Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pineapples from Cotonou

Cotonou, located at the Ouémé river, was in the early 1800s a small coastal fishing village in the Kingdom of Dahomey . In 1851 King Ghezo allowed the French to establish a trading post there. Now, it is the largest city of Benin and its defacto capital. In the local Fon language, 'Cotonou' means 'the mouth of the river of death'.

Compagnie de L'Ouémé-Dahomey
Action de 100 Francs, Paris 1899, design by Tomasz
The Ouémé river is 300 miles long and
flows into the ocean near Kotonu.

A kingdom that resisted colonial powers for a long time
The old West African kingdom of Dahomey (1600s - 1894) was located at the Gulf of Guinea in what is now southern Benin. It became a powerfull state in the 18th and 19th century through warfare and the trading in slaves for guns with European countries. Initially France, Portugal, Brazil and Great Britain succeeded in building their own fortifications along the coast in order to protect their interests.

Attaque de Dahoméens (Attack by Dahomeyans)
Le Petit Journal, Aug 20th 1892
Points of attention : 1. warriors armed with guns, 2. 'amazons' (female warriors).
Click image to enlarge

The second half of the 18th century is the scene for local wars between the different peoples of the regions. In addition the foreign powers started to claim their part of the region:
  • 1852 The British blockaded the Dahomeyan coast to prevent the slave-trade
  • 1861 Lagos annexed by the British
  • 1863 Porto-Novo became a French protectorate
  • 1884 Togo and the western part of the Grand Popo lagoon became a German protectorate
  • 1886 Portugal announced a protectorate over the Dahomey coast but would lose it to France in 1887
  • 1889 The French occupied Cotonou
Eventually, France conquered Dahomey in the Second Franco-Dahomean War (1892–1894), and established a colonial government.

Société Française du Dahomey - Union Comercial Dahoméenne
Action de 500 Frances, Paris 1920
Chromolitho by Imprimerie de la Banque et des Compagnies d'Assurances

Few Dahomeyan-related scripophily is seen
In short, till the 20th century, this was not a stable region for establishing a local company or setting up a trading business. I have not seen any stock certificates or bonds from before the French colonial period. The Cifré catalogue 'La France d'Outre-Mer' lists up to 16 different certificates related to French colonial Dahomey.

Under French rule Cotonou became the central hub for trade and commerce
The original kingdom of Dahomey made up only the southern part of French colonial Dahomey. The colony would gain its independence in 1960 and change its name into the more politically neutral Benin in 1975. The colony stretched out from its 75 mile wide coastline northwards between Togoland and Nigeria while broadening out to a width of 200 miles. Largest distance from North to South : 430 miles.

Map of Dahomey in the underprint.

Behind the coast fertile lands allowed the cultivation of agricultural products like
  • palm oil
  • maize
  • guinea corn
  • coconuts
  • kolanuts
  • pineapples
  • .. and much more 
Initially, internal communication must have been tough, but not impossible through the usage of canoes in the coastal lagoons. The inland was connected by often hardly marked trails.  Already at the end of the 19th century a telegraph line from Kotonu to Cadiz in Spain was in operation.  Other lines would connect the country with the city of Abomey, Nigeria and Senegal. 

Cotonou was also a port for steamers from Europe heading to the African West Coast. Two French shipping lines made the trip of 7100 kilometers, the Compagnie Fraissinet from Marseille, and the Chargeurs Réunis from Bordeaux,  in 19 days to Cotonou. Along the lagoons steamship services between Porto Novo and Lagos is established.

Compagnie Française de Chemins de Fer au Dahomay
Part Bénéficiaire au porteur, Paris 1912
In these first years, France supported private investments with a railroad concession and land grants with moderate succes. Many firms profited from underpaid labor such as the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer du Dahomey :
  • 1900 work started for the construction of a railway from Cotonou to Niger :
  • 1902 main line completed to Toffo (55 miles)
  • 1905 line from Cotonou through Abomey to Pauignan (120 miles)
  • 1905 railway reached Paraku 150 miles farther north
  • later a branch railway from the main line connects the western part of the colony
In 1904 work started for an 28 miles line  from Porto Novo to Sakete to connect the country rich in oil palms.

When looking carefully at the 3 certificates shown above,
you will see one or more pineapples in the lower border.
Pineapples on shares
Palm oil was the most important export product from the colony. Oil palms are frequently used in the design of many French colonial shares. Dahomeyan certificates show often pineapples which found their way to the French markets. The pineapple was also the symbol of Agonglo, the eight King of Dahomey (1789-1797). After a period of military expansion of his father Kpengla, Agonglo set up several popular reforms including lowered taxes and was involved in fewer military battles. He married even a European woman.  .. I'm sure she must have liked pineapples too.

Reference links


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