Call it mere coincidence or a masterstroke of tourism-focused timing. Earlier this year, when news spread that a hundred-foot-tall statue of Queen Tassi Hangbe had been erected in the West African nation of Benin, one could almost hear the faint click clack of calculators adding up the revenue from future travelers inspired to visit after having seen the movie The Woman King.
Historical extravaganzas generally fare well at the box office, especially ones involving vivid costumery and spirited combat. But this latest entry benefits from perfect timing once again, in the wake of the 2018 blockbuster film Black Panther. That epic tale of the fictional African nation of Wakanda was the perfect precursor for a movie steeped in the lore and history of a real-life group of African female warriors, whose fierce prowess stunned all they encountered.
But conferring the label “Amazons” on these women soldiers of West Africa’s Kingdom of Dahomey is a non-starter for historian Pamela Toler.
“In addition to it being a decidedly colonial reference, you’re sort of reinforcing the idea that they are exceptions, and that no ordinary woman could be larger than life,” she says. “That’s a very European perspective on these amazing women.”
Toler, author of the book Women Warriors: An Unexpected History, says it’s important to know the full story of the all-female regiment of warriors who existed from the late 1600s to the early 1900s. In fact, an examination of their origins and the society they arose from provides a more multidimensional image of these women warriors and the legacy they left behind.
The rise of the kingdom of Dahomey
Until recent decades, the vast majority of popular culture depictions of Africa have characterized the continent as an uncivilized, agrarian milieu before the arrival of Europeans like Portuguese explorer Henry the Navigator in the 15th century.
On the contrary, powerful ancient civilizations flourished throughout the continent, including the prehistoric Land of Punt and the kingdoms of Aksum and Nubia in northeast Africa; the West African empires of the Ashanti, Mali, and the Songhai; and the Kingdom of Zimbabwe.
In West Africa, Dahomey carved an indelibly powerful legacy. As outlined in the Encyclopedia Britannica, the kingdom established a well-organized government in which the king was considered semi-divine and had absolute control over economic, political, and social affairs. He was supported by a council of officials chosen from the commoner class because of their allegiance to the king and commitment to the nation’s development.
Its geographic access to the sea, and the strategic prowess of its leaders, helped Dahomey vanquish other coastal kingdoms such as Allada and Whyda. But the emergence and expansion of the transatlantic slave trade ultimately helped seal its dominance. It’s estimated that from the 1720s until 1852, when the British imposed a naval blockade, Dahomey’s rulers sold hundreds of thousands of people from neighboring tribes and nations to the British, French, Portuguese, and others. (The untold story of the international slave trade.)
Besides the slave trade, Dahomey fought to acquire fertile land for farming and to boost its trade in palm oil. Taxes and duties collected from those two ventures helped Dahomey build an imposing military presence.
Eventually, continuous raids on neighboring communities significantly reduced the number of males, which set the stage for women to step into the role of guardians and protectors.
Origins of Dahomey’s women warriors
One account of their origins contends that they were elephant hunters who served under King Houegbadja, the third king of Dahomey, from around 1645 to 1685. Known as Gbeto in the Fon language, UNESCO’s Women in African History portal writes that they, “hunted all kinds of game, including elephants, the most valuable and difficult of animals to kill.”
Elephants were almost completely wiped out from the area by the mid-19th century. The Gbeto were then integrated into the army of women soldiers. They wore brown blouses and brown-and-blue knee-length shorts.
These women fighters were also known by other names in the Fon languages, including Agojie, Agoji, Mino, or Minon. But the prevailing origin story of the Dahomey women warriors is that the group was formed at the behest of Queen Hangbe, daughter of Houegbadja, who rose to power after her twin brother Akaba died under mysterious circumstances in the early 1700s.
The fact that Hangbe amassed a squadron of women willing to die protecting her and their kingdom was an impressive feat in the deeply patriarchal Dahomey society. (Fierce and female, these seven warriors fought their way into history.)
These female fighters were not concubines or servants obliged to defer to any man’s whims. And they didn’t just spring out of the ether; historians have long noted the prominence of women in some African societies. In the book Continent of Mothers, Continent of Hope: Understanding and Promoting Development in Africa Today, author Torild Skard writes about the Dahomey warriors:
“(They) were renowned for their zeal and ferocity. The most fearsome were armed with rifles. There were also archers, hunters and spies. They exercised regularly to be physically and mentally fit for combat. They sang, ‘Men, men stay! May the men stay! May they raise corn and grow palm trees … We go to war.’ When not in combat, they guarded the royal palaces in Abomen and grew fruit and vegetables. They could also go out and take captives to sell as slaves.”
The reality behind the myths
Though it’s tempting to think that Dahomey’s female warriors may have very much resembled the sleek, ferociously glamorous fighters depicted in Black Panther, historian Toler says the reality is quite different.
“By the 1800s, contemporary accounts of them is that their uniforms were so similar to their male counterparts, people fighting against them don’t realize they’re women until they’re up close in hand-to-hand combat,” Toler says. “They most likely wore long shorts, a tunic, and a cap, not the sexualized almost bathing suits you’d see in modern-day depictions of female warriors.”
Tales of their exploits astonished many European explorers and slave traders, and the region’s female fighters helped burnish Dahomey’s reputation as a force to be reckoned with. (These nine memorials trace the global impact of slavery.)
“By all accounts, they were fearsome, excellent marksmen,” Toler says. “They were skilled with hand-to-hand fighting, using weapons that were a lot like machetes. And there was absolutely nobody there to tell them that they shouldn’t be involved in combat, or that they didn’t have the upper body strength as you heard in European and North American history until recently.”
While most records of Dahomean warfare involve battles with neighboring kingdoms for control of coastal cities, a shift began in the late 1870s after the kingdom agreed to let France claim the city of Cotonou as a protectorate. By 1883, nearby Porto-Novo, one of Dahomey’s rivals, was similarly designated.
But in 1889, a new king came to power. King Behanzin balked at European interference and eventually ordered slave raids and other hostilities against those French protectorates. This led to Second Franco-Dahomean War, which lasted from 1892 until 1894, and which some historians point to as end of a dominant role for the Dahomey women warriors.
Legacy of the women warriors
Historians like Toler are eager to see if The Woman King will yield a more contextual depiction of these women who chose a path that rejected limitations or gender restrictions. That’s critically important, as the image of the African woman on the global stage has a long way to evolve toward becoming empowered versus impoverished.
There is no arguing that women made significant contributions to the development of African nations as traders, educators, cultivators, priestesses, healers, and more. And though leaders such as Ana Nzinga, queen of Ndongo, Kongo prophet Dona Beatriz, and Idia, queen mother of Benin—joined by modern-day heroines like Nobel Peace Prize winners Wangaari Maathai and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—amplify the power and prowess of African women, art curator and historian Alexander Ives Bortolot summarizes the remaining challenge:
“There can be no doubt that important and celebrated women existed in other periods of African history, but prior to the era of contact with Europe, written records of their names and achievements simply do not exist. Indigenous narratives about them have not survived to the present-day or have yet to be recognized and recorded. As the study of African history continues, however, the identities of other notable African women will surely be revealed.”
Perhaps the rise in depictions of real-life African women as powerful and self-defining can help achieve that goal. The more people who know about the Dahomey women warriors, the better, Toler says.
“They proved that women are stronger than society thinks they are, than even they themselves may believe,” she says. “They had the choice to fight, and it was an entirely appropriate one.”