Who doesn’t enjoy a historical epic on the big screen? On September 16, The Woman King had its premiere in US theaters. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Viola Davis at her fiercest, it centers on a general of the Agojie, women soldiers who protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey, training the next generation of warriors in the 1820s. They are the same warriors the Dora Milaje of Black Panther are partially based on. Cue the popcorn so we can behold all the badassery! Movies being movies, though, historical accuracy and integrity are secondary to drama and epicness. Here, in Women Warriors: An Unexpected History, Pamela D. Toler gives a bird’s-eye view of what life was like for the soldiers.
In the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, the kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa, in what is now the Republic of Benin, employed troops of trained full-time women soldiers who fought alongside their male counterparts.1 The Europeans who encountered them in the eighteenth century dubbed the Dahomean soldiers “black Amazons.” The Dahomeans called them abosi (the king’s wives)2 or minos (our mothers).
Members of the female regiments lived in the palace, which was off limits to all men except the king. Unlike other palace women, such as concubines, they were required to remain celibate. In compensation, they enjoyed more autonomy than most women in Dahomey. In their time off they swaggered like any other band of elite soldiers with a three-day pass: drinking, dancing, and singing rowdy songs, many of them to the effect that the men could stay behind and plant crops, a job Dahomeans considered women’s work, while the minos headed out to eviscerate their enemies. They not only disdained “women’s work” but claimed that by proving themselves equal to, or better than, their male counterparts on the battlefield, they had become men.3
For much of their existence, the minos’ weapon of choice was the smooth-bore, muzzle-loading flintlock, the same weapon carried in North American and European wars from the eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries. Most early references to Dahomey’s women warriors describe them carrying muskets and comment on their prowess with the weapon. British traveler John Duncan, invited to a display of marksmanship by Dahomey’s women warriors, was impressed: “I was certainly surprised to see the certainty of their deadly aim. . . . Very few missed their object; and I did not observe one who fired wide of a man’s body.” Serious praise for marksmanship with a notoriously inaccurate weapon.
Most European travelers echoed his opinion.
As in the American Revolution, the slow reloading time and inaccuracy of the flintlock meant battles were often decided by hand-to-hand combat. Dahomean soldiers, male and female alike, carried machetes, a weapon that French trader Edmond Chardoin reported they “wield with much skill and with which they lop off a limb or a head with a single blow as if it were an ordinary cane of bamboo.” Others carried a uniquely Dahomean weapon: a blade eighteen inches to three feet long that folded into a wooden handle. Effectively a giant straightedge razor, it took two hands to use. Fascinated Europeans reported the minos were rumored to use the razor to collect body parts as trophies.
The minos fought not in units alongside men but in separate units commanded by women. The units were not easily distinguished from each other in the field because their uniforms were similar: sleeveless, kilt-length tunics and shorts. According to an Egba oral tradition, when Dahomey attacked the capital of the Yoruba kingdom of Egba in 1851, the city’s defenders were unaware they had been retreating before women soldiers until one of the minos fell into Yoruba hands. The Yoruba traditionally castrated the first prisoner taken during a battle. When they stripped their prisoner and discovered she was a woman, the Yoruba soldiers were so outraged at the idea they had been fighting against women that the tide of battle turned.4 The Egba do not say what retribution they took on the woman, but I suspect it was ugly.
Oral history traces the origin of the minos to a group of women who hunted elephants for King Wegabja (ca. 1645–1680). Known as the gheto, they were presumably responsible for supplying him with ivory and meat.5 While the jump from women hunting elephants to women fighting the enemy seems logical enough, there is no direct link to prove it is true. The closest tie we have is a probably apocryphal story that when King Gezo (r. 1818–1858) praised his female elephant hunters for their courage, they answered “a nice manhunt would suit them even better.”
The first eyewitness account of women deployed as soldiers in Dahomey dates from 1734. In 1727, Dahomey conquered the neighboring kingdom of Whydah (now Ouidah), a wealthy coastal trading state. In 1729, encouraged by the director of the local English entrepôt,6 the ruler of Whydah regained control of the country with a large army while King Agaja (r. 1718–1740) of Dahomey fought off an attempted invasion of his country by the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo, in what is now central Nigeria. The Dahomean army suffered heavy losses in the battle against the Yorubans, but Agaja was determined to recapture Whydah, manpower shortage or not. According to British slave trader William Snelgrave (fl. 1719–1743), Agaja “ordered a great number of Women to be armed like Soldiers, and appointed Officers to each Company, with Colours, Drums, and Umbrellas [symbols of rank], according to the Negroe Fashion. Then ordering the Army to march, the women soldiers were placed in the Rear, to prevent Discovery.” Snelgrave doesn’t tell us whether or not these women fought, but a similar ploy used in the Battle of Tenochtitlan in 15217 suggests they would have. The chronicles of Tlatelolco tell us that at the end of the battle, when his troops and those of his allies had been decimated by disease and Spanish gunfire, the Aztec leader Cuauhtémoc ordered the women of the city to cut off their hair, disguise themselves as men, and fight the Spanish. Would an experienced elephant hunter do less?
European observers agree the minos numbered between eight hundred and nine hundred women during the eighteenth century. The size of the corps grew in the two years after King Gezo seized power from his brother in 1818. By the 1840s, European visitors estimated the number of female soldiers at between three thousand and eight thousand.8
The women warriors of Dahomey came to an end with the arrival of the French in the late nineteenth century.
The first Franco-Dahomean war began in 1890. The war lasted two months and included two major engagements; Dahomey’s women warriors fought in both of them. The Battle of Cotonou began before dawn on March 4. The French fielded a small force of 359 men, most of them Senegalese and Gabonese tirailleurs trained and led by French officers. They were armed with eight-shot repeating rifles and equipped with four field pieces that shot grapeshot. A Dahomean army of several thousand soldiers, armed for the most part with muskets and led by its women warriors, attacked the log stockade of the trading post around five o’clock in the morning. The battle lasted for four hours, but despite the Dahomeans’ manpower advantage, they could not hold out against the superior French firepower, particularly after dawn, when a gunboat stationed offshore supported the troops in the trading post with cannon fire. The second major conflict of the war, the Battle of Atchoupa on April 20, was a repeat of the first: rifle and artillery fire demolished the charging Dahomean forces before they could get within musket range. Even so, a few women managed to get close enough to engage French soldiers in hand-to-hand combat before they fell to bayonet thrusts.9
Peace negotiations after the Battle of Atchoupa resulted in a treaty in which Dahomey recognized the French protectorate over Porto-Novo and occupation of Cotonou. Both sides knew the peace was just a pause before war would resume.
- The primary historical sources for the women warriors of Dahomey are accounts written by European soldiers, explorers, missionaries, colonial officials, slave traders, and merchants. We also have oral traditions recorded in Benin in the 1970s by anthropologist Amélie Degbelo.
- Not queens in the Western sense.
It was not unusual for women warriors to use language that elevated women by comparing them to men and denigrated men by comparing them to women. Women warriors are the product of the same culture as the men around them.
- Since the Yoruba had been fighting Dahomey on-and-off for more than forty years at that point, it’s hard to believe word wouldn’t have gotten around.
- Dahomey still had female elephant hunters in the late nineteenth century.
- Europeans in Africa in the eighteenth century always had a straight-edged razor to grind.
- The last battle between the Aztecs and the Spaniards.
- Richard Burton—the nineteenth-century explorer and proto-anthropologist, not the twentieth-century actor—was the British consul in Dahomey in 1863. He claimed his British predecessors in Dahomey had been hoodwinked as to the numbers of female warriors by “the heroines [being] marched out of one gate and in through another,” so they could be counted more than once. See Richard F. Burton’s 1864 A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome (New York: Praeger, 1966), 263. Unlike other European observers, including members of the French army who would fight opposite the minos twenty years later, Burton was as dismissive of the women warriors’ military skills as he was of his predecessors’ observation skills. Writing to his friend Richard Moncton Milnes, Lord Houghton, Burton said, “They manoeuvre with the precision of a flock of sheep, and they are too light to stand a charge of the poorest troops in Europe . . . an equal number of British charwomen, armed with the British broomstick, would . . . clear them off in a very few hours.” Quoted in Edward Rice, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: The Secret Agent Who Made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Discovered the Kama Sutra and Brought the Arabian Nights to the West (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990), 378. Unfortunately, with Burton, it is hard to separate truth from quip.
- French accounts of the battle suggest the Dahomean soldiers had never faced bayonets before and consequently were impaled in large numbers—which seems odd, since they were familiar with other types of long, sharp metal weapons.
About the Author
Pamela D. Toler goes beyond the familiar boundaries of American history to tell stories from other parts of the world, as well as history from the other side of the battlefield, the gender line, or the color bar. She is author of The Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War and Women Warriors: An Unexpected History, among other books. Her work has appeared in Aramco World, Calliope, History Channel Magazine, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, and on Time.com. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter at @pdtoler.