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Ouidah

Ouidah

Ouidah or Whydah, town (1992 pop. 32,474), S Benin, a port on the Gulf of Guinea. It was the capital of a small state founded about the 16th cent. From the early 17th cent., Portuguese, French, and Dutch traders were intermittently active at Ouidah, whose name was derived by Europeans from a nearby Portuguese fort called São João Baptista de Ajudá (St. John of Adjuda). In the 18th and early 19th cent. Ouidah was an important export point for slaves. In the 1840s the French established a substantial trade with Ouidah, exchanging textiles, guns, and gunpowder for palm oil and ivory. The town was annexed by France in 1886. Ouiday is a center of the Vodoun (voodoo) religion.
Ouidah (also Whydah in English) is a city on the Atlantic coast of Benin.

History

In local tradition Kpase is supposed to have founded the town. This probably happened towards the end of the sixteenth century. The town was originally known as Glehue, literally 'Farmhouse', and was part of the kingdom of Xweđa or Hueda.

In 1727 the Kingdom of Whydah was captured by the forces of King Agaja of Dahomey.

The Portuguese, English and French all constructed forts in the city to protect their interests in slaving. Portuguese reached the town they called Ajudá in 1580 and the Portuguese Fort of São João Baptista de Ajudá, now housing a museum, dates from 1721 and remained with Portugal until 1961.

Other attractions in Ouidah include the Maison du Brésil art gallery, a voodoo python temple, an early twentieth century basilica and the Sacred Forest of Kpasse, dotted with bronze statues.

The Route des Esclaves, by which slaves were taken to the beach, has numerous statues and monuments, including the Door of No Return, a monumental arch.

The Market Center of Ouidah, which was established by Scouts more than 20 years ago, trains young people in agricultural skills, thus helping to reverse the exodus towards the cities.

Fort of São João Baptista de Ajudá

The Fort of São João Baptista de Ajudá (in English St. John the Baptist of Ouidah Fort) is a small fortress built by the Portuguese in the city of Ouidah on the coast of Dahomey (originally Ajudá, from Hweda, on the Atlantic coast of modern Benin), reached by the Portuguese in 1580, after which it grew around the slave trade. The Fort, built in land given to Portugal by the King of Dahomey, remained under Portuguese control from 1721 until 1961.

In 1680 the Portuguese governor of São Tomé and Príncipe was authorised to erect a fort. In 1721, after having been abandoned for some years, it was reconstructed and named São João Baptista de Ajudá.

The fort had an important impact in Benin, greatly contributing to the Portuguese slave trade. Its importance is attested by the fact that the Portuguese language was the only foreign language that the Kings of Dahomey authorised. Portuguese descendants were also important in the political structure of the kingdom and some established Portuguese-Brazilian families, such as the Sousa, whose descendants still exist in Benin, were powerful and abided by private law. In January 1722 the pirate Bartholomew Roberts ("Black Bart") sailed into the harbour and captured all the eleven ships at anchor there.

Following the abolition of the legal slave trade in 1807, the fort, which had before been one of the major slave ports, gradually lost its importance and although Portugal continued to claim it as one of its possessions, formal occupation and administration were abandoned on several occasions. It was only when French presence in the region started threatening Portugal’s interests that the settlement was again permanently manned. This didn't of course prevent the French conquest of Dahomey (1891-1894) and São João Baptista de Ajudá - now reduced to the territory actually within the walls of the fort - lost what remained of its importance.

The fort was reoccupied by Portugal in 1865. In this period it served as a base for a brief Portuguese attempt to impose a protectorate on the Kingdom of Dahomey of which the city of Hweda (Ajudá - Ouidah) was part (1885-1887).

Until its annexation by Dahomey in 1961, São João Baptista de Ajudá was probably the smallest recognized separate modern political unit: according to the census of 1921 it had 5 inhabitants and, at the moment of the ultimatum by the Dahomey Government, it had only 2 inhabitants representing Portuguese Sovereignty who tried to burn it rather than surrendering it.

Only in 1975 did the annexation of the fort by Dahomey (now renamed Benin) gain Portuguese recognition, followed by its restoration paid for by Portugal. The fort is a small square with towers at the four corners. It comprises a church and officers' quarters. The Fort of São João Baptista de Ajudá now houses a museum.

Bruce Chatwin’s book The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) is a fictional retelling of the life of Francisco Félix de Sousa, the Sousa family founder in Benin and that of his powerful local descendants, dealing also with the subject of slave trade with Brazil.

Footnotes

Sources and references

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