and criminals were killed to commemorate the death of the kings annually.
The yearly celebration saw about 40 to 50 and as high as 200 to 300 people killed. According to an eyewitness account, dating back to the 18th century only about 100 or less people were killed. Historians, however, believe there were some done in the royal palace unknown to the public.
Usually women were victims of such sacrifices, they were killed to send special messages to the dead kings. The total annual slaughter in Dahomey, even apart from the royal funerals, must be bothering around the thousands.
The killings of thousands of war captives by the people of Dahomey was a “Custom of their Nation.” Some say the sacrifices were rampant due to the massive success chalked by its military operations on a rather large scale in the eighteenth century.
Agaja, the king who was responsible for the conquest of Allada and Whydah in the 1720s is said to be the enforcer of the annual customs that was introduced in Dahomey.
In 1818, King Adandozan of Dahomey was overthrown, according to some historians because he wanted to sway from the norm and not ‘water the graves’ of his predecessors. Some say it was due to his lack of military prowess hence less war slaves to use for the sacrifices.
His successor, Gezo, in revived the ceremony in full swing after his historic victory against the neighbouring kingdom of Oyo in 1823. Gezo in a bid to etch his name in Dahomian history instituted an additional annual festival involving human sacrifices to commemorate his win in Oyo.
Under Gezo, victims offered at the regular Annual Customs increased to over 300 in the 1830s and 1840s.
The scale of human sacrifice took a downhill and diminished from the 1850s onwards. It was after the French conquered Dahomey in the 1890s that the large scale of sacrifices reduced until then it was practiced on a large scale.