The Dahomean: An Historical Novel traces the life and times of Nyasanu, the second son of an influential village chief in Dahomey named Gbenu. Gbenu is a thoughtful chief aware of the pitfalls of his rank. Nyasanu is a rebel at heart, particularly opposed to the custom of polygamy. He marries a beautiful young woman named Agbale who is brave and loyal.
Before long, the domestic bliss is interrupted by a war against the Maxi tribe, a rather inept foe. Both Nyasanu and Gbenu serve in this campaign under the leadership of King Gezo; Gbenu is killed. A hero, Nyasanu succeeds his father in rank and position, shunting aside the first son, Gbochi, a weak man who lacks leadership qualities.
Life becomes ever more complicated for Nyasanu, now the village chief. His first wife dies in childbirth. He marries for a second time, mating with a more stubborn and thoughtful woman who becomes strongly loyal to him. A further complication develops when King Gezo gives one of his daughters to Nyasanu as a reward for his exploits in battle. Nyasanu accepts Princess Yekpewa against his better judgment. Nyasanu is aware that, as one of no royal blood, he cannot command Princess Yekpewa to do anything, and her presence will inevitably cause jealousy and discontent among his other wives. In all, Nyasanu has seven wives, two of whom are inherited from his father.
Between the responsibilities of office and his private concerns, Chief Nyasanu is treading on very shaky ground. When Princess Yekpewa and Nyasanu are wed, he discovers that she is not a virgin, having committed incest with her half brother. As Nyasanu rises to power as the governor of the province, a position known as “Gbonugu,” his fate is rapidly being sealed.
Ultimately, Nyasanu is betrayed by his half brother Atedeku, a self-centered prince, and Princess Yekpewa. In his status as governor, Nyasanu is far removed from his constituents. As a gesture of good faith and humility, Nyasanu erects a virtually indefensible home near the outskirts of his village. He is consequently captured by a tribe of warring Africans who sell him into slavery. As the novel ends, Nyasanu, now known as Wesley Parks, declares his intention to tell his story of life in slavery one day. That story became the sequel to The Dahomean entitled A Darkness at Ingraham’s Crest, published in 1979.