Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Geographical Oddity of Fortaleza de Sao Joao Baptista de Ajuda


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In the middle of the port city of Ouidah, Benin is Fortaleza de Sao Joao Baptista de Ajuda (the Fort St. John the Baptist of Ouidah).  The fort was 1.9 acres (.76 hectares) of Portugal sticking in the middle of French West Africa and later the Republic of Dahomey (later Benin).  For a time it was the smallest exclave in the world.


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The fort was first constructed in the late 1600s as the Portuguese established lines of communion and trade stretching from Portugal, down Africa, across the Cape of Good Hope up Africa, into India, and over into Indonesia.  However, the Portuguese never permanently manned the fort until the French began to claim and govern large stretches of western Africa in the 1850s and 1860s.  When the French took over modern-day Ouidah from the independent African Kingdom of Dahomey, the Portuguese refused to leave the fort even though it was isolated from any exit point and had no water access.  The Portuguese kept the fort as a matter of pride and the French thought taking the fort was not worth the trouble it would cause.

Benin became self-governing in 1958 as part of the French Community (a French effort to mirror the British Commonwealth system) and fully independent in 1960 as the Republic of Dahomey.  At the same time Portugal was being ruled by the soft fascist Estado Novo (New State) regime.  Dahomey, being post-colonial and not a supporter of fascist, European colonial powers, seized the fort despite the effort of the two Portuguese stationed there who tried to burn the fort down rather than surrender it.  Portugal demanded the fort back but with post-colonial conflict developing elsewhere in its empire, Portugal did not deem to worth it to fight Dahomey and its French backers over the fort.  It was not until the fall of the New State and its replacement with a pro-democratic government by socialist military officers in 1974 that Portugal recognized it no longer owned the fort.  Portugal then paid money to turn the fort into a museum which it remains today.

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