BY JINGO - Colonial History & Wargames Page

The Campaign of 1890


Andrew Preziosi

The Fon Army Attacks

With the declaration and subsequent stand of "King" Tofa, the friction between France and Dahomey was now coming to a head. France now considered the sea-lake and the mouth of the L'Oueme River to be fair game and began to establish small trading posts, run by local black merchants and protected by a few Senegalese or Gabonais Tirailleurs and the tricolour, at various locations along the banks of the lake and river. At one village, an incident occurred in which, allegedly, a young Amazon warrior strolled nonchalantly up to a Tirailleur and literally beheaded him, while snatching the flag away from him as an act of defiance and carrying it back to King Gle'Gle' in d'Abomey.

The King had enough and in February 1889 sent a strong column into Tofa's village state with full power to loot, rape and destroy anything in their path. Tofa's soldiers melted away and the very small garrison of Senegalese Tirailleurs stationed in the village proper was not about to take on such numbers. The population fled to English territory and, escorted by the Tirailleurs, the merchants withdrew to Lagos. The Dahomeans systematically began to destroy the palm oil plantations and took everything they could get a hold of, including some 1,800 prisoners, during their campaign.

Amazingly enough it was a British merchant who sent word of this Campaign of Terror to the Chief Administrator at Benin proper, who in turn contacted the Commander of the Atlantic Naval station, Admiral Colstoun for assistance. He arrived off Cotonou with two ships (1) and immediately dispatched a senior officer and two mixed companies of marines & sailors (marins fusiliers) to take control of Porto-Novo and to restore calm. This was done in short notice with direct naval support and the population soon returned to the town and close lying villages, but this did not stop the Dahomean destruction of the outlying palm oil plantations throughout the basin.

With calm restored and the Navy now backing their claims, merchants returned to Porto-Novo. At the same time, Dr. Jean Bayol was assigned as the Civil Governor of the Coast of Benin and instructed to demand an explanation for such disloyal acts from King Gle' Gle' and to ratify the Treaties of 1868 & 1878. Gle' Gle' refused to go to the coast to meet with Bayol, but did invite him to d'Abomey, where Bayol traveled and met with Crown Prince Kon-Do' to negotiate. Shortly afterwards, King Gle' Gle' passed away and Prince Kon-Do' now took over as King Behanzin of Dahomey. Both men stuck to their guns and Bayol left quite secure in the knowledge that the only way to stop the raids and to restore peace (and the flow of trade) to the coastal region would be to bring in an expeditionary force to garrison Porto-Novo and seize Cotonou and its environs.

The French Colonial Secretary of State, being appraised of the situation by Bayol and Naval Captain Fournier began to set the wheels in motion for a campaign and while there was some argument in favor of using just naval and marine forces to protect the coast, it was decided to send an expeditionary force from Senegal to the Benin coast in order to secure Grand Popo, Cotonou, Porto-Novo and the coastal environs. However, it must be noted here that Captain Fournier had sent in a report which advised that an expedition of some 3,200 men, half of them Europeans, should be launched upriver against d'Abomey proper in order to let the Fon government and army know once and for all who calling the shots. While this subsequent campaign was supposed to be launched mainly for defensive reasons (at least from the outset), it was to change into an offensive soon enough. The lack of men, money, supplies and public support would limit the Campaign of 1890, but it would portend things to come.

The French Expeditionary Corps

Accordingly, on February 7, 1890, The Benin Expeditionary Corps passed in review for Colonel Dodds, the Military Commandant at Dakar, Senegal, enroute for their ship and voyage to Benin. Commanded by Chef de Battalion Terrillon, the force consisted of two companies of Senegalese Tirailleurs and a mountain artillery detachment; a company of Tirailleurs Gabonais would be available as reinforcements if needed. (2)

Arriving first at Whydah, the Expeditionary corps proceeded overland to Cotonou where they began to build a fort on February 21st for protection against landward attacks. Two halfhearted assaults by what some claim to be "renegade" Dahomean troops were now launched against Cotonou. On the 23rd, local levies from the Province of Cotonou made the first attack against the incomplete defenses and were beaten off with relative ease by both the garrison and naval artillery support in the form of FNS Sane' and the steam sloop Emeraude which caused much disorder within the Dahomean ranks as they retreated into a forest that seemed to offer little or no protection against bombardment.

On February 28th, a strong French reconnaissance force was sent in the direction of Zobbo village. They were partially ambushed by the Dahomean troops who fired one large but ineffective volley against them. The Tirailleurs quickly charged forward, forced the enemy back, stormed through the village and finally made the Fon troops retreat in disorder. With that they returned with thirty casualties, most of them slight, to Cotonou, quite pleased with their performance.

On March 1st, a larger force of both levies and at least some provincial troops from the environs of Lama attacked Cotonou, only to be repulsed once again.

On March 4th, the standing Fon army proper, which must have moved very quickly in order to arrive in time, launched a pre-dawn attack against Fort Cotonou. It had rained during the night and the troops were able to get close to the stockade without being noticed. Numbering well over 1,200 troops in the first wave alone (including a contingent of Amazons), the Fon soldiers did gain some initial surprise against the guards, made their way over the walls and headed straight for the guns. Fortunately, the senior officers and NCOs of the battery were present at the time and valiantly went to meet their assailants. Unfortunately, two of the senior most NCOs literally lost their heads fighting Amazons in the defense of their guns. The actions and bravery of the European officers on the ramparts, some of whom were wounded numerous times throughout the course of the day, initially almost single-handedly against the Dahomean troops, took place in full view of the Tirailleurs rushing to their aid. Encouraged by the examples of the European officers, the Senegalese troops forced the enemy back. In turn the enemy opened a terrific fire upon the troops, but again, firing from the hip or holding their firearms out in front for fear of the recoil, they did little damage. Fighting now became general and often hand-to-hand, as the Dahomean troops resolutely held their ground against the Tirailleurs. Three times the Fon attacked and three times they were eventually repulsed. As bad as the initial assault had been, most agree that the third assault was the fiercest, with the Fon leaving behind some 125 dead (including the She-Gaou) inside the French lines. But in the end, up against overwhelming fire-power, the espirit de corps of the French troops and naval gunfire support, the Dahomeans gave up and retreated in haste, leaving the bulk of their dead and wounded behind to be dealt with by the French as they felt appropriate (the lightly wounded captives were given rudimentary care, but it has been claimed the dead and seriously wounded were heaped together and burned on the spot).

For the next month or so, Terrillon worked to build up his defenses and received a few promised reinforcements. It was now determined to transfer the bulk of his troops to Porto-Novo while the Emaraude continued to cruise up and down the coast and lagoon bombarding enemy villages and troop concentrations. Upon reaching Porto-Novo it was decided that small columns of Tirailleurs would be sent out into the immediate interior of the coast in order to stop the damage to the palm oil plantations and crops until enough supplies could be collected for a larger punitive expedition.

Time after time, the small columns were attacked from out of nowhere with an initial volley of firearms. While casualties were caused (including the mortal wounding of Captain Oudard who commanded the Gabonais Tirailleur company), the scene would continuously repeat itself with the Tirailleurs firing back, charging forward and prevailing in short order, even though they were almost always outnumbered. No matter how successful though, the French columns always had to return to their base, because they had no real logistical support and the majority of the Dahomean army was close by.

As news of defeat after defeat reached King Behanzin, he began to wonder what was wrong with his heretofore-vaunted army. Bravery did not seem to be too much of an issue, at least in initiating conflict, but his troops had no luck with their ancient weapons against the modern firepower of the French soldiers and the vessels cruising the lagoon. It was therefore decided to collect the bulk of his army & levies, advance on Porto-Novo and deal with the French one final time. By staying away from the coastal areas as much as possible and keeping his troops concentrated, they could not be ignored and would either have to be attacked or they would continue to wreak havoc with the local economic base.

The Battle of Atchoupa

Terrillon, now a Lieutenant Colonel for his efforts, was not fazed by the Dahomean presence and decided to bring the situation to a conclusion. Accordingly, he marched out just before dawn on April 20th, with his two companies of Tirailleurs Senegalese, three 80mm mountain guns, "King" Tofa's "army" of 350 men (and some women) and a detachment of European disciplinaires (punishment troops, in this case mainly marines and sailors, though there were supposedly some army troops involved also) from the squadron offshore; while the Gabonais troops and the bulk of his artillery remained behind to garrison the village. With less than 700 men and over half of them belonging to his "ally', he was going to tackle anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 Dahomean troops.

Approaching the village of Atchoupa, some four miles away from Porto-Novo, at around 7:30 AM, he once more ran into a fierce but largely ineffective volley of bullets, rocks and nails from the Fon troops lying in ambush. One slug did hit the "Prince" who commanded Tofa's army, killing him on the spot and causing his troops to flee in panic and fear. (3)

The Tirailleurs, who had already been marching in a loose "lozenge" formation, quickly tightened ranks and formed square in what used to be a palm tree plantation, but which was now a fairly open meadow with short stumps and clear fields of fire;"

For two hours, superior discipline, marksmanship and firepower (the troops were armed with the Gras 1874 pattern rifle) on the part of the Tirailleurs, Disciplinaires and gunners kept the Dahomean army of some 8,000 warriors (2,000 of which were Amazons) at bay. Assault after assault was launched, only to be repulsed. Some warriors did make contact and caused casualties with their razor sharp hwisu & panga swords, but steady firing, the bayonet and some help from the allied levies kept the enemy well outside the square.

Only the fact that ammunition was running low and word reaching him that another 2,000 or so Fon troops were preparing to cut him off from Porto-Novo (or at least his supplies and ammo reserves), forced Terrillon to fall back to his jump off point and naval gunnery support. Time and time again his square was forced to halt and fire volleys in order to keep the Dahomean troops at bay but by 10:00 AM the column was in sight of the village. Calm cool courage, training and superior firepower on the part of some 300 French troops, the vast majority being Senegalese, defeated almost 8,000 Fon troops and inflicted approximately 1,500 casualties. In turn the French column suffered some eight dead, and nearly 40 wounded; Tofa's army receiving some 20 casualties. No one could ask more from their soldiers (4).

Cessation of Hostilities

At the same time though, it must be admitted that despite this victory and several successful skirmishes, the French did not have enough troops or inland reach with their artillery (both naval and land) to prevent the Dahomeans from continuing to wreak havoc with the interior village-states and their crops. King Behanzin was also smart enough to realize he could not do too much more damage to the local economy before it began to affect his markets. Coupled with mounting threats from the Egba's and other internal matters, peace overtures were made. For the French, the Fire-eating Bayol was replaced by the much more diplomatic Governor Ballot, who was under orders to straighten matters out and restore peace quickly so that trade might resume and redress the balance for the cost of the campaign.

It was a hard treaty to come by and the Fon government was not at all happy with losing their trade centers, but Behanzin pushed it through, realizing that he needed time to import new weapons and to train his army in their use. In his mind, the war was not over, he had just bought himself some breathing room and time.

Accordingly, on October 4th, 1890 a treaty was signed bringing an end to the war and re-establishing trade contacts. French suzerainty over Porto-Novo and Contonou was agreed upon, Whydah would still be the major business center for the Kingdom of Dahomey proper and on top of that, King Behanzin would be paid some 20,000 Francs in the form of reparations.

For their part the French pretty much thought the war was over and resumed normal business soon afterwards. While diminutive military posts were established in the new treaty centers and a small squadron of gunboats now patrolled the lagoon and coast in one's or two's on a regular basis (supported by the larger vessels offshore), the bulk of the troops were withdrawn to Senegal and life went on.

But in all truth, things were not as they seemed. While the French government and armed forces figured the matter more or less closed (though they certainly stayed on their toes), the French people began to revel in the recent campaign and to see the Dahomeans more of an enemy, instead of trading partner. While this did not mean much at the moment, it did mean that if war broke out again, French citizens would support a larger punitive expedition and the money would be available to do it right the next time.

Behanzin wasted no time either; contacts with European gun runners (legit and not so legit) were provided by the "agent provocateurs" still in country and within a few short months modern (or at least relatively current) weapons were steadily streaming into the country, along with Krupp artillery pieces, technicians and instructors to show his troops how to use the new technology correctly. At the same time, Behanzin enlarged his army to some 12,000 troops, dealt with his old enemies on the borders and did everything he could to prepare for the next war. When it came, both sides would be ready.


1 It is unclear whether this was an Anglo-French squadron or entirely French. With names like Rear Admiral Brown de Colstoun, Commander Thomas and "Arethusa", it certainly points in that direction, but then again the names are just "off" enough to be French. As Captain Fournier afterwards remained on duty as Chief Naval Officer and no further mention is made of the other participants, I am going to go with the mixed squadron gathered together for humanitarian reasons.


2 See Order of Battle, Dahomey1890.00 for details


3 There is another story where Tofa's army had detached scouts and skirmishers into the surrounding jungle to keep any Dahomean flanking attempts in check while the bulk of the army formed the fourth "away" side of the square and held on until the end when they finally "broke" and went off in pursuit of their enemies. As this pursuit would be against an army that had dogged Terillon's retrograde march every step of the way and would be out of range of the naval & garrison artillery, it is highly doubtful it occurred. Reports do say that some braver and loyal men did hang around the flanks in order to provide information on enemy movements after the "army" fled and some evidence does bear this out.


4 Terrillon's men fired off some 25,000 rounds of ammunition at Atchoupa. Before anyone thinks that this would be impossible (or at least damned hard to do), you might want to reconsider. Each soldier carried at least 36 rounds of ammunition on his person; there was at least an additional 100-120 rounds per man being carried in the ammo train and park (presumably by native porters). There were a good solid 300 Tirailleurs present and an additional 25-30 disciplinaires. If 325 men fired off at least 36 rounds that would mean some 11,700 rounds were fired. During a two hour battle, this would mean that the troops would fire an average of 100 rounds a minute which while steady, would certainly not be daunting, at least in the eyes of the Dahomean troops. Allowing for Dahomean assaults and concentrations in order to deliver their firepower, the faster rate of 200 rounds per minute sounds much more plausible and would also account for lulls in the action. This faster firing rate, which still means that only about 200 of the 325 men present on the field of battle would be firing at least once a minute, now brings the total up to 23,400 shots. Add to this the solid rounds and explosive shot fired off by the artillery and we easily fall within the realm of 25,000 rounds mentioned in other accounts. (The artillery certainly did not fire some 1,600 rounds, but if we toss in a few more officers and an additional five or ten disciplinaires we are over the 24,000 mark and easily within the range of the rounded off number we were originally given).

However, it must be noted that the Dahomean troops suffered some 18% casualties during the battle and never really gave up the fight. They might have eased off towards the end and not pursued, but they certainly stayed game for two hours as their casualties mounted. They may not have been the best troops in the world, but few can question their bravery. We don't know the scale of killed to wounded but the traditional one to four or five, modified for this type of combat should leave us with some 400 minus dead and 1,000 plus wounded. Much has been made of the steadiness and discipline of the Tirailleurs and modern firepower, one in every sixteen bullets found its mark. This pretty much averages out to ten wounded for every time a company fired a volley.

Finally, about 2,000 Fon troops were equipped with some type of firearm. A few were new (relatively speaking), most were ancient, but if just 1,500 Dahomean warriors fired one round every ten minutes during the battle it means that some 18,000 projectiles were fired at the French square during the two hour battle and only 48 French troops were killed and wounded (and the vast majority of these wounds were from firearms), then only one out of 375 bullets (or equivalent thereof) found their mark from Fon weapons.

Close Window To Return To The Table Of Contents

Free Web Hosting