By Katrina Shankle
“warfare is, nevertheless, the one human activity from which women, with the most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart. Women look to men to protect them from danger, and bitterly reproach them when they fail as defenders. Women have followed the drum, nursed the wounded, tended the fields and herded the flocks when the man of the family has followed his leader, have even dug the trenches for men to defend and labored in the workshops to send them their weapons. Women, however, do not fight. They rarely fight among themselves and they never, in any military sense, fight men. If warfare is as old as history and as universal as mankind, we must now enter the supremely important limitation that it is an entirely masculine activity.”- John Keegan, A History of Warfare
It has been nearly universally argued through time and space that war is predominately a man’s errand. The romanticism of the mythical amazon character- a fierce woman warrior- was bread out of an almost superhero context where people were fascinated in the stories of these fictional women because of their larger than life capabilities. But, as it turns out, while there were plenty of fictional stories written about imagined amazon characters, the amazon was anything but fictional. There are many reasons the story of the Dahomean amazons is so captivating; perhaps it is their complete contradiction to gender roles identified by some of the greatest thinkers of their time, perhaps it is their singular (proven) existence in history as the elite branch of their military or just the fierceness of their story. Whatever it is, it is undeniable that their story is just as captivating as any of the mythical stories told but also perplexing in its distinctiveness in history.
The Dahomey Amazons, referred locally to as mino (our mothers) or ahosi (king’s wives) were a Fon all-female military regiment and royal body guard service in the Kingdom of Dahomey. They acquired the name “amazons” by western observers due to their similarities to the mythical amazons of ancient Anatolia and the black sea. King Houegbadja (ruled 1645-1685) is suggested to have started the group by recruiting a corps of women to serve as elephant hunters called gbeto. His son, King Agadja (ruled 1708-1732) established a female bodyguard corps armed with muskets, they were in part used because no males were allowed to enter the royal palace after dark. When he recognized their talent and loyalty, he expanded their use by creating an all-female militia and used them first to defeat the neighboring Kingdom of Savi in 1727. That same summer they conquered the Whydah (Ouidah) people and then publicly executed 4,000 prisoners as sacrifices to the Voodoo gods (a common practice throughout their existence due to religious beliefs). Under the King Ghezo (ruled 1818-1858) who came into power after a coup in which he watched every amazon woman die in attempt to protect their monarch, an act of loyalty so impressive he quickly recruited more amazons for his own monarch, Dahomey became more militaristic. As such he expanded the role of the military and the use of the amazon women. These Amazon women were first primarily “recruited” from foreign captives, however as the role of the mino became more glorified and their corps expanded, women were also recruited from free Dahomean women, although sometimes this recruitment was involuntary. Once every three years families presented their daughters to the King, the prettiest would go to the King’s harem and the strongest to the militia. While some resisted and tried to run away, the majority considered it an honor. By the mid-19th century the number of amazons had expanded to between 1000 and 6000 women, about a third of the entire Dahomey army.
Their indoctrination was a very powerful process when you consider the strength and loyalty demonstrated by these women, in particular, when you consider some of their involuntary recruitment. During their membership the women had to take an oath of celibacy, they had to disavow any relation to their family and were not permitted to marry, although some were released of their duty through marriage to the King or permission to marry a prominent noble man. All these actions were to ensure the women’s first loyalty was to the monarch. After taking their oath to protect the king new recruits would each be cut in the arm, allowing the blood to collect in a human skull, it would then be added to a drink mixture each woman would take, an act to symbolize their being bound together.
The regiment was held in high regard by the Kingdom, their barracks were within the palace and they frequently received gifts and praise for their work. They were given uniforms and equipped with Danish guns obtained through the Danish slave trade, as well as machetes, and they filed their nails and teeth to a sharp point to enable them to literally fight tooth and nail. During combat, they covered their bodies in palm oil to make them difficult to grab hold of. This also added to their mysticism, with many accounts of shimmering half naked muscular woman vigorously attacking on the battlefield. While the women did experience some defeats they were consistently judged to be superior to the male soldiers in both skill and bravery. Accounts of the women generally depicted them in a brutal nature, often decapitating and dismembering their captives. They were often heard charging into battle chanting battle cries such as “conquer or die”.
In trying to explain why the community was so willing to accept a female militia, so unique to history, it is important to understand the woman’s role in the society as a whole. While most women’s lives were primarily focused on working in the market and raising children, in general, the women in Dahomey had a lot of progressive rights for their time. Women could divorce men, women had the right to turn down a marriage proposal, they were entitled to inheritance and the money they earned was theirs to spend. In addition to serving as officers in the military, women were also known to serve as judges and village chiefs as well as other prominent roles in the community. This may help explain their acceptance in the community as women warriors, yet upon their completion of indoctrination they were known to say “now we are men” despite being better soldiers than the men, which suggests that they still believed war was a man’s job.
The last battles of the Amazon women were during the Franco-Dahomean Wars in 1890 and 1892. After the French conquered Dahomey in 1892, almost all the Amazons had been wiped out. One of the first decrees announced after Dahomey formally became a French colony was that the women would be prohibited from serving in the military or bearing arms. Following their disbanding, some of the few amazons that remained married, others refused to marry believing they were superior to men. With the final colonization of the French came the end to the female warriors of Dahomey and much of the progressive role of woman in the Dahomean society, and so ended the true story of these larger than life women.
Unfortunately much is still unknown about these mythical women. Foreigners who visited the Kingdom were kept on a friendly house arrest, unable to see much of the Dahomean society and no interviews with Amazon women were conducted until 1920. While there are many theories as to why women were given such a prominent role in the military, none of these theories has been argued without fault. Thus, the mysticism around these women, who they were and why they so uniquely exist in our history, will remain.
*The primary source of information for this piece came from Warrior Women: The Amazons of Dahomey and the Nature of War, by Robert B. Edgerton.