By - Victoria Akindele
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 derived from the Western observers due to their similarities in build to the Amazons in Greek mythology. The exact period when the army was formed is unknown, although some historians attribute it to the 18th century, when women who were deemed not beautiful enough to share a man’s bed or had not borne children were armed with long poles, acting as police.
In any case, the warriors are said to have been originally started by the third King of Dahomey, King Houegbadja who ruled from (1645 to 1685). King Houegbadja started the group as a detachment of “elephant huntresses” and his son King Agadja later recognized their talent and loyalty, and decided to expand their use by creating an all-female militia. Although these Amazon warriors are said to have been initially made up of hunters known as gbeto and later comprised of the ahosi and slaves from conquests on neighbouring villages and tribes.
By the time of King Houegbadja’s son, King Agaja, who reigned from (1708 to 1732), the Dahomey Amazons were established as bodyguards armed with muskets and were used as militia to defeat neighbouring kingdoms. Later, King Ghezo ruling from (1818 to 1858) initiated this even further, placing great importance on the army by increasing its budget and formalizing its structure from ceremonial to a serious military entity. He did this by recruiting soldiers from foreign captives, although some were free Dahomean women. It is important to note that a number of the Amazon warriors became soldiers voluntarily, while others were involuntarily enrolled due to their husbands or fathers reporting about their behaviour.
The Dahomey Amazons were not allowed to have children or partake in any form of family life, as they were formally married to the King. As he didn’t have sexual relations with them, as a result, they remained celibate, although very few were given off in marriage to respected dignitaries of the kingdom. Not even the King dared to break with their celibacy vows, and if you were not the King, to even touch these women meant certain death.
The women enjoyed certain privileges like a good stock of tobacco and alcohol, and 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 – accounts stated that when leaving the palace to the outside community, the soldiers usually had a slave in front of them, ringing a small bell which was to alert people of the Amazons approaching and for them to give way, bow and avert their eyes as they approached. The Amazons were celebrated in the region and successfully enabled the expansion of the Dahomey Empire beyond Abomey, its capital. They trained intensely, often in hand-to-hand combat amongst themselves. Discipline was very much emphasized as they learned survival skills. Their indifference to pain and death was tested as part of the initiation process, storming acacia-thorn defences in military drills, including executing prisoners.
Girls were recruited and given weapons as young as eight years-old, and while some women in society became soldiers voluntarily, others were also enrolled by husbands who complained of unruly wives they couldn’t control. They were trained to be strong, fast, ruthless and able to withstand great pain.
Exercises that resembled a form of gymnastics included jumping over walls covered with thorny acacia branches were a part of their routine. Sent on long 10-day “Hunger Games” style expeditions in the jungle without supplies, only their machete, they became fanatical about battle. To prove themselves, they had to be twice as tough as the men. Often seen as the last (wo)men standing in battle, unless expressly ordered to retreat by their King, the Dahomey women fought to the death and defeat for them, was never an option.
Dahomey Amazons have played a key role in the fight to conquer the kingdom of Ouidah. In 1840, they helped to capture the fortress of the Mahee at Attahapahms. They were armed with Dutch muskets, machetes and a razor used for beheading victims since it was customary in the region as warriors of the time to return home with their heads and genitals of opponents.
The Dahomey Amazons experienced defeat for the first time when they attacked the city of Abeokuta (today’s Nigeria) but despite their defeat Europeans witnessed that the Dahomey Amazons were superior to the male soldiers in both skill and bravery.
From daughters to soldiers, from wives to weapons, they remain the only documented frontline female troops in modern warfare history. A sub-saharan band of female terminators who left their European colonists shaking in their boots, foreign observers named them the Dahomey Amazons while they called themselves N’Nonmiton, which means “our mothers”. Protecting their king on the bloodiest of battlefields, they emerged as an elite fighting force in the Kingdom of Dahomey. Described as untouchable, sworn in as virgins, swift decapitation was their trademark.
These are not mythical characters. At their height, they made up around a third of the entire Dahomey army (6 thousand), but according to European records, they were consistently judged to be superior to the male soldiers in effectiveness and bravery. Only the strongest, healthiest and most courageous women were recruited for the meticulous training that would turn them into battle-hungry killing machines, feared throughout African for more than two centuries.
In the spring of 1863, the British explorer Richard Burton arrived in the West African coastal nation of Dahomey on a mission for the British government, trying to make peace with the Dahomey people. The Dahomey were a warring nation who actively participated in the slave trade, turning it to their advantage as they captured and sold their enemies. But it was the elite ranks of Dahomey female warriors that amazed Burton. He gave the army the nickname of “Black Sparta”.
“Such was the size of the female skeleton and muscular development of the frame that in many cases, femininity could be detected only by the bosom.” He said.
The female soldiers were said to be structured in parallel with the army as a whole, with a central elite wing acting as the king’s bodyguards, flanked on both sides, each under separate female commanders. Some accounts even say that each male soldier in the army had an N’Nonmiton counterpart. The women learnt survival skills, discipline and mercilessness. Insensitivity training was a key part of becoming a soldier for the King. One recruitment ceremony involved testing if potential soldiers were ruthless enough to throw bound human prisoners of war to their deaths from a fatal height.
A French delegation visiting Dahomey in 1880s reported witnessing an Amazon girl of about sixteen during training. The records note that she took three swings of the machete before completely removing the head of a prisoner. She wiped the blood from her sword and swallowed it. Her fellow Amazons screamed in frenzied approval.
Despite the brutal training they were to endure as the King’s soldiers, for many women, it was a chance to escape lives of forced domestic drudgery. Serving in the N’Nonmiton offered women the opportunity to “rise to positions of command and influence”, taking prominent roles in the Grand Council and debating the policy of the kingdom. They could even become wealthy as single independent women, living in the King’s compound of course but surrounded with supplies, tobacco and alcohol at their disposal. They all had slaves too.
Stanley Alpern, author of Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey, the only full-length English-language study of them, wrote “when Amazons walked out of the palace, they were preceded by a slave girl carrying a bell. The sound told every male to get out of their path, retire a certain distance, and look the other way.”
In the 1890s, after French expansion in African subdued the Dahomey people, their reign of fear continued. Uniformed French soldiers who took Dahomey women to bed were often found dead in the morning, their throats slit open. During the Franco-Dahomean Wars, many of the French soldiers fighting in Dahomey had hesitated before shooting or bayoneting the N’Nonmiton. Underestimating their female opponents led to many of the French casualties as special units of the female Amazons were assigned specifically to target French officers.
The last battles of the Amazon women were during the Franco-Dahomean Wars in 1890 and 1892. By the end of the Second Franco-Dahomean War, the French prevailed, but only after bringing in the Foreign Legion, armed with machine guns. The last of the King’s force to surrender, most of the Amazons died in the 23 battles fought during the second war. The legionnaires later wrote about the “incredible courage and audacity” of the Amazons.
Elite troops of women soldiers contributed to the military power of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Admired in their country and feared by their adversaries, these formidable warriors never fled from danger. When the French conquered Dahomey they prohibited women from serving in the military or bearing arms. The troops were dissolved following the fall of Behanzin (Gbêhanzin), the last King of Dahomey, during French colonial expansion at the end of the nineteenth century and since the Dahomey Warriors were defeated, they were disbanded as a result, thus reflecting their motto – “If soldiers go to war, they should conquer or die.” The last known surviving Amazon of Dahomey is thought to be a woman named Nawi who died in 1979 aged over 100 years.
For centuries, stories have been told about elite fighting forces endemic to local cultures — Greece’s Spartans, Scandinavian Vikings, and Japan’s Samurais, to name a few. Yet, the legend of these Black women warriors have not found their way into history books or gotten any form of recognition as easily as their male counterparts except for the character of the women warriors of Black Panther that was inspired by them. It is quite a shame that the story of Black female fighters would be overlooked by lore and legend because those fighters placed fear in the hearts of colonizing troops, and if that is not something to celebrate and immortalise in history, what is?
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