A few weeks ago I saw the Woman King and just like audiences all over the world I was blown away by the excellent cast and how beautifully the movie was shot. But most of all I love how a West African historical setting is the main focus in a Hollywood blockbuster! This movie has created a lot of attention and heated debate. Not least because of the justified critique of historical revisionism. Rest assured this blog post won’t feature yet another review in that line-up! However I will be providing an overview of resources and research findings which should be helpful to learn more about the historical and also genetic relevance of slave trade from the Bight of Benin.
The kingdom of Dahomey was located right at the center of the Bight of Benin which infamously was also known as the Slave Coast. The impact of slave trade from the Bight of Benin has been widespread across the Americas. For various groups of Atlantic Afro-descendants. But especially in terms of cultural retention there are some stand-out areas such as Brazil, Cuba, Haiti and Suriname. And genetically speaking also Barbados. Hopefully this blog post can serve as some kind of guidance for interpreting your own personal DNA results when wanting to trace back to Benin and neighbouring countries.
Before I continue I do want to quickly clarify my own stance on the Woman King controversy.1 When blogging about DNA test results on Ancestry and 23andme I have always warned against absolute dismissal. Because this may leave you empty-handed even when valuable insights are still to be gained! Instead from the start I have argued for a glass half-full mentality. Of course critical assessment is still required. But I firmly believe that you should always attempt to inform yourself about context, be aware of nuances and check your own bias, before passing judgement. The Woman King movie provides an excellent opportunity to do just that! In the last section of this blog post I will post many more useful links but a highly recommended starting point for more research is:
- The Woman King Syllabus (created by Professsor of History at Howard University: Ana Lucia Araujo)
Contents of this blog post:
- Historical: Dahomey kingdom, Oyo kingdom, slave ports along Bight of Benin
- Ethno-linguistic: Benin, Yorubaland
- Ethnic origins of captives from the Bight of Benin
- Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database
- “Benin/Togo” on Ancestry is a good indicator, but also look for associated DNA matches!
- Genetic Groups on 23andme associated with Bight of Benin lineage
- Genealogy: Clotilda descendants and Afro-Brazilian communities in Benin/Nigeria
- Cultural/Genetic links with Afro-Diaspora
- History of Dahomey
- Reviews of Woman King
Dahomey in the 1800’s
Map 1.1 (click to enlarge)
This map is showing how the Dahomey kingdom was pretty much confined to southern Benin. However by way of its constant warfare the Dahomey army also made inroads to southwestern Nigeria and Togo. In the movie Woman King the central theme is warfare between Dahomey (Fon people) and Oyo (Yoruba people) taking place around the 1820’s. This prolonged history of violence had a major impact on the region and sadly also the Afro-Diaspora. But intriguingly a lesser known example of Dahomey warfare has them pitted against the Ashanti from currentday Ghana (see this map). Fighting out a decisive battle in currentday Togo in 1764. Apparently also involving the female Agojie soldiers featured in Woman King! End result being that an expansion of Ashanti further east into Dahomey was blown off. This illustrates the military pressure Dahomey had to face which most likely shaped the thinking of its leadership. See also these links:
- Battle of Atakpamé (1764) (Wikipedia)
- The collapse of Oyo between 1817 and 1836 (Yoruba Diaspora)
Migration routes of Gbe people (Fon, Ewe etc.) according to oral traditions
Map 1.2 (click to enlarge)
The Fon people from Dahomey share their ancestral origins with other Gbe-speaking people such as the Ewe from Togo/eastern Ghana. According to oral traditions Gbe-speakers migrated from currentday southern Nigeria several centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese in the late 1400’s. Their close relationship with southwestern Nigerians is nowadays also backed up by genetic and linguistic research. Most likely these migrations were due to overpopulation and/or expansion of Yoruba people. For a detailed account (starts at p.270) see:
- Ewe migration routes: from Ketu and beyond (J.S. Kofi Gbolonyo, 2009)
Allada kingdom, around 1580, main Fon power prior to the Dahomey kingdom
Map 1.3 (click to enlarge)
Source: Henry B. Lovejoy and Olatunji Ojo, “‘Lucumí’ and ‘Terranova’ and the Origins of the Yoruba Nation,” Journal of African History 56, 3: 355 and 363. Courtesy of Henry B. Lovejoy, African Diaspora Maps Ltd.
This map is showing various states around the Bight of Benin, circa 1580. In the left corner you can find the Allada or also Ardra kingdom. Located in modernday Benin it used to be more important than Dahomey. In fact Dahomey did not exist yet at this time. This kingdom was conquered by Dahomey in 1724 which had a great impact also on Atlantic slave trade. In particular for Haiti! Both kingdoms were founded by very closely related Gbe speaking people, currently known as Fon. Don’t confuse the modernday country of Benin with the historical kingdom of the Bini/Edo people in southern Nigeria! One of the many common mistakes made about African geography (see this link). The country name of Benin was adopted only after independence. It is a reference to the Bight of Benin (see this article and also this one).There is no direct relation to the Benin kingdom. Although as shown in this map at its height this kingdom did extend all the way west beyond Lagos into modernday Benin!
Dahomey and Oyo around 1780
Map 1.4 (click to enlarge)
Source: Henry B. Lovejoy, “Re-Drawing Historical Maps of the Bight of Benin Hinterland, c. 1780.” Canadian Journal of African Studies 47, 3: 445. Courtesy of Henry B. Lovejoy, African Diaspora Maps Ltd.
This map is showing the Oyo (Yoruba) empire at its greatest extent, circa 1780. During this time Dahomey was still a vassal state of Oyo. Only in 1823 did Dahomey become fully independent under its king Ghezo. The Woman King movie is taking place during his reign. The map shows many details when you zoom into it. Especially very useful to see the Anago, Mahi and Ketu areas being pinpointed. The Mahi were also featured in the Woman King movie. Apparently they are of various ethnic origins (see this article). Anago and Ketu were more so Yoruba. These were parts of the Oyo empire which were bordering the Dahomey kingdom. And therefore often caught up in warfare from both sides. Yoruba captives being transported to the Americas were often hailing from this areas. Which is why especially Nago became some sort of synonym for Yoruba people in places like Brazil and Haiti. More details in section 2.
Bight of Benin: slave ports and hinterland
Map 1.5 (click to enlarge)
Source: Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (www.slavevoyages.org)
Do a zoom-in to spot the location of Ouidah. Also known as Whydah, the main slave port of Dahomey. It is prominently featured in the last part of Woman King. But there were various other slave ports along the Bight of Benin. Such as Porto Novo, the current capital of Benin. And also little and grand Popo further west into Togo. Especially in English, Dutch and Danish colonies the name “Popo” or “Papa” became a common reference for people who were shipped from this area. However the captives who were transported from these ports came from various kingdoms. Located in coastal areas but also further inland. Across modernday country borders obviously. The Borgu kingdoms for example were located in the north of Benin but also extending into the Middle Belt of Nigeria. See section 2 for a breakdown of the numbers involved and the most frequent destinations in the Americas.
For more historical maps see also these links:
- African Diaspora Maps Ltd. (H. Lovejoy)
- The collapse of Oyo between 1817 and 1836 (Yoruba Diaspora)
- Maps of West African Kingdoms and Empires (Cultures of West Africa)
- Slave Trade (Tracing African Roots)
Ethno-linguistic: Gbe speakers in Benin, Togo and Volta region of Ghana
Map 1.6 (click to enlarge)
Gbe languages are spoken in the coastal areas of Benin, Togo and eastern Ghana. Covering several different groups, incl. the Fon from Dahomey and also the Ewe from Ghana/Togo. Genetically speaking they are very closely inter-related.
Benin: language groups
Map 1.7 (click to enlarge)
Source, includes a very detailed discussion of ethnic groups in Benin (in French!). See this link for a similar page on Togo.
The modernday country of Benin is shaped by artificial borders drawn by colonial powers. Basically it is a landstrip with ethnic groups from the north being quite different from the south. As shown in the previous map the Fon from Dahomey are more so related to people to the west in southern Togo. This map shows that the Yoruba people are also a considerable minority in Benin. The Yoruba language is actually not that dissimilar from the Gbe languages (shown as Kwa in this map). Together they are currently classified as Volta-Niger languages. While the northern part of Benin has various minorities from other more divergent language groups, especially the Bariba language. And also the Dende, located all the way in the north of the country, along the border with Niger. Where the closely related Songhay people live. The Fulani people are relatively recent arrivals (see this article).
Population density in Benin
Map 1.8 (click to enlarge)
Benin’s slave ports had trading links which connected them to areas much further inland. It is known that there were also northern people among the captives. Especially Bariba. Even from beyond Benin’s borders in fact (Nupe and Hausa). The relative lack of rainforest in Benin was probably greatly conducive to creating these long-distance trading routes. And it might also account for the popularity of Benin’s slave ports with Europeans. This is due to a well known geographic phenomenon called the Dahomey Gap.
Still it is very likely that people from the more densely populated coastal area were hardest hit by Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Often victimized due to local warfare between the various Gbe speaking kingdoms and also with the Yoruba. However as shown in the map above the northern part of Benin is sparsely populated. Most likely this contrast in population density was already true during previous centuries. See also this article:
Map 1.9 (click to enlarge)
As shown by the map above Yorubaland extends beyond Nigeria into central Benin and even into Togo! The Yoruba are a considerable minority in Benin with an estimated population share of around 15%. In Togo they represent a smaller share with around 200.000. But also here they are still notable around especially Atakpame (see this article). They have been living there for many centuries already. Although they trace their roots to the Yoruba heartland in southwestern Nigeria. Across the generations it is inevitable that ethnic mixing took place with neighbouring Fon and other Gbe speakers. Also given local slavery and concubinage in previous centuries. This sometimes makes it difficult to get a clear genetic delineation.
For more ethno-linguistic maps see also these links:
- Ethno-linguistic groups in Africa (Tracing African Roots)
- Lower Guinea (neighbouring countries of Benin) (Tracing African Roots)
Ethnic origins of people from the Bight of Benin shipped to the Americas
Table 2.1 (click to enlarge)
Source: Slavery, Colonialism and Economic Growth in Dahomey, 1640-1960, (P. Manning, 1982). Based on estimates and assumptions.
This overview is based on research dating back from quite a while ago (1982) but its basic outline still appears to be valid. According to these estimates Gbe-speakers (Aja) were around 65% of all captives shipped from the Bight of Benin. Easily the greatest group. In fact up till 1800 their share might have been around 80%! Aja being used as a reference to all Gbe speaking people, incl. Fon and Ewe. But actually Yoruba captives became most numerous during the 1800’s. This can historically be explained due to the collapse of the Oyo empire. The Woman King movie is also set in this later time period when slave trade had already been abolished by the British. The Voltaic group is referring to Gur speakers and related groups. In particular the Bariba, one of the largest ethnic groups in the north of Benin. Notice how the numbers of even more northern groups such as the Nupe (also known as Tapa) and the Hausa are most noticeable during the 1800’s. This can be related to the rise of the Sokoto Caliphate which caused the Hausa citystates to be taken over by the Fulani.
Yoruba Diaspora in the Americas
Table 2.2 (click to enlarge)
Source: The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World, (Falola & Childs eds, 2005).
This table is also based on estimates and assumptions. Going by the frequency of documented Yoruba captives and also taking into account local warfare etc.. However based on slave trade data alone it is already pretty much certain that Brazil (Bahia), Haiti (St. Domingue) and Cuba (Sp. Caribbean) were clearly the main destinations of Yoruba captives. Considerable numbers were also arriving in other parts of the Caribbean. Mainly Jamaica. Notice that Barbados received the earliest cohort in the late 1600’s. Along with probably even more numerous Gbe speakers. The estimated numbers for the USA (British Mainland) are quite subdued: less than five thousand. But with a noteworthy spike in the 1800’s, caused by illegal slave trade. See also:
- Mapping Uncertainty: The Collapse of Oyo and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, 1816–1836 (H. Lovejoy, 2019)
Table 2.3 (click to enlarge)
More than half of all documented slave voyages to Bahia, in northeast Brazil, departed from the Bight of Benin. Therefore not surprising that in this overview nearly 55% of slaves with documented ethnic designation were hailing from this area. This is including numbers for the so-called Central Sudan which is referring to the Sahel/Savana zone of interior West Africa. In southeast Brazil (Rio) the shares would be much more in favour of Central Africa/Angola. Keep in mind that this sample is limited in scope because of the time period (1775-1815). Still it seems pretty representative. Gbe-speakers and Yoruba are balanced in number. Also interesting to see the minor yet considerable share of captives from more inland, esp. Hausa.
Bahia received captives from the Bight of Benin from early on, going back to the 1600’s. During that time Gbe-speaking captives would most likely have been a clear majority (see table 2.1). However numerous captives kept arriving during the 1800’s. And these people were mostly Yoruba. Their impressive cultural retention is well celebrated. And many people across the Afro-Diaspora seek inspiration from it, with good reason. However the relatively late arrival of the Yoruba in Bahia was probably greatly beneficial in this respect. The earlier influence of Gbe-speaking captives in Brazil is less well known among the general public. But it still persists. In Candomblé for example you still have certain rites which are associated with the Jeje nation, which is in direct reference to Gbe speakers. See also:
- A formação do Candomblé. História e ritual da nação jeje na Bahia (L.N. Parés, 2006)
Table 2.4 (click to enlarge)
See this link for the complete data covering other parts of Africa as well.
This overview is probably one of the most extensive sources of ethnicity among Bight of Benin captives. And therefore also likely to be quite representative. Although probably with a bias to the late 1700’s. The share of people from the interior (Chamba (=Gur-speakers), Hausa, Cotocoli, Nupe and Bariba) is quite big. All combined 995 individuals against 1,580 Yoruba/Nago and 1,962 Gbe-speakers. This is solid evidence that interior people were therefore already being shipped to the Americas, prior to the 1800’s when the Sokoto Caliphate was being established.
Most of the Gbe-speakers are being named “Arada” which is a reference to the Allada kingdom (see map 1.3). The so-called Mina might actually also include Gbe-speakers. But this umbrella term is more ambigious because it can refer both to the former Portuguese tradingpost Elmina, located on the Gold Coast. But in a more generic way it might also refer to the so-called Costa da Mina. Which actually also includes the Bight of Benin. Hence in Brazil itself “Mina” was often used to refer to Gbe-speaking captives. But it is unclear if this was also the case elsewhere.
Table 2.5 (click to enlarge)
Source: Liberated Africans.
This overview is based on research done on the Liberated Africans who were registered in Cuba in 1824. These persons were thoroughly interviewed and often also their names and (approximate) birth places were recorded. Lucumi was used in Cuba as a generic (and inexact) term for Yoruba people. The sub-groups are mentioned for further specification. Very special and unique testimony therefore of self-identification among people nowadays seen as “Yoruba”. Even when in those times actually there might not have been a sense of shared Yoruba “nationhood” yet. Atleast not in currentday Nigeria itself. Rather people identified with kingdoms (Oyo/Ello) and regions within Yorubaland. As is clearly displayed in this overview which features no less than 29 sub-groups! The most frequent one being Ello, which is a Spanish rendition of Oyo. See also map 1.4.
The Lucumi identifier is an umbrella term which mostly was used for Yoruba-speaking people. But not always! This is also clearly demonstrated by this overview. Because several sub-groups, such as Tapa, Chamba, Mosi etc., are suggestive of non-Yoruba origins! Illustrating the ambigious nature of so-called “nation” ethnonyms being used to identify the African origins of captives in the Americas. Nonetheless a majority of these so-called “Lucumi” people were indeed Yoruba-speakers. So it is still informative on balance. The “Lucumi” name seems to have been confined to the Hispanic Americas. “Nago” was more frequently used in Portuguese and French colonies and also in the English speaking Caribbean it seems.
The history behind the naming of ethnic groups is a very fascinating but also confusing topic. Because these names tend to change across time due to ongoing ethnogenesis. Also depending on who is using the terms, either people of the ethnic group themselves or outsiders. “Yoruba” for example appears to have been of Hausa derivation, and only became popularized among Yoruba-speakers during British rule. Also “Lucumi” has a very fascinating origin which appears to go back to the 1500’s and the Benin kingdom! Basically again a term devised by outsiders and not by Yoruba-speakers themselves. See these links for more discussion:
- ‘Lucumí’ and ‘Terranova’ and the Origins of the Yoruba Nation, (H. Lovejoy and O.Ojo, 2015)
- Ethnicity and the Slave Trade; Lucumi and Nago as Ethnonyms in West Africa (R. Law, 1997)
- Ethnic identities of African-born slaves: valid or imposed? (Fonte Felipe, 2015)
Table 2.6 (click to enlarge)
Source: The Links of a Legacy: Figuring the Slave Trade to Jamaica. (D. Chambers, 2007)
According to this overview Yoruba-speakers (Nago) were somewhat more numerous than Gbe-speakers (Popo) among runaway slaves. However keep in mind that this data-set is biased towards the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. In earlier time periods it seems very likely that Gbe-speakers would actually be much more prominent in Jamaica as well as other parts of the Anglo-Caribbean. Because it is known that most Bight of Benin slave trade for Jamaica occurred in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s (see this table).
Another thing to take into consideration is the arrival of Yoruba contract labourers in the mid-1800’s. Who apparently settled mainly in Westmoreland and Hanover. With some dedicated research you should be able to confirm such relatively recent lineage. Not only by genealogy but also through relatively large DNA matches with Yoruba people. Confirming earlier Bight of Benin lineage however is much more trickier. Although from my survey of African DNA matches reported for Jamaicans this can still also be done. For more details see:
- Ethnic Origins of Jamaican Runaway Slaves (Fonte Felipe, 2015)
- African DNA matches reported for 30 Jamaicans on Ancestry (Fonte Felipe, 2020)
- African Retentions in Jamaica – Ettu & Nago
Table 2.7 (click to enlarge)
See this link for the complete data covering other parts of Africa as well.
Another very valuable dataset which can be used to gauge the ethnic origins of captives from the Bight of Benin. And also their approximate proportional shares. Do keep in mind that this overview does not take into account the impact of Domestic Slave Trade for Louisiana. Which was ultimately often tied to Virginia but also South Carolina. In both cases the regional African origins for these states were clearly different (proportionwise) from Louisiana. Slave trade with the Bight of Benin was more significant during French and Spanish rule (around 19%) than in other parts of the USA (around 3%, see this chart). Only your personal genealogy will tell you to what degree your African origins are indeed to be related to this earlier colonial period of Louisiana. Or rather to the Domestic Slave Trade from the 1800’s which ushered in an explosive population growth.
This overview for Louisiana is quite comparable to the one for Haiti, posted earlier. Unsurprisingly given their shared colonial history. Again I have a hunch it might be biased towards the late 1700’s. When such documentation was probably more frequent and also more likely to have survived in the archives. I find it quite striking how many “Chamba” are being listed. The Chamba (Gur-speakers) are not often discussed or “claimed” by people seeking their African roots. However they were quite numerous not only in Louisiana but also in Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean (see this Anglo-Caribbean overview for charts). The socalled “Mina” are shown as most frequent. However as already discussed for Haiti this represents a contested category which might actually include captives from the Bight of Benin as well as the Gold Coast. See also:
- Louisiana: most African diversity within the United States? (Fonte Felipe, 2015)
- Ethnicities of Enslaved Africans in the Diaspora: On the Meanings of “Mina” (Again)” (R. Law, 2005)
For similar tables and discussion see these links:
- Ethnic/Regional Origins of the Atlantic Afro-Diaspora (Tracing African Roots)
- Map showing ethno-linguistic origins of Bight of Benin Recaptives in Sierra Leone (Curtin, 1969)
- Sources of the Nineteenth Century Atlantic Slave Trade” (Curtin & Vansina, 1964)
- The Capture of the Voladora, Little Popo, 1829 [listing ethnic origins of 330 persons, incl. Mina and Lucumi) (Slavery Images)
Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database
Table 2.8 (click to enlarge)
Source: Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (2022) (www.slavevoyages.org)
Bahia in Brazil is the undisputed main destination of Bight of Benin captives in the Americas! Not only going by absolute numbers (see table 2.10). But also proportionally speaking. More than half of all Africans shipped to Bahia originated from the Bight of Benin and its hinterland. This share was considerably lower in neighbouring Pernambuco (14%, see this chart), which is also located in northeast Brazil. But especially the contrast with southeast Brazil (1.4%) is very stark! It is to be kept in mind though that also in Brazil domestic slave trade was quite rampant. Involving many captives from Bahia. Also due to post-slavery migrations it is very likely that Afro-descended people from Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais have a greater share of Bight of Benin ancestry than suggested by this chart.
The French Caribbean also has a very strong connection with the Bight of Benin. This is well known for Haiti (St. Domingue) because of its famous Vodun retention. But actually it seems that proportionally speaking Martinique might be the French ex-colony with the most prominent ancestral ties with Bight of Benin. Unlike Haiti the share of Bight of Benin is primary for Martinique and not in second place after Central Africa. Although the complicating factor of Inter-Caribbean slave trade needs to be taken into account as well.
Table 2.9 (click to enlarge)
The Bight of Benin also plays a very significant part in the Dutch slave trade. Peaking in the Dutch Caribbean (30,5%). Especially during the time period of 1650-1750, when Curaçao was one of the main hubs for Intra-American slave trade to the Spanish Americas. The Bight of Benin share is still very notable for Suriname as well. Cultural ties with especially the Gbe people (known as “Papa”) were preserved in Suriname to a great extent. Not only through religion (Winti) and music but especially by way of an amazing degree of linguistic retention. See also:
- ‘”Een verre verwijderd trommelen…”Ontwikkeling van Afro-Surinaamse muziek en dans in de slavernij’ (A. Stipriaan, 1993)
- Surviving the Middle Passage: The West Africa-Surinam Sprachbund (B. Borges, 2015)
Of course cultural links between especially the Yoruba and Cuba are also impressive. However this was due to slave trade which occurred during a much later time period (1800’s) than in Suriname and the Dutch Caribbean (1600’s/early 1700’s). Hence the cultural retention in the Dutch Caribbean has a longer history while for Cuba and also Bahia it is mostly based on rather recent connections. See also next overview. Compared with Hispaniola and Puerto Rico it seems obvious that within the Spanish Caribbean Cuba has the most considerable link with the Bight of Benin. See also this chart. Although it should be kept in mind that actually Intra-American slave trade and also overland migrations from Haiti are very likely to have increased the ancestral ties with the Bight of Benin for Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Table 2.10 (click to enlarge)
Unlike the preceding overviews this table is taken from the Estimates section of the Slave Voyages website. Bight of Benin is the only embarkation region selected. The difference between documented slave voyages and estimated slave voyages is probably greatest for Cuba. Because of the often unrecorded illegal slave voyages taking place during the 1800’s. The numbers for Spanish Americas are mostly reflective for Cuba. Notice how slave trade continued even after 1851! Brazil also had a massive influx during the 1800’s, but usually before 1850.
The early cohorts of Bight of Benin captives were often routed to the British and Dutch Caribbean. It is to be kept in mind that due to Intra-Colonial slave trade these captives were often re-exported to either Spanish or French colonies. However especially for Barbados it seems that a significant founder effect took place in the period (1650-1750). This is something which was established in my preliminary survey findings based on AncestryDNA results. See also:
- The Barbados Connection: beyond just South Carolina! (Fonte Felipe, 2022)
Direct Bight of Benin connections with the USA are among the least significant within the Afro-Diaspora. Going by absolute numbers: estimations are less than 10,000 captives. But also proportionally speaking (around 3%, see this chart). Louisiana clearly being an anomaly. Of course still very intriguing! But often the additional genetic effects of Domestic Slave Trade into Louisiana are not fully taken into account. Generally speaking it can be assumed that this would have resulted in a further dillution of Bight of Benin lineage in favour of Bight of Biafra lineage. As is the case in not only Virginia but also South Carolina (see this chart). On the other hand inter-colonial slave trade with the West Indies during especially the early 1700’s could very well have introduced additional Bight of Benin ancestry as well. Although atypical it still remains evocative that the last known slave voyage (Clotilda) to arrive in the USA was departing from the Bight of Benin.
Table 2.11 (click to enlarge)
This overview is clearly demonstrating that Ouidah (controlled by Dahomey) was the main slave port along the Bight of Benin. Intriguingly only for the Dutch Caribbean (Curaçao) the share of Ouidah is secondary in favour of Ardra. This is due to their Bight of Benin slave trade mostly occurring in a very early time period (1650-1750) when the kingdom of Ardra/Allada was still prevailing (see map 1.3). Untill it was conquered by Dahomey in 1724 and Ouidah became the predominant slave port. Unlike featured in the Woman King movie this slave port was actually very much under Dahomey rule. European traders were invited to build factories. But these were never as imposing as the forts on the Gold Coast and did not pose any military threat to Dahomey (see this article). An interesting tidbit though is that the Portuguese factory building in Ouidah remained under Portuguese control till 1961! See also:
- Fort of São João Baptista de Ajudá (Wikipedia)
Another interesting aspect from this overview is that slave ports located in currentday southwestern Nigeria were also often visited by Brazilians. This includes Lagos, the former capital of Nigeria named by the Portuguese after the surrounding lagoons. But also Badagry. As a disclaimer I should mention that actually this overview is only showing a selection of the most important Bight of Benin slave ports. However most slave voyages departing from this area to Bahia were documented without any slave port being specified, merely mentioning “Costa da Mina”. Another thing to keep in mind is that aside from inland slave trade routes there were also coastal slave trade routes by canoe. Often involving the Popo area to the west of Ouidah.
For similar tables, disclaimers and discussion see these links:
- Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database & Intra-American Slave Trade Database
- Slave Voyages: not only Trans-Atlantic but also Intra-American! (Fonte Felipe, 2020)
“Benin/Togo” on Ancestry is a good indicator, but also look for associated DNA matches!
Map 3.1 (click to enlarge)
“so-called “Benin/Togo” is not an exclusive marker for any given ethnic group nor nationality. Any amount scored for this region can be suggestive of many different ethnic origins from eastern Ghana into southern Nigeria, while possibly also some ethnic groups further west such as the Gur speaking people in Burkina Faso and northern Ivory Coast might score substantial amounts for this region as well. All of this aside from possibly pinpointing genuine origins from within either Benin or Togo.” (Fonte Felipe, 2018)
From my experience the region of “Benin’Togo” on Ancestry is a reasonable predictor of having ancestry from the wider Bight of Benin area. Don’t over-focus on the country labeling! Because of course DNA does not respect modernday borders. And even smaller West African countries such as Benin and Togo are very much multi-ethnic! As shown in the map above regional scores for “Benin/Togo” will be correlating with DNA which is also found in neighbouring countries: western Nigeria, eastern Ghana and also southern Burkina Faso. This is to be expected given genetic overlap and shared ancestral origins in this wider area. Learning more about the shared history between Dahomey and Oyo really should drive home why “Benin/Togo” scores are also showing up for Yoruba Nigerians. Obtaining “100% accuracy” should not be your expectation! But this doesn’t take away from the fact that with proper interpretation you can still get very valuable clues from regional admixture.
Starting in 2018 Ancestry has performed some questionnable updates of its African breakdown. Causing wild swings in “Benin/Togo” scores over the years. Understandably this may have lead to a great deal of scepsis about DNA testing. However as I always say you should judge each DNA test and also each update on its own merits. And the good news is that arguably with Ancestry’s latest update in 2022 Ancestry is finally able again to offer a reasonably close fit for historically plausible regional roots within Africa! Including also the Bight of Benin area. Compared with its competitors Ancestry’s “Benin/Togo” category is actually a stand-out aspect of its African breakdown.2 With a great deal of added value you can’t get with other DNA tests. Despite remaining shortcomings such an outcome is not something to carelessly brush aside when wanting to Trace African Roots! See also:
- Ancestry’s 2022 update: some bright spots, but too little too late! (Fonte Felipe, 2022)
Table 3.1 (click to enlarge)
The overview above is based on my survey findings after Ancestry performed its latest update in 2022 (see this link). Obviously a limited samplesize but I am quite confident that these outcomes are already strongly indicative. As can be seen the “Benin/Togo” region works very well for DNA testers who are actually from (southern) Benin and Togo. However in addition predominant scores for this region are also reported for Ewe people from Ghana. This is not surprising at all. Because they are very closely related to fellow Gbe-speaking groups such as the Fon (see map 1.6). People from northern Ghana and Burkina Faso are bound to score significant scores for this region as well. Variation to be explained by actual ethnic background. This is also logical given the current lack of Gur samples in Ancestry’s Reference Panel. Just be aware of this circumstance so you can improve your understanding! Because all combined this will still be in line with origins from the wider Bight of Benin area.
I will need to see a greater variation of African results. But I am inclined to say that after Ancestry’s current update the predictive accuracy of “Benin/Togo” might be the best it has ever been! Compared with the original 2013-2018 version it is especially striking that there is no longer any major overlap with southeastern Nigerian DNA. This can be verified from the results for Igbo Nigerians. They used to score considerable “Benin/Togo scores in the past (on average around 20%). But this has now almost completely disappeared. Also with Akan Ghanaians the overlap has become quite minor (less than 10%).
Only Yoruba Nigerians still display a considerable degree of “Benin/Togo”. This might be confusing when taken too literally. But if you have carefully read the first sections of this blog post and also after having watched the Woman King you should not really be surprised about this 😉 Obviously this outcome is merely a reflection of the great degree of interaction between neighbouring groups. Both in historical and more ancient times. Furthermore Yoruba lineage naturally is very much part of ancestral ties to the wider Bight of Benin area! Hence “Benin/Togo” indeed works very good as a proxy in this regard. See also:
Table 3.2 (click to enlarge)
This second overview is again based on a limited sample size. But once more I am pretty sure the patterns on display are quite robust. Because this data-set is in line with my previous more numerous survey findings as well as historical plausibility. Especially the ranking of “Benin/Togo” scores for the various survey groups from different parts of the Afro-Diaspora is greatly in alignment. Prominent group average for Haitians and Brazilians are as expected given Trans-Atlantic slave trade with the Bight of Benin. This also goes for Jamaicans and Barbadians. Although for them in addition Ewe and northern Ghanaian/Burkinabe ancestry will also loom large. Shipped in through the Gold Coast instead of the Bight of Benin.
I would have to collect more data for better judgment. But for example the level of 10% for African Americans also seems quite reasonable. Keep in mind that the predictive accuracy for “Ivory Coast/Ghana” and “Nigeria” has also improved with this latest update on Ancestry. Exaggerated “Benin/Togo” scores finally seem to be a thing of the past. Still this level does remain higher than recorded Trans-Atlantic slave trade between the USA and the Bight of Benin (around 3%). But this can be explained by other plausible historical scenarios. Including:
- Larger than assumed proportion of Ewe captives involved in Gold Coast slave trade
- Early arrival of Bight of Benin captives due to inter-colonial slave trade with Barbados, Jamaica etc.
- Illegal slave trading with Bight of Benin after 1807/1808
Over the years I have dedicated several blog posts to help improve a better understanding of how to deal with “Benin/Togo” scores. In particular how to account for unexpectedly high “Benin/Togo” scores among African Americans & Anglo-Caribbeans. Much of what I said then is still valid. Especially the need to look for additional clues. In particular finding associated DNA matches! Read these blogposts for more discussion:
- Is “Benin/Togo” really pinpointing origins from within Benin’s borders? (Fonte Felipe, 2015)
- How to make more sense of “Benin/Togo” scores (Fonte Felipe, 2018)
- Previous “Benin/Togo” survey findings for Africans and Afro-descendants (2013-2018, n=1140)
Genetic Groups on 23andme associated with Bight of Benin lineage
Figure 3.1 (click to enlarge)
Based on matching strength 23andme is accurately predicting the ethnic background of an actual Yoruba person. As always unrealistic expectations about “100% accuracy” should be avoided though! Because to be sure 23andme doesn’t always “get it right”. But this new feature on 23andme certainly can be considered as a huge step forward in pinpointing Bight of Benin lineage!
Figure 3.2 (click to enlarge)
This second genetic group is less specific than the Yoruba one. Technically speaking only the Ewe and Fon people being directly linked to the Bight of Benin. The Ga-Adangme and Fante people to be grouped rather with Gold Coast. But of course usually there will be genetic overlap between neighbouring groups. Especially when they are part of the same greater language-group. This is why 23andme is not able to make a finer distinction. Still already very useful! Even more so when combined with other clues. Notice how the map also includes Abomey and even Oyo as location! Nice touch of 23andme to indicate the historical relevance.
Similar to Ancestry also 23andme applies two methods to tell you more about your ancestry: 1) regional admixture 2) genetic groups which are based on IBD matching or in other words your DNA matching strength with 23andme’s pre-selected sample groups. These genetic groups can be used for indicating ancestral locations or even plausible ethnic lineage! This saves you the trouble of finding such DNA matches yourself. Although actually I would strongly recommend you to still try this in addition as well! DNA testers from especially Benin and Togo are very uncommon which makes it more difficult to find such matches. However both Ancestry and 23andme do have a considerable number of Yoruba customers to get matched with. Try these methods:
- How to find those elusive African DNA matches on Ancestry (Fonte Felipe, 2017)
- Four ways to find your African matches on 23andme! (Fonte Felipe 2022)
Despite some shortcomings this new feature on 23andme can really push your research for specific Bight of Benin lineage to the next level! Especially given that 23andme’s regional admixture categories for West Africa are rather basic. Because unlike Ancestry 23andme does not have an equivalent of a “Benin/Togo” category. Hence 23andme testers from either Benin or Togo will be described as a mix of “Nigerian” and “Ghanaian, Liberian & Sierra Leonean”, see also this page.
As shown above there are currently two genetic groups on 23andme which can be linked to Bight of Benin lineage. Out of 25 African ethnolinguistic groups made available by 23andme earlier this year (see this overview).The one based on Yoruba samples is most specific. And from what I have seen it is pretty accurate for Nigerians themselves.3 However still not intended to be conclusive evidence! Take note of 23andme’s carefully worded description: “You are connected through shared ancestors to people from southwestern Nigeria, many of whom identify as Yoruba.“. See also this screenshot which features the map which extends into Benin and Togo.
These genetic groups on 23andme are comparable to the genetic communities on Ancestry. Although not completely the same. The biggest difference being that Ancestry’s genetic communities are strictly based on matching strength with other customers. While 23andme is using both its customer database as well as pre-selected African reference populations. In my previous blogpost I made a plea for Ancestry to provide historically relevant regions & genetic communities for Atlantic Afro-descendants. Bight of Benin lineage certainly qualifies as being historically relevant!
I strongly believe that combining regional admixture for a broad outline and creating underlying genetic communities/groups for zooming into specific lineage is the way forward. The current “Benin/Togo” category on Ancestry is in fact already quite useful. However I am convinced that even greater customer value can be created for Ancestry’s Afro-descended customers. The hundreds and possibly thousands of unique Benin/Togo samples on Ancestry should be applied also for genetic communities/DNA matching.4 Serving as an alternative for relying on relatively rare African (migrant) customer samples to get matched with. Despite some technical challenges I do think that such genetic communities for Bight of Benin lineage are perfectly feasible. Of course where there is a will there is always a way 😉!
For more discussion on how to apply DNA matches in your research for tracing Bight of Benin lineage:
- New Update on 23andme: Ethnic Group Matches within Africa! (part 1) (part 2)
- When will Ancestry finally create Nigerian Genetic Communities? (scroll down to section 2) (Fonte Felipe, 2022)
- African DNA matches reported for 30 Jamaicans on Ancestry (incl. 20 from Benin/Togo, 45 Ewe and 62 Yoruba) (Fonte Felipe, 2020)
- Youtube video of African American being reunited with his Benin DNA cousin
“The discovery of ancestors on the Clotilda isn’t just an interesting genealogical fact. As Gates says, it means that Questlove is the only African-American he knows who can answer a question that many have asked: not only where in Africa his ancestors came from, but how exactly they got to the U.S. in the first place.” (Time, 2017)
This section is obviously not meant to be exhaustive. I will just be highlighting two examples of Tracing African Roots back to the Bight of Benin or even Dahomey. As mentioned in the quote above this is usually quite rare. The very low odds of tracing back to Africa for African Americans were highlighted in 2017 during an episode of Finding Your Roots by Henry Louis Gates Jr.. The guest of his show, musician and producer Questlove, was found to be descended from one of the last enslaved Africans to arrive in the US on a slave ship. The Clotilda which infamously departed from Ouidah/Dahomey in 1859.
This certainly was a very remarkable finding! But such a verifiable paper trail leading all the way back to Africa must be extremely difficult to reproduce for ordinary African Americans. For one thing they will not be assisted by professional teams of historians and genealogists. Furthermore this finding only concerns one particular family line (relatively recent) among possibly hundreds of others. All individually to be traced back to several parts of Africa! How is a layman expected to ever uncover a majority of these lines, let alone one single one?
The many difficulties of taking the genealogical route to Africa clearly show there is a lot more at stake for African Americans and other Afro-descendants when taking a DNA test. When compared with people who happen to have plentiful documented knowledge about their ancestral origins. Hence why I always insist on avoiding any source snobbery with relation to regional admixture analysis, such as performed by 23andme and Ancestry.
Still to keep things positive such success stories are not entirely impossible either. Especially if you happen to have relatives which can be linked to illegal slave voyages from the 1800’s. Or also when you encounter African-born ancestors in the census. With some dedicated research you should then be able to confirm such relatively recent lineage from the 1800’s. Not only by genealogy but also through relatively large DNA matches to be associated with this particular line. For example I imagine Questlove is quite likely connected to relatively large Yoruba DNA matches on either 23andme or Ancestry (> 20cM). Which otherwise will be very rare for African Americans. Plain genealogy is indepensable for dilligently building up a decent family tree. Which is very valuable in itself. Any follow-up research is of course to be customized according to your own personal situation and also according to your own research preferences. See also:
- African-born persons in the 1880 Census (In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience)
- The Clotilda Descendants Association (The Clotilda Story)
- Why Questlove’s Discovery About His Ancestry on Finding Your Roots Is So Unusual (Time, 2017)
Table 3.3 (click to enlarge)
Source: Dreams of Africa in Alabama:The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America (S. Diouf, 2007, p.6)
“It is difficult to draw a definitive conclusion from the censuses, but if anything, these computations would indicate that the illegal slave trade, at least post-1820, was not massive. Evidently this method, like the others, has its limits and it is only a combination of information gathered from shipping accounts, court records, private papers, censuses, and plantation books that could give us a clearer picture.” (S. Diouf, 2007, p.243)
“Despite the hardships, their sense of unity and kinship made their “African Town” a success. Conversing in a common West African language, they ruled their settlement according to their laws. Gumpa, a nobleman from Dahomey who had fallen from grace, was their chief; and they appointed two young men to be their judges..” (S. Diouf, 2007, p.3)
This incredibly precious overview of the origins of the Clotilda captives is based on very impressive research by historian Sylviane Diouf. Most of them are likely to have been Yoruba. Which is not surprising given what we know about similar slave voyages from this late time period arriving in Brazil and Cuba. However for the USA such a concentration of Yoruba people must have been quite uncommon. Given that prevailing Trans-Atlantic slave trade was much more so with the Bight of Biafra, Central Africa and Upper Guinea (see this chart, or also section 2). Furthermore also the number of African-born people in the USA must have been quite low after the 1850’s. Probably less than 5% overall. While in Virginia and surrounding states it might even have been less than 1% already around 1800 (see this blog post).
The Clotilda story rightfully continues to receive much attention because there are so many details available and it remains such an evocative account. However it should be kept in mind that lineage from such relatively late slave voyages is not per se most representative. Because the bulk of African origins for African Americans is clearly to be traced back to the 1700’s (see this chart). Also taking into consideration that the huge genetic/demographic impact of Domestic Slave trade was mostly originating from Virginia and surrounding states. To be sure not all illegal slave voyages from the 1800’s have been documented. But as argued in the first quotation above and also going by actual cultural retention it is simply not plausible that a great number of Bight of Benin captives arrived in the USA after 1808.
Still especially for the Gulf states and also South Carolina this ancestral scenario of (partial) lineage by way of illegal slave voyages from the 1800’s is worthy of research! Within the overview above there is actually also one person who is said to have been related to the king of Dahomey! Therefore although highly atypical even royal connections to Dahomey might still be a possibility! In case you are into such things 😉 Of course knowing the true history behind the Woman King movie this might actually not be that desirable for many people. I would argue that as always it will be best to refrain from quick judgement. And just be aware that things are often much more nuanced than all the “good guy”/”bad guy” narratives out there.5 Recommended reading:
- Dreams of Africa in Alabama:The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America (S. Diouf, 2009)
- The Abolition of the Slave Trade: The Forgotten Story
- The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage (John Harris, 2020)
Benin-Brazil connection: Aguda’s
Figure 3.3 (click to enlarge)
Source. This is the Great Mosque of Porto-Novo in Benin. Built in 1912 and showcasing the architectural legacy of Afro-Brazilians returning to West Africa. A unique testimony of cultural synthesis across racial and even religious borders!
Spoiler alert! A remarkable character in the Woman King is the mixed-race Brazilian named Malik. His father is said to be Brazilian Portuguese, but his mother was from Dahomey. And her dying wish was that he return to her homeland. Apparently meant as a reference to Afro-Diasporans who likewise seek to reconnect with their African roots! I was therefore pleasantly surprised about this storyline. The appearance of Brazilian slave traders in Woman King was to be expected. As shown in section two the Bight of Benin used to be of huge importance for Brazil, and in particular Bahia. However the Benin-Brazil connection goes beyond just slavery! Despite the ordeal of Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade mutually positive developments took place as well. Especially in the cultural field.
I have always been highly fascinated by the return of Afro-Brazilians after Emancipation to Benin and also neighbouring countries (Nigeria, Togo and even Ghana). This took place during the late 1800’s. They are locally known as “Agudás”. Despite facing all sorts of difficulties they persevered in making their way back home. But at the same time they also brought along the cultural legacies from having lived in Brazil for so long. Not only architectural but also religious, culinary etc.. Truly a testament of human spirit! Seeking to be rooted in your ancestral locations. But still incorporating external influences as well. Whenever these are deemed to be of added value.
Their story is not as well known as that of the likewise returning African Americans and West Indians to Sierra Leone and Liberia. But it is equally amazing! This might explain why the movie Woman King is such a succes also in Brazil (see this link). It is truly resonating! Despite knowledge of the downsides of their mutual history above all there seems to be a heartfelt appreciation and love among Brazilians for these Bight of Benin connections. Only natural I suppose given the well known cultural retention of especially Candomblé.
In fact this shared history goes back all the way to the 1500’s, when the Portuguese first established contact with the Allada kingdom. Aside from slave trading actually also other types of trade and exchange took place. Also indirectly through the former Portuguese colony of São Tomé & Principe. Due to slave trade continuing into the late 1800’s and also the return of the so-called Agudá’s of course there is also a genealogical aspect to this. For more details see:
- “Letters from Africa”: The Diaspora of the Diaspora (C. Fonseca, 2001)
- Acervo Agudá: The Brazilians of Benin
- Mapping the nineteenth-century Brazilian returnee movement: Demographics, life stories and the question of slavery (incl. ethnic origins of the returnees)
- Family of Souza of Benin & Togo (S. de Souza, 2005)
I intend to expand on this overview so naturally not meant to be exhaustive!
Cultural/Genetic links with Diaspora
- Contos de Benin (Ara Ketu, 1988) [band from Brazil/Bahia, this entire album has songs dealing with Dahomey & the Ketu area in Benin]
- Pedra da Memoria (2011) [documentary about musical traditions in Brazil/Maranhão being connected with Benin]
- Lucumi language in Cuba (Wikipedia)
- Evidence of national and culture-specific Rites in Vodou Asogwe (Hebblethwaite, 2015)
- Haitian Vodou (Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology)
- In Milot, Haiti’s connection with Benin lives on – in DNA & drumbeats
- ‘”Een verre verwijderd trommelen…”Ontwikkeling van Afro-Surinaamse muziek en dans in de slavernij’ (A. Stipriaan, 1993)
- Surviving the Middle Passage: The West Africa-Surinam Sprachbund (B. Borges, 2015)
- Genome-wide Ancestry and Demographic History of African-Descendant Maroon Communities from French Guiana and Suriname (Fortes-Lima et al., 2017)
- Virgin Islands
- The Woman King Syllabus (Ana Lucia Araujo)
- The Real Warriors Behind ‘The Woman King’ (Smithsonian Magazine)
- Coastal Society in the Republic of Benin Reproduction of a Regional System (1989)
- An African country reckons with its history of selling slaves (Washington Post, 2018)
- Benin officials apologize for role in U.S. slave trade (Chicago Tribune, 2000)
- Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’ (Zora Neale Hurston, 1927/2018) (available online)
- The African Political Roots of Haitian Vodou: The Aja-Fon and Gedevi-Yoruba Kingdoms and the Slave Trade (B. Hebblethwaite, 2021)
- Haitian Marronage Nations: Nago [Yoruba] (Marronage Voyages)
- Warrior Women with Lupita Nyongo (2019)
- Was Dahomey A Barbaric African Kingdom? (HomeTeam History, 2019)
- The Origin Of The Dahomey Amazons (HomeTeam History, 2020)
- Wonders of the African World: Slave Kingdoms (Henry Louis Gates Jr, 1999)
- The Dahomey Kingdom | African History Documentary (Onuora Abuah, 2019)
- Gbêhanzin : Le rêve inachevé (2007)
- L’Exil du roi Behanzin (1996)
Reviews of Woman King
- The Woman King: The truth about slavery matters (Al Jazeera: Tafi Mhaka)
- In Benin, ‘The Woman King’, an ode to female empowerment, gets mixed reception (The Africa Report)
- The Woman King (2022) (History vs. Hollywood)
- Sisterhood and Slavery in “The Woman King” (The New Yorker: Julian Lucas)
- The Woman King Softens the Truth of the Slave Trade (Slate: Ana Lucia Araujo)
- What ‘The Woman King’ gets wrong — and right — about Dahomey’s warriors (Washinton Post: Ana Lucia Araujo)
- Opinion Hollywood couldn’t make ‘The Woman King’ historically accurate (Washington Post: Sonny Bunch)
- Opinion: What the calls to boycott ‘The Woman King’ are really saying (CNN: Nsenga K. Burton)
- Viola Davis Addresses The Woman King Historical Accuracy Criticisms (Screenrant)
- The truth behind ‘The Woman King’: Crew responds to claims of historical revisionism (LA Times: S. Kelley)
1) I normally don’t discuss currentday politics nor any other potentially divisive issues. I do this on purpose as I aim for an objective fact-driven blog which stays on focus. Taking a non-judgmental stance whenever possible. A pragmatic and open-minded stance instead of constant indignation might benefit anyone’s research in fact. Looking both at the broader context as well as trying to understand localized realities from the perspective of someone who actually would have lived in that time & place.
Going for a personalized version of your own ROOTS story instead of relying on preconceived or ideologically charged notions. You might then of course still encounter both negative and positive aspects. However also often unexpected details might turn up enriching your research and making it more insightful. Things are often far more complex, inter-connected and intricate than you might assume at first!
The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade was obviously an enormous tragedy. But it was also very much a complex affair which had a huge impact across Africa among hundreds of distinctive societies. And therefore involving not only many victims but also many local perpetrators and local enablers! Of course this also goes for Dahomey. This might still be an uncomfortable truth for some people. But it is something which we just have to face head-on in order to move on.
For those who are accustomed to reading about history it it well known that cruelty/violence/greed/exploitation etc. is not a black or white thing! Instead it is a universal part of human nature throughout time and across the world. There is a saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely! I think that this explains to a great extent why we continue to see humans inflicting so much pain onto others.
I do not believe in oversimplifying narratives which seek to assign blame solely on one party and I will also not condone any such demagogic or divisive comments on my blog. I do strongly believe that local African perspectives and local African contexts should be taken into consideration. To be sure the controversy surrounding the Woman King also generated insightful conversations around this issue. And certainly there were legitimate reasons to be upset about this movie.
For me personally what stood out is that fact-checking matters! It is Hollywood’s job to entertain, but you have your own responsibility to educate yourself! We should also definitely not look away from the accountability of African elites. Then, and also now in the present I would say. However I also find it extremely important that West African history should not be reduced to just slavery and its negative aspects! Which is why I was mesmerized by the beautiful cinematography of the Woman King. Including exquisite details on clothing, architecture, music etc..
Eventhough this movie obviously offers a strongly romanticized or even alternate version of Dahomey’s history. I do still think that it was made with good intentions. And it can indeed serve to inspire people in several ways. The aspect of slave trading by Dahomey itself was not left out of the movie entirely. And actually the whole controversy about this theme can also be seen as an educational opportunity! Not only for African Americans but also other parts of the Afro-Diaspora and Africans themselves. Which is why I am very happy that this movie has been such a success also in Brazil and even in Benin!
- Combating Modernday Slavery and Human Trafficking (Djimon Hounsou Foundation)
- ‘It’s been nearly a month and it’s still sold out’: The Woman King takes over Benin’s only cinema (The Guardian)
- For the first time in Brazil, Viola Davis to promote ‘The Woman King’ film (Black Brazil Today)
2) I am aware of atleast two other DNA testing companies which provide categories for indicating regional admixture from Benin and also Yorubaland. These are FamilyTree DNA/FTDNA (“Ghana, Togo & Benin”) and Living DNA (“Benin” and “Yoruba”). But frankly I am not impressed by their performance. When assessing the accuracy of DNA tests I always apply two main criteria: 1) how well does it predict the verifiable background of African testers? 2) how well does it allign with historical plausibility for the Afro-Diaspora? Based on numerous surveys I have performed throughout the years I am pretty sure that both Ancestry and 23andme do quite well on both counts. Of course not perfectly so 😉 But still with plenty of insight to be gained with proper interpretation and also when combining with other clues.
Regrettably I cannot say the same for most other DNA testing companies. And that’s also why I cannot recommend FTDNA and LivingDNA. Judging from the results I have seen these companies often do not give useful results for Africans themselves. And also for Afro-descendants their results tend to not be in line with historical expectations. Even when both companies are providing quite detailed African breakdowns. Still it seems their efforts are hindered by faulty algorithms and probably also lack of appropriate reference samples or grouping thereof. For example FTDNA only applies 32 samples for its “Ghana, Togo & Benin” region (see this overview, or also this link). This is clearly insufficient, especially when we also do not know the ethnic backgrounds of these samples.
LivingDNA seems to be less transparent about its reference samples. Because I have not yet seen any numbers for their samples. But I was very excited about LivingDNA’s African breakdown (72 regions!) when they first announced it a few years ago. However it turns out that they made their new African breakdown overdetailed and they cannot live up to the hype they themselves created. Which is why I prefer a sketchy regional breakdown such as on 23andme or Ancestry above an overspecified breakdown which gives false hope about pinpointing specific lineage. See also these links to read more of my thoughts on LivingDNA.
Furthermore FamilyTree DNA makes an outrageously false statement about Benin lineage being predominant among African Americans. See screenshot below. This is plainly wrong and this can easily be verified by reviewing the slave trade records for the USA in section two. Direct slave trade from Bight of Benin merely being 3%. But actually also genetically this can be demonstrated as I have done based on my Ancestry surveys (see this link).
I do think that DNA which can be linked to the wider Bight of Benin area (incl. Ewe) is more significant for African Americans than suggested by slave trade statistics alone. Pending on further research I would assume that a more realistic estimate of such ancestry will be in between 5%-15%. Still Bight of Biafra connections are clearly much more prevailing for African Amerians as a whole. And this is convincingly reflected in their African matching patterns. Which I aim to blog about eventually (see this link).
No additional supporting evidence is offered… Which is why I find this statement quite disturbing and irresponsible! Really such a high share might only be seen among Afro-Brazilians from Bahia. However FTDNA is certainly not the only DNA testing company to make such sensationalist statements. Even peer-reviewed DNA studies in fact often get it glaringly wrong (see this review). Easy soundbites and info-tainment might be useful to seduce the masses. But ultimately this will erode the confidence customers will have in their DNA test results… That’s why I am always aiming to independently verify any claims made by DNA testing companies. Contrasting with historical plausibility as well any other relevant factors. Remaining critical but also open-minded and careful not to be dismissive when informational value can still be obtained!
3) When 23andme released its 25 Genetic Groups for Africa I performed a survey among both Africans and various Afro-descended nationalities. Based on those (preliminary) results I am quite sure that this feature is pretty accurate (see this blogpost). Of course there will always be an issue of genetic overlap between closely related ethnic groups. But I was particularly pleased to see that apparently 23andme is able to make a fairly accurate distinction between “Yoruba” and “Igbo”. As I have seen this confirmed for several person of such background. The genetic relatedness between both populations is often exaggarated online. Based on a widely misinterpreted and outdated internet article (see closing statement of this page). The Yoruba and Igbo people are indeed both southern Nigerian populations with shared ancient origins. But they have not been directly geographically neighbouring for many centuries already. And this has resulted in some minor but still detectable degree of genetic differentation! More so by IBD matching but also based on regional admixture.
On the other hand I do find it conspicious that sofar 23andme seems to be underreporting “Yoruba” for Afro-descendants. This also goes for “Ewe, Fon, Ga-Adangbe & Fante”. Even for Brazilians, Haitians and other nationalities for whom substantial and often relatively recent ancestral ties to Yorubaland and Gbe-speaking peoples are a given. Obviously this feature still has some issues to resolve. In particular the matching thresholds and also the sample size for each genetic group. For more discussion see:
My most numerous survey group consisted of 100 African American 23andme testers. Among them “Igbo” and “Kongo & Mbundu” were most frequent. See overview below. Sofar I have yet to see an African American with “Yoruba” as genetic group. Although since then I did already see someone with “Ewe, Fon, Ga-Adangbe & Fante”. I actually think this outcome, in spite of being preliminary, is already quite in line with historical plausibility. And I expect that this trend of prevailing Igbo matches instead of Yoruba matches for African Americans will be replicated also with new updates and new research. In fact 23andme also came up with pretty much the same ranking based on a much greater sample size:
(click to enlarge)
4) According to Ancestry’s information it currently uses 336 samples from Benin & Togo within its Reference Panel. However in 2021 this number was even greater: 487! Such samples are uncommon within the reference datasets of other DNA testing companies. Especially with such high numbers! In fact Ancestry might even have thousands of samples from Benin/Togo (see screenshot below). Because Ancestry acquired the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) in 2012. This unique and very comprehensive database formed the basis of Ancestry’s breakthrough update in 2013. And it most likely was also the source of the spectacular increase in samples from Benin/Togo, Cameroon, Mali and also Nigeria in 2018 & 2019 (see section 2 of this blog post)
Although I am not sure if all of these samples are indeed suitable for the purpose of autosomal regional admixture and/or IBD matching. Naturally with proper handling this could still turn out to be a true goldmine! Even if only half of these samples are available within the AncestyDNA set-up. Also to be used for genetic communities indicating Bight of Benin lineage! Serving as an alternative for relying on relatively rare African (migrant) customer samples. Given the paramount ancestral significance of the Bight of Benin such a move would be greatly beneficial for Ancestry’s Afro-descended customers!
*** (click to enlarge)
Source: former website of Sorenson Database. This database (SMGF) was acquired by Ancestry in 2012. Enabling its pioneering West African breakdown in 2013 (see this article).
5) Many people tend to have an infatuation with having royal or otherwise “noble” origins. This is quite understandable and not just limited to people Tracing African Roots. In fact such fantasies might be said to simply be part of human nature. People from all over the world tend to glamourize and even fabricate genealogies which are deemed to give them more “prestige”. These ideas about putting royalty on a pedestal are widespread and also continiously being reinforced by popular media, incl. the Woman King movie. For many people it might be psychologically comforting to imagine your ancestors as being powerful rulers prior to being enslaved.
However realistically of course each society during human history has always overwhelmingly consisted of “regular” people! With the elite being a small minority. In fact royalty and other elite members might still have left a disproportionate high number of descendants. Especially in a context of polygamy and concubinage. But also just merely due to the passing of generations (see this link for estimated descendants of Charlemagne and this one for Gengis Khan). Admittedly a bit sensationalist and even wishful thinking might be involved. But still to some minor and highly diluted degree royal lineage is probably not farfetched for many people. But this does not negate that almost all of our ancestry is made up of people who were just “commoners” like ourselves. And surely there’s nothing wrong with that 😉
Historically speaking it is well known that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was greatly facilitated by African elites. Not all of them of course. But especially in such kingdoms as Dahomey this cannot be denied. This is why personally I find it somewhat disturbing that some Afro-Diasporans are very eager to find royal connections through genealogy. Again this is not entirely impossible. Because ironically members of African elites/royalty did end up enslaved in the Americas as well. Including also from Dahomey! As highlighted in table 3.3.
I don’t intend to be judgmental. However I do find it noteworthy that whenever it was in their power African elites would do their utmost to free their enslaved relatives. Relying on their European allies and contacts to locate these relatives in the Americas and arrange for their release and return. There are several documented cases for this. Including also for Dahomey. As mentioned in the Woman King movie king Ghezo’s mother is said to have been sold into slavery during a succession upheaval. However he managed to get her back from Brazil! Obviously therefore African elites did look out for themselves. But the millions of other enslaved Africans who were shipped to the Americas just represented merchandize. It is sometimes said that slave trading African elites were not fully aware of the horrors of slavery in the Americas. But frankly I find that very hard to believe given their actions…
- History, Memory and Imagination: Na Agontimé, a Dahomean Queen in Brazil. (A. Araujo, 2011)
- A Casa das Minas de São Luis do Maranhão e a Saga de nã Agomtimé (Cavalcanti, 2019)
Hello sir, excellent work as usual. But I have a question about Kassena or Maprusi ancestry, do you know if they would be under Mali, Benin/Togo or Ivory Coast and Ghana on Ancestry DNA
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Thanks Lamont! I happen to share profiles with 4 Kassena persons who are participating in the excellent TAKIR project. They are a Gur speaking group from northern Ghana and therefore they are not a perfect fit for the samples being used by Ancestry. Which is why they are coming up as a mix of neighbouring regions. Still after the latest update on Ancestry their “Ivory Coast/Ghana” scores are clearly predominant. Ranging from 54% to 75%. “Mali” is always coming in second place with also considerable scores of in between 14%-33%. In third place comes “Benin/Togo” with scores of in between 6%-16%. And a few times also some minor “Nigeria” scores appear.
Here’s their screenshots:
Thank you. I am a Gullah Geechee descendant with 34% Mali, 10% Ivory Coast and Ghana and 10% Benin and Togo. I have discovered two Akan relatives from Ghana and one Ewe on Ancestry and three Kassena cousins on Gedmatch so it’s very confusing to me to interpret what Ancestry DNA is showing for me.
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Hi Lamont, AncestryDNA’s socalled “Ethnicty Estimates” can provide very valuable insight but only within a (sketchy) regional framework. These estimates are NOT intended to pinpoint actual ethnic lineage.
It is practically a given that you will be descended from multiple ethnic groups and also from multiple regions across mainly Western & Central Africa. It is essential to grasp that when tracing back your roots to the 1700’s your total number of dislocated African-born ancestors will easily reach 100 and even more than a 1000 when going back to the 1600’s! Therefore on average the DNA contribution of an ancestor living in the mid 1700’s could be around 0.5%-1.5%.
Realize that therefore your “34% “Mali” score could include ancestors from various ethnic groups, all at the same time. Despite the country labeling most likely also including ancestral ties to Sierra Leone and Liberia. In a similar fashion also your Ghanaian heritage (indicated by 10% “Ivory Coast/Ghana”) could very well include Akan, Ewe and Kassena lineage all at the same time! It’s not like any particular ethnic lineage is going to be exclusive. Most of the time it will be more like a melange. You will need additional context/info to pinpoint any specific ethnic details or also combine with other DNA results, especially any African matches you might have.
Very useful therefore that you have already discovered some African matches! In case you have not done so already I would strongly advise you to get in contact with the TAKIR project. This is the link to their Facebook group. The person behind this project has done some outstanding research and can really help you to take it to the next level!
Several Gullah persons have shared their DNA results with me and I have also explored their African DNA matches. It is really amazing to see the diversity of wideranging connections in their DNA! Because of their higher degree of African DNA they were often able to confirm & specify most if not all African regional scores by way of associated DNA matches!
DNA inheritance from 1 single ancestor
Thank you sir.
I have good news. I found a full Nigerian match and I was able to find a shared match through this who not only shared my DNA community, Early Virginia African Americans but was designated on my maternal grandmother’s branch which verifies my Igbo ancestry Pre Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Found this match today so I’m obviously excited for this!
Found it today so
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Excellent! So you already know how you are related to this shared match? You should ask both the Nigerian match and the match you have in common to upload on gedmatch. Because that way you can actually find out the location of the shared DNA segment and apply triangulation!
Check this website for more ideas: