The Dahomey Amazons
Dahomey was an African kingdom located within the area of the present-day country of Benin, that existed from about 1600 until 1894. King Houegbadja (who ruled from 1645 to 1685 as the 3rd king) created the group of warriors who were originally elephant hunters, naming them Gbeto. The kings daughter, Queen Tassi Hangbé, utilized the group as her bodyguards; prompting her brother King Agaja to use them in Dahomey's defeat of the neighboring Kingdom of Savi in 1727. The male army of Dahomey began to refer to the all female regiment as Mino, which translates to "Our Mothers" in the Fon language. As Dahomey became increasingly militaristic, the budget for the military and the structure of it became of great importance, making the all female warrior regiment a strong force within the kingdom.
Enrollment into the Mino started as early as age 8, and often included the recruitment of female slaves within the kingdom. Most women in Dahomey became soldiers voluntarily, however if a woman’s husband or father didn’t approve of her behavior, they could complain to the king and have her enrolled without her consent.
Their training was intense. Exercises that resembled a form of gymnastics included jumping over walls covered with thorny acacia branches. Sent on long 10-day “Hunger Games” style expeditions in the jungle without supplies, only their machete, they became fanatical about battle. To prove themselves, they had to be twice as tough as the men.
During their membership they were not allowed to have children or be part of married life (though they were legally married to the king), many of them were virgins.
They trained with great intensity, rivaling the survival skills of the male members of the Dahomey military. Becoming a Dahomey warrior provided the women with the opportunity to rise to positions of command and influence, also the opportunity to create wealth and high status. By the mid-19th century, they numbered between 1,000 and 6,000 women; one third of the entire Dahomey Army.
As French encroachment into West Africa began to increase, this led to the First Franco-Dahomeian War, in which Europeans observed the female warriors handled admirably in hand-to-hand combat. Despite their efforts this war was lost against the French, their mastery fighting skills were no match for the guns that the French army utilized. For the death of 417 female soldiers, the Dahomey only managed to kill 6 French troops in the battle. The last of the King’s force to surrender, most of the Amazons died in the 23 battles fought during the second war.
When France took over, some of the surviving women remained in Dahomey, where they quietly assassinated a number of French officers; others went on to protect the brother of the former king, Béhanzin, disguising themselves as his wives.
Some of the women went on to marry and have children, while others remained single. According to a historian who traced the lives of almost two dozen ex-Amazons, all the women displayed difficulties adjusting to life as retired warriors, often struggling to find new roles in their communities that gave them a sense of pride comparable to their former lives. Many displayed a tendency to start fights or arguments that frightened their neighbors and relatives. The last survivor of the Dahomey Amazons is thought to have been a woman named Nawi. In a 1978 interview with a Beninese historian, Nawi claimed to have fought the French in 1892. Nawi died in November 1979, aged well over 100.
*Let it be known that the Dahomey Kingdom was VERY active in the slave trade, capturing other Africans in neighboring villages, thriving on the sale of slaves to the Europeans; which I will go into more detail in another article due to the complexity of the subject.*