The Egba-Dahomey war, as the name suggests, was a war that broke out between the two neighboring kingdoms of Egba and Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin) over territorial expansion caused by the quest of the latter to stabilize her economy. The Egba-Dahomey war was the third of the destructive wars that plagued the Yoruba nation in the nineteenth century, proceeding the Owu-Ife war: 1821-1828; and the 1840 Osogbo war.
In the 1820s and 1830s, the old Oyo empire, also called Oyo-Ile, witnessed a lot of political unrest which gradually faded her leadership role in Yorubaland. The Dahomey kingdom, which was then part of the Oyo empire, seized the opportunity to declare herself independent from Oyo in 1930 but soon discovered that the independence wasn’t worth it because of her extremely low economy caused by her barren northern land where probably only plantain could grow, and the crumbling slave trade at the coast which the kingdom had really depended on for several years.
These agonizing situations made the Dahomeans reach an unconsidering conclusion that expanding their territory is the only solution to their economic problems, and the only place where this expansion was possible was in the east towards Egbado and Ajase-Ipo which were part of Egbaland, and in the south towards the port of Badagry.
A good look at the positions of these kingdoms on a map will show how uncomfortable this expansion would be to the Egbas who instantly opposed the idea, stating the inconveniences it would bring to them. On the other hand, the Dahomeans failed or refused to reason with the Egbas probably because of their desperation to resurrect their collapsed economy. It was on these ground that the disastrous Egba-Dahomey war broke out.
In 1851, the Dahomean army (which was made up of women), under the rule of King Gezo, marched into the heart of Abeokuta, the capital of Egba and unleashed havoc on the unsuspecting Egbas. However, the heavily armed Egba army, even though unprepared, was able to repel the attack and killed many of the Dahomean armies, while the captured ones were made slaves. Later, in about 1853, the Egbas revenged by attacking and destroying Lefulefu and Referefe, two towns at the border of Dahomey, with little resistance from their inhabitants.
The concerted efforts of the ‘Amazon women’ (Dahomey women warriors) to defeat the Egba army is a surprising and important aspect of the Egba-Dahomey war that cannot be left out. Due fo the fact that women are considered better at home, catering for the family; in the kitchen, preparing food; or at the market place, selling or buying goods, it may then be amusing that Dahomean women instead of men fought in battles. But these women, Amazon women, were ferocious, muscular, and highly skilled in torturing and decapitating their enemies. They were trained to endure pain for a very long time. If not for their bosoms, these women, whom no one dare underestimate, would be completely mistaken for men. The Amazon women or ‘N’Nonmiton‘ (which means our mothers) as they were called in Fon language, were even said to be stronger, more skilled and ruthless than the men of Dahomey. Jean Bayol, a French naval officer, who visited Abomey, the capital of Dahomey, in December 1889, said he watched how a young N’Nonmiton-to-be Dahomean girl named Nanisca, who had never had blood stains on her hands, killed a prisoner in cold blood; “she walked jauntily up to the prisoner, swung her sword three times with both hands, then calmly cut the last flesh that attached the head to the trunk[…] She then squeezed the blood off her weapon and swallowed it.” This indeed shows how brutal the Amazon women warriors were trained to be. But however, they were no match for the Large, well trained and equipped Egba army. The over 3000 Amazon women, under the command of the Dahomean king, Gelele the son of Gezo, were defeated again in 1864 when they attacked Abeokuta for the second time. Dahomey kingdom was then forced to sue for peace which thus ended the long time enmity between her and the Egba kingdom. It must be noted that this enmity between Egba and Dahomey had existed before 1851. According to oral history, in 1884, the Egbas, infuriated by the attacks on her communities by the Dahomeans, launched a surprise attack on Dahomey in which king Gezo was almost captured and his precious umbrella and sacred golden stool were seized.
After the war ended in 1864, the Egbas established their authorities on the disputed lands of Egbado, Ajase-Ipo and the port of Badagry. Also, the town of Ketu which assisted Dahomey during the war was attacked and destroyed by the victorious Egbas.
However, the victory of the Egbas over Dahomey was backed by certain factors. The first was the ultimate support Egba enjoyed from the British nationals in Egbaland. The British nationals, especially those who had arrived in Egbaland since the 1840s, knew for certain that the fall of Egba would spell a big doom for them, and therefore supplied the Egba army regularly with ammunition throughout the war, and also trained them in the modern strategy of war.
Another factor was the role certain Yoruba kingdoms played during the war in favour of Egba. Yoruba kingdoms like Ibadan and Ijebu were said to have given Egba their ultimate support during the war. But this support was noted to have been short lived as these kingdoms were involved in protracted conflicts (Ekitiparapo/ Kiriji war and Ibadan-Ijaye war) in the latter years.
It can then be safely concluded that the victory of Egba over Dahomey was due to the support Egba enjoyed from the British nationals and some other Yoruba kingdoms as well.
* E. Ola Abiola; A Textbook Of West African History; 3rd edition; Ado Ekiti; Omolayo Standard Press & Bookshops co. (Nig.) Ltd; 1984
* Richard Burton; A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahomey. London: RKP, 1966
* Stanley Alpern; Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey. London: C. Hurst & Co., 2011