The Dahomey Amazons – women fighters of the kingdom of Dahomey

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They are considered to be the most revered, fearless, disciplined courageous, and novelty in our modern history. So why haven’t we heard much about them? History is often told through the lens of conquerors indeed. However, that is gradually changing as we begin to little by little uncover the truth about much of African history that was intentionally made to be obscure; and the story of the Dahomey Amazons is one of many examples. After France seized what is now southern Benin in 1894, colonial officers disbanded the territory’s unique force of women warriors, the Dahomey Amazons opened new classrooms and made no mention in the curriculum of the Amazons. Even today, many in the country know little about the Amazons. They are the inspiration for the Dora Milaje, the all-female special forces unit in the Marvel film Black Panther.

The Dahomey Amazons were frontline soldiers in the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey, a West African empire that existed from 1625 to 1894. According to legend, Hangbe assumed the throne in the early 18th Century after the sudden death of her twin brother, Akaba. After a short rule, she was forcibly deposed by her power-hungry younger brother, Agaja, who believed that only men should hold the throne. Henceforth, all traces of Hangbe’s reign were erased by Agaja. In a museum that lies within the walls of the Royal Palaces in Abomey, the monarchs’ elaborate bronze scepters are displayed in order of their reign. There is no sign of one belonging to Hangbe. Yet her legacy lived on through her mighty female soldiers. Oral and written accounts differ over the origins of the women-only corps. Some sources describe the Amazons as elephant hunters who graduated to human prey. The more widely accepted theory is that they served as royal bodyguards to Hangbe and the kings who came after.

According to some historical accounts, it was King Ghezo, who ruled over Dahomey from 1818 to 1858, who officially integrated the Amazons into the army. This was part strategic and part practical since manpower was increasingly scarce during the time due to the slave trade. In an article by Mike Dash, Dahomey’s Women Warriors states that one theory traces their origins to teams of female hunters known as gbeto, as Dahomey was noted for its women hunters; a French naval surgeon named Repin reported in the 1850s that a group of 20 gbeto had attacked a herd of 40 elephants, killing three at the cost of several hunters gored and trampled. A Dahomean tradition relates that when King Ghezo (1818-1858) praised their courage, the gbeto cockily replied that “a nice manhunt would suit them even better,” so he drafted them into his army. However, according to Stanley Alpern, author of the only full-length Engish-language study of Amazons, cautions that there is no proof that such an incident occurred, and he prefers an alternate theory that suggests the women warriors came into existence as a palace guards in the 1720s. Women had the advantage of being permitted in the palace precincts after dark (Dahomean men were not), and a bodyguard may have been formed, stated Alpern.

In an article by Fleur Macdonald titled “The legend of Benin’s fearless female warriors,” Macdonald argued that “the recognition of the Amazons as official soldiers of Dahomey strengthened a duality that was already embedded in the society through the kingdom’s religion, which has since developed into Vodun, now one of Benin’s official religions and the basis of voodoo. An integral legend told of Mawu-Lisa, a male and female god who came together to create the universe. In all institutions, political, religious, and military, men would have a female equivalent. The king, however, reigned supreme. It is also important to note that Benin voodoo is no black magic as you see portrayed in movies etc. The Beninois are proud of their voodoo culture so much so that not only is it a religion but also a complete way of life encompassing culture, philosophy, language, art, dance, music, and medicine.

“The French made sure this history wasn’t known,” said the Beninese economist Leonard Wantchekon, a professor of international affairs at Princeton University. “They said we were backward, that they needed to ‘civilize us,’ but they destroyed opportunities for women that existed nowhere else in the world.” Archibald Dalzel, a British administrator in the region, wrote in 1793, “Whatever might have been the prowess of the Amazons among the ancients, this is a novelty in modern history.”

A French official later called Dahomey “assuredly the only country in the world that offers the singular spectacle of an organization of women as soldiers,” according to the American journalist Stanley Alpern. The French publishing house Larousse declared the women “the only historical Amazons known.” Their last enemies were full of praise for their courage. A French Foreign Legionnaire named Bern lauded them as “warrioresses… fight with extreme valor, always ahead of the other troops. They are outstandingly brave … well trained for combat and very disciplined.” A French Marine, Henri Morienval, thought them “remarkable for their courage and their ferocity… flung themselves on our bayonets with prodigious bravery.”

Europeans who visited the kingdom in the 19th Century called Dahomey’s female fighters Amazons after the ruthless warriors of Greek mythology. Today, historians refer to them as mino, which can be translated as ‘our mothers’ in the local Fon language. However, Leonard Wantchekon, who was born in Benin and is now a professor of politics at Princeton University and founder of the African School of Economics in Cotonou, Benin, claims the contemporary term does not accurately reflect the role the warriors played in Dahomey society. “Mino means witch,” he said.

Most sources suggest that the last of Dahomey’s women warriors died in the 1940s, but Stanley Alpern disputes this. Pointing out that “a woman who had fought the French in her teens would have been no older than 69 in 1943,” he suggests, more pleasingly, that it is likely one or more survived long enough to see her country regain its independence in 1960. As late as 1978, a Beninese historian encountered an extremely old woman in the village of Kinta who convincingly claimed to have fought against the French in 1892. Her name was Nawi, and she died, aged well over 100, in November 1979. However, a documentary by the Smithsonian Channel featuring Lupita Nyong’o, titled Warrior Women is scheduled to air on Monday, March 28. In the one-off film, the Black Panther star journeys across Benin to uncover the ‘Agoji’ – or the ‘Amazons in recognition of Women’s History Month. Based on the highlights, it looks like Lupita may have met with one of the last serving warriors, although we are not making any speculations — but will see once it’s airing on March 28th.

Today, visitors can visit the Royal Palaces of Abomey as it is also a  Unesco Heritage Site. Visiting the site allows visitors to get a unique reminder of this glorious and vanished kingdom. One of the most unique kingdom palaces you will see in Africa. The Palaces consist of a group of monuments of great historical and cultural value because of the conditions that led to their erection and the events they have witnessed. They are the living expression of a culture and organized power, testimony to the glorious past of the kings who ruled the Kingdom of Dahomey from 1620 to 1900. The site of the Royal Palaces of Abomey covers an area of 47 ha and consists of a set of ten palaces, some of which are built next to each other and others which are superimposed, according to the succession to the throne. These palaces obey the principles relating to the culture Aja-Fon, and constitute not only the decision-making center of the kingdom, but also the center for the development of craft techniques, and storage for the treasures of the kingdom.

Have you heard about the Dahomey Amazons? Do share with us any interesting facts that we did not mention here better yet anything interesting. Interestingly, one of our groups will be in Benin this year and we cannot wait for them to embark on their journeys – an African Homecoming.

 

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