Ouidah was a densely populated, prosperous kingdom located on the Slave Coast of West Africa in what is now Benin. It rose to prominence as an exporter of slaves in the late 17th century and flourished for about sixty years before falling to the inland kingdom of Dahomey in 1727. Before the 17th century, the Aja peoples who populated the region of Ouidah and that of its inland predecessor, the kingdom of Allada, had not developed a commercial or maritime tradition and supported themselves with lagoon fishing, agriculture, and hunting. Increased competition for trade along the West African coast by the French, English, Dutch, and Portuguese, from the second half of the 16th century on, gradually reoriented the people of the Slave Coast towards the sea and the Atlantic trade. In the 1650s, Ouidah started breaking away from Allada and establishing itself as a powerful polity of warriors, slavers, and traders. In 1671 the French moved their trading factory from Allada to Ouidah, and the English and Portuguese were soon to follow. At the height of its commercial prosperity in the first two decades of the 18th century, Ouidah controlled the export of between fifteen and twenty thousand slaves a year.
Neighboring Dahomey's wars of conquest stretched southward to the coastal region in the 1720s, disrupting trade and blocking trade routes from the interior. After Dahomey conquered and pacified Ouidah in 1727-28, the Dahomian king appointed bureaucratic officials to administer Ouidah as the principal port and commercial capital of the kingdom. For over a century more, Ouidah remained a center of the Atlantic slave trade under the patronage of the kings of Dahomey. The abolition of the Brazilian slave trade in 1851 and the installation of a British consul in Lagos rang the death knell of the Atlantic slave trade, and by 1865 palm oil had entirely replaced slaves in Ouidah's export market.
By Zayde Antrim
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