The Immovable Impact of Dahomey Amazons on Women’s History By Demetrius Dillard

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Unquestionably, Women’s History Month would not be as authentic without the invaluable, global contributions of Black women.

The excellence and innumerable accomplishments of Black women are well-documented and have even gained considerable recognition as time went on, but many of their meaningful achievements have gone largely unnoticed.

With the advent of social media and the internet, women’s history is more accessible. Moreover, conventional society is not only limited to Black women’s historical achievements in America, but has entry to substantive material on the global achievements of Black women.

Countless illustrations of noteworthy Black women’s history are known to scholars, historians and experts on Black culture, with a phenomenal group known as the “Dahomey Amazons” being perhaps one of the most distinguished.

The Dahomey Amazons were an all-female military unit of the West African kingdom of Dahomey — the present-day Republic of Benin — which persisted, according to some accounts, from as early as the 1600’s until the end of the 19th century. Consistent with reports, the regiment was referred to such by Western observers and historians due to their resemblance to the Amazons of ancient Anatolia and the Black Sea.

The origin of these women warriors is said to have been as elephant hunters during the reign of King Wegbaja. What is supposedly known with greater certainty is that by the 1700’s armed women were being used as law enforcers and palace guards. Because the Kingdom of Dahomey was often at war with “numerically superior opponents,” King Gezo felt the need to bolster the number of troops in the Dahomian army. Hence, the female palace guards were transformed into an actual army with its own set of commanders, which believably took form around 1830.

Amazon women had the opportunity to “rise to positions of command and influence” in an environment structured for individual empowerment, based on writings by Robin Law, an expert on West African history. Some even possessed wealth and held high status, and had political roles in their community.

Of particular interest to scholars involved in culture and gender studies, these women interestingly believed that in order for them to perform their soldierly roles, they had to transform themselves into men.

The female warriors were often observed by visiting European officials at various ceremonies and staged “mock” battles, and by most accounts the visitors reported the Amazons’ fighting skills to be equal – and sometimes superior – to those of the male Dahomian army. Also, a selection of European missionaries who observed the group in real battle “indicated that the female contingents of the Dahomian army fought fiercely and bravely.”

According to research on African women done by Joan Esherick, the Dahomey Amazons were active participants in the Franco-Dahomean War in the late 1800s, as they attempted to destabilize the intrusion of European colonial powers in Africa. The regiment was trained rigorously, provided with guns and given uniforms and enjoyed sacred status throughout the Dahomey Kingdom. This group of fighters was also referred to as Mino — “our mothers” in the Fon language.

Esherick’s thorough research also suggests that the Amazons intimidated French male soldiers who frequently hesitated before engaging in combat with Dahomey women. This resulted in a number of French casualties, all of which resulted from a female-led war. However, as the war persisted, the French outnumbered the Dahomey warriors in weaponry and personnel, and continued to occupy the Dahomey Kingdom.

As the French army began to gain pace, it outnumbered the Dahomians, was armed with superior weaponry, and inflicted casualties that were immensely worse on the Dahomey side. After several battles, the French prevailed in the second Franco-Dahomean War and ultimately disbanded the Dahomey Amazons. In-depth study by The School of African Heritage coupled with work by blogger Mike Dash highlights the abovementioned information.

Resistance against colonial powers weren’t only restricted to Dahomian women. Again, scholarly research indicates that women successfully formed militant groups in Haiti, Somalia and many other African and Caribbean nations with female warriors who led the revolutionary charge of resistance against racism, colonization and other forms of oppression.

Thus, “it is clear that Africa experienced a surge in female engagement in armed resistance against colonial powers which later spread to the Diaspora in various liberation struggles,” as noted in an academic report citing the research of Philippe Girard.

The last survivor of the Dahomey Amazons is thought to have been a woman named Nawi, who claimed to have fought the French in 1892 in a 1978 interview with a Beninese historian. She purportedly died in November 1979, aged well over 100, as mentioned in “The ‘Amazons’ of Dahomey” (1993) by Robin Law.

The Dahomey Amazons have had appreciable influence in popular culture, being represented, highlighted, depicted and discussed in numerous films, novels, television series, video games, short stories, stage plays and other various works of literature and art. Most recently in the sensational film Black Panther, the group named the Dora Milaje – who was an army of bodyguards to the Black Panther – was based partially off the Dahomey Amazons.

Furthermore, there is a 220-page scholarly work written on the successful group of West African women entitled, “Warrior Women: The Amazons of Dahomey and the Nature of War” (2000) and is authored by Robert B. Edgerton, a professor of anthropology at UCLA.

Edgerton brilliantly deconstructed the significance of the Dahomey Amazons, and did extensive research to chronicle the dazzling undertakings and ventures of these clever Black women. Here is an excerpt from a review of Edgerton’s book:

“Some prominent anthropologists have been joined by an eminent military historian in declaring that military combat – at all times and in all places – has been a male activity. They advance many reasons for this pattern, some more plausible than others. In fact, although warfare is typically conducted by men, in various places and at various times, women have fought bravely and well, and in the West African kingdom of Dahomey during the nineteenth century, they formed the elite corps of a successful army. Many European visitors to Dahomey commented favorably on their military bearing, finding them more impressive in discipline and maneuver than male Dahomean soldiers. When France invaded Dahomey in the early 1890s, their superior weapons won the war but all those French officers and men who wrote about their bloody battles against Dahomey declared not only that these women warriors were superior to male Dahomean soldiers, but that they were the equal of the French.”

Though these aforementioned historical facts have been hidden, silenced and not often mentioned, women have played essential roles in various liberation struggles, which deserve nothing short of the utmost worldwide recognition.

Demetrius Dillard is a North Carolina-based freelance writer. He can be contacted at demetriusd33@gmail.com .