In 1851, there was no
Nigeria. There was no Nigerian Army to defend the country from external
attacks. The whole area we know as Nigeria today was nothing but a
patchy collection of kingdoms, empires, chiefdoms and tribal enclaves
all lumped together under the ‘protection’ of Great Britain.
this messy porridge of the foreign imperial power was a prominent city
called Abeokuta, a city known for some of Africa’s most intelligent
minds and revolutionary fighters against injustice.
by the Egbas fleeing from the power of the almighty Oyo Empire that was
in a decline, Abeokuta became an important center for the lucrative
palm oil trade. It was the capital of the Egbas and it was not long
before conflicts broke out between the Egba merchants and the slave
hunters from the neighbouring Dahomey. In 1851, the legendary Battle of
Abeokuta was launched and that is precisely what will be the focus of
this article. Why did the people of Dahomey invade Abeokuta and what
vassal state of the Oyo Empire from 1740 to 1832 and a French
protectorate from 1894 to 1904, the Kingdom of Dahomey was an African
kingdom (situated in what is now the Republic of Benin). It existed from
around 1600 till 1894 when its last ruler, King Behanzin, was defeated
by French forces leading to the annexation of his kingdom as part of the
French colonial empire.
Developed by the Fon people (strict followers of the Vodun religion) on the Abomey Plateay in the early 17th century, Dahomey became a regional power in the 18th
century and at the height of its power, conquered major cities on the
coast of the Atlantic Ocean. A sophisticated kingdom, Dahomey was built
on an economy that thrived on conquest and slave labour. Add the
commercial connections with the European powers to their efficient
taxation systems and their dreaded military, you will then understand
why Dahomey was such a terrible pain in the ass of its neighbours.
THE FAMOUS DAHOMEY AMAZONS
for its military prowess, Dahomey relied on the immense skills of the
all-female military unit known as the Dahomey Amazons. Several kings of
Dahomey depended on these warrior women and when the aggressive King
Ghezo decided to take on Abeokuta, the Amazons were right behind him.
must be noted however that there were several times the Amazons called
for peace with Abeokuta but their king and the male military battalions
insisted war was the only answer. Also known as N’Nonmiton (meaning
‘Our Mothers’ in Fon), the all-female military regiment played a very
significant during the reign of Ghezo from 1818 to 1858. Ghezo was a
king who focused immensely on fighting and he did much to expand the
The N’Nonmiton were
battle-tested veterans, trained to be indifferent to pain and death,
they were experts in warfare and the execution of prisoners. Mainly
virgins, they were trained to kill and were not allowed to have children
or get married (although they were all legally married to the king).
female fighters achieved a semi-divine status so you can imagine the
pall of terror that fell on the people of Egbaland when they heard an
invasion was on its way. By the middle of the 19th century, the N’Nonmiton reached
up to 6,000 women, forming a third of the entire Dahomian Army. They
were generally regarded as superior combatants to their male
needed slaves to maintain its system and the thirst of blood had made
Ghezo issue several threats to Abeokuta. In March 1851, King Ghezo
decided to strike ruthlessly. It was an eventful military exercise. This
was how The Times of 10th April, 1852 described the military catastrophe, and you will find the Lagos connection particularly interesting:
labours of the Church Missionary Society on the West Coast of Africa
enabled the chief promoters of that association to demonstrate to the
Government that on the frontiers of Dahomey, and within the reach of the
attacks of its savage ruler, there exists a people inhabiting the Egba
province of the Yoruba kingdom, who are in all respects the opposite of
their ferocious neighbours. Their chief town, called Abbeokuta, contains
50,000 inhabitants, and is situated on the river Ogu, which is
navigable for about 50 miles down to the sea at the island of Lagos.
Their markets are frequented by traders from the Niger and the interior
of Africa. These Yoruba chiefs are entirely opposed to the slave trade,
and they live in constant dread of the slave hunts and hostilities of
their slave-dealing neighbours. It is a very remarkable circumstance
that several hundred liberated Africans had found their way in vessels,
procured and freighted by themselves, from Sierra Leone to Badagry and
Abbeokuta; and the English missionaries have undoubtedly succeeded in
establishing there one of the most successful missions we yet possess on
the Guinea coast. But, on the other hand, Lagos, which commands the
mouth of the river Ogu and the trade of Abbeokuta, was in the hands of a
slave-trading chief, KOSOKO, who had driven his relative, AKITOYE, from
the throne; and the King of DAHOMEY, jealous of the trade and
independence of Abbeokuta, had repeatedly declared his intention to make
war upon it and to destroy it.
threats were soon realized. In March 1851, the King of Dahomey marched
against Abbeokuta to exterminate the British missionaries, and to reduce
the black population to slavery. A severe action was fought under the
walls of the town, and in the presence of the English residents. The
Dahomians were defeated and on the next day no less than 1,209 of their
warriors were found dead upon the field. This abortive attempt was
followed by other hostilities between the tribes involved in this
interminable African quarrel, which placed the British residents and
traders on the coast in considerable peril, as KOSOKO, the Chief of
Lagos, was known to be advancing to attack that settlement; and it
became apparent that the safety both of the missionaries, the traders,
and the liberated Africans in these free districts, depended entirely on
the restraint which could be put upon the hostile operation the Chief
of Lagos. There seems reason to believe that these operations were the
result of a preconcerted scheme, arranged and assisted by the Brazilian
slave-dealers, between the King of DAHOMEY and the slave-trading chiefs
on the coast.
Upon the receipt of this information in
September last, Lord PALMERSTON ordered Whyday, which is the principal
port of Dahomey, to be strictly blockaded, and the Commodore on the
station was instructed to consider the practicability of sending a small
force into Lagos for the purpose of expelling the then chief and the
slavedealers by whom he was supported, and of re-establishing in his
stead AKITOYE, the former chief, who was driven out by the slavedealers
on account of his hostility to the slave trade.
orders could be executed, Lord PALMERSTON added that Lagos might become
an important outlet for the commerce of the interior, and a diffusing
centre of civilization, instead of a den of barbarism. Before, however,
the formal instructions to commence these operations had reached the
coast of Africa Mr. Consul BEECROFT had in some degree anticipated their
He arrived off Lagos in HER MAJESTY’s steamer Bloodhound on the 13th of November, and opened a negotiation with KOSOKO, then Chief of Lagos, to induce him to renounce the slave trade… ’
stinging beating that was handed out to the Dahomians was big news and
it was reported in the papers of the Western powers. For example, on a
Saturday morning, July 19, 1851, the Poughkeepsie Eagle reported it thus:
‘Defeat of the Amazons.
defeat of the Amazons of Dahomy before the walls of Abbeokuta, is
perhaps a more important event than most readers would suppose.
Abbeokuta is in the kingdom of Yoruba, about 56 miles nearly north from
Badagry, (lat. 6 30 north, lon. 3 east,) which is its nearest port. At
Badagry there is a British port, and no slave trade. It is however, only
about ten miles, westward, to the boundary of Dahomy, and some 25 or 30
miles to Porto Novo, where, at Whidah, and Great and Little Popo, the
slave trade is largely carried on. We believe it also exists in the
Lagos country, which includes Badagry, and extends some distance
distance along the coast to the east. Here, for about 300 miles, is the
only coast north of the equator on which that trade has not been
The population of Abbeokuta it is said, on
high authority, to be at least 50,000, and many estimates make it much
higher. About 3,000 of them are recaptives from slave ships, who have
learned something of civilization and Christianity at Sierra Leone. At
their own expense they have returned nearly a thousand miles, to this,
their native region, mostly in condemned slave ships, which they have
bought for that purpose, and disposed as they could at Badagry.
are two Missions at Abbeokuta, one established by the English Church
Missionary Society, and the other by the English Wesleyans. The former
had, at the date of the last official returns, one native ordained
missionary and five European; nine native school teachers, six schools,
418 scholars, and 122 communicants.
attendants’ on public worship were estimated, in August 1849, at ‘500 at
the lowest calculation. – The ordained native missionary is the Rev.
Samuel Crowther, originally a slave from this vicinity, educated at
Sierra Leone and in England. The first convert baptised by him was his
own mother. This returned population have been making large calculations
for introducing the arts of civilized life.
American present at the battle, Mr.Bowen, went out under the patronage
of the Southern Baptist Board of Missions, to attempt a passage through
Yoruba and other intervening countries, to Bournou, in Central Africa.
English Missionaries at Sierra Leone have been for some time making
preparations, by the study of languages and otherwise for penetrating to
the same region by the same route.
The defeat of the
Amazons is doubtless owing, in a great measure, to the superior
civilization of the returned Egbas. The Kingdom of Yoruba, formerly
powerful, has for some years been rent and almost desolated by civil and
foreign wars – Since the recaptured Egbas began to return in 1840, and
especially since the establishing of the missions, the chiefs at
Abbeokuta have shown strong inclination to favor civilization. Its
influence in saving them from the terrible Dahomians will do much to
confirm them in its favor. Probably, as has been suggested, this victory
will do much to crush the remains of the slave trade; and it will be a
means of keeping open the best road for Christian civilization into the
populous heart of Africa.
This is the first trial of
strength between partially civilized and wholly barbarous Africans in
that part of the continent, and it will do much to establish the
superiority of the former, in the minds of all who hear of it. –BOSTON
IMPACT AND AFTERMATH
battle later proved to be a major factor facilitating the spread of
Christianity in Yorubaland as the imperialists quickly took advantage of
the vulnerability of the Egbas and used the opportunity to spread
‘Christian civilization’ in exchange for protection from marauding
neighbours like the Dahomians. The Egbas got substantial assistance and
weapons from the British and it was with these they were able to defeat
King Ghezo and his army. The Dahomians did not give up and in 1864, they
attacked Abeokuta again but they were crushed.
remains the largest city in Ogun State and a major bastion of the
Anglican Church. It Ghezo had been successful in the Battle of Abeokuta
in 1851, Ogun State and even probably Lagos as we have it today, would
have been under the French and subsequently parts of the Republic of
Benin. That is no doubt an interesting twist to history if you imagine
it for a moment. Imagine everyone in Ogun and Lagos speaking French.
Amazing, isn’t it?