The legend of the fiercest women warriors of all time7 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
Raise your hands if you have seen the 2018 Marvel film Black Panther!
If yes, you would remember the stellar performances by Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther and Michael B Jordan as Killmonger. However, the characters that really stood out for us were those of the Dora Milaje, or the army of women who serve the kingdom of Wakanda.
These fearless, strong warriors, though fictional, are actually closer to reality than we think, and are based on a real army of brave women fighters — the Dahomey Amazons. Let’s learn a little about who these women were, and what happened to them.
The Dahomey Amazons — Who are they?
The Dahomey Amazons, also known as Mino (meaning ‘our mothers’ in Fon), were an all-female military army of the Republic of Benin, which was known at the time as the Kingdom of Dahomey.
The kingdom was largely made up of the Fon people, who were situated towards the south of the country sandwiched by Togo to the left and Nigeria to the right. The term ‘Amazons’ was given by Western researchers. They were named so due to their similarities in build to the Amazons in Greek mythology.
Who was the first Dahomey Amazon?
According to some historians, the first Amazon was Tassi Hangbe, daughter of King Houegbadja, founder of the Dahomey kingdom, and the twin sister of King Akaba. In 1708, after the death of Akaba following a long illness, Hangbe was made the head of the military. It was only after returning from her military campaigns that she was publicly proclaimed Queen of Dahomey, which ended up being a short stint.
What happened under Hangbe’s rule?
Despite reigning for just three years, Tassi Hangbe wanted to highlight women in the community. She decided that they should go hunting and take care of farming — activities that were always performed by men.
Hangbe knew that the men disapproved of her being in power. So, she formed an all-women army with the best warriors. These Amazons known as Agoodjie in Fon (meaning the last defense before the king) were recruited and trained from very early on in their lives. Their fierce training turned them into more efficient warriors than men. During wars, they were merciless, and did not shy away from beheading people! They handled weapons too, which they acquired through trade with other countries.
A few decades after Tassi Hangbe’s time, King Guézo reigned over Dahomey. He was smart, and quickly understood how having the Amazons by his side could be a big advantage for him. He gave a lot of importance to the army by increasing its budget and giving the army more structure. He also brought them more equipment to train and fight with.
Most of the Amazon warriors joined this army voluntarily, while others were involuntarily enrolled due to their husbands or fathers reporting about their behaviour. If a woman was found to be strong-willed or ‘rebellious’, the men in their families would enrol them in the army.
What was life like as a Dahomey warrior?
The Dahomey Amazons were not allowed to have children or partake in any form of family life, as they were in complete service to the king. The women enjoyed certain privileges like residing in the king’s palace after dark, which the men were not allowed to do. They also had as many as 50 slaves per soldier, who would ring a bell which was to alert people of the Amazons approaching and for them to give way and bow as they approached.
The end of the warriors
By the 19th century, they had grown from a 600 female troop to around 6,000. King Béhanzin, the last king of the Dahomey, was overthrown by the French in the Second Franco-Dahomean War. The Dahomey warriors were defeated by the superior French army, and disbanded as a result. The last survivor of the Dahomey Amazons is thought to have been a woman named Nawi, who died in 1979 after having lived for more than a 100 years.
While they were said to be the most feared women to walk the earth, these inspiring women helped change how women were seen and respected in Africa and beyond.
Artist honours the Dahomey warriors
French street artist YZ Yseult’s installation — ‘Amazones‘ – is a tribute to the Dahomey women militants. YZ pasted pictures of Amazon warriors onto local female-run shops in Senegal, Africa. The artist believes that by placing the Amazon women warriors on the walls of Senegalese women businesses and cafés, she is honouring female strength and remembering the Amazons’ critical role in the Western African battle against French colonization.
Sources: BBC, Washington Post, DW, Smithsonian Magazine, All That’s Interesting
Banner image: Getty Images