The Fon People


The Fon are one of the largest ethnic groups in Benin and represent around 40 percent of the total population of the country. Fon are also found in Nigeria, and together they number 3.5 million peo-ple, with over 1 million living in Benin. The Fon language is closely related to that of the Ewe and belongs to the Gbe sub-family of Kwa of the Niger-Congo lan-guage phylum.The Fon developed a powerful, centralized state perhaps as a response to European trade, which began in the second half of the 15th century. Fon society had been organized along clan lines, and each community fiercely guarded its independence. Some Fon communities had fallen under Yoruba control, but others were able to expand their own control over neighboring Fon villages.

The result was the rise of a strong state with a capable military by the middle of the 17th century.The Fon state based in Allada was able to conquer much of the interior. Over the grave of a defeated local ruler in Abo-mey, the first king of the newly formed Kingdom of Dahomey, King Agaja, built his new capital city.Dahomey quickly expanded and with the military’s use of guns, its army was able to take the trading center of Whydah/Ouidah in the 1720s. Following a brief period of chaos caused by the shift in power from older states in the area, Dahomey emerged as the most powerful of precolonial states in West Africa. The early kings gained a reputation for large human sacrifices of captured soldiers of defeated armies who were executed at annual ceremonies.

How-ever, Dahomey became engaged in the slave trade, and defeated peoples were sold to European traders rather than sacrificed. The Fon devastated many nearby peoples; for example, the Aja lost some 3 percent of their total population in a 40-year period. The Fon involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade was so great that their area was named the “Slave Coast.” The Fon absorbed a number of defeated peoples, which helped to strengthen their regional domination. The Fon of Dahomey were able to remain outside of European control until the French conquest between 1892 and 1894.The Fon word vodun was borrowed into European languages as voodoo, and belief in this traditional religion based on powerful spirits remains strong. Around 50 mil-lion people in West Africa and among the African diaspora in the Americas practice some form of voodoo, often mixed with Christianity.

Approximately 40 percent of Beninese are Christians, but 20 percent follow vodun.The Fon are primarily settled farmers with a mixed economy of agriculture, raising livestock, fishing, and trading, which supports a dense population. The region is where the tropical rain forest belt is broken, being both north and south of the Bight of Benin, by light forest and grasslands, which allowed early exploitation by settled agriculturalists. The coast of the Bight of Benin was not conducive to early European settlements due to the fact there were few good natural harbors.

The Fon produce a distinctive cloth appliqued art often called Dahomey cloth. The form began as religious banners, standards and flags for chiefs, and on chiefs’ headgear and clothes. Today, the art is primarily done for the tourist trade, and there is a ready market for Fon applique outside of the country. Fair-trade shops in Europe and North America carry Fon applique of village scenes, folktales, and other representations. In addition, the Fon produce wide variety of small carvings and cast fig-ures called boccio or bochio that are offered for sale at local markets and only take on meaning after being animated by a vodun priest or acquire weathering from exposure to the elements.

The Fon were conquered by the French starting in 1883 when they were able to take the port of Porto-Novo. King Glele fought to keep the coast from falling into French hands, but by 1889, the French had taken all of the coastal areas and, in despair, King Glele committed suicide. The struggle was taken up by his son and successor King Behanzin who, in a war between 1892 and 1894, was eventually defeated. Many of the troops used by the French to fight the Fon were Yoruba and other West Africans that caused intercom-munal distrust until recent years.

The French used local chiefs to adminis-ter the territory starting in 1892, and the sys-tem lasted into the 20th century. In 1904, Dahomey was incorporated into the federa-tion of French West Africa, but the federa-tion was dissolved in 1958. Dahomey became independent in 1960, but the newly independent country was subject to intereth-nic problems, some of which stemmed from the French conquest of the kingdom in the 19th century. In 1972, a Marxist government came to power and changed the name of the country from Dahomey to Republic of Benin, named for the Bight of Benin, which was considered to be more politically neu-tral. Subsequently, the country has emerged as one of the most stable and democratic countries in Africa.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Beckwith, Carol, and Angela Fisher. African Ceremonies. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 2002.

Collins, Robert O. Africa: A Short History.Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2008.

Egerton, Robert. Warrior Women: The Ama-zons of Dahomey and the Nature of War. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

“Fon.” (accessed February 14, 2010).