The kingdom of Dahomey: 17th-19th century AD

The modern republic of Benin, given that name only in 1975, is the successor to one of west Africa's most interesting and long-lasting kingdoms, that of Dahomey. The traditional date of the founding of the local dynasty is1625, when three brothers of the Dahomey people rule adjacent territories along the lower reaches of the Mono river. In the early eighteenth century one member of the family defeats his cousins and brings into a single kingdom the region known today as Benin.

There are European trading stations on the Dahomey coast from the 17th century. Europe is fascinated by news of the local customs, and in particular Dahomey's famous Amazons.

Women, trained to form the crack regiments of the king's army, are given the place of honour in any military campaign. Richard Burton, visiting Dahomey in 1862, sees some 2500 women setting off as if for battle.

But in fact battle is what they are trained to avoid. The slave trade is the king's major source of revenue, and the classic Dahomey tactic is surprise. When still a few days away from an enemy town, the invading army abandons the established tracks and melts into the jungle. Strict silence is maintained. Fires are forbidden. Under cover of darkness the town is surrounded. In a dawn raid the intention is to capture everyone, with minimum loss of life, for the slave markets on the coast.

The only occasion on which Dahomey is profligate with life, again mesmerizing European observers, is on the death of the king. In a custom practised also in the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia and China, large numbers of people (said to be about 500 in a funeral ceremony in 1791) are sacrificed to provide the ruler with wives and attendants in the next world.

Twice yearly there is a smaller number of sacrifices, usually of prisoners of war, to make up any deficiencies which may have developed in the dead king's retinue.

The customs of Dahomey greatly offend the sensibilities of many 19th-century Europeans, in particular those trying to abolish the slave trade. They also provide an excellent motive for colonial interference.

The French have been the first in the region, with a fort established at Ouidah in the 17th century, and it is they who launch a military campaign into the interior in the 1890s. A French protectorate is established in part of the kingdom in 1892. By the end of the decade the entire region is under control. In 1899 Dahomey is included in the newly established French west africa, to begin sixty years under French colonial rule - until achieving independence in 1960.

A turbulent independence: from AD 1960

Dahomey has a turbulent existence in its first decades of independence, from 1960, after the dissolution of French west africa. Power changes hands in no fewer than six military coups between 1963 and 1972.

In the last of these coups, in 1972, control of the state is seized by Major Mathieu Kérékou. Pursuing a communist policy, he introduces a measure of stability in the nation's life. As if to write a line under the past he changes the name of the republic in 1975 from Dahomey to Benin. (The Historic benin lies to the east, in Nigeria, but Dahomey's coastline is on the Bight of Benin.)

Kérékou proves a rarity among politicians, a communist leader capable of relinquishing power. He announces in 1989 that Marxism-Leninism is no longer to be the political creed of Benin. Instead there is to be a transition to democracy. A multiparty presidential election is held in 1991 and Kérékou loses - to Nicéphore Soglo.

Benin continues to prove during the 1990s that democracy has arrived as a workable system, even in quite difficult circumstances. Votes cast in the 1995 election to the national assembly give 49 seats to opposition parties and only 32 seats to the party providing President Soglo's power base (the PRB, or Benin Resistance Party).

For a year Benin achieves the difficult feat of a president working with an opposed assembly. Then, in the presidential election of 1996, the voters of Benin provide another surprise.

The ex-Marxist soldier Mathieu Kérékou, who has spent nearly twenty years running the nation as a military dictatorship (followed by five in the political wilderness), is voted back into power as a civilian president.