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Africa Today 47.1 (2000) 128-130

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Bay, Edna G. 1998. Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

This book examines aspects of kinship, gender and class in the ruling apparatus of the Kingdom of Dahomey from its origins, ca. 1700, to its conquest by the French in 1894. Bay expands upon her dissertation, "The Royal Women of Abomey," to produce a monograph deeply enriched by contemporary approaches to scholarship which include religion and ritual as meaningful cultural indications of social change in African history. One must first get beyond the shocking litany of stereotypes Bay uses unnecessarily in the opening pages as a justification for a serious, detailed study of Abomey. For the purpose of this book, Bay redefines "monarchy" as "a metaphor for a small and fluid political and economic elite"--interwoven sets of royals and commoners at the royal palace who hold office, carry on the business of the state and influence succession politics (p. 7). She expands traditional notions of the monarchy to include the king, court officials, royal kin, and a host of free or enslaved female and male dependents. The result is a somewhat unclear portrayal of the "monarchy" as a "theoretical construct of [her] own making" (p. 27). [End Page 128]

The work deftly examines the role of women in the state as officials (the most important being the queen mother, kpojito), royal wives, bodyguards and retainers. Bay shows how Fon notions of gender resulted in paired positions and division of responsibilities between male and female officers in the palace, the administration and the military. These officials built coalitions with royal lineages to influence decision-making and succession. Fonbe terms related to marriage and family often described relations of dependency and subordination. According to Bay, "the state seemed little more than a lineage writ large" (p. 16), and "the palace was thus a polygynous household writ large" (p. 18). Any fear of oversimplification dissolves as Bay critically analyzes primary and secondary sources of European and African origin and compares them with her own oral research findings to reveal the complexities of the Dahomean ruling apparatus. One appreciates the historian's task through her detailed methodology and patient analysis in attempting to unravel fact from fiction or myth. Bay endeavors to interpret how the Dahomean royal family and courtiers might have perceived their own actions in those times. She succeeds in revealing changes in gender relations, the creation or suppression of offices within the bureaucracy and other transformations due to cultural adaptation (heavily influenced by neighboring Yoruba-speaking peoples).

The book is divided into eight chapters (the last is a ten-page summary) that progress chronologically but are not divided by the reigns of particular monarchs. The glossary is quite helpful, though the reader will find that not all Fonbe terms used in the text are included therein. Chapter One provides a brief description of Dahomey and reviews available oral and written sources on the kingdom, but it offers little theoretical or conceptual literature relevant to the topic. Chapter Two traces the emergence of Dahomey as a conquest state known for its slaving activities, human sacrifice and the presence of thousands of royal wives. This chapter includes a list of kings and reign-mates, gives a detailed and complex description of lineage, gender and class within the "monarchy" and introduces the religious and mythical underpinnings of the state as they relate to first-comers, migration and ancestor veneration. Chapter Three examines Tegbesu's rise to power and the centralization of authority within the monarchy during the middle of the eighteenth century. As the export slave trade at Whydah expanded, "it enriched the king and favored courtiers," but slaving did not constitute a royal monopoly (p.107). Bay gives a perceptive analysis of the innovative capacity of the kpojito, as illustrated through the efforts of Hwanjile to consolidate the pantheon of vodun by establishing Mawu and Lisa as the supreme pair of deities.

Chapters Four, Five, and Six follow...


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