Tuesday, October 17, 2017

My Stamp Collection : BENIN-DAHOMEY

Historical Background

The area that is now the Republic of Benin is in a unique geographic area of the West Coast of Africa, where the dense jungle coverage along the coast is broken by a less dense area of savannah stretching along the coast of what is now approximately Ghana, Togo, Benin and Western Nigeria.  This environmental region allowed for the development of denser concentrations of population and would eventually provide an alternative trade route between the Niger Valley and the Atlantic Ocean.

The history of what is now Benin before the irruption of the West into the region in the fifteenth century is not well documented, and seems to have been characterized by the existence of a plethora of chiefdoms formed in the wake of various population migrations.  At the time of the arrival of Portuguese traders in the region, the most powerful kingdom along the coast was that of Great Ardra, a confederation of three chiefdoms formed by the Aja-speaking peoples who migrated from lands further to the West in earlier centuries.  In the seventeenth century disputes among different clans would lead one group of Aja to move inland to establish a new state. Intermixing with local Yoruba-speaking clans in the region around Abomey, this group would eventually come to be known as the Fon. 

Further to the north other ethnic communities had carved out chiefdoms or were under the influence of the more powerful Muslim empires of the Niger Valley (Mali and later Songhai).  It would also be in this region that the Bariba peoples would establish an interlinked series of states that recognized the political leadership of the chiefs (later emirs after the adoption of Islam) at Nikki that would stretch to the Niger River into what is now Northwestern Nigeria and would come to be known in the 19th century as the Borgu Emirate.

The arrival of the Portuguese into the region in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries would radically transform the political and economic landscape of the region.  At first hoping to use access to the region as a way to tap into the riches of the Niger Valley empires, the establishment of slave colonies in first Portuguese and later other European colonies in the Americas would lead to the region coming to be known as "The Slave Coast."  In the seventeenth century the major European powers established forts from which to channel the slaves gathered by the native rulers (usually via wars among neighbors).  In what is now Benin, the principle slave port would be Whydah (Ouidah), access to which would be fought over among the the various European powers while bringing great wealth to the Ardra Rulers.

A completely new dynamic would arise in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century with the rise of the Fon Kingdom centered inland at Abomey, from which the European merchants on the coast would derive the name "Dahomey" for the kingdom.  Expanding in all directions, the kings of the Fon would trade war captives with European slavers in exchange for weapons, revolutionizing the geopolitical situation of the region.  Desiring direct access to the Europeans, in 1727 the Fon King Agaja seized Whydah and annexed it to his kingdom, gaining access to the sea.  Now in complete control over the Aja-speaking regions, Agaja and his heirs looked to expand their influence further, coming into conflict with the powerful Yoruba kingdom of Oyo that dominated much of what is now Southwestern Nigeria.  A series of campaigns produced thousands of captives for the slavers, but in the end the Fon would be defeated by Oyo and forced to accept Oyo overlordship in 1730.  For the remainder of the century the Fon Kings would work to try and end its enforced subservience, leading to more smaller-scale wars that helped feed European demand for African slaves.

The end of the slave trade in the nineteenth century would once again transform the geopolitical balance in the region.  No longer exporting war captives, the Kings of the Fon used slaves to produce natural resource exports that were in increasing demand in the West in wake of the industrial revolution. In particular, the demand for palm oil, which was used extensively as a lubricant for machinery, would lead to dramatic increases in the amount of "legitimate" trade conducted through Whydah and other ports.  The Fon kings attempted to control this trade to the benefit of his state, which would soon cause peoples on the coast to become restless under the "burden" of Fon rule.  By the 1870s, the predominant European trade power engaged with the Fon kingdom was France, and while in the 1850s treaties between France and Fon regulated commerce under Fon control, the French merchants in the region began to support attempts by coastal peoples to break free of Fon dominance.  In 1882 the local chief of the port of Porto-Novo rebelled against Fon king Glele and received French protection. The result would be increasing tensions between Fon and the French. Then in 1889, with the accession of the aggressive, anti-French Behanzin to the Fon throne, the French claimed a protectorate over the port of Cotonou.  The result was war, and in spite of fierce Fon resistance (including the use of the famous "Amazons," special corps of female Fon warriors trained to be full soldiers in the Fon army), by 1894 the French had completely destroyed to power of Fon and proclaimed the establishment of the Protectorate of Dahomey.

Further to the north, the French saw their dominance over Dahomey as a step towards expanding their access to the Niger River.  The result would be the "Race to Borgu" between the British and French that became a classic case of the "Scramble for Africa" in the 1890s as European powers moved to establish clear domination over various parts of the continent.  Unwilling to fight a full war, the British and French would sign an agreement splitting the Bariba lands, with the French gaining control of the political center at Nikki and a small outlet to the Niger River, while the British maintained control over most of Borgu's riverine region centered on Bussa. Thus the Bariba peoples would find themselves split into two administrations, and this continues to the present with Bariba communities on both sides of the Benin-Nigeria border.

Under the French, the colony of Dahomey would become something of a colonial backwater.  Attached to French West Africa in 1905, its economy was dominated by the export of palm oil from the southern regions of the colony.  Much like the Ivory Coast, the native peoples were treated as sujets forced to live under the hated Code de L'Indigenat. A few native Dahomeans would be trained to work as lower level functionaries in the French colonial administration, but unlike in Senegal there were no communes granting French citizenship.  There was little investment in infrastrucure outside projects to support the palm oil industry, and educational opportunities were limited to a small elite along the coast.  In 1914 the French would conscript Dahomeans to conquer the neighboring German colony of Togo and, later, to help the French and British seize German Kameroun.

The impact of World War II on France and its empire would radically transform the nature of colonialism in France's African empire, and Dahomey would experience many of the same changes.  The small native educated elite and the increasing number of industrial workers in the palm oil industry began to develop a consciousness demanding a more equitable relationship between France and the empire. New political leaders such as Sorgou Apithy and Hubert Maga advocated, much like the Ivory Coast's Houphouet-Boigny and Senegal's Senghor, for political reform and economic investment - a new deal for the French Empire in Africa.  By the late 1950s, the pressure for moving towards full sovereignty grew, and with the failure to transform French West Africa into a single independent federation, Dahomey gained independence on 1 August 1960.

For the first decade of independence, Dahomey was rocked by political instability. Few identified themselves with the new nation (something that would be a bane to many new post-colonial nations), being more attached to their regional and ethnic identities.  Politicians such as Apithy (from the coastal region) and Maga (from the North) tended to support the interests of their region at the expense of others.  Dahomey's economy, less robust than other former colonies in French West Africa, did not provide the kind of economic growth needed to improve living conditions for the vast majority of the population that practiced subsistance agriculture.  Educational levels were very low, and the economy did not produce the kind of wealth that could allow major investment. The result was a revolving door of political instability, with six military coups between 1963 and 1972 installing various civilian political leaders into power.

Political stability would finally come to Dahomey in wake of the 1972 Coup.  The military leader, Mathieu Kerekou, decided to concentrate power into his own hands rather than return power to the squabbling civilians.  Playing upon the international tensions of the Cold War, and seeing in Marxism an ideology that could potentially overcome regionalism, in 1975 Kerekou renamed the country as Benin, and proclaimed a one-party Communist regime.  While a small amount of aid from the Soviet Union did trickle in, for the most part Benin would remain a backwater, and regarded with suspicion by its pro-Western giant neighbor Nigeria. Attempts to impose a socialist economy did little to relieve poverty while cutting off the traditional trade relationship with France, and by the late 1980s the economy was in crisis.  The end of the Cold war would see a democratic protest movement launched in Benin, demanding an end to the one party state and the socialist economic model. Unlike many other leaders, Kerekou would accept that change was necessary, and in 1990 a transition from a one party state to a democratic regime was launched  When the first presidential elections were held in March 1991, Kerekou was defeated and accepted the defeat.

Since 1991 Benin has been considered one of the most politically free nations in Africa.  Democratic institutions have been built and maintained, and even the democratic re-election of former dictator Kerekou in 1996 did not mean an end to democracy - after serving the maximum two terms as President, Kerekou left office in 2006 and the newly elected president, Yayi Boni, took power.  While its democracy has flourished, economically Benin has continued to struggle.  Lacking natural resources and with a small population still heavily reliant on agriculture, Benin remains one of the poorest nations in the world.  It has, however, increasingly worked to promote economic integration with other African nations, in particular Nigeria and Ghana, while plans are also underway to build transport infrastructure from Benin's principle port, Cotonou to the landlocked, mineral rich nation of Niger. It may not be an economic powerhouse, but Benin illustrates that generally good governance and democratic institutions can flourish when the population accepts the basic principles as the basis for organizing society.

The Philatelic Legacy of History

Benin shares much of the same philatelic history as the rest of the territories that formed French West Africa in 1905.  The first issues, general French colonial stamps overprinted "BENIN" locally in 1892 at the main French ports of Cotonou, Porto-Novo and Ouidah, were replaced in 1893 by the Navigation and Commerce colonial keyplates, first inscribed "Golfe De Benin" and then, in 1894, simply "Benin."  The liquidation of the Fon kingdom and the establishment of French control in the north would lead to the renaming of the colony as Dahomey, and between 1899 and 1905 new versions of Navigation and Commerce were released with the new colony's name. 

After 1905 and the creation of French West Africa Dahomey followed the pattern of the other colonies of the Federation.  The 1906 Palmiers series would be followed in 1913 with the first distinctive pictorial design for Dahomey - the iconic Man climbing Palm Tree.  This design would last until 1939, going through several changes in colors, new values and in the 1920s lots of surcharges as postal rates kept changing.  Starting in 1931 Dahomey was included in several colonial omnibus issues, the 1931 Overseas Colonial Exhibition, 1937 Paris World Expo, 1939 French Revolution and so forth.  The Man Climbing Oil Palm definitivies were finally replaced in 1941 with a new engraved pictorial series, its release delayed due to the calamity of France in 1940. With the end of the war and the decision to centralize postal authority under the Federation, the separate issues of Dahomey ended.

Dahomey returned to philatelic life with independence in 1960. Since then, it's philatelic program has gone from beautiful engraved stamps produced in France, to years with large numbers of topical issues promoted by various agencies in the late 1960s and 1970s, to years with few new stamps mainly of local significance in the 1980s (stamps inscribed Benin began in 1976), and another period of philatelic agency overproduction in the mid 1990s.  Dahomey-Benin also had produced a good number of souvenir sheets, a departure from what was happening in Senegal and the Ivory Coast in the same period. Of significant philatelic interest has been Benin's prominent use of provisional surcharges and overprints on older stamps (going back to 1960) in the period between 1985 and 2009.  Several hundred provisionals were produced to meet local demand for postage stamps when the ability to commission new stamp issues was limited.  Some of these provisionals are truly rare, printed in quantities of less than 1000, and for the most part were not marketed overseas.  

The main catalogs do not agree on what stamps have been issued, and for any collector trying to collate the different catalog listings, they are more than a bit of a nightmare.  But they reflect one of the major problems that the use of philatelic agents can cause for a developing nation. More often than not, the vast majority of the quantities of pretty topical issues released by philatelic agencies in the name of a postal administration never arrive in that nation, but rather are sold overseas for hard currency, of which the issuing nation, in theory, gets a percent of the profit.  Thus developing nations often face shortages of stamps in values that are needed for postal rates, and the result is often revaluing older stamps to meet current needs.  These provisionals, in my opinion, are among the most interesting areas of philatelic history in the post-Cold War era.

Since 2010, Benin has followed a very conservative philatelic program, dictated in part by the cost of printing new issues.  There have been a few issues since 2014 produced by agencies in the name of Benin, but these are apparently illegal cinderellas unauthorized by the Benin Post Office, and they have not been given catalogue status by the major publishers.

My Stamp Collection

Benin-Dahomey is one of my weaker areas of Francophone Africa, mainly focused on the Man Climbing Palm Tree pictorials. In general my plan for my collection will divide into two parts

I. The Colonial Era and Indepenedent Dahomey (1892-1975)

II. Independent Benin (since 1975) (this may neeed to be split in two, probably splitting in 1990 in wake of the replacement of the one party state with a democratic political system).

 Volume I Part I - The Colonial Era - Benin (1892-1899)  

Pages 1-3 - no stamps

 Volume I Part II - The Colonial Era - Dahomey (1899-1944)  

Pages 4-5 - no stamps. Navigation & Commerce and Series of 1906

Page 6 - 1912 Surcharges on Navigation & Commerce, 1913 Man Climbing Palm Series I 
on regular paper

Page 7 - 1913 Man Climbing Palm Series I on chalky paper, 1914 Cross of Agadez Postage Dues, 1915 Red Cross and 1917 & 1922 Man Climbing Palm New Values and Colors

Page 8 - 1924-1930 Man Climbing Palm New Values and Colors and 1922-1927 Surcharges

Page 9 - 1933-1939 Man Climbing Palm New Values and Colors, 1931 and 1937 Omnibus Issues

Page 10 - 1939 Omnibus Issues, 1940 Air Mails, 1941 Postage Dues

Page 11 - 1941 Pictorial Issue

Page 12 - No Stamps, Vichy Indigenous Children Welfare Issue

 Volume I Part III - Independent Dahomey (1960-1975)  

Page 13 - 1960-1961 Commemoratives (have the African Technical Cooperation Council, Inauguration of President Maga and First anniversary of UN Membership issues)

Page 14 - 1962-1963 Commemoratives (have the 1962 Air Afrique and Expusion of Portuguese from the Fort of São João Baptista in Ouidah and 1963 Freedom From Hunger issues) 

Page 14 - 1963 Pictorials and Postage Due Series (have the Postage Dues)

Page 15 - 1964 Commemoratives and Pictorials (have the 1964 Cooperation with France and Native Dances issues)

Page 16-22 - no stamps, 1964-1972 stamp issues

Page 3 - 1972 Commemoratives (have the Scouting and UNESCO Save Venice Campaign issues)

Page 24-30 - 1972-1975 Commemoratives  - none in my collection

 Volume II - Independent Benin (1976-present)  

as of now...nothing

and that completes my collection of Benin-Dahomey....for now!

Comments, questions, please ask!


  1. Gene - Well, that was worth a read!

    I linked your discussion/history on Benin-Dahomey for those that would like an in depth look on my Dahomey blog post.


    I appreciate your comments about the unfortunate tendency of the newly independent countries in Africa (here Benin-Dahomey) to let Philatelic agencies spew out a large mountain of (usually topical themed) stamps for them, most of which never are seen within the country's borders.

    What a sham and what a shame!

    I guess that is why I am ambivalent collecting much beyond 1960..

    1. Jim thanks for the link. Re philatelic agencies it is a sham when they do not produce issues that can meet genuine postal need. But on the flip side the provisional issues such as what Benin produced definitely create a new area of postal history that can be quite fascinating.