Episode 40: Who inspired Wakanda’s women warriors?

Marvel found inspiration in history when it used tales of West African women warriors as the basis for the fearsome Dora Milaje in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

The fictional Dora Milaje, seen in this clip from Marvel Studios' Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, were based on real-life female warriors.
Courtesy Marvel Studios

The fictional, fearsome, and all-female Dora Milaje in the movie Black Panther: Wakanda Forever were inspired by a real group of African warriors: the Agojie. Nat Geo contributing writer Rachel Jones shares the history of the Agojie and discusses the way that movies and pop culture can shape our understanding of the world.

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RACHEL JONES (WRITER): And I'd certainly heard the term Dahomey Amazons throughout the years, but never really thought much more about them other than they were this sort of mythical group of women who did amazing things.

AMY BRIGGS (HOST): You might have heard of the Marvel superhero Black Panther. He’s got a cool costume made out of a superstrong metal called vibranium. And he’s the king of a secret African country called Wakanda. And he’s backed up by a team of elite female warriors known as the Dora Milaje. Now most of that is fiction, but the Dora Milaje were actually inspired by the aforementioned Dahomey Amazons, also known as the Agojie.

JONES: But there's a tendency, particularly in American popular culture, to sort of put those kinds of conversations in the comic book realm as just something that is larger than life. It's nothing that the average person would ever have experienced.

BRIGGS: But the Agojie are having their moment in the pop culture spotlight. In addition to inspiring the Dora Milaje, they’re also the subject of the recent movie The Woman King starring Oscar-winner Viola Davis. With all this buzz, I wanted to find out who were the real Agojie? So I called up National Geographic contributing writer Rachel Jones, who wrote an article about them, and I got her to come down to the Nat Geo offices to chat.

JONES: Black Panther was really an inflection point of sorts to get people to think that before Henry the Navigator arrived on the shores of the continent in the 1500s, there were actually self-evolved, autonomous people who did their own thing and weren't looking to Europe for guidance or role models, etcetera. So that was the first thing that appealed to me about digging into their story.

But next, it was simply, as I said, the role of women in any society, and the fact that these women proved themselves to be just as strong and just as smart and just as capable as any man and as willing to risk it all for their country as any man. Then it became something that I really relished learning more about.

BRIGGS: I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine, and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo, and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week, I sit down with Rachel Jones to discuss the Agojie, Black Panther, and the role that movies and pop culture play in understanding our world.

But first, fuel your curiosity with a free one-month trial subscription to Nat Geo Digital. You’ll have unlimited access on any device, anywhere, ad-free with our app that lets you download stories to read offline. Explore every page ever published, with a century of digital archives at your fingertips. Check it all out for free at natgeo.com/exploremore.

JONES: My name is Rachel Jones. I'm a freelance writer. I also work for the National Press Foundation. I'm a director of journalism initiatives. But my connection with Nat Geo has been to do some really interesting freelance pieces over the past three years. I've been pretty lucky in that way.

BRIGGS: I sat down with Rachel to get her to tell me about the Agojie, but first I wanted to learn a little bit more about her. She’s a journalist not a historian, so why was she interested in writing this article about them in the first place?

JONES: So I have developed a sort of personal interest in children and families, women's issues, women's health. Anything that is connected to, I think, the untapped potential, really, that any society experiences when they neglect the role of women, they neglect to invest in children's well-being. I had an opportunity to spend a decade living in East Africa, and so I saw it from a different point of view. I was born in poverty and grew up during the civil rights era in the U.S, so I see it from that point of view. So I really am one of those journalistic dinosaurs who got into it to be the voice for the voiceless and to sort of tell the truth about some of the hardest issues that any society can have to deal with—racism, poverty, etc.

BRIGGS: What countries did you live in? Let's start there.

JONES: So I've lived in two. I've lived in Uganda. Gulu, Uganda, small village in the north. The north was scarred by the civil war between the Lord's Resistance Army and the government. I was there training radio reporters to tell the story of reconciliation, so I spent eight months living in Gulu and traveling around northern Uganda. I lived in Nairobi, Kenya, so I was there for about eight and a half years.

And so far I've set foot, touched down in 14 countries? I've done at least one journalism training in various countries, primarily East Africa I'm very familiar with. The most recent country I've been to is Congo. So I actually went there to cover the Ebola outbreak for National Geographic. And the message I would give to anybody is you will be astounded by the difference in character and flavor and culture. And from one country to the next, the opportunity to learn something incredibly new and different.

BRIGGS: So you recently wrote a freelance article for us about the Agojie. It was the only documented female army in modern history. So, you know, the Agojie are big in pop culture right now, you know, partially because of The Woman King, with Viola Davis, and then, you know, part of Black Panther and Wakanda Forever.

For our listeners who haven't seen Black Panther, the movie, the Dora Milaje are a group of elite female warriors. They're sworn to protect the king. They kick everybody's butt, they're amazing, and they look fantastic doing it. But they're part of this fictional African country of Wakanda. So I want to know more about the real deal with the Agojie. To start with, where do they come from in Africa? Africa is a big place. So where are they, and when were they the most active?

JONES: The Agojie were from the kingdom of Dahomey. When we think of modern day West Africa, it would be Benin.

BRIGGS: Many consider a man named Houegbadja to be the founder of the Dahomey kingdom. He established their capital at Abomey and many of their customs, such as an annual period of festivities that included voudou ceremonies and military parades. He also had a daughter named Tassi Hangbe—the future queen. Keep her name in mind. She’ll be important later. In the 1700s the Dahomey conquered a neighboring kingdom and took control of Ouidah, a major port that was the base of the Dahomey’s trade with European powers.

JONES: The rise of this group of women warriors coincided with the transatlantic slave trade, ironically. This is a region in West Africa; so, Benin, Nigeria, Ghana—those countries— Cameroon even. These were countries that had warring kingdoms, communities where they were led by kings that had their own trade, they had their own agriculture, etcetera.

But when the transatlantic slave trade kicked off, there became this market, this desire— need for human capital. And so these kingdoms began to look at each other as a source or a resource, as a way to sort of have something to offer these Portuguese and the French and the people who were traveling to the region from around the world.

So they began to conduct raids on each other. And they sold and captured primarily young men. And they were sold to these traders, these people. So that when you looked around the society, who was left? The women. And so without knowing the name of the first person or that sort of detail, it became probably simply a matter of a group of people or a single woman saying this is an opportunity. There simply is no one here to fill this role, so why don't we step into it? The earliest accounts that I could see in my research were of a group of women who were elephant hunters. They were called the Gbeto.

BRIGGS: Picture this: a group of tall women, dressed in brown uniforms, carrying guns and daggers. And on their heads are antelope horns. That’s how the Gbeto are described in the book Amazons of Black Sparta: The women warriors of Dahomey, written by Stanley B. Alpern. Published in 1998, it was the first full-length, English-language study of the Agojie. Some of the terminology may seem a bit dated, but it also provides some fascinating insights. For instance, Alpern quotes a French surgeon who witnessed the Gbeto mime their elephant hunting technique:

Stanley B. Alpern (as read by Amy Briggs): “They formed a circle, and crawling on their hand and knees without abandoning their carbine…”

BRIGGS (as an aside): That’s a type of gun.

Stanley B. Alpern (as read by Amy Briggs): “...they converged on a point where the elephant herd was supposed to be…The latter, deceived by those false horns on the women’s heads, think they see and hear a peaceful herd of antelopes, and remain unsuspectingly exposed to the huntresses’ fire. Arriving near the elephants, they all rose up together at a signal from their chief, discharging their carbines; then, knife in hand, they sprang forward to finish them off and cut off their tails, trophy of their victory.”

JONES: So you go from the Gbeto to the women who were during the reign of Queen Hangbe. And they swore to protect her. They were militarized. They trained. They were as fearsome and as strong as any man in the community. And they fought wars. They protected the kingdom. So again, had there been the presence of more men in the society, who knows whether or not there would even ever have been these Dahomey warriors, but this is how they rose.

BRIGGS: So there's an opportunity and they step into it. It feels very World War II.

JONES: Exactly.

BRIGGS: So tell me about this queen. What do we know about Queen Hangbe?

JONES: She was the daughter of one of the earliest kings of Dahomey. Her brother originally earned the throne, but then he died under mysterious circumstances. And we always know what mysterious circumstances mean.

BRIGGS: Uh-oh. Yes, we do…

JONES: So sister girl had her, probably, plans in line. So Tassi Hangbe becomes queen and oversaw the kingdom of a very, I'm told, prosperous era for the kingdom. Interacted primarily with the international crowd who came in, and really established a name for herself, but became early on connected to the Dahomey warriors. People knew that there was this woman ruler and she had this woman army. And so that was how the lore and the story—or the legend—began primarily. And people said that what was so amazing about them was, again, their skill.

BRIGGS: In his book, Alpern gives a couple examples of the training the Agojie endured. For example:

Stanley B. Alpern (as read by Amy Briggs): “Occasionally the women were sent into ‘thick forests’ for periods of five to nine days ‘almost without provisions’ to learn how ‘to support hunger, thirst, wounds, and the presence of wild animals with equanimity.’ Trainers taught them how to avoid ambushes, and also to imitate certain bird call that they would use as signals in combat.”

BRIGGS: He also quotes a Portuguese traveler who claims to have seen a hundred Agojie “storm a nine-foot-high mud, make-believe fort ‘surrounded on all sides with a pile of briar of astonishing growth.’”

Stanley B. Alpern (as read by Amy Briggs): “They raced toward it ‘brandishing their weapons and yelling their war cry ... and mindless of thorny barricade sprung to the top of the walls, tearing their flesh as they crossed the prickly impediment.’”

BRIGGS: Ouch! And not only that but…

JONES: They dressed as men. They carried themselves as men. They vowed never to have children. And you couldn't tell until you got right up on them that they were women. So this was a commitment. These women were very serious about their role.

BRIGGS: After the break, we’ll find out what happened to the Agojie and discuss how movies and pop culture affect our understanding of history and ourselves.

BRIGGS: So what leads to the end of the kingdom of Dahomey and the Agojie? What happens to them?

JONES: As I've thought it through—and, you know, again, after having researched the story and looking at history—one word: the patriarchy. So there were two wars. There was the First Franco-Dahomean War from, I think 1890 to ‘92. And then the second one ended in ‘94.

BRIGGS: The First Franco-Dahomean War actually only lasted about six months in 1890, but the second war kicked off in ’92 and lasted until ‘94. Over 1,200 Agojie fought in the second war, but they suffered massive casualties—less than a hundred Agojie survived.

Following the end of the second war Dahomey was made a French protectorate. The French considered the Dahomey “uncivilized” and attempted to change many of their cultural practices, including restricting the rights of women. Dahomey remained under French control to various degrees until 1960, when it became an independent republic. The last Agojie who fought in the war died in 1979, putting a close to that chapter of history. 

BRIGGS (to Jones): It's interesting, like in looking at the European accounts, you know, from the 19th century and even going farther back, European accounts of the Dahomey call them the Dahomey Amazons. But, you know, modern historians are shying away from that term. And so I'm curious why they're doing that. And then what's the right—what is the proper terminology?

JONES: Well, in my conversation with Pamela Turner, a historian who wrote about women warriors, the term Amazon was very much a sort of a European construct that there are, again, these larger than life, not realistic creatures that certainly would not occur in European society, where women were deified and sort of seen as as, you know, frail and need to be protected and certainly don't want to get dirty, etcetera. So the terms that are used would be warrior, fighter, soldier. These are the preferred terms because that's essentially what they were doing. And so if you're going to describe them and their role in society, rather than give it a sort of a cartoonish, you know, you were these superheroes, you're a foot soldier. You're a part of a member of the regiment just like anybody else.

BRIGGS: It's almost by like mythologizing them, that you're taking away their power in real life by being like, that's so fantastical we can't even believe it's real.

JONES: Absolutely.

BRIGGS: The Agojie in The Woman King, they're depicted as heroes and the Dora Milaje, unapologetically heroes, it's pretty simple. But you touched on this before. You know, the Agojie were in a much more complex situation because of their involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. Can you talk a little bit more about that? What were their military actions in those times and how were they involved in that?

JONES: It's fascinating to think about it in general. I mean, in African societies, armies of men going into the neighboring country or the neighboring region, capturing people who looked just like them, putting them in chains and then helping to load them onto a boat where they, you know. So when you think of the Dahomey warriors, if they were, in fact, enlisted in that kind of activity, they're doing the same thing that men do. But again, once you’ve forsworn to protect the king and follow whatever the queen's rules are, that's precisely what you're going to do.

The ability to enslave any someone who looks like you, be it on the African continent or Asia or Europe or wherever, is something that is absolutely confounding to me. I certainly can't foresee it. But again, when you're operating under that kind of rubric or that kind of, you know, “I do what I'm forsworn to my society to do,” then you probably have to turn something off in your brain. And certainly for those women warriors, the ability to do it would almost be amped up a bit because you don't want to be seen as as less, or less able to complete this task than your male counterparts.

BRIGGS: In like looking at those stories and that complexity, I always find—and this seems counterintuitive—the messiness of history, I feel, is very comforting to me because the messiness of the present day is scary. And when you look back at the past and it's painted as some sort of like, these people were good and these people were bad, it makes you think that they had it all figured out or that it was easier or simpler. And to me it's sort of like if it can be messy for us today, if it was messy for the people of Dahomey too.

JONES: Well, that's another actually an issue that I think is important to unpack in this whole conversation, and that is the sort of criticisms that the movie The Woman King is not accurate, and that this character Nanisca fighting against colonialism, and that the king at the end of the movie making this grandiose speech about this sort of thing. There is no black and white when it comes to history obviously. You're absolutely right. It would be so easy to think that they figured it out or somehow they got through it, and now we're suffering. It's humanity. And the creative license that it requires to try to bring the past to the present is extremely complicated.

And I have to wonder why, you know, sometimes we can watch a Gladiator or Ben-Hur or one of those other spectacles, and, you know, you'd have to be less than savvy to not realize that there's a lot of creative license going on and a lot of what you're seeing on the screen didn't happen. But it makes a good story. So the sort of firestorm around the fact that the Dahomey Amazons or those kingdoms were also selling slaves, I think it speaks more to the tension that we're going through right now, the fact that discussing race, discussing history, discussing slavery is such a flashpoint and it makes people so uncomfortable that rather than measuring the movie based on the quality of its story or the quality of the acting, people are honing in on this sort of, “That's not true. They sold each other and they didn't care about colonialism and they were just as complicit.”

Well, you know, there is value in sort of pointing that out, but I think it's more about our current anxiety and angst and our own—the racial reckoning or all the buzz phrases that are going on around that. I think that's where the tension is more than anything else.

BRIGGS: One of the other things I think I wanted to talk to you about was how a story on Dahomey or a fictional place like Wakanda, how does that change American perceptions of Africa? I mean, in the United States, I think there is a misperception of Africa as a sort of monolithic place. It’s a huge continent. It's three times the size of the U.S. There are 54 different countries there. There are many, many, many distinct cultures. I mean, what are the best ways for people in the U.S. to start engaging with all of this complexity and all the cultures and appreciating them and their histories and their present too?

JONES: It's a process. I mean, when you think of these movies, for example, as powerful as they were, they still are sort of based more on the sort of culturally exotic or whatever. So that a lot of people have a hard time thinking of a city like Nairobi being parallel to a city like Chicago. Or that it operates or functions along the same lines as an American metropolis. You go to a city like Cape Town and it rivals San Francisco in its beauty and the views of the water and whatever. There’s still a barrier for many people in the U.S. of seeing Africa as anything more than monolithic, jungle, whatever. So I think these conversations or these movies present an opportunity. One is the opportunity to say, I'd like to maybe learn more. That's got to be the first step.

And certainly staying in touch with things like, you know, hate to throw you a shout-out, but National Geographic's coverage of the world as it evolves and as it changes. Conversations and slices of life that are put out there in the world give people the opportunity to think of it as more than just, again, one-dimensional.

So, yeah. I mean, there's a long way to go. I spoke to a young woman the other day who's from Cameroon who said that when she arrived here—she's probably in her early twenties—but when she got here as an eight-year-old, everyone said, Did you have a pet monkey? And she's, you know, so we have a long way to go. But I think the opportunity to see a more well-rounded view of the continent is the starting point.

BRIGGS: It's interesting when I think about, you know, being open to things and seeing things. So I took my daughter to see The Force Awakens, because I'm a huge Star Wars fan. And I was like, My child will also be a Star Wars fan, and we’re starting now. And so we get there and I see Rey flying the Millennium Falcon, and I get tears in my eyes and I'm like, Oh my God. I didn't know I needed to see a woman flying the Millennium Falcon until I saw it. And then it was everything. It was amazing. Did something similar ever happen to you in a pop culture moment?

JONES: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And I think for me, these two movies, Black Panther and now The Woman King, have almost helped me sort of understand why I did spend a decade in East Africa, why I did spend all that time in northern Uganda driving around in a Range Rover, helping journalists learn how to do radio features, or, you know, spent eight and half years in Nairobi working with journalists. It helped me connect to the fact that there was more to me than, you know, my parents. My father was born in Mississippi, my mother born in South Carolina, Great Migration—came up to the North, etc., etc.

All of a sudden, there's this whole past, this whole connection to something greater than me. There are people across the sea who look exactly like me and like my aunt, uncle, and etcetera. And it becomes a bigger story, and it becomes a more full story, and it almost provides you with the history and the lore that we were never able to have.

If I can throw in my last two cents, I think the value of The Woman King for the African continent is the fact that the role of women in most African nations still isn’t amplified, it isn’t what it needs to be. And so women as part of the innovations, as creating the solutions, being in roles of leadership—I think until the patriarchy comes to terms on that continent with the fact that we've got half of the solution that doesn't have a seat at the table, doesn't have a voice, and is still sort of strangled by the patriarchy, the level of progress that they could achieve will not be achieved. But, you know, that's my two cents.

BRIGGS: If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.

Read Rachel’s articles on the Nat Geo website, including her article about the Agojie, complete with photographs of the warriors.

Plus, there’s a story on the Democratic Republic of Congo’s fight against Ebola, and one about Albert José Jones, who founded the first African American scuba club.

And watch the Dora Milaje kick butt in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, in theaters this Friday, November 11th.

That’s all in your show notes, right there in your podcast app.


This week’s Overheard episode is produced by Khari Douglas.

Our producers include Ilana Strauss.

Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills, who edited this episode.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Our photo editor is Julie Hau.

Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Michael Tribble is the vice president of integrated storytelling.

Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.

And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. Thanks for listening, and see ya next time.


Want more?

Learn more and check out photos of the Agojie in Rachel Jones’s article.

Also, in 2019 Rachel traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to find out how they were combating the Ebola epidemic.

Read her pieces on a new tool that some hope could uncover the lost ancestry of enslaved African Americans and on Albert José Jones, who founded the first African American scuba club and led the way for Black divers to explore the ocean—and their own history.

Also explore:

Watch the Dora Milaje kick butt in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, in theaters this Friday, November 11th.

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe today.