Black History Month: Amazons of Dahomey

The Amazons of Dahomey

(c. 1645 – c. 1979)

4th - Dahomey Amazons - group
The Amazons are posing with the Dahomey army men.

 

[su_note note_color=”#40cd11″ radius=”5″]Noteworthy Accomplishments & Historical Facts

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  • An all-woman wrecking crew
  • The ONLY documented all-female official front-line combat arms military unit in modern history
  • Ruthless warriors renowned for their ferocity and their fearlessness
  • A critical case in history that shows women can be physically and emotionally capable of war
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Preface

Once you read the story of the Amazons of Dahomey, you may begin to wonder, “why would Jamila want to cover this, this isn’t the type of Black History story we’re used to hearing?” This is exactly why I want to cover this. It may not be your typical Black History story, which shows a relevant forward movement for an entire race of people, but it is an EXTREME (brutal) example of forward movement for an entire gender – woman. Also, it still is Black History, and a pretty kick ass story if I say so myself!

The question of women combatants has generated substantial historical research in recent years, sparked by feminist scholarship’s interest in uncovering the previously ignored roles of women in social and political history. Several accounts chronicle the role of individual women soldiers in a variety of societies and time periods. Historian Linda Grant De Pauw writes, “Women have always and everywhere been inextricably involved in war, [but] hidden from history…. During wars, women are ubiquitous and highly visible; when wars are over and the war songs are sung, women disappear” (De Pauw 1998).

A Legendary Group Is Born

King Houegbadja (ruled 1645-1685) is credited with creating the original group. However the group was a corps of elephant hunters called, gbeto. The person responsible for the ladies that have made history is King Agadja (ruled 1708-1732; the previous King’s son). Remember, well behaved women rarely make history! These women were anything but well-behaved! They were ruthless killers! 

The official Amazon corps seemed to have originated in 1727, when Dahomey faced a grave military situation. This was during the Slave trade era. Times were rough, the neighboring kingdoms and villages were always a threat; Dahomey had to ensure they remained on top. Dahomey was known to go to war with their neighbors and capture slaves, trade the slaves for guns with the Europeans, and use those guns to go to war again. It was a vicious cycle, but they’d rather be the aggressors than the ones getting overtaken. These types of conditions are what caused King Agadja to arm women at the rear – to give the appearance of a larger army. However, it was at this time that he found they actually fought well. From there he began utilizing the Amazons as palace bodyguards. Throughout the years, the corps size varied from 800 (early 19th century) to well over 5,000 (mid 19th century).

4th - Dahomey Warrior
A Dahomey Amazon – She looks innocent enough, why would anyone be afraid of a woman with a weapon?

 

Trained Killers

The Amazons went through intense physical training that far exceeded anything the male soldiers were willing to undertake. They had to be tougher than the men, and they were.

4th - Dahomey Warrior Women

They were put through extreme obstacles to test their resilience to pain. Their first obstacle was a wall—huge piles of acacia branches bristling with needle-sharp thorns, forming a barricade that stretched nearly 440 yards. The Amazons would rush the wall furiously, ignoring the painful wounds that the two-inch-long thorns would inflict. After scrambling to the top, they would mime hand-to-hand combat with imaginary defenders, fall back, scale the thorn wall a second time, then storm a group of huts and drag a group of cringing “prisoners” to where the King stood, assessing their performance. Imagine going through all of that, then have to walk away like it was nothing! With all that adrenaline pumping through their veins, I’m sure that helped numb the pain until later in the evening. On top of all that they wrestled, fought, and underwent grueling calisthenics and brutally-long runs on a daily basis.

The bravest Amazons were presented with belts made from acacia thorns. Proud to show themselves impervious to pain, the warriors strap their trophies around their waists. Then walked away, like BOSSES!

4th - Dahomey Warrior Women Beheadding
One of Dahomeys’ amazons, with a musket, club, dagger—and her enemy’s severed head. From Forbes, Dahomy and the Dahomans (1851).

When in war, these women were like no other! They were FEARED from not only outsiders, but also from the men of the Dahomey army. The Amazons would frequently taunt the men at ceremonies because they felt they were superior, which they were, and were regarded as such. In battle, Dahomey men have been known to retreat, but often feared doing so because if an Amazon saw they would kill him, behead him and make a mockery of him back at Kingdom. They were brutal, hands down! This is the way they were trained. They often chanted, “we are not women, we are men!” They had a fearless mindset! Think of these women as “The Bride” Uma Thurman’s role in Kill Bill, they were that bad! (I would show a video, but it may be disturbing to some viewers, so I will just link it.)

 

Recruiting these Legendary Women

4th - Dahomey Warrior 2The Dahomey army, though they excelled with the women, only one-third of the army consisted of the Amazons. Serving in the military was mandatory for men and voluntary for women. A woman could simply volunteer to be an Amazon, or woman’s husband could send her if he felt she was too mouthy and disobedient; same rules apply in a father-daughter situation. Also, during the raids on the neighboring societies, women were captured and forced to become an Amazon. The crazy thing with this is, there had been times when they were rescued, but they choose to stay in Dahomey – their loyalty was that deep!

Once accepted as an Amazon, they had to take a vow of celibacy. This vow was to keep an Amazon from becoming pregnant, because if she is pregnant, she can’t fight. However, there had been speculation that this rule was often broken.

As a test for the recruits, they were sent into the woods with just a machete and told to survive for nine days. They trained for live-fire exercises by arming enemy prisoners of war with clubs, positioning them behind a stockade, and then assaulting it and killing everyone they could catch. Yeah, it’s brutal, but that’s just how it was – the Amazons were in constant competition for glory with the male units! Plus, they knew that if anyone were to take them seriously (at home or on the battlefield), they needed to be twice as tough as anyone else out there – and they were. They kept their weapons and uniforms clean, marched in with precision, and when these women sprinted barefoot into combat beneath their unit battle flag (a Voodoo fetish made from the bones and skin of dead enemy soldiers) everyone who saw them ran off at first glance!

What The Amazons Did for Modern Day Women

Well, other than the fact that they made history, they proved that women can endure the emotional and physical perils of war! However, one can argue that this extreme case forced the women to neglected that which makes them women, but like I said before, that’s what they were trained to do. The Amazons were literally a group of trained assassins, that did their job very well! Until, they lost in the end to the French. The Amazons eventually died off. The last known surviving Amazon of Dahomey is thought to be a woman named Nawi who died in 1979.

 

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Sources:

War and Gender

Badass of the Week

All Kinds of History