King Gbêhanzin and resistance
to the French
King Gbêhanzin was the last but one in the Agassouvi line of kings on the Guédévi plateau. He succeeded his father Glèlè (1858-1889). His reign coincided with European colonial expansion and particularly with French colonialism. Consequently, Gbêhanzin is known as the king who put up strong resistance to the colonial invasion of his ancestral territory.
Gbêhanzin: a king with an uncommon destiny
According to oral tradition, Prince Kondo had a strict childhood like the other royal princes. He was early set to a school influenced by king Adandozan (1779-1818) overthrown by prince Gankpé, the future king Guézo (1818-1858). The severity, integrity and revolutionary ideas developed by Adandozan during his reign certainly had a great influence on prince Kondo.
Physical and character portrait
He was a man of average height with slightly bow legs. He was light-skinned, had lively eyes, a frank and open expression which was almost haughty, a dignified stance and the traditionally proud step of his ancestors, particularly his father.
He was intelligent and well informed about all the kingdom's affairs. Reporting on his keen appreciation of the problems raised during discussions with Bayol in December 1889, d'Albéca wrote "diplomacy is at its wits end faced with the prince's obstinacy". During negotiations in 1890, de Cuverville found him "astute, vindictive and immoderately proud", although "generous when need be".
"Warrior instinct, audacity, courage (...) cunning and shrewdness are his 'native qualities' which developed, united and strengthened by study, education and experience" would have made Gbêhanzin a still more outstanding personality.
Accession to the throne
Towards the end of the 1880's, the ageing king Glèlè fell ill and could no longer manage the everyday running of the kingdom. Prince Kondo, Vidaho (1), was called to Djègbé by the king who entrusted him with the most important affairs such as negotiations with the French on the transfer of Kutonu (Cotonou).
But it should be remembered that, before this, Kondo had had his head shaved and had sent his hair to his father thus indicating that he was old enough to govern as he was already going grey. In reply to his son, the king sent him an "akoko" (cowry) and a hoe. The king pointed out to Kondo in this way that he should only concern himself with trade and agriculture. "If you ever wage war, you will ruin the kingdom..." the king is reputed to have said to him.
Prince Kondo was enthroned on December 30, 1889 and took the name of Gbêhanzin.
A turbulent reign
Assumed names and their meaning
Like most of the kings, Kondo had two assumed names. The first is taken from the phrase Gbè hin azin bo ai djrè: "the world holds the egg which the earth desires". His second: "the angry shark comes to disturb the bar" illustrates his desire to defend every inch of his country against the French.
His symbols are:
- an egg held by two hands;
- a shark: the king, as fierce as the shark, will not let his enemies disembark and come and conquer his kingdom;
- a hanged man on a flag staff because he had thrown insults at king Glèlè, his father.
Rivalry with the French
The new king had to face French interference in his territory and, at the same time, solve socio-political problems raised by his countrymen.
During the first two years, 1890 and 1891, the interventionist policy of expansionists, traders and politicians became predominant.
The decisive phase can be placed between February 1 and March 30, 1891. The French Under-Secretary of State, Eugène Etienne had taken charge of colonial policy. For him "the kingdom of Danhomè is like a lock which has to be forced to gain the hinterland". From then on it was accepted that the French army should use all means to achieve this essential aim of expansionism as laid down by the politicians.
It should be observed that king Gbêhanzin did not remain passive. Entering into contact with the Germans, he was able to rearm his soldiers with up-to-date guns and canons. He even succeeded in integrating Germans and Belgians into the Danhomè army.
Three main decisive periods can be noted in the military operations which took place:
from February 1891 to September 1892 the two armies confined themselves to demonstrations of force without reaching a critical level.
Hostages were taken on both sides and there was fighting in buffer zones like the kingdom of Hoghonu (Porto Novo), the Wémènu, Egba and Watchi. This stage enabled each side to reinforce the strength of its troops.
from September 1892 to 1893 fierce battles between the two armies were fought successively at Dogba, Kpokissa and Kana. Faced by powerful canon fire and the large numbers comprising the expeditionary forces, the Abomey soldiers strongly resisted to their last breath. The courage of the Amazons and the Danhomè army was acknowledged by the French. On November 17, 1893, French troops entered Agbomè, after Gbêhanzin had set fire to the palaces the previous evening. He, however, could not be found. On December 3, General Dodds placed Agbomè under French protectorate and proclaimed Gbêhanzin's deposition.
- from November 1893 to the end of January 1894, Gbêhanzin went underground. The French were scarcely satisfied with this situation but could never capture him.
Entrance of the French flag in Abomey, 1893
The end of king Gbêhanzin and the kingdom of Danhomè
The submission of the former king was made under unusual conditions. The word "surrender" has often been used. From the king's view-point he did not give himself up, nor was he taken. He demanded that he should be met in a place stipulated by himself. On January 26, 1894 he arrived in a hammock at the post of Goho. Not having been taken he was not beaten. Whether legend or truth, oral tradition adds that Dodds, who wanted to shake his hand, was refused by the king and told to approach his former Gawu Gucidi (army general and future king Ago-li-Agbo).
But before this meeting which ended the king's freedom he had, on January 20, 1894, thanked and praised the sacrifices of his soldiers in a moving speech during the course of a farewell ceremony. On January 28, Gbêhanzin left Agbomè for good. He boarded ship at Kutonu on February 11, 1894 heading for Martinique via Senegal. Eleven people were in attendance: his cousin Ayizunon Adandédjan, his son Wanilo, three of his daughters, five of his wives, including his favourite, and an interpreter.
The ex-king was in exile. During all the 12 years of absence, Gbêhanzin never gave up hope of returning to his former kingdom. His numerous letters requesting various well-known figures to intervene in his favour are proof of this.
In spite of the care and solicitude which surrounded him, Gbêhanzin became increasingly worn down by the cold and wet climate of the West Indies. He considered it a malediction that he had been unable to celebrate his father's funeral rites and these were a vital question for the ex-king.
Because of his increasing ill health, Gbêhanzin and his entourage got back to Blida on April 20, 1906.
The king suffered from ill-functioning kidneys and the beginnings of pneumonia. In addition he had albuminuria, often had fits and his heart was becoming weaker.
He died in Algiers on December 10, 1906 and was buried the next day in Saint-Eugène cemetery. The family returned to Kutonu on January 8, 1907.
Gbêhanzin's remains were only repatriated to Kutonu on March 29, 1928 further to insistently renewed applications by his son Wanilo.
The qualities as much as the faults of king Gbêhanzin were useful to him in confronting internal problems, war and resistance to the French.
The Kpanlingan (2) and songs have revealed the patriotic grandeur of the true Guédévi (3) which Gbêhanzin was. Commander Grandin said of him that he was daring, fierce in contest, authoritative and remarkable.
These seem to us to be the true aspects of this exceptional individual who inherited a potentially dramatic situation. Both internally and externally conditions were ripe for Gbêhanzin's reign to be a turbulent one.
Archaeologist-Manager of cultural heritage
School of African Heritage (EPA)