Ouidah is best known for its central role in the slave trade
during the 17th , 18th , and 19th centuries, during which
time nearly 1,000,000 individuals were boarded onto ships
from the beach at Ouidah and were transported across the Atlantic.
Originally, however, Ouidah (once Gléwé) was
a small village in the small Xwéda kingdom that supported
itself through agriculture, hunting and fishing in the coastal
lagoons – the inhabitants had very little to do with the sea
and its treacherous tides.
Ouidah's first encounter with Europeans occurred during the 16th century. Though the slave trade along the Bight of Benin began soon after, it was not until the end of the 17 th century that European traders began purchasing slaves from the Xwéda kingdom in earnest, establishing factories and forts in the town of Gléwé (now Ouidah). The kingdom of Xwéda prospered greatly from this trade, until in 1727 the militaristic kingdom of Dahomey routed the kingdom of Xwéda , killing, capturing and dispersing its citizens, and usurping trade with the Europeans.
Until Dahomey 's colonization by the French, the town of Ouidah remained in Dahomean control. The slave trade was extremely active, and by the middle of the 18 th century the population of Ouidah verged on 10,000 inhabitants, and had reached its economic apogee. In 1818 Dahomey installed Francisco Félix de Souza, known as Chacha by the Dahomeans, to manage the slave trade on behalf of the kingdom of Dahomey . To this day, the descendants of de Souza hold a place of importance in Ouidan society.
As European governments began to denounce the slave trade as brutal and unjustifiable, the trade in slaves across the Atlantic all but closed. In the late 1800s the town of Ouidah began to focus its export efforts on much less lucrative palm oil. Even as the slave trade declined, there began a repatriation of many of the descendants of slaves exported to the New World . Most of these were third-generation enslaved individuals living in Brazil , and as they returned to Benin (and particularly to Ouidah) they brought many of their customs and traditions. To this day there are many examples of Afro-Brazilian architecture in Ouidah stemming from this period.
The kingdom of Dahomey (including Ouidah) was colonized by the
French in 1902; by 1961, however, the country of Dahomey gained
independence from France.
Ouidah is a center of the Vodun religion in Benin , and arguably
the world. In 1992 Ouidah held the first international festival
dedicated to the art and culture of Vodun. In addition, the
annual Festival of Vodun on January 10 at Ouidah has been
declared a national holiday.