The capital of Benin Republic was renamed Porto Novo, meaning “New Port”, by the Portuguese in the 16th century. By the turn of the twentieth century, Porto-Novo at its colonial height was the capital of French Dahomey. What does it look like in the 21st century?
The city was originally called Ajashe by the Yorubas and referred to by the Egun as Hogbonu. Situated on an inlet of the Gulf of Guinea, in the southeastern portion of the country, the city was originally developed as a port for the transatlantic slave trade led by the Portuguese Empire. It is Benin’s second-largest city. Although it is the official capital, where the national legislature sits, the larger city of Cotonou is the seat of government, where most of the government buildings are situated and government departments operate.
Although historically the original inhabitants of the area were Yorubas, there seems to have been a wave of migration from the region further west in the 1600s, which brought one of their legends known as Te-Agbalin (or Te Agdanlin) and his group to the region of Ajashe in 1688. This new group brought with them their own language, and settled among the original Yoruba.
History has it that in 1861, the British, who were active in nearby Nigeria, bombarded the city, which persuaded the Kingdom of Porto-Novo to accept French protection in 1863.
The region around Porto-Novo produces palm oil and cotton among other cash crops. Petroleum was discovered off the coast of the city in 1968 and has become an important export since the 1990s. Porto-Novo has a cement factory. The city is home to a branch of the Banque Internationale du Bénin, a major bank in Benin, and the Ouando Market.
Porto-Novo is served by an extension of the Bénirail train system. Privately owned motorcycle known as zemijan are used throughout the city. The city is located about 40 kilometres (25 miles) away from Cotonou Airport, which has flights to major cities in West Africa, across Africa and Europe.
Stick around for days in Port-Novo and you are reminded that Benin is the actual birthplace of the voodoo culture that is now firmly entrenched in the Antilles, Cuba and Brazil. Slaves who crossed the Atlantic took with them their religious practice to the Caribbean. Porto-Novo, one of the last bastions of this form of worship, is the place to catch a glimpse of the practices.
Historical sites to visit:
- The Porto-Novo Museum of Ethnography contains a large collection of Yoruba masks, as well as items on the history of the city and of Benin.
- King Toffa’s Palace (also known as the Musée Honmé and the Royal Palace), now a museum, shows what life was like for African royalty. The palace and the surrounding district was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List on October 31, 1996 in the Cultural category.
- Jardin Place Jean Bayol is a large plaza which contains a statue of the first King of Porto-Novo.
- The Da Silva Museum is a museum of Beninese history. It shows what life was like for the returning Afro-Brazilians.
- The palais de Gouverneur (governor’s palace) is the home of the national legislature.
- The Isèbayé Foundation is a museum of Voodoo and Beninese history.
If you want a quiet time, in a city where time stands still, and day morphed imperceptibly into night, then we invite you to hibernate in Porto-Novo.
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