The warrior ‘Amazons’ of Dahomey
New Hollywood blockbuster The Woman King brings the remarkable story of the female soldiers of 19th-century west Africa to the fore. Jonny Wilkes reveals how this elite fighting force of highly trained and disciplined warriors built such a fearsome reputation
The assault on Abeokuta was going to fail. The soldiers of Dahomey, a powerful kingdom in west Africa, were trained, disciplined and courageous, so threw themselves across the deep ditches and up the high walls without hesitation – only to be cut down by the gun placements and numerous defenders waiting at the top. The city, capital of Dahomey’s rivals the Egbas, was too big and too well fortified. Much as it had been 13 years earlier at the first attempted siege, defeat was a matter of time on that day in 1864.
If this was to be their doom, however, one Dahomey soldier would meet it on their own terms with a gesture of contemptuous defiance. Having scaled the wall, they stopped on the ramparts in a spot the defenders could not reach, sat down facing away from the enemy, and began smoking a pipe.
Such fearlessness came as no surprise to the Egbas, for the soldier belonged to a regiment especially revered among their enemies and the Europeans who made the journey to west Africa. It was made up entirely of women, relentlessly trained and furious in battle, the likes of which could not be found anywhere else in the world. The Europeans dubbed them the ‘Amazons’, and it was a French doctor and historian, Edouard Dunglas, who recorded the deeds of the pipe-smoking warrior.
Her defiance lasted only so long, but her actions served to illustrate the ultimate fate of the Dahomey Amazons. For all their bravery and skill, this female fighting force would be undone before the end of the 19th century by the same thing that befell many indigenous populations around the world: superior firepower.
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At Abeokuta, the defenders simply sent for a sharpshooter. “Taking his time,” wrote Dunglas, “he aimed carefully and slew the warrioress with his first shot”.
All the king’s women
Most of the stories about the Dahomey Amazons come from the writings and observations of Europeans – Dahomey itself (now part of modern-day Benin) had an oral tradition – so their legacy can only be glimpsed. Even the name ‘Amazons’ was not their own, but the choice of those Europeans having been inspired by the warrior women of ancient Greek mythology. More appropriate names would be the Mino or Minon (meaning ‘our mothers’), Ahosi (‘king’s wives’), or the Agojie.
Yet their reputation is stronger than ever, being the inspiration for the Dora Milaje, the all-female bodyguard in the 2018 superhero blockbuster Black Panther, and the subject of a new movie, The Woman King (2022). And while the latter, starring Viola Davis as an Agojie general, takes significant liberties with the real history, it represents just how well-trained and fearsome they really were.
Under King Gezo, who came to the throne in 1818, the Agojie went from a small, ceremonial guard to a fully integrated regiment. Dahomey was already a militaristic kingdom with, unusually for the region, its own standing army, but he implemented a series of reforms that saw the number of female warriors swell to as many as 6,000 by the 1840s. They were divided into several ranks: huntresses, riflewomen, archers, gunners and the particularly ferocious ‘reapers’.
Reaping and raiding
The Agojie wore striped uniforms of blue and white or rust-coloured tunics, and carried with them a host of ornaments and charms on their belts. They were armed with clubs, knives, spears and a selection of firearms bought from European traders, including flintlock muskets, carbines and blunderbusses, although their most-feared weapon was a three-foot-long machete-like blade. This was so sharp that when wielded two-handed by a reaper it could cut a man in half with a single swing, making it the ideal weapon for the Agojie when at war with rival kingdoms as they collected the heads of fallen enemies.
Away from war, the other chief duty was to raid neighbouring villages with the intention of capturing prisoners (with their heads intact) to sell into slavery. Dahomey grew wealthy and powerful as a major player in the transatlantic slave trade, by controlling ports and providing ‘goods’ to European slavers. It was one of many African kingdoms benefitting from the trade; Gezo actually took the throne in a coup with the assistance of a Brazilian slave trader, Francisco Félix de Sousa.
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Raids were an effective method of supplying the demand for slaves, the majority of whom went to the ports to sail across the Atlantic while a proportion stayed in Dahomey to work on farms and plantations, or at the palace and in the army. Others were used for human sacrifices at major ceremonies. And while some in Dahomey, members of the Agojie among them, tried to shift the economy to palm oil production, the kingdom fought to keep its role in the slave trade, even after Britain began blockading the west African coast in the wake of its own abolition in 1834.
Insensitivity to the suffering of others was crucial to Agojie training. New recruits became inured to killing by being made to throw prisoners off a high platform or carrying out executions. In 1889, French naval officer Jean Bayol witnessed a ceremony involving a girl named Nanisca “who had not yet killed anyone”. She “walked jauntily” up to a prisoner, with their hands and feet bound, and “swung her sword three times with both hands, then calmly cut the last flesh that attached the head to the trunk.” Bayol then adds the gruesome detail, possibly an embellishment to make Dahomey appear more savage: “She then squeezed the blood off her weapon and swallowed it.”
Putting up with pain
Agojie recruits could be adult women, either volunteers or those captured during raids, but often young girls, sometimes as young as eight. They may have been handed over to the king by their father if deemed too troublesome or rebellious. Before Gezo’s reforms, it was possible they were made up from the king’s wives, of which he could have hundreds if not thousands, but the origins of the Agojie are not certain.
Theories suggest that either King Houegbadja (reigned c1645-85) created the gbeto, a band of women to serve as elephant hunters, or that his daughter Hangbe instituted a female bodyguard during her short reign. During the 19th century, the loss of so many men to countless wars and the slave trade may have forced Gezo to look to women to bolster the Dahomey army. The Agojie, however, quickly became an asset. They trained in hand-to-hand combat, survival (being sent into the wild with no food or weapons), and tolerance of pain. In 1861, an Italian priest named Francesco Borghero observed one of Dahomey’s regular mock battles to show readiness for war, where 3,000 Agojie stormed through a long wall of thorny acacia branches, showing no pain, and ‘attacking’ a group of huts. As a prize, the king presented the bravest with acacia belts to wear around their waists.
A Frenchman, Albert Vallon, witnessed another mock battle, in which he found the women “more impassioned than the men”, likening them to “an army of demons spewed up by a volcano... nothing in these intrepid creatures recalled the most beautiful and most timid half of the human species”. That was, in some respects, the goal of Agojie training: they prided themselves as being regarded not as female warriors, but men. “As the blacksmith takes an iron bar and by fire changes its fashion, so we have changed our nature,” was a quote attributed to an Agojie general. “We are no longer women, we are men.”
That said, their womanhood was an important part of their status in Dahomey society. Other than the king and his eunuchs, only women were permitted beyond the walls of the royal compound at the capital of Abomey. They were all formally married to the king, an honour in name only except that they were expected to remain celibate. In return, they were supplied with food, alcohol, tobacco and slaves (up to 50 each, according to the English traveller Sir Richard Burton). As well as military training, they practiced dancing, singing and music, all deemed important skills for an Agojie.
When out of the palace grounds, a girl walked ahead of them ringing a bell, warning everyone to get out of the way and look in another direction. It was forbidden to touch them. This display of reverence and power, as well as the degree of independence they enjoyed, would certainly have attracted some Dahomey women to volunteer. The Agojie even wielded political power since their generals could sit on the king’s council and be an active part in debating policy.
The price they had to pay for their lives of greater privilege than other Dahomey women was to fight, and often die, in the service of the king, and they did so willingly. Dahomey was frequently at war with neighbours like the Yoruba, whose most powerful state was the Oyo empire that had subjugated Dahomey in the mid-18th century and taken tribute ever since. In 1823, Gezo’s armies finally defeated the Oyo, with the Agojie right in the middle of the fighting. Not every war went their way, though: the attacks on Abeokuta in 1851 and 1864 ended in disaster. And with each battle, Agojie numbers dwindled.
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The end came amidst the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the late 19th century, when European powers carved up and took control of most of the continent. This brought Dahomey and France to war. In 1890, King Béhanzin’s armies, including the Agojie, fought at the port of Cotonou. Despite their ferocity at hand-to-hand combat – including when Nanisca, the girl who reportedly drank blood from her blade, decapitated a gunner – the Agojie were decimated by French firepower. The war concluded with another crushing defeat at the battle of Atchoukpa.
Only two years later, the Second Franco-Dahomean War broke out as France looked to complete their conquest. While the Agojie fought in nearly two dozen battles over seven weeks, the result was much the same: superior weaponry repulsed wave after wave of attack, slaughtering Dahomey’s feared female warriors in huge numbers. By the time France emerged victorious, with Dahomey becoming a protectorate, one estimate stated that only approximately 50 Agojie remained.
Much like the lone soldier smoking her pipe on the ramparts of Abeokuta, the bravery of the Agojie never left them – even in the face of defeat. A French foreign legionnaire named Bern described them in battle: “warrioresses [who] fight with extreme valour, always ahead of the other troops.” Henri Morienval, a French marine, described them as “remarkable for their courage and their ferocity” as they “flung themselves on our bayonets with prodigious bravery”.
The Woman King does not go as far as the Franco-Dahomean Wars – ending instead with the victory over the Oyo empire in 1823 – but it does honour the final stands of the Agojie in one its main characters, Nawi. That was the name of the woman who claimed to be the last-living survivor from the 1890s fighting with the French, who died, aged well over 100, in 1979.
This article was first published in the December 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.
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