Dahomey Amazons: Just how fierce were the all-female West African warriors?
Situated in the heart of West Africa between the 17th and 20th centuries was the Kingdom of Dahomey, renowned for its formidable army, which contained some of the fiercest warriors in African history. One example of such warrior groups were the Dahomey Amazons, the legendary all-female warriors who struck fear in the souls and hearts of their enemies.
The Dahomey Amazons were renowned for their valor, strength, and unrivaled combat prowess, making them almost undefeatable. For example, they were infamous for being ruthless, especially on the field of battle, where they could easily decapitate their opponent’s head with a single swing of their curved blades.
From their trademark battle cries to their staggering combat formations, these fighters left an imprint on history that continues to amaze and inspire people today.
So grab your shield and spear, and let’s embark on a smooth journey to learn about the remarkable story of these alpha female warriors from West Africa.
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The Dahomey Kingdom and their Amazon Warriors
For centuries, the Dahomey Kingdom (located in present-day Benin, West Africa) flourished and was one of the wealthiest empires in the West African region. It was a kingdom founded by the Fon people, an ethnic group situated in West Africa, specifically in a region between modern-day Ghana and Nigeria.
It’s been noted that they gained much wealth through the slave trade and raids. The kingdom was often at war with neighboring villages and kingdoms.
The kingdom of Dahomey thus became one of the most ruthless slave-raiding kingdoms in all of Africa. And at the core of those slave raids and slave trade were their all-female fighting force, the Agojie, also known as the Dahomey Amazons.
Between the 17th and 18th centuries, Dahomey became a primary location of interest for many European countries as a result of the enormous slave trade activities at its ports. Many historians have alluded to this elite female warrior group being one of the main catalysts for the massive rise of the Atlantic slave trade in the 18th century.
Origin & history of the Dahomey Amazon Warriors
The history and origin of the Dahomey Amazons can be traced back to the mid-1600s. King Houegbadja (3rd King of Dahomey, ruling between 1645 and 1685) is believed to have created the group. The king is said to have established them as a team of elephant huntresses known as the “Gbeto.”
However, Queen Hangbe, daughter of King Houegbadja, is credited with forming an all-female bodyguard unit, which was also part of the Gbeto. The group of female corps later expanded and became known as the “Mino” (our mothers) or the “Dahomey warriors.”
In addition, Queen Hangbe’s twin brother, King Agaja (ruling from 1718 and 1740), is also credited as the first Dahomey King to use the all-female military army to defeat a neighboring kingdom. He used the army to conquer Savi, Kingdom of Whydah, in 1727.
However, many conflicting sources contest these claims and even question the existence of some of the Dahomey rulers mentioned above. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the Agojie began to establish their influence in West Africa starting around the 17th century, serving as a protective unit for the Dahomeyan kingdom.
The establishment of the Mino in Dahomey was likely a response to the significant number of male losses during the numerous violent battles with neighboring West African kingdoms between 1600 and 1890. This problem was further compounded by the fact that for long periods the Dahomey rulers had to pay tributaries to the much large Oyo Empire. Often times, the paid tributes in the form of slaves.
Thus, the rulers of Dahomey may have opted to include women in their military force due to a lack of men. The decision was also influenced by the recognition of women’s physical abilities, fighting prowess, and the need to protect and expand their kingdom’s realm. However, they were also male warriors in the Dahomeyan kingdom’s army during the Minos’ time.
Another possible reason for the formation of an all-female bodyguard and warrior unit by the king had to do with the practice of not letting any man into the king’s palace at night. This was seen as a precautionary measure to prevent coups.
Military reforms and growth in size of the Dahomey Amazons
They enjoyed their greatest successes and influence in West Africa during the reign of King Ghezo (ruling between 1818 and 1858). He placed great importance on the unit during his administration, increasing its resources and budget. In addition, he formalized their structure, performed many ceremonial honors for the warriors, and molded them into a brutal fighting force for the kingdom.
By the early 19th century, the Mino had as many as 5,500 troops, making them a significant portion of the army of the kingdom.
How were the Dahomey Amazons recruited?
The Dahomey Amazons were drawn from various sources. Firstly, the kingdom had a complex social hierarchy, and certain social groups were obliged to offer people military service. The nobility group, for example, was responsible for providing soldiers for the army. As a result, their children were often trained as warriors from a young age. Other groups, such as craftsmen and traders, were also required to provide soldiers but in smaller numbers.
Secondly, enslaved women were also an important source of recruits for the Dahomey army. Once enslaved, they were trained as warriors and integrated into the army, with the assurance of eventual freedom when they performed well in battle.
Thirdly, some Dahomey women became soldiers voluntarily, with some enlisted as early as age eight. Others were also involuntarily conscripted when their husbands or fathers reported their misconduct to the king.
Furthermore, some Mino were recruited from the Ahosi, the “king’s wives,” who numbered in the hundreds. The Mino was meant to refine female tendencies towards aggression for warfare. During their service, they were not permitted to have sex, give birth or partake in marital life. Many of them were also virgins. In addition, according to oral tradition, newly recruited Amazons underwent female genital mutilation to enhance the rule.
Hierarchy & Combat structure of the Agojie
The Dahomey Amazons were organized in a strict hierarchical structure that closely followed Dahomey’s political and social order.
The King of Dahomey was the head of the hierarchy and had ultimate authority over the army. Beneath the King were the army chiefs and generals. They were selected as the most skilled and experienced members of the Agojie and were responsible for controlling and training their respective companies.
Each company was further divided into a regiment, with each led by a regiment leader. Next in command to the regiment leaders were the regular Amazons, who comprised most of the unit.
It is important to note that the Dahomey Amazons’ hierarchy did not only depend on military status. Their social standing and cultural significance greatly impacted their ranks in the army. It is also stated that the women who wore three whitewash stripes around their legs were given honorary designations.
The Dahomey Amazons greatly increased in size in the middle of the 19th century, with between 1,000 and 5,500 women. They were frequently regarded as superior to the male fighters in the Dahomey army due to their bravery and combat prowess.
However, during warfare, they were arranged like the rest of the army, with two flanking wings, each commanded by a different commander, and a middle wing for the king’s male bodyguards.
According to some accounts, the Mino had a female equivalent for every male soldier. In addition, they had various regiments with diverse costumes, weaponry, and commanders, including huntresses (the Gbeto), riflewomen (the Gulohento), reapers (the Nyekplohento), archers (the Gohento), and gunners (the Agbalya).
Their involvement in slavery in West Africa
The Dahomey Amazons led many of their raids, which helped them to conquer several other African kingdoms. After their warfare victory, they often took numerous captives and sold them into slavery to the Europeans to generate wealth for the Kingdom. Some of the captives were also recruited into Dahomey’s military force.
The Dahomey Amazons were a vital cog in the kingdom’s quest to control key trade routes that supported the slave trade, especially those leading to the slave coast.
For example, in 1851, Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh (whose name means “God speaks true”), a prominent general of the Dahomey Amazons, commanded an army of over 5,500 women warriors in a raid on the Egba fortress of Abeokuta. The objective of the attack was to capture slaves from the Egba people to be sold in the Dahomey slave trade.
It is also a known fact that the Dahomey rulers from the mid-1800s to the late 1800s fought against attempts by Britain to end the slave trade. The Dahomey rulers considered slave trade as a source of glory and wealth of the kingdom. By capturing many of their opponents and then selling them into slavery, the Dahomey rulers could weaken those tribes permanently.
In response to Britain’s clamp down on slavery on the West African coast, the Dahomey rulers proposed the gradual abolishment of slavery. And even after shipment of slaves across the Atlantic ended, the kingdom continued to raid villages, capture scores of people, and then force them to slave on palm oil plantations.
Human sacrifices in the kingdom
As if decapitating heads and barbaric slave raids weren’t enough, the Mino were notoriously known human sacrifices. The practice was often meant to provide loyal servants to serve a deceased Dahomey king in his afterlife.
Dahomey Amazons’ battles with other African Kingdoms
Most of the Mino warfare was against other kingdoms and tribes in Africa. The Dahomean army, headed by the Agojie, subdued the neighboring kingdoms of Whydah and Popo in 1728 under King Agaja (who reigned from 1718–1740). They also distinguished themselves gallantly in the 1840 Mahee fortress capture at Attahapahms.
However, the Agojie suffered their share of losses and failures in Africa. Their humiliating loss to their venerable foe, the kingdom of Abeokuta (in present day Ogun State, Nigeria), was perhaps the most significant. King Gezo and the Agojie launched a significant assault on Abeokuta in 1851. The Abeokutans, who were well-prepared and well-equipped for combat, met the Dahomeans with tough resistance despite their reputation as formidable warriors.
The Dahomey army was forced to flee after a furious battle that lasted several days, incurring heavy losses. As a result, they suffered a humiliating loss. However, although there were brief wars between the two kingdoms in the years that ensued, a peace treaty was ultimately reached in 1894.
The First Franco-Dahomean War (1890)
In the late 19th century, increased French colonial expansion into West Africa resulted in many hostilities with the Kingdom of Dahomey. One of such confrontations came in the form of the First Franco-Dahomean War between 21 February and 4 October 1890.
During the hostilities, the Dahomey Amazons were a vital part of the Dahomey army and were known for their courage and combat prowess. They participated in several significant wars, notably the Battle of Cotonou and Abomey.
King Béhanzin, ruler of Dahomey from 1890 to 1894, and the Agojie-led Dahomey army made a surprise attack on the French garrison in Cotonou during the Battle of Cotonou in January 1890. Although the French were unprepared and suffered significant losses, they were ultimately able to defeat the Dahomey invasion.
Despite their initial success, the Amazons struggled against the French due to the latter’s superior tactics and military equipment. Many Dahomey forces were fired down, and the Mino were severely defeated. More than 120 Dahomey warriors were reportedly killed in melee fighting within the French lines.
Additionally, the French launched a major assault against Abomey, the capital of Dahomey, in 1892 as part of a string of successful offensives. The French took the city and drove King Béhanzin into exile despite the heroic resistance of the Dahomey Amazons.
Despite Abomey’s collapse, the Agojie continued their war against the French. They fought in guerilla warfare, ambushing French patrols and sabotaging their supply routes.
In the end, the French army’s tremendous firepower finally proved overwhelming for them to handle. As a result, the Ajojie and Dahomey army went through a humiliating yet enlightening experience throughout the war, while France came out on top.
Dahomey eventually stopped their assaults on Porto-Novo or Cotonou. They later signed a treaty on October 3, 1890, recognizing the kingdom of Porto-Novo as a protectorate of France.
The Second Franco-Dahomean War (1892-1894)
The Dahomey Amazons demonstrated their bravery and combat prowess during the Second Franco-Dahomean War. They participated in several significant battles, notably the Battle of Poguessa in November 1893 and the Battle of Dogba in January 1893.
During the Battle of Dogba, the Amazons, in collaboration with the male warriors of Dahomey, launched a surprise attack on the French at the hamlet of Dogba. The French were shocked by the brutality of the Dahomey onslaught, but eventually, they resisted them due to their superior artillery.
Another significant battle in the Second Franco-Dahomean War was the Battle of Poguessa. During the battle, the Dahomey army, including the Amazons, intercepted the French after they launched a massive onslaught to take the Dahomey fortress of Cana. Both sides suffered severe losses in the violent and ferocious combat. The Dahomey force was finally routed by the French, who also managed to take Cana.
Furthermore, most of the Mino regiment was wiped off in a few hours in hand-to-hand combat after French troops attacked them with a bayonet charge on October 6, 1892, near Adegon. French ambushes resulted in the deaths of 417 Dahomey Mino, with bayonets being used in almost all cases.
The Second Franco-Dahomean War ended in 1894 after the French captured King Behanzin and successfully made the kingdom of Dahomey a French protectorate.
The end of the Dahomey Amazons
The French colonial authorities were wary of the Dahomey Amazons after the Kingdom of Dahomey was overthrown in 1894. As a result, they actively opposed the development of any female armed forces in the region. They saw them as a danger to their authority and possible rebel leaders. The Amazons were subsequently dissolved, and its former members were forced to find new sources of livelihood and income.
Many former Amazons were integrated into the colonial army and worked as labor and support personnel. However, they were forbidden from engaging in battle and could only do non-combat tasks. Others decided to return to the civilian sphere, where they had substantial difficulties adjusting to a quickly changing environment.
According to oral literature, several Mino warriors remained to live discreetly in Abomey, where they killed many French officials. Other stories describe how women swore loyalty to Agoli-Agbo, King Béhanzin’s brother, and assumed the roles of his wives to protect him.
Other Interesting facts & trivia about the Dahomey Amazons
Here are some more facts about the Dahomey Amazons, the all-female Dahomey warriors of West Africa, including their history, origin, culture, achievements, and the secrets behind their numerous successes on the battlefield.
- There are documented and published translations of war chants from the Agojie, which read, “just as a blacksmith changes an iron bar into other elements using fire, so can we also change our nature; we have become men and are no longer women.”
- They were believed to posses supernatural abilities and were regularly sought out by the royalties of Dahomey for spiritual guidance and divination.
- The Dahomey Amazons were believed to engage in some tribal practices of headhunting and cannibalism.
- The reaper regiment was the most feared of the Dahomey Amazon army. They were armed with unique weapons that resembled a three-foot-long razor, which they would swing in one shot to cleanly decapitate their opponent’s head.
- Dahomey Amazons usually fought barefoot, primarily with their bodies and weapons, engaging in hands-on battles. They were so fierce that they were rumored to change to men after their first attack and kill.
- All Amazons were required to remain celibate. Any violation of this rule during their service was punishable by death.
- They possessed great singing and musical talents. They were highly skilled in playing instruments like the horn, xylophone, flute, and drum.
- This all-female warrior group had their system of education, which included lessons in reading, writing, and mathematics.
- They had a special way of honoring the Amazons, who had distinguished themselves in combat with extravagant feasts and dances.
- They marched uniquely, with a coordinated rhythm of stamping and clapping that could be heard for miles and sent fear down the spines of their enemies.
- Some Amazons were deployed as spies and informants, sneaking into enemy camps and relaying information on army movements and combat strategies.
- They were renowned for adopting psychological strategies, with certain Amazons using intimidation, deceit, and terror to their advantage.
- The Mino participated actively in the Grand Council, interacting with the King and his council to discuss and debate the kingdom’s policies.
- As part of the Dahomey Annual Customs, there was a march and review of the Amazon military, and the warriors swore loyalty to the ruler of Dahomey at that time. The Agojie also performed a fake war on day 27 of the customs, attacking a fort and capturing the enslaved people within; afterward, there were celebrations.
- In 1978, a Beninese historian was interviewing women in Kinta when he came upon Nawi, an older woman thought to be the last remaining member of the Dahomey Mino. She allegedly engaged in combat with the French in 1892, according to Nawi. She was nearly a century old when she passed away in November 1979.
Questions & Answers
Where were they located?
The female Dahomey Warriors were a highly skilled army of the Kingdom of Dahomey (in present-day Benin) between 1600 and 1905. They were Fon-speaking people. Despite being an all-female military regiment, they were undoubtedly one of the most brutal and resilient armies in West Africa.
Why were they called Amazons?
As a result of their enormous strength, terrifying nature, and warfare power, the Western Europeans named them “Dahomey Amazons,” which they took from the tale of the “Amazons female warriors” in Greek mythology. First, however, they called themselves the “Mino,” which translates as “Our Womanhood” or “Our Mothers” in the Fon language. Additionally, they were sometimes called the “Agojie” or “Ahosi,” meaning “king’s wives.” Thus, the King of Dahomey, who had numerous wives and concubines, chose the most attractive and smartest females to join the army.
How were they trained?
They were trained from an early age and were taught to be fearless and to show no mercy on the battleground. They underwent rigorous physical exercises and endurance drills, emphasizing coordination and team effort.
They were trained to harness a range of weapons, including arrows, swords, firearms, and spears. They had specialized groups, such as the Leopard Hunters, tasked with finding and killing leopards, and the Elephant Hunters, adept at dispatching the king’s precious elephants.
Additionally, they possessed a unique method of communication that used drum beats and shouted to transmit information across long distances on the battlefield.
How did they become such a ruthless fighting force?
As many of the Minos were chosen at a young age – usually around the age of 8 – they were forced to eschew all forms of feminine traits and be emotionless warriors. This explains why many of them became indifference to pain.
Basically, the Mino generals took away everything that could possibly distract them from their mission, including developing romantic relationships, having children, and having a family.
What battle gear and weapons did they use?
The Dahomey Amazons were known for wearing ornate hairstyles and brightly colored attires to distinguish themselves on the battleground. Many of their enemies were terrified of them because they were known for using human skulls in their rituals and ceremonies. In addition, they were masters of war tactics such as guerrilla warfare, surprise attacks, and ambushes, which gave them a high advantage over their enemies.
What were some of the major battles the Dahomey Amazons fought against the Europeans?
It must also be noted that the Dahomey Amazons etched their name into the annals of history by fiercely resisting European colonizers when they attempted to conquer Dahomey and colonize the kingdom. They fought valiantly and inflicted many brutalities on the European armies but also suffered significant casualties.
Some of their most prominent battles against Europeans include the First Franco-Dahomean War (1890), the Battle of Sansanné-Mango (1894), and the Second Franco-Dahomean War (1892-1894).
How significant were the Dahomey Amazons?
Aside from their primary role as a military unit, the Dahomey Amazons also played many other important roles in the kingdom. For example, they served as judicial officers, cultural and spiritual leaders, labor forces, health professionals, palace guards, the king’s guards, and economic leaders.
In addition, they were highly respected for their economic power, as many of them were highly skilled in trade and commerce and possessed large businesses, land, and other resources.
As a result of those benefits in terms of status and wealth, many young Dahomean girls aspired to become a Mino.
How and when did this all-female warrior group get disbanded?
Raging for two years, from 1892 to 1894, the Second Franco-Dahomean War was a conflict that occurred between France and the Kingdom of Dahomey. It was the second of three wars fought between the two powers. Unfortunately, the Dahomey Amazons suffered massive casualties during war, which ultimately led to the colonization of the kingdom by the French in 1894. The French colonial authorities then disbanded the group in the same year.
What legacy did the Dahomey Amazons leave behind?
Today, their legacy is celebrated in the cultures of Benin through events and festivals, and their story has been documented in many films, books, and other media.
For example, in Chapter XV of French novelist and poet Jules Verne’s 1886 science-fiction novel “Robur the Conqueror,” the Dahomey Mino are referenced in a description of a skirmish that takes place in Dahomey.
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2022 American historical epic film “The Woman King” centers around the Dahomey Mino. In the film, which was written by Dana Stevens, American actress Viola Davis stars as an Agojie general who instills a lot of discipline into the all-female warrior unit.
The famed Dora Milaje in Marvel’s Black Panther also took a lot of inspiration from the stories of the Dahomey Amazons.
What did the Amazons from Dahomey symbolize?
Their sacrifices in protecting and defending their kingdom against European colonization will never be forgotten. They are remembered as symbols of bravery and strength against oppression and colonization. Moreover, their story continues to inspire many women around the globe.
However, care must be taken not to over glorify this all-female warrior force as they were a major player in the Atlantic slave trade.