whm: dahomey amazons were bad-ass african warriors
March 8, 2019
Because of their power, influence and unimpeachable bad-assery, the fighting force that was the Dora Milaje almost stole Black Panther away from King T’Challa. And what makes their presence even more exciting is that the Dora Milaje were inspired by an actual all-female warrior troupe, trained and enlisted to protect the ruler of Dahomey (now Benin). They were known as the Dahomey Amazons.
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 haven’t found their way into history books, as easily as their male counterparts. It’s no mystery why the story of Black female fighters would be overlooked by lore and legend, and a shame. Because those fighters placed fear in the hearts of colonizing troops — and if that isn’t something to celebrate this Women’s History Month, I’m not sure what is.
The Dahomey Amazons got their name from the French, while fighting in the Kingdom of Dahomey, which was later even referred to as “Black Sparta” because of its female warriors and the rights and properties they were afforded for their duty. (“Amazons” because their power and prowess were likened to the Amazonian women of Greek lore.) The Dahomey Amazons were a frontline military unit formed during Queen Hangbe’s rule, according to a local legend told by Hangbe’s descendent who goes by the same name. The modern-day Queen Hangbe resides in Abomey, a city in Southern Benin that used to be capital of the Dahomey Empire. Queen Hangbe (a ceremonial role) lives with four descendants of Amazons, who still serve at her pleasure. One of whom, her granddaughter Rubinelle, went so far as to tell the BBC, “She is our King. She is our God. We would die for her.”
The contemporary Queen Hangbe has spoken in depth about her ancestor, ruminating on her reign and how the original Queen came to power after the sudden passing of her twin brother, Akaba. She also had a younger brother, Agaja, whose hunger for power resulted in him ousting his sister from the throne, because of his belief that the throne should be left to men. The modern-day Queen Hangbe said that evidence of the rule of her ancestor was erased by her brother, a fate that befell another African Queen, Hatshepsut, the fifth Pharaoh of Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty; she was previously thought to be a male Pharaoh because her successful legacy was snuffed out by her stepson. African Queens have had their legacies tarnished or completely vanished by the patriarchs that followed them, making it difficult for history to account for the roles they played in the development of their kingdoms and the continent.
The minimal historical evidence of Queen Hangbe’s reign created a quagmire of oral and written history that differs, on the case of origin of the Dahomey Amazons. Many accounts mention a King Ghezo, who ruled from 1818 to 1858, as the monarch who formally integrated the Amazons into his army. According to the Smithsonian Mag, a French naval officer witnessed 20 huntresses attack a heard of 40 elephants, taking down three even at the cost of a few of them being gored and trampled. Dahomian lore states that when the King praised these women for their bravery, their reply was “a nice manhunt would suit them even better,” prompting the monarch to enlist them into his army.
Another recurring narrative in the story of the Dahomey Amazons was that they were originally captives from other kingdoms, but as their standing grew from monarch to monarch, the unit began to include Dahomey women who volunteered, as well as women who were enlisted involuntarily because their behavior was found lacking by their fathers and husbands. This group of women were not allowed to marry or have children, as they were seen as “married” to the King that they served; and their service came attached with a vow of celibacy. Kings weren’t reported to have sexual relations with them, even though they resided in the royal quarters, a privilege not given to men for fear that one might try to kill the King and usurp the. The Dahomey religion of Vodun (ancestor of voodoo) contains a legend of a male and female God called Mawu-Lisa that came together to create the universe, a belief that instilled a sense of gender equality in the kingdom, even if the King still reigned supreme.
The allegiance these women showed towards their King was honorable, as they were, for all intents and purposes, highly trained killing machines. Personal accounts of the warriors are few and unreliable, owing to the fact that most Europeans who came into contact with them didn’t make it out alive, or wouldn’t dare permanently record their losses to a Black female fighting force. Smithsonian Mag’s 2011 article also reported that the Amazons went through insensitivity training where “recruits of both sexes were required to mount a platform 16 feet high, pick up baskets containing bound and gagged prisoners of war, and hurl them over the parapet to a baying mob below.” There are accounts of the warriors carrying out executions of prisoners of war. There is an account by French colonial administrator Jean Bayol that describes witnessing one young Amazon approach a captive as part of her training. “[She] walked jauntily up, swung her sword three times with both hands, then calmly cut the last flesh that attached the head to the trunk… She then squeezed the blood off her weapon and swallowed it.” Their mercilessness was infamous, largely in part owing to the fact that Black African women rarely carry that reputation.
Their fierceness struck fear in the heart of Western troops, who initially made the mistake of taking some to bed, only to end up with a slit throat. The same French troops would concede that the Amazons were highly skilled in hand-to-hand combat. The “scramble for Africa,” with colonizers pushing to snatch up African colonies to add to their empires, resulted in France and Dahomey initially crossing paths, with French soldiers unaware of the threat the Amazons posed to them. Local legends states that a full-on war erupted after Dahomey forces stormed a village seized by the French, and when the local Chief chose to stay under French protection, an Amazon decapitated the Chief, returning his head to her new King Béhanzin wrapped in the French flag. The French-Dahomean War ensued in 1890 and were it not for the colonialist firepower, the Dahomean forces might have enjoyed a victory not dis-similar to the one that took place in Vietnam in the 1970s. Béhanzin was the last leader of an independent Dahomey, losing most of his army and Amazons to French rifles.
By all accounts, the Dahomey Amazons are the most feared women that history almost forgot. Their scattered legacy can be blamed on many aspects, but the important thing is that they remain in our memories. Even as enemies, the Dahomey Amazons were respected warriors whose legacy should be taught and revered the world over. African women were fierce dynamic individuals (and rulers) who did not sit idly by as the conquests of history’s retelling. If you know an African woman, you’ll know that hasn’t changed.
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