Urbanism on West Africa’s Slave Coast
Archaeology sheds new light on cities in the era of the Atlantic slave trade
Until recently, sub-Saharan Africa was viewed as a place lacking a deeply rooted urban history. Because many African communities did not fit models of the city that scholars embraced in the early 20th century, the impressive scale of precolonial African towns was attributed to intrusive Middle Eastern or European influences in the second millennium A.D. Those models defined cities in terms of specific traits: large populations, monumental architecture and a literate class that fostered religion, the arts and government. African communities without these requisites were viewed as mere extensions of a rural countryside, part of a peasant way of life. African communities that had such traits were deemed beneficiaries of cultural stimulus from afar.
Despite the tenacious grip that this model held on our understanding of the sub-Saharan African past, archaeological evidence accumulated in recent decades is dispelling the myth of a cityless precolonial Africa. Research adopting a functional model of the city has forced us to see cities as more than a simple collection of traits. According to this model, urban centers are differentiated from, but closely integrated with, their rural communities. Cities are thus settlements that provide specialized services to a broader hinterland. The key issue, therefore, is not what a city is, but what a city does for rural communities within its sphere of influence.
This functional model has cast valuable light on the evolution of urban settlements across the continent. Research conducted in the 1980s and 1990s by Susan and Roderick McIntosh, of Rice University and Yale University respectively, has revealed that communities in the Inland Niger Delta region of Mali began to pass the urban threshold during the first millennium A.D., long before Near Eastern or European influence was a factor. Archaeological research on the Swahili and Zimbabwe civilizations of eastern and southern Africa respectively, has revealed cities that flowered in response to Indian Ocean commerce in the early second millennium A.D., yet had deep roots in indigenous settlement configurations. Archaeology thus plays an important role in rejecting the idea that Africa has never been more than a recipient of cultural stimulus from the outside world.
However, despite the antiquity of urban traditions across sub-Saharan Africa, this research has also demonstrated that global forces have had wide-reaching impacts on the way pre-existing urban communities were organized. The Atlantic Era, which spanned the 17th through 19th centuries, was a period of particularly intense global commercial integration. Beginning in the second half of the 17th century, as the trans-Atlantic slave trade began to dominate long-distance commerce, West African urban communities were transformed. Royal capitals expanded rapidly, towns emerged on the coast and in the interior, and people flocked to the European-controlled coastal fortresses. Slave raiding depopulated some regions entirely. In other areas, people fled conflict to fortified communities in mountainous regions. Overall, the period was marked by major demographic upheaval that had profound effects on the everyday lives of people across the region.
Archaeology is providing new perspectives on West African urban transformation during the Atlantic Era. Archaeologists have excavated sites across the coast and the interior to understand the important social and cultural roles that exotic trade goods played in the lives of West Africans. Increasingly, however, a landscape-archaeological perspective—grounded in regional surveys and targeted excavation—is helping researchers understand the relationship between long-distance trade and urban-rural dynamics in the Atlantic Era. Landscape archaeology rejects individual archaeological sites as the primary analytical unit. It examines broad patterns in the distribution of settlements and other cultural features across regions as a window into social, cultural and economic change in the past. The benefits of this approach are clear in the growing body of research on two West African kingdoms in particular —Hueda and Dahomey—whose fates were intimately connected. Both were zones of intense commercial activity and political upheaval in the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Early Trade and Settlement
During the Atlantic Era, the Slave Coast region comprised the area from the mouth of the River Volta in Ghana to the Lagos Channel in Nigeria, or some 300 kilometers of coastline and its hinterland. The region corresponds with today’s Bight of Benin, encompassing the southern regions of southeast Ghana, Togo, Bénin and southwest Nigeria. A pronounced ecological feature commonly referred to as the Dahomey Gap spans the region. The Dahomey Gap belongs to the Guinean transition zone, which is characterized by a mosaic of forest and savanna that effectively interrupts the belt of tropical rainforest that runs along coastal West Africa. The region is crisscrossed with coastal lagoons and with a series of major north-to-south river drainages, both of which provided critical arteries of trade and cultural interaction. These same drainages cut a series of higher plateaus whose cooler temperatures and distance from river-born diseases made them attractive for settlement. These features encouraged the growth of farming and fishing communities, trade, markets and political centralization and provided the foundations for the large urban civilizations encountered by Europeans in the era of the slave trade. The relative openness of the terrain also attracted European traders. In the 16th century, Portuguese merchants seeking supplies of slave laborers began to trade with coastal polities there.
At the dawn of the Atlantic Era, urban polities were distributed across the region. Isaac Adeagbo Akinjogbin of Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria once estimated that as many as 15 kingdoms were located within the Dahomey Gap in this period. Ethnographic and historical sources claim that many of their kings moved across the region in a series of royal migrations from the Yoruba urban centers Ile-Ife, Oyo and later Ketu, subjugating local communities and founding centralized kingdoms as they went. Over the 17th and early 18th centuries, however, as the slave-trade expanded to satisfy European demand for human labor on New World plantations, historical sources identify two primary slave- trade agents on the coast, Allada and its subordinate kingdom Hueda, located in the modern Republic of Bénin.
Founded sometime in the 16th century, Allada was the dominant polity in what is now southern Bénin. Allada expanded through coastal canoe trade with major kingdoms in the forest zone, most notably the Kingdom of Benin in southern Nigeria. By the mid-16th century, however, the Portuguese were actively trading at Allada’s capital, Grand Ardra. Grand Ardra was a city of considerable size, home to approximately 30,000 people; Allada as a whole had a population upwards of 200,000. Dutch physician Olfert Dapper wrote in his Description of Africa in 1668 of the presence of “towns and villages in great number” in Grand Ardra’s countryside. Over the course of the 17th century, Allada emerged as the paramount kingdom in the region, exacting regular tribute from its neighbors and legitimizing these tributary relationships through various ritual obligations.
Hueda, one of a number of kingdoms dominated by Allada, also figures large in 17th-century shipping records and period descriptions. Hueda, a minor kingdom for most of the 17th century, enters the historical record in 1671 with the founding of a French trading lodge in Savi, its royal capital. Like Allada, Hueda was a populous kingdom. Savi was home to at least 30,000 people, and the kingdom as a whole probably reached upward of 100,000. English slave trader Robert Norris wrote in the 18th century:
Sabee, at that period the metropolis of the kingdom, the residence of their monarch, and seat of their commerce, was about four miles in circumference. The houses, constructed with mud walls, were roofed with thatch. The factory houses of the European traders were spacious and airy, distributed into convenient apartments, and surrounded on the outside with a large gallery opening into balconies. The town swarmed with people, insomuch, that it was impossible to pass through the streets without great difficulty. Markets were held every day, at which were exposed to sale all sorts of merchandizes, European and African, besides abundance of provisions of every kind … the plains embellished with an astonishing multitude of large and small villages, every one of which was enclosed with a low mud wall, and placed in full view of the surrounding district; all this assemblage united to form the most picturesque view imaginable, unobstructed either by mountain or hill.
These cities also provided the primary markets in their territories. The marketplace at Savi drew 5,000 people on market day in its heyday. Rural communities brought goods to the markets of Savi and Grand Ardra every fourth day (the market week) to ply commodities such as salt, textiles, basketry, calabashes, pottery and other products for sale. These polities were thus characterized by regional settlement differentiation, in which urban centers served as political and economic nexuses for smaller settlements across nearby rural areas. Rural communities and urban centers were integrated in terms of production and distribution of everyday domestic products.
Despite the indigenous origins and local orientation of these cities, trans-Atlantic trade emerged as an increasingly significant factor in urban-rural dynamics along the Slave Coast. During this period, human captives—taken in slave raids against weaker neighbors—became the predominant export from the region. Exports from the Slave Coast amounted to 5,000 captives per year in the 1680s, and peaked at 10,000 per year from the 1690s through the 1710s. Goods received in exchange for captives were predominantly textiles and cowry shells (Cypraea moneta), which originated in the Indian Ocean and were the principle currency in the region. However, other goods such as iron and brass bars, beads, guns and spirits are also mentioned in period texts. Additionally, beads, clay tobacco pipes, ceramic vessels, alcohol bottles and various other trinkets are documented at contemporary archaeological sites. The introduction of European and Asian manufactured goods had a significant impact on communities on the Slave Coast.
Although historical sources suggest some of these items entered regional markets for sale, imported trade goods were a closely guarded source of symbolic power for kings. Period accounts describe public ceremonies, including royal coronations and elaborate rituals following the death of a king, in which large quantities of luxuries were displayed and distributed to the general public. Royal power and prestige were intimately tied to the success of these ceremonies. On the one hand, the public display of wealth accumulated in trade reinforced the symbolic power of the king. On the other, the distribution of such goods to loyal followers was a strategy for integrating subjects into a stable political system. Controlling access to Atlantic wealth became a key component of kings’ strategies to instill political order. Whereas local markets economically integrated town and countryside, it was luxuries acquired in trade that served as the political glue binding rural lords to urban royal dynasties.
Trade goods were thus hotly sought after in Allada and Hueda, and their respective kings jockeyed to corner the lion’s share of these new sources of power. For much of the 17th and early 18th centuries, successive kings of Allada sought to monopolize access to the goods, largely through royal- sponsored slave-raiding campaigns against weaker neighbors. Fearing competition from rivals, kings went so far as to require European merchants to trade directly with them at their palaces before trading with others in the kingdom. However, as demand for slaves in the New World picked up toward the end of the century, Allada found it difficult to maintain a trading monopoly, and secondary polities began to get in on the action. The rise of Hueda was a product of Allada’s declining authority. Proximity to coastal ports in an era of expanding demand for human cargo granted the Huedan elite access to vast quantities of Atlantic wealth, resulting in the emergence of a powerful palace-centric polity, which often worked against the interests of its political overlord, Allada.
Alexis B. A. Adandé of the University of Abomey-Calavi in Bénin pioneered archaeological research on the Atlantic Era in Southern Bénin. In the 1980s, Adandé started excavation and oral historical research at Togudo-Awute, the location of Grand Ardra itself. Most of our understanding of the importance of trade for shaping the nature of urban-rural dynamics in these coastal polities is extrapolated from research conducted at Savi by the Savi Archaeological Project under the direction of Kenneth Kelly of the University of South Carolina and, more recently, by Neil Norman of the College of William and Mary. Two decades of archaeological research at Savi has examined the rapid growth and early demise of the Kingdom of Hueda as a result of the Atlantic commercial pressures outlined above.
Kenneth Kelly started archaeological research at Savi in 1991. Kelly’s initial site survey identified a dense concentration of artifacts, local pottery mainly, distributed across a 5 kilometer diameter area (approximately 20 square kilometers). Because such an abundance of artifacts often indicates a settlement site, Kelly interpreted this as the boundaries of an extensive urban settlement at Savi. At its center, Kelly located a series of deep ditches encircling a royal precinct covering an area of 6.5 hectares and centering on the remains of a large palace complex. This area would have served as the primary location for public ceremonies glorifying the king and his dynasty. European traders were required to live in trading lodges that were built near the palace within this royal precinct, and a marketplace was established under the watchful gaze of the king. This was, in all probability, an attempt to control the European merchants, increasingly important sources of wealth—and of potential instability. Kelly’s excavations in the royal palace recovered large quantities of imported trade goods, including Dutch tobacco pipes, Chinese porcelains, wine and liquor bottles, and even Dutch bricks lining the palace floors. Importantly, these objects were recovered in the palace’s most public areas, precisely where the king received guests, indicating the importance of such goods to the symbolic power and authority of the Huedan monarchy.
Building upon Kelly’s research, Neil Norman explored Savi’s countryside. Norman surveyed a 10-kilometer- diameter zone around Savi in 2005, finding widespread distribution of pottery fragments and other artifacts, as well as the collapsed remains of numerous mud-walled buildings. On the basis of this survey, Norman has revealed a three-tier settlement system, supporting historical claims that Savi’s countryside was densely populated and that Savi served as its political and economic center. Savi sat at the top of the pyramid, followed by semi-autonomous provincial towns of a few thousand in the middle, and then by small-scale rural villages with up to a few hundred people. These data allow us to infer that Savi served as a political and economic center for communities in its broader hinterlands.
As was the case in Allada, historical sources indicate that the Huedan king’s power rested largely on how well he was able to funnel Atlantic wealth into the hands of rural chiefs. Excavations conducted by Norman at rural sites reveal hardly any examples of such goods, however, indicating that the provinces and their rural hinterlands were never integrated economically into the circulation of imported commodities. Thus the countryside did not share in the Atlantic wealth that defined court life at Savi. If the concentration of Atlantic wealth in the palace was the source of power and influence for the monarchy, its absence probably produced significant tension with rural lords. The failure of the Hueda monarchy to cultivate loyalty among provincial elites in all probability intensified factional conflicts between provinces and the center and between elites and commoners, opening the door to political collapse.
Kingdom from the North
Whereas the expansion of Atlantic commerce in the 17th century introduced new political opportunities for Allada and Hueda, competition for Atlantic wealth in the early 18th century led to collapse. The kingdom of Dahomey, a northern client of Allada and a supplier of human captives through its own military campaigns, upset this regional system. Following nearly a century of Dahomean expansion and consolidation across the Abomey Plateau, Dahomey rebelled from Allada in 1716. Its soldiers marched south and conquered Allada in 1724 and Hueda in 1727, laying waste to both capitals and razing much of their respective countrysides. Free from Allada, Dahomey took control over the primary trade route to the coast and emerged as an exemplar of the West African centralized state in the Atlantic Era. Throughout this period, Dahomean monarchs waged relentless campaigns to define the terms of the slave trade, often facing serious opposition from coastal merchants and elites. Whereas Allada and Hueda disintegrated under similar pressures, over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, successive Dahomean kings solidified control, despite multiple contests for power, constant threats from the neighboring Oyo Empire in Nigeria and the turbulent dynamics of trans-Atlantic commerce.
Strategies employed by Dahomean kings to maintain and extend political order until the French conquest in 1894 have been the source of much historical research. Studies have highlighted the expanding role of military and bureaucratic institutions in Dahomey, as well as the intensification of ritual practices involving the public display and distribution of wealth acquired in Atlantic commerce. Importantly, the structure of urban life was altered dramatically by Dahomean expansion. Savi and Allada were largely depopulated following Dahomey’s conquests, and the port town of Whydah expanded dramatically. It became the primary port of trade in the region, reaching a population of 30,000 people by the mid-19th century. Archaeological research on the Abomey plateau, Dahomey’s political heartland, is revealing that Dahomean cities in the 18th century emerged as centers for a variety of ritual, economic and political strategies designed to integrate rural communities in decidedly new ways.
Although the nature of pre-Dahomean settlement on the plateau is poorly understood, it is clear that by the 18th century two Dahomean cities rose to dominance across the region: Abomey and Cana. Abomey, an expansive community settled around a marketplace and a series of royal palace compounds, emerged as greater Dahomey’s political capital and home to as many as 30,000 in the 18th century. Nearby Cana also became a significant center on the plateau in this period. It was a major node in regional administration and interregional trade routes, with significant regional markets and as many as 15,000 inhabitants in the 18th century. Historical population estimates suggest 21 to 33 percent of the plateau’s population lived at Abomey and Cana, with the remainder in smaller towns and villages ranging in size from a dozen or so families to no more than 1,000 inhabitants. Like Grand Ardra and Savi to the south, these Dahomean cities sat atop a hierarchy of settlements on the Abomey plateau.
Archaeological studies on communities containing the remaining 67 to 79 percent of the population on the plateau are only beginning. However, insights on regional settlement practices have been revealed by the Projet Benino- Danois d’Archéologie (BDArch), an international team of archaeologists led by Klavs Randsborg of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and Alexis B. A. Adandé. BDArch has identified subterranean structures across the Abomey Plateau and immediately adjacent areas. Carved out of solid lateritic rock with locally available iron tools, the structures typically have cylindrical entryways, which often lead to multiple interconnected chambers. BDArch has dated these features to the late 17th to early 19th centuries, corresponding to the era of the slave trade and the rise of Dahomey. Although their function remains unclear, the structures very likely served both as wells for water storage and as refuges for families during slave raids against Dahomey. They provide a valuable perspective on the regional extent of settlement in this period.
Archaeological research conducted by the University of California’s Abomey Plateau Archaeological Project, which I have directed since 2000, is shedding light on urban-rural dynamics in Dahomey by focusing on royal palace sites. As was the case in Hueda, royal palaces defined the urban landscapes of cities on the Abomey Plateau, standing as material statements of royal power and authority. At a primary level, these structures housed the king and his dependents, who may have numbered up to 8,000 in Abomey alone. Palace sites played a major role in royal ceremonies called the Xwetanu [Way-ta-nu, in the local Fongbe language], or Annual Customs. The Xwetanu involved the annual veneration of the royal ancestor cult, requiring the sacrifice of hundreds of human captives and the ceremonial distribution of wealth, much of which was acquired through Atlantic trade.
Archaeological research I have conducted within a number of these sites has highlighted the importance of European trade goods for reinforcing elite power in Dahomey. The discovery of large quantities of trade goods such as ceramic tableware, bottles of alcohol and tobacco pipes within palace compounds at Cana confirms that, as was true in Hueda, imported commodities played an important role in symbolically underwriting the Dahomean elite’s claims to power. Survey and test excavations recently conducted at rural sites in Cana’s hinterland, however, are not finding such imported material in similar quantities. This pattern indicates that like Hueda, the circulation of Atlantic wealth in Dahomey was largely restricted to the royal-palace sphere. In these respects, archaeological evidence for Huedan and Dahomean urban-rural dynamics are quite similar.
However, lesser-known palace structures distributed across the plateau tell a different story. Historical accounts suggest that such complexes were devoted to manufacturing or agricultural pursuits. They also served as waypoints along trade routes and housed soldiers. Rural palaces thus served as critical nodes in the elites’ strategies to establish political order across Dahomean territories. Since 2000, the Abomey Plateau Archaeological Project has identified and examined 19 previously undocumented palace structures on or immediately around the Abomey Plateau, in addition to the nine previously known from Abomey itself. Fragments of European imported goods, accounts obtained recently and in the past from local people and contemporary observations have all been used to date each of these structures to within a century at minimum, and often to within the reign of a Dahomean king. In all, these palace sites date from between the 17th and 19th centuries, identifying palace building as a decidedly Atlantic- Era phenomenon associated with the rise of Dahomey.
The regional distribution of such sites reveals that a different urban-rural framework developed over time in Dahomey. As was the case in Hueda, 17th-century palace construction in Dahomey was limited to the capital, Abomey, which served in this period as the central node in its sphere of regional influence. Provincial elites were thus left largely to their own devices and were tenuously integrated into Abomey’s political orbit. Soon after it conquered its southern neighbors, however, Dahomey vigorously built palaces in towns and cities along the major highways that the kingdom used to deliver human captives to the Atlantic coast. This distribution suggests that Dahomey waged a relentless campaign to project its authority beyond the capital in ways that were decidedly different from those adopted by Hueda in the 17th century. Dahomey’s success at securing control of important nodes in interregional trade allowed it to centralize the export of human captives, and thus control access to the exotic cloth, ceramics and other desired products received in return.
Later, in the 19th century, palace construction expanded elite influence substantially, this time deeper into Abomey and Cana’s rural hinterlands. The largest palace complexes were built at Abomey and Cana, and smaller satellite facilities were constructed at various points in the rural areas. These patterns suggest that Abomey and Cana served as administrative centers from which royal power was evenly distributed across the regional landscape in this period. Just as the southward expansion of Dahomean palace construction in the 18th century can be explained in terms of royal attempts to link urban centers in a chain of control from the capital to the coast, the 19th-century pattern can be explained in terms of international forces that engulfed the region.
An Alternative to the Slave Trade
Radical change swept across West Africa during the 19th century. In particular, royal revenue from the slave trade declined dramatically. First Denmark (1803), and then Great Britain (1807), the United States (1808), Holland (1814), France (1818), the Netherlands (1818), Sweden (1824), Spain (1835) and Portugal (1836) abolished the import of human cargo from West Africa. Between 1797 and 1804, European forts at Whydah stood abandoned. In 1807 the British Navy’s West Africa squadron began enforcing a decades-long embargo on slave-trading ships along the coast, supported on occasion by the U.S. Navy. This resulted in a dramatic decline in the volume of human cargo leaving the Slave Coast’s shores. At the same time, European emissaries encouraged West African states such as Dahomey to develop commerce in agricultural products, chiefly palm oil, which was increasingly sought in Europe as a raw material for soap, candles and industrial lubricants.
This change had a profound impact on the ability of states across the region to maintain political order, leading to what Antony Hopkins of the University of Texas called a “crisis of adaptation” in Economic History of West Africa (1973). This crisis was rooted in the ways that trade in palm products had a democratizing effect that undermined elite power. Whereas the economic and political capital required to participate in the slave trade largely restricted this pursuit to the elite class, palm products could be produced at the local level and sold piecemeal, allowing anyone with a pot and a palm tree to become an active participant in Atlantic trade. Small-scale planters and traders in many West African kingdoms were able to accumulate vast quantities of wealth rivaling that of kings—a potentially destabilizing social process.
West African royal dynasties were forced to make new economic choices during this time. Some, such as Dahomey, weathered the transition. As demand for humans as commodities was replaced by the demand for labor to produce commodities in Dahomey, the nature of political and economic organization transformed dramatically. Dahomey continued to wage military campaigns and take captives from neighboring polities, but those captives were put to work in large-scale agricultural production. In addition to increasing the domestic slave population, this economic transition expanded local markets and the relative wealth held by rural communities. The outcome was the overall ruralization of the Dahomean political economy.
The Dahomean government responded with a tax system that targeted agricultural production and regional markets. Officials ran major Dahomey markets and were responsible for collecting duties and maintaining the market infrastructure. In addition to taxes levied on market goods, however, a network of tax-collecting posts, called denun, was created across the kingdom to collect duties from traveling merchants. Frederick Forbes, a British Naval officer who twice visited Dahomey between 1849 and 1850, wrote:
Taxes are heavy to all parties, and farmed to collectors. The holders of the Customs have collectors stationed at all markets, who receive cowries in number according to the value of the goods carried for sale. Besides these, there are collectors on all public roads leading from one district to another, and on the lagoon on each side of Whydah; in short, every thing is taxed, and the tax goes to the king.
Dahomean royal complexes built in this period can be viewed as central nodes in a tightly integrated urban-rural landscape, serving as staging centers for taxes collected by rural officials from merchants at local markets and along major trade routes. Complexes located at greater distance from Abomey received taxes on locally traded goods such as pottery, cloth, animals and, indeed, palm oil. These taxes, which might be in kind or in currency, were then transported on to Abomey.
Seeing Below the Surface
The kingdoms of Allada, Hueda and Dahomey came to prominence on the Slave Coast in a period of dramatic economic opportunity—as well as potential instability—and figure large in discussions gauging the relative impact of Atlantic commercial expansion in West Africa. Allada and Hueda are often cited as political casualties of the slave trade, whereas Dahomey is typically characterized as the beneficiary of the opportunities the trade produced for West African kingdoms. Archaeological research conducted at a regional scale is shedding important light on how these phenomena were tied to broader political- economic processes that determined the relative stability of these polities in the wake of Atlantic commercial expansion. In both cases, a landscape-scale analysis provides key insights into the processes that framed everyday life.
Still, after three decades of concerted research in Southern Bénin, archaeologists are literally and figuratively just scratching the surface. We have begun to reconstruct the political and economic connections that bound rural communities to their urban counterparts, and we have made compelling arguments about how these processes were transformed in response to attempts by local elites to engage trans-Atlantic forces. But our understanding of the pre–Atlantic Era societies that gave rise to these urban communities is minimal. So is our understanding of how the commercial revolutions that characterized the Atlantic Era affected the everyday lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who lived across these urban landscapes.
Researchers are working to redress these issues, targeting precontact archaeological sites and rural communities that emerged in the shadows of the palace towns that dominated the political landscape. Some are examining the local systems of production and exchange that were transformed by Atlantic commercial encroachment. Just as a focus on cities on the Slave Coast has repositioned West Africa in the Atlantic era as a valuable source of insight into the nature of urbanism in global archaeology, these archaeological campaigns will orient us toward a better understanding of the cultural context in which Atlantic-Era polities emerged. They should also yield insight into the complexities of life under the onslaught of trans-Atlantic forces.
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