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Present day Benin was the site of Dahomey, a prominent West African kingdom that rose in the 15th century. The African kingdom of Dahomey was formed by a mixture of various local ethnic groups on the Abomey plain. Historian IA Akinjogbin theorized that the insecurity caused by the slave trade may have contributed to mass migrations of different groups, including a segment of the royal family of the city of Allada, to Abomey. These groups coalesced around a strict military culture aimed at securing and eventually expanding the borders of the small kingdom.
Dahomey was known for its distinct culture and traditions. Boys were often apprenticed to older soldiers at a young age, and learned about the kingdom's military customs until they were old enough to join the navy. Dahomey was also famous for instituting an elite female soldier corps, called "Ahosi" or "our mothers" in the Fongbe language, known in English as the Dahomean Amazons. This emphasis on military preparation and achievement earned Dahomey the nickname of "little black Sparta" from European observers and commentators like Sir Richard Burton. Human sacrifice was a common practice, according to contemporary sources; on holidays and special occasions, thousands of slaves and prisoners of war were beheaded in public. Some Dahomean religious beliefs maintained that decapitation enhanced the prestige and potency of the Dahomean throne and its warriors.
Though the founders of Dahomey appear to have initially been against it, the slave trade was active in the region of Dahomey for almost three hundred years, leading to the area being named "the Slave Coast". The demands of court procedures, which demanded that a portion of war captives from the kingdom's many battles be decapitated, led to a decrease in the amount of enslaved people exported from the area. The number went from 20,000 at the beginning of the seventeenth century to 12,000 in the beginning of the 1800s. The decline is partly due to many colonial countries declaring slave trade illegal. This decline continued until 1885, when the last Portuguese trade vessel with slaves departed from the coast of present day Benin.
Along with the powerful Dahomean kingdom, a range of other nations inhabited the area that would become the Republic of Benin. Of note were the Ketu, Icha, Dassa, Anago, and other sub-groups of the Yoruba-speaking people. These groups were in close contact with related sub-groups in present-day Nigeria, and were often enemies of the Dahomeans. However, some were also citizens of Dahomey and, in regions such as present-day Porto Novo, both groups inter-married.
North of these people were the Borgu, Mahi, and several other ethnic groups that form the country's present population.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Dahomey started to lose its status as the regional power, enabling the French to take over the area in 1892. In 1899, the land became part of the French West Africa colony, still as Dahomey. In 1958, it was granted autonomy as the Republic of Dahomey, and full independence started on August 1, 1960.
Sources: Wikipedia and CIA World Factbook
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