The English Interpreters in Dahomey, 1843–1852



Law R (2016) The English Interpreters in Dahomey, 1843–1852. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 44 (5), pp. 730-751.

Commercial and diplomatic relations between Africans and Europeans in West Africa in the pre-colonial period depended on the existence of persons who had sufficient knowledge of both European and African languages to be able to act as interpreters between the parties, and such persons were more usually Africans than Europeans. This article collates biographical information on four persons who served as interpreters to successive British visitors to the kingdom of Dahomey between 1843 and 1852, including official government missions seeking to persuade the Dahomian king to cooperate in the suppression of the Atlantic slave trade. The lives of such men may be thought of as involving the ‘transcending’ of ‘boundaries’, not only in acting as brokers in contacts between Africans and Europeans, but also in themselves occupying an ambiguous liminal position between the two. In their role as interpreters, they were subject to contradictory pressures, from the Dahomian state and the various European interests involved in the negotiations, and at the same time sought to advance their own personal interests. Beyond the intrinsic interest of these biographies, this article is conceived as a methodological exploration of the possibility of extracting an African voice and perspective from mainly European sources.

Group biography; West Africa; Dahomey; diplomacy; interpreters

The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History: Volume 44, Issue 5

Publication date31/12/2016
Publication date online20/10/2016
PublisherTaylor and Francis

People (1)


Professor Robin Law
Professor Robin Law

Professor Emeritus, History