The Amazons of Dahomey: Women of the Myth

Dahomey Amazon warriors.
A group portrait of the Dahomey during a visit to Paris in 1891. (Image: via Public Domain)

Hopefully, you will remember Dora Milaje and the ruthless women-powered team in the Black Panther film.

This is not entirely friction. The “Amazons” of Dahomey, a ferocious all-female component of the Dahomey army, inspired the characteristics of these warrior women.

From the 18th through the late 19th centuries, Dahomey in the Republic of Benin, West Africa, had a mighty army of all-female fighters. Because they resembled the Amazons of Greek mythology, European observers dubbed the Mino (our mothers) or Ahosi (King’s wives).

There are various ideas as to why they existed. According to some stories, King Houegbadja began his reign in 1645 and reigned for 40 years. According to local legend, Queen Hangbe formed this elite corps of female troops.

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the life of these ruthless women warriors and tell you the intriguing facts about the women of the myth.

Dahomey posing for a group photo around 1890. (Image: via Public Domain)

Origins of these women worriers

The ancestors of the women remain unknown. According to one account, the third King of Dahomey, King Houegbadja, reigned from 1645 until 1685. Houegbadja is said to have formed the group as the Gbeto, a corps of elephant hunters.

Another legend is that Houegbadja’s daughter, Queen Hangbe (who reigned from 1708 to 1711), assembled a corps of female royal bodyguards. Her brother and successor, King Agaja, as tradition has it, used them effectively in Dahomey’s destruction of the neighboring kingdom of Savi in 1727.

The women, however, were an essential element of the Dahomean military during the reign of King Ghezo (1818-1858). Gozo was well-known for his advocacy of military reform. He prioritized the army, raising money and transforming it from a ceremonial to an actual military organization.

In the mid-19th century, the number of Dahomeyan women soldiers was believed to be several thousand, accounting for 30-40 percent of the army.

Gozo recruited both men and women from the ranks of other countries’ prisoners. Women soldiers were also recruited among free Dahomean women, with some joining as early as 8 years old. Some Fon women opted to serve as soldiers, while others were forced to after their husbands or fathers complained to the King about their behavior.

A Dahomey warrior’s life

Because they were technically wedded to the King, the Dahomey fighters were not permitted to have children or engage in family life. Moreover, they remained celibate because he did not have sexual contact with men. Still, a very few were married off to recognized officials of the realm.

The women enjoyed various benefits, such as an unlimited supply of tobacco and alcohol and the freedom to stay in the King’s palace after dark, something males were not allowed to do.

They also had up to 50 slaves per soldier. Accounts stated that when the soldiers left the palace for the outside community, they usually had an enslaved person in front of them who rang a small bell to warn people of the approaching warriors. In response, people would give way, bow, and avert their eyes as they approached.

In the region, the women worriers were venerated for successfully spreading the Dahomey monarchy beyond its capital, Abomey. They practiced intensively and frequently engaged in hand-to-hand combat between themselves.

Discipline was greatly emphasized as they learned survival skills. During the initiation phase, they attacked acacia-thorn defenses in military maneuvers that included the execution of inmates, putting their aversion to misery and death to the test.

Veterans at a meeting in Abomey, the capital of Benin, in 1908. (Image: via Public Domain)

The last warrior died in the 1970s

Approximately 2,000 were slain during the two-year struggle with France. Only about 50 women are said to have survived and faded into the colonial system. There is little evidence of them at Abomey (the kingdom’s former capital). Legend has it that the last warrior died in the 1970s.

Dahomey exemplifies African women’s strength and perseverance and the enormous influence and control they previously possessed. 

The “Amazons” of Dahomey are still present in Benin in West Africa, although their functions are entirely ceremonial. Regardless, these warrior women will always have a strong bond with the ancient West African Empire.

By the 17th century, the troop had expanded from 600 to over 6,000 females. When the French toppled Dahomey’s ultimate ruler, King Béhanzin, in the Second Franco-Dahomean fight, the Dahomey warriors were defeated and dissolved.

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