PhD in Modern Latin American History, Prof of history
Long-Term background on slavery and the slave trade
West African societies had slavery long before the beginnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, it was of a different nature from how slavery was practiced in Europe and, later, the Americas. In most West African states, the private ownership of land was not allowed, since all land was considered to belong to the king or state. Therefore, elites in West African society couldn't accumulate land as a "means of production"-- so they had to accumulate labor instead. The purchase of enslaved people was the primary way to accumulate wealth and productive power. Many enslaved people were also owned directly by the king or state.
In these societies, slaves were considered an extension of the family that owned them, and they were usually put to many uses besides agricultural labor. In fact, those slaves owned by the state were often used in high-ranking positions, as administers, royal advisors, and as soldiers. These categories of slave could often become quite wealthy and prestigious.
For those slaves owned by individuals, evidence suggests that they were usually treated well since they were the primary wealth of their owners; unlike in, say, Brazil, where the slaveowner would also own a lot of land, a sugar mill, etc.
But because of the importance of slavery in all of these ways, many West African states engaged in warfare to acquire more slaves. Because these West African states were usually very small in size and land couldn't become property, warfare to acquire more slaves was functionally equivalent to the way a European state might go to war to acquire more land. And because most of these African states were small, they were usually vulnerable to attacks by their neighbors.
So when Europeans came to West Africa for the first time in the mid-1400s, they could see that there was already a trade in slaves in the various African states, and they could easily become a market for those slaves.
As historian John Thornton puts it, "The Atlantic slave trade was the outgrowth of this internal slavery. Its demographic impact... even in the early stages was significant, but the people adversely affected by this impact were not the ones making the decisions about participation."
In the mid-1400s, the Portuguese were pretty much the only European power purchasing slaves from West Africa, and the numbers were perhaps 1,000-2,500 per year. Around 1650 is when the numbers really start to spike, because by then the Spanish had been active in the trade for a long time, and the British, French, and Dutch were just starting to get into it. This is when the demographic impact on African society started to become dire-- while before the numbers were small enough that African societies and economies were not all THAT harmed on a macro-level, after 1650 certain states came close to serious decline due to all the people being trafficked.
European firearms and horses did play a role in making certain African states more powerful, and it led to a desire by other states to acquire those things, too. The evidence shows that most slaves were taken as part of military conquest by militarized African states. This is vital to understand-- as Thornton states, "the fact that military enslavement was by far the most significant method is important, for it means that rulers were not, for the most part, selling their own subjects but people whom they, at least, regarded as aliens."
I highlight this because I've heard dumbasses over the years repeat the lie that "Africans sold their own people into slavery"-- which is only true if you consider all of Africa to be one "people" because they are all the same "race." This is doubly stupid because the concept of race is a European invention that Africans didn't recognize. Indeed, there is more human genetic diversity within Africa than without. To be clear, I don't think any Danger Close host would think this!
The Kingdom of Dahomey started to assert itself in the 17th century as the trans-Atlantic slave trade was really increasing. Then, around 1700, the British, French, and Portuguese built trading forts around the Bight of Benin which perpetuated and regularized this trade.
While most kingdoms in that region operated according to familial principles, Dahomey was different. As historian Robert Harms writes, "Dahomey...depicted the state as a water pot perforated with holes. The king was the water, and the idea was that the state could not function unless each citizen put a finger in one of the holes to keep the water from leaking out. In other words, anyone who was willing to serve could be a citizen, and all citizens had to do their part to support the king." This was a model of statecraft that could lend itself to the expansion of Dahomey into a large and powerful state.
King Agaja took power in 1718 and oversaw a lot of that expansion. He created a professional army that was extensively trained and drilled. He saw them equipped with muskets. Each soldier had an apprentice shield carrier who took the musket after it was fired so the main soldier could use hand weapons. Switching to the use of muskets did make Dahomey dependent on continued trade with Europeans for more guns and ammo.
Agaja's wars yielded many prisoners of war. When they were taken, the king first got to choose which ones to take as slaves. Then some were awarded to Dahomian elites and military officers. The rest could be sold to Europeans. At first, Dahomey had to sell the captives to middlemen, who then sold them on to Europeans. But Agaja wanted to cut out the middlemen, which led to his conquest of the kingdoms of Allada and then Wyadh in the 1720s. By the 1730s, the monarchy of Dahomey established a royal monopoly over the slave trade. A new class of rich Dahomian merchants arose who served as middlemen in the slave trade for OTHER African states. Evidence shows that some of these wealthy merchants in Dahomey were women.
Dahomey probably sold about 1.3 million people as slaves during the 1700s, which implies near-constant activity by the Dahomian military.
Dahomey was indeed a tributary state to Oyo during this time period, which would have drained them of some of their wealth, but that doesn't mean that Oyo dominated the internal affairs of Dahomey.
Women in Dahomey
Women did indeed enjoy a high status in Dahomian society. The king had many wives, and the palace had many other women in it, including slaves. But these women were sometimes very influential, serving as ministers, attending council meetings, and giving their opinions to the king regularly (and he paid attention).
Wealthy women in Dahomey could do something called "woman marriage," in which the elite woman would take as a "wife" a younger woman of lower social standing. That lower-caste woman could have a male partner. According to the historian Robert W. July, this wasn't a homosexual relationship, but rather a way for elite women to inhabit the top of a familial structure that gave them control over wealth and labor.
Women in Dahomian society had the power to initiate divorce, while men did not.
And, indeed, there were female warriors. Many of them were slaves. King Agaja began by having armed women as palace guards and personal bodyguards. King Tegbesu (1740-1774) used women in warfare. In 1764, there was an incident in which a male Dahomian army was sent to attack a hostile neighbor, and came home in failure, having taken no slaves. The king sent an 800-woman force instead, and they succeeded where the men could not.
After the British navy started cracking down on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808, Dahomey remained an active participant in the now-illegal trade. The swampy nature of the coastline made it harder for the British to crack down.
King Gezo was in power when Dahomey threw off the tributary control of Oyo-- and this opened up a wider area for Dahomian armies to raid for prisoners. Gezo financed a lot of warfare during his reign.
A Brazilian mixed-race slave trader named Francisco Felix de Sousa played a very important role during Gezo's reign. He became Gezo's chief agent for the trade in enslaved people, and de Sousa controlled all the commerce going on at the port city of Quidah. He sold some slaves on behalf of Gezo, and some for his own profit. Between 1820 and 1840, De Sousa was a "master smuggler" who had a very lavish compound with a lot of luxury goods from all over. The British captured about 20 of his vessels during these decades, but despite that he probably successfully sold and smuggled a quarter of a million people.
The British Foreign Office saw King Gezo as a very important figure in the region and spent a lot of effort trying to convince him to switch from the slave trade to "legitimate commerce." Gezo resisted getting rid of the slave trade. In 1848, as historian Richard J. Reid describes, he said, "he could not possibly give up the slave trade: the army had to be kept active, and if Gezo himself tried to alter 'the sentiments of a whole people' Dahomey would be thrown into anarchy and revolution, which 'would deprive him of his throne.'" But Gezo represented the elites who profited from the slave trade.
The alternative was palm oil, which did start becoming important in Dahomey by the 1840s. Much of the labor on these palm oil plantations was slave labor, owned by the Dahomian state and elites. One historian says that ordinary peasant producers were also involved. And the Dahomian army remained active even after the Atlantic slave trade was over, going to war over access to trade route.
The British spent a lot of effort trying to end the slave trade in the Atlantic, but then definitely bought a lot of palm oil from Dahomey even though it was produced with slave labor.
Brazil (this is perhaps more information than you require)
When the movie takes place, Brazil had just gained its independence from Portugal. Brazil was arguably a wealthier and more powerful country than Portugal at that time, because the Portuguese royal court had been living in Rio de Janeiro for more than ten years. Brazil had an enormous slave-based economy that was, at that time, really ramping up coffee production in southern Brazil. This created a demand for enslaved people despite the fact that the Atlantic trade was illegal. Brazilian smugglers were probably the most active perpetuators of the Atlantic slave trade in the 1820s and afterwards, but the Spanish and Americans would have participated, also.
The mixed-race Brazilian character in the movie struck me as very plausible -- the manumission of children resulting from a white slaveowner and a Black slave woman was more common in Brazil than in the United States. This is due to a few factors. First, the Catholic religion looked favorably upon manumitting slave children-- it was a "good work" that would help your soul get out of purgatory more quickly. Protestants in North America didn't really care about this. Second, the racial system of Brazil was not quite so "Black and white," so to speak, as in North America. People of a mixed race background with wealth and the right connections could rise to a position of comfort that you just didn't see in the USA at that time to the same extent. Finally, because Brazil still participated in the illegal slave trade, they didn't have to rely only on "natural increase" of their slave population. You could manumit a child because you know that new arrivals from Africa were still possible.
Some editorial remarks (my take)
I really enjoyed the movie-- I hadn't seen it before now, and The Woman King is a lot more of a kick-ass Hollywood movie than I thought it would be-- in a good way. In other words, it's got a lot more in common with something like Gladiator or Top Gun than it does with Twelve Years a Slave or Amistad.
People on the Internet criticize the movie for being historically inaccurate-- they say that it portrays Dahomey as being anti-slavery when in fact it was one of the major slave trading states. I do think the movie fibs a lot about King Gezo-- there doesn't seem to be any evidence that Gezo came around to an anti-slavery stance in the 1820s, or that he started to think about a broader "African" identity. That's some optimistic historical revisionism to be sure-- but it's no more egregious than PLENTY of other historical epics have done.
Nanisca is a fictional character, but she seemed very plausible to me. Yes, most Dahomians were probably fine with the slave trade since it benefited them, and it had been going on for generations, so it would have seemed "normal." But certainly there would have been people who had a different view. The movie asks us to consider-- what if one of those dissenters rose to prominence and actually had power? It's not all that outlandish, even if it didn't happen.
It's like if 200 years from now somebody made a movie about a person who spoke out against fossil fuels during the twentieth century. The vast majority of political and economic power was devoted to fossil fuels-- but there were dissenters all along, too.
Robert Harms. Africa in Global History With Sources. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2018.
Robert W. July. A History of the African People, 5th edition. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press Inc., 1998.
Richard J. Reid. A History of Modern Africa: 1800 to the Present. Second Edition. Maldon, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
John Thornton. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, Second Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Some podcast episodes we listened to on the history:
AfriWetu, an African history podcast
Rooted In Our Story. Celebrating Africa's History, People, Culture & Folklore.
AfriWetu Podcast Dahomey Kingdom Pt 1 S2 E5
AfriWetu Podcast Dahomey Kingdom Pt 2 S2 E6
Black History Bites: The Ancient Kindom of Dahomey
A short, bite sized, and accessible global Black history and cultural podcast episodes to aid you in your Black history learning.
Africa's Untold Stories: The Dahomey Amazons: A Lesson on Bravery
Stuff You Missed in History Class: The Amazons of Dahomey
[Ye Olde Crime: Dahomey Amazons ep137](Ye Olde Crime: Dahomey Amazons ep137)
African History Network: The Woman King & The Real History of The Kingdom of Dahomey' - Prof. James Small
New World Encyclopedia - Kingdom of Dahomey
Encyclopedia Britannica - Dahomey, Historical Kingdom, Africa
Smithsonian Magazine: The Real Warriors Behind ‘The Woman King’
Collider: The True Story Behind ‘The Woman King’ and the Agojie Warriors
LA Times: The truth behind ‘The Woman King’: Crew responds to claims of historical revisionism