For those who have seen Marvel’s Black Panther (2018), the movie would have left a lasting impact. While the entire cast stood out for their performance, it cannot be denied that the Dora Milaje, the team of women who serve as the Special Forces of Wakanda, impressed everyone. With their amazing combat skills, tough, fearsome and loyal to their king and land, the Dora Milaje weren’t ones to be trifled with. And the inspiration for these fictional warriors came from the real-life Dahomey Amazons.
The Dahomey Amazons were an all-female army of soldiers in the Kingdom of Dahomey, which existed till 1904. The descendants of these warrior women have kept their traditions alive to date. This blog dwells on their history, traditions and their current status.
Who were the Dahomey Amazons?
The Dahomey Amazons were an all-female military regiment serving the Kingdom of Dahomey. Dahomey was a West African empire that existed from 1625 to 1904. The Dahomey Amazons were named so by Western historians and observers, because of their likeliness to the Amazons of ancient Anatolia and the Black Sea. Recruiting women into the army was believed to be due to the lack of men. Dahomey’s male population faced high casualties in wars, which occurred frequently with the neighbouring states of West Africa. Another thing was the Kingdom of Dahomey was forced to give male slaves to the Oyo Empire each year. The lack of men prompted the kings of Dahomey to recruit women into the army.
The remnants of Dahomey lie in present-day Benin, which lies on the coast between Nigeria and Togo. Whether it was defending their land against European forces or conquering the neighbouring states and tribes, the Dahomey Amazons were known for their fearlessness.
It is believed that King Houegbadja, the third king to rule over Dahomey (1645 to 1685), was the one who originally started the band of female warriors. According to one theory, these women were originally elephant hunters who were known as the gbeto. They hunted elephants with spears, gradually preying on humans.
Queen Hangbe, Houegbadja’s daughter, ruled Dahomey from 1708 to 1711. While her reign lasted just two years, it did leave a lasting legacy. Legend claims that Hangbe took over the throne after her twin brother, Akaba, died suddenly. She established a female bodyguard. Two years into her rule, she was deposed by Agaja, her power-hungry younger brother. All of the former queen’s reign was erased by Agaja, who staunchly believed that only men were fit to hold the throne.
But despite all this, Hangbe’s legacy lived on through her fearsome women soldiers. Both oral and written accounts of the female warriors differ in some aspects. According to one tradition, King Agaja successfully defeated Savi, the neighbouring kingdom in 1727, with the help of the Dahomey Amazons. The male army of Dahomey referred to the female warriors as Mino, which meant ‘Our Mothers’ in the language of Fino.
After King Agaje, King Ghezo was the next to rule Dahomey (1818 to 1858). Another traditional tale of the Dahomey Amazons comes from Ghezo’s rule. When King Ghezo praised the women warriors’ courage, who were then gbeto, they replied cockily that a manhunt would suit them much better. It was upon hearing this that the king recruited the women warriors into his army. Some researchers claim that there is no proof that such an incident occurred and that the Dahomey Amazons came into existence as palace guards as early as in the 1720s.
But is agreed that it was Ghezo who officially integrated these warriors into the army. Manpower was scarce for the reasons cited above. From King Ghezo’s time, the land of Dahomey became militaristic, and increasingly so. The king placed great importance on the army. He increased its budget. The army structure was also formalized from being ceremonial to the serious military. While the European travellers called them Amazons, the warriors called themselves Mino or ahosi, which meant the ‘king’s wives.’
The recruitment and recognition of the Amazons as official soldiers of the army strengthened a duality that already existed in the society of Dahomey’s religion. The religion then evolved into Vodun, the basis of voodoo and now one of the official religions of Benin. An integral part of Vodun is that of Mawu-Lisa, a male and female god who joined together to create the universe. Simply put, in all institutions, religious, political and military, men would have their female equivalent. However, the king reigned supreme.
Recruitment of the Dahomey Amazons
Different tales narrate the account of the recruitment of the Dahomey Amazons by King Ghezo. In some narratives, it is claimed that King Ghezo recruited both women and men soldiers from foreign captives. Women warriors also came from free Dahomean women, some were as young as eight years old when they enrolled. Other versions of the tale claim that the Dahomey Amazons were taken from among the ahosi themselves. The ahosi were of a large number, sometimes often hundreds. Some of the women from the Fon society joined of their own will, while there were other women who enrolled if their fathers or husbands complained of them to the king.
Serving in the army as warriors gave the Dahomey women the opportunity to rise to positions of influence and command. They became individually empowered. These women were also extremely wealthy and of high status. Being a member of the Dahomey Amazons meant honing any aggressive skills of character traits for battles and war. While being a member of the army, the women weren’t allowed to be part of married life or have children. Legally, they were married to the king. Many of the warriors were virgins. The battalion was of a semi-sacred status, which was interlaced with the Fon belief of Vodun.
When King Ghezo was planning his revenge against the Egpa people (a subgroup of the Yoruba), the female warriors underwent training. The Mino’s training was intense. The training was such that they became indifferent to pain and death. They learnt survival skills by being sent into the forest for around nine days with very few or no rations. Indifference to pain was brought on by climbing acacia-thorn hedges during military exercises. The women also wrestled each other.
At one of the annual ceremonies, the new recruits (both women and men) had to climb a platform of 16 feet high. Huge baskets containing prisoners of war, who were bound and gagged, had to be picked up and thrown over the parapet, where a screaming mob would be waiting. Female warriors were also ordered to execute the prisoners of war. This consisted of cutting off their heads with a deathly sharp sword. Discipline was of utmost importance.
Despite the violent training, recruiting women for the Dahomean army wasn’t difficult. Women were willing to climb thorn hedges and risk their lives for the kingdom and king. One of the reasons was that most of the West African women lived lives of forced labour. When recruited into the army, their status was elevated.
King Ghezo’s women warriors lived on his palace compound. They were supplied with alcohol, tobacco and many slaves, sometimes as many as fifty to each warrior. When the Dahomey Amazons went out of the palace, a slave girl preceded them, carrying a bell. The sound of the bell told, or more like warned, every man to get out of their way. The men had to move off to a distance and avert their gaze. Even touching these warriors meant risking one’s life, which could be seen in the way the Dora Milaje beat up John Walker, the new Captain America (in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier).
This deadly fierceness often unnerved Dahomey’s African enemies and Western observers. But when the Dahomey Amazons were a force not to be reckoned with, not everyone agreed on their quality of military preparedness. European observers were critical of the way the female warriors held their ancient flintlock muskets. Rather than aiming from the shoulder, many women fired the muskets from the hip. But it was generally agreed that the warriors were unmatched in hand-to-hand combat.
Combat and structure
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Dahomey Amazons numbered between 1,000 and 6,000 women. According to various reports, they made up about a third of the entire army. As a whole, the female warriors were structured in parallel with the army. A centre wing, which consisted of the king’s bodyguards, was flanked on both sides. Each side was under the command of separate commanders. Some reports claim that each male soldier has a female counterpart. The women had uniforms. According to a report from the middle of the nineteenth century, some women had three stripes of whitewash around each of their legs. To have such a mark was an honour, as it was a mark of distinction.
The Dahomey Amazons consisted of several regiments. These included riflewomen, huntresses, reapers, gunners and archers. Each of the regiments had different uniforms, commanders and weapons. Later periods saw the Dahomey Amazons armed with Winchester rifles, knives and clubs. The females commanded the units.
The political role of the Dahomey Amazons
The Dahomey Amazons held an important role in the Grand Council and debated the policies of the kingdom. Between the 1840s and 1870s, the opposing party collapsed. The women warriors didn’t just support peace with Abeokuta but also established stronger commercial relations with England. They favoured the trade of palm oil more than that of slaves. This often set them apart from the male colleagues in the army.
The Annual Customs of Dahomey held a parade and a reviewing of the warriors. The warriors had to swear an oath to the king. On the 27th day of the Annual Customs, the celebrations included a mock battle. The Amazons would attack a ‘fort’ and ‘capture’ the slaves held within.
Conflicts with neighbouring kingdoms
The Kingdom of Dahomey was frequently at war with the neighbouring kingdoms. To keep up the slave trade, captives were needed. The Dahomey Amazons regularly fought in slave raids. Most of the time, the Dahomey Amazons enjoyed victory in Ghezo’s endless wars. They attacked unsuspecting enemy settlements before dawn. It was only when they had to battle the Egba capital, Abeokuta, that they were defeated. Two fierce attacks on the town, in 1851 and 1864, failed spectacularly. This was partially due to Dahomean overconfidence, but the major factor was that Abeokuta was a formidable target. It was an enormous town lined with brick walls and with a population of 50000.
Conflict with France
First Franco-Dahomean War
In the latter half of the 19th century, European invasions into West Africa gained momentum. King Béhanzin ruled Dahomey from 1889 to 1894. He was the last independent ruler of Dahomey who was recognized through traditional power structures.
In 1890, King Béhanzin began his fight against French colonization. The first of these battles was known as the First Franco-Dahomean War. One major battle that the Dahomey Amazons participated in was Cotonou. Thousands of Dahomey, including the women warriors, charge the French lines. They battled the defenders in hand-to-hand combat. Despite the Dahomey army’s intense skill, they were eventually defeated by French forces. Hundreds of Dahomey soldiers were killed in the battle, while another melee combat inside French lines left more than a hundred of the Dahomey soldiers dead.
Second Franco-Dahomean War
By the time the Second Franco-Dahomean War came to an end, special units of the Amazons were being trained and assigned specifically to take down French soldiers. Several battles later, the French forces successfully defeated the Dahomey army in the Second Franco-Dahomean War. The French put an end to Dahomey as an independent kingdom. The Amazons didn’t stand much of a chance against the French, who had much superior weaponry and a longer bayonet. During the Second Franco-Dahomean War, the bulk of the Amazon forces were wiped out within a few hours of hand-to-hand combat.
When Dahomey became a French protectorate, the Dahomey troops were disbanded. There are several versions as to what became of the remaining women warriors. According to one, some of the women secretly remained in Abomey after the defeat, where they assassinated many French officers. Another version claims that the women swore their loyalty and protection towards Agoli-Agbo, Behazin’s brother. They disguised themselves as his wives so as to protect him. Some of the Amazons married and had children, while many remained single. According to historians who traced the lives of the ex-Amazons, the women had difficulties adjusting to normal lives as retired warriors. They struggled to find new roles within the communities that would give them respect and a sense of pride, compared to their old lives.
Between 1934 and 1942, a number of British travellers reported their encounters with the former warrior women, who then spun cotton or simply idled around their courtyards. It is believed that an unknown number of women did train with the Dahomey Amazons after disbandment. These women thus continued their traditions, but never saw combat. From daughters to soldiers, the Dahomey Amazons remain the only documented frontline women warriors in modern warfare history.