THE DAHOMEAN

The writer of this book, Frank Yerby, was born in the United States of America in the year 1916 and he died in Spain in 1991. He was a man of mixed parentage. According to the man himself he had Caucasian, Cherokee and African-American ancestors. In 1938 he received his Master’s degree at Fisk University. He was a prolific writer (33 novels) who put a lot of research into his historical novels, at first these novels were situated in the deep south of the USA.  After the second world war his perspective became worldwide and embarked on novels set in Athens and one in Europe of the medieval times. One of his novels sold over a million copies. His book ‘The Dahomean’ (1971) is often seen as his masterpiece.

In 1955 Yerby left his country of birth and moved to Europe, where he settled in Spain. His departure from the United States  was caused by the racial discrimination he experienced. Spain in those days was a dictatorship, run by Franco who had sided with the Germans and the Italians during the second world war.

This move to Spain’s dictatorship reminded me of the move by Miriam Makeba (1932 – 2008), who spent some years in Guinee, with its autocratic leader Lansana Conté.

Let us have a look at this book written by Yerby. Yerby writes in a note to the reader that this novel has two aims: * to entertain the reader, * to correct the historical perspective of the Anglo-Saxon reader. Much of the information in his book is based on a book by Melville J. Herskovits “Dahomey: An Ancient West African  Kingdom” (1967).

The story is set in the kingdom of Dahomey, in presentday Benin (West Africa). This kingdom was started in 1610 by Do Aklin. He held court in Abomey. The main character is Nyasanu who was born in 1820, but the story starts in 1837. His father Gbenu is an important chief. He has an elder brother Gbochi who turns out to be gay. Next he has three younger sisters. Nyasanu is shown as a man who is willing to make up his own mind, who is diplomatic at the same time. He has a blossoming relationship with the beautiful Agbale, who wants to marry, but only in a monogamous relationship.

We follow Nyasanu on his way in the kingdom, his prowess during war, his victory during that same war. He gets elevated by the king to be a senior chief in the kingdom. He notices that to be upwardly mobile is one thing, but to stay at the top is quite a different story. His life ends in slavery. I am not giving this information away, for in the very first chapter we meet the man when he is bought by slaveowners in the United States.

Yerby is able to mix much information on the the Dahomey Kingdom and the Dahomey way of life in his book, even to the point of using all kinds of Fon words (with explanation, fortunately). We see the rule of fear by the king Gezo. Every day two people (a man and a woman) are killed at the court as a sacrifice for the ancestors. We see the ritual of circumcision. We travel on raids that are held to get slaves from neighbouring groups, slaves who are kept, but some are also sold to the skinless people from overseas (the whites). We notice the cruelty of the voodoo-religion that is part and parcel of the kingdom. We read about the fears and the doubts of Nyasanu, who wonders about the truth of the traditional convictions and the practices of the voodoo. We notice the power of the royal court and the multitude of princes and princesses.

In the end Nyasanu reaches the conclusion that we do not get answers to our questions. There are no solutions to the problems we encounter and life is unpredictable.

At times the going was tough. At times through the amount of details. At other times through the sheer cruelty on the pages and in the lives of the characters in this book. In the end it was a worthwhile read.

Frank Yerby – The Dahomean – 1971 

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