The Woman King: Who Were The Real-Life Dahomey Amazons?
Later this year, Viola Davis will appear in The Woman King, a movie directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood about the Dahomey Amazons, an all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey which existed until the early 1900s.
The first teaser for the movie was unveiled at the recently held 2022 BET Awards, and it’s got fans excited about what Gina Prince-Bythewood has been cooking with Viola Davis and the rest of the star-studded cast. If there was ever a good time to revisit the embers of history for a quick lesson, that time would be now. Who were the real-life Dahomey Amazons, and what was their story?
Who Were The Real-Life Dahomey Amazons?
Remnants of the Kingdom of Dahomey lie in modern-day Benin, which occupies a sliver of the coast between Nigeria and Togo.
The Dahomey Amazons (sometimes called The Dahomey Warriors) were an all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey. They were so named by Western observers and historians due to their similarity to the mythical Amazons of ancient Anatolia and the Black Sea. This unusual emergence of an all-female military regiment resulted from Dahomey’s male population facing high casualties in frequent warfare with neighboring West African states, as well as Dahomey being forced to annually give up male slaves to the Oyo Empire. The lack of men likely led the kings of Dahomey to recruit women into the army.
The Dahomey Amazons were so famous and ruthless back then that were named after the merciless warriors of Greek mythology by European colonists. Their popularity endures till this day, having directly inspired the popular Dora Milaje of Marvel comics fame, an elite group of female warriors who serve as special forces for the fictional Kingdom of Wakanda, recently featured in the 2018 smash hit Black Panther.
While the Dora Milaje is a badass and captivating squad to watch, history has it that the real-life inspiration for the special forces was much more intriguing.
Historical accounts of the Dahomey Amazons are somewhat unreliable, but some of the accepted consensuses are that:
- The real-life Dahomey Amazons were frontline female soldiers in the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey, a West African empire that existed between the 1600s to early 1900s.
- They were probably created because the number of women in the town started to dwarf the men, seriously, due to war loss and slave trade migration.
- Queen Hangbe (ruling from 1708 to 1711) established the Amazons as a group of female royal bodyguards. Her brother and successor King Agaja usurped the throne from under her and erased all traces of her reign as he believed only men should hold the throne.
- It was King Ghezo, who ruled over Dahomey from 1818 to 1858, who officially integrated the Amazons into the army. This in part was a practical decision, as manpower was increasingly scarce due to the European slave trade.
- The Amazons were known for their fearlessness and were so named by the Europeans. Today, historians refer to them as mino, which can be translated as ‘our mothers’ in the local Fon language.
- The Yoruba people of the Oyo Empire were as much their enemies as the Europeans were.
- During a battle with French soldiers at Adegon on 6 October, during the second Franco-Dahomean War, the bulk of the Amazon corps was wiped out in a matter of hours in hand-to-hand combat after the French engaged them with a bayonet charge. The remainder of the troops were disbanded when the kingdom became a French protectorate.
- The last survivor of the Dahomey Amazons is thought to have been a woman named Nawi. In a 1978 interview in the village of Kinta, a Beninese historian met Nawi, who claimed to have fought the French in 1892. Nawi died in November 1979, aged well over 100.
There’s been a recent increase of interest in the Dahomey Amazons thanks, firstly, to the Dora Milaje’s portrayal in Black Panther (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and, now, The Woman King. People want to know more about these women who triumphed during the dark times of a history we know was largely unfavourable to women. Thankfully, we won’t be waiting too long for answers.
The Woman King premieres at cinemas around the world on September 16, 2022.