Akhosu Behanzin: North Korean Style

The Death of Dahomey’s Independence

A socialist realist sculpture of a precolonial ruler is pedestrian compared to a portrait completed in his lifetime

Near Abomey’s city center is Place Goho, a small park where a statue of Akhosu (King) Behanzin (r. 1889–1894) stands behind a fountain and rectangular pool. This massive monument depicts a muscular figure, his hand outstretched as if to indicate “stop.” The site is particularly poignant, for it is where Behanzin and Alfred Amédée Dodds, the Senegalese general who led the French army’s final assault, met for the Dahomean surrender in 1894, as well as where Dodds made his encampment after his conquest of Abomey and Behanzin’s exile. Fencing encloses the formally designed park, punctuated by colored medallions featuring the emblems of former rulers, as if they are witnesses to the end of independence.

Behanzin’s idealized representation is made from copper alloy and stands over 19.5’ tall (6 meters). While its face bears a general likeness to the oft-photographed monarch, its musculature (as well as that of the body generally) is over-emphasized, a trait common to the socialist realism of its North Korean sculptors. A creation of the North Korean state-run art operation Mansudae Art Studios, it is one of the factory’s many African memorials to national heroes who fought European colonial ambitions. Although numerous sources mistakenly attribute it to the 21st century, the statue was erected in 1979. Benin was a declared socialist state from 1974–1989, when some of its defensive forces were trained by North Korea, the decade when the Mansudae Art Studio began to move beyond Pyongyang to international locations. Place Goho itself was the very site of the revolutionary government’s declaration of Marxist-Leninist policies. The company’s collective nature–it employs over 1000 artists–and North Korean origin make it difficult to track down any information on the specific artists who worked on this project, but the company’s policy has been to use its own artists, engineers, and installers.

Behanzin is shown in his typical royal attire. He wears a toga-like hand-woven garment that leaves one shoulder bare, a “dog-eared” cloth cap, and sandals. Sandals are the most significant of the garments, as they were explicitly reserved for the Akhosu. Clenched in his right fist is the royal makpo (reçade in French), the scepter used since the kingdom’s first “official” Akhosu, Houegbadja (r. 1645–1685). The plinth that supports the statue bears an inscribed plaque, which (loosely translated) states: “I cannot accept any treaties that do not keep the land of my ancestors independent.”

Akhosu Behanzin was the eleventh king of Dahomey. When he first came to the throne, European attempts to colonize the continent were underway. They occupied the coastal town of Cotonou, and Behanzin immediately attacked them. Their modern weaponry forced him to withdraw. Two years later, Behanzin campaigned against two other coastal towns formerly part of Dahomey’s territory but part of France’s sphere of interest; France declared war. Behanzin favored diplomacy over the death of his people in battle even as the French demanded the kingdom’s surrender to French rule. Behanzin wrote many letters to the French commander, General Dodds, explaining that Dahomey would never give up its land. He even attempted to contact the president of France to explain the situation.

When it became apparent that reason and even gifts of gold and slaves could not sway the French, Behanzin took a stand. The French slowly battled their way inland against the ferocious albeit ill-equipped Fon. Steadily, they pushed the Fon back from the coast and into the capital city of Abomey. While remaining steadfast in his defense of his homeland, Behanzin never abandoned the hope for a diplomatic solution. After General Dodds and his government dismissed Behanzin’s pleas, he began corresponding with the German chancellor asking him beseech the president of France on Dahomey’s behalf, swearing to protect German traders and citizens in Abomey. The French were not persuaded and continued their attacks.

Behanzin knew the army that was marching into the capitol could easily overwhelm his exhausted remaining forces. He decided to burn the royal palaces so the French could not claim them and then fled to the north with the intention of making a final assault against the French. Guerilla warfare and small attacks against the French in Abomey occupied the next year. Due to word from his brother and former officer, Goutchili (regnal name Agoli-Agbo), he attempted a final meeting with the French and was captured. After his difficult four-year reign, Behanzin was exiled, first to Martinique, then to Algeria, dying in Algiers in 1906. The French had installed Agoli-Agbo as king but stripped all power from his position. This was a pivotal moment in Dahomean history and it was undoubtedly the death of the nation’s independence. The Fon still regard Behanzin as not only a great king but a national hero for his resistance efforts. His body was repatriated in 1928.

Behanzin’s giant statue honors the monarch who spent his whole reign attempting to stop colonialization efforts. Its naturalism is in stark contrast to the life-size wooden sculpture created in his lifetime by local artist and royal family member Sosa Dede or to the Houeglo family of artists. It takes the unusual form of an anthropomorphized shark in an equally rare depiction of aggressive action. This work was a royal bocio, a power object activated and reinforced by mystical medicine. When such works were transported to the battlefield, they were believed to exert positive effects on the outcome. The shark was one of Behanzin’s emblems and referred to a “strong name” assigned to him by divination. His motto was “The angry shark will terrorize its enemies,” and he is remembered as saying, “Gbo ouele fandan agbedui brou,” or “the daring shark has troubled the sandbar,” referring to the French who had to cross a sandbar at Cotonou.

This wooden sculpture may soon join its larger “twin” in Benin Republic. Although it has been in Paris since Dodds’ success (presently at the Musée du Quai Branly), the 2018 panel assembled by French President Emmanuel Macron concluded it should be among the first African objects to be repatriated to its home country. In 2020, this became a bill passed into law, with 2021 the target year. Midway through the year, this had not yet occurred.