The Dahomey Amazons (Fon: Agojie, Agoji, Mino, or Minon) were a Fon all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey which existed from the 1600s until 1904. They are one of the few documented female armies in modern history. They were named Amazons by Western Europeans who encountered them, due to the story of the female warriors or Amazons in Greek mythology.
The emergence of an all-female military regiment was the result of Dahomey's male population facing high casualties in the increasingly frequent violence and warfare with neighbouring West African states. This led to Dahomey being one of the leading tribes in the slave trade with the Oyo Empire, which used slaves for commodity exchange in West Africa until the British Empire brought an end to the slave trade in the region. The lack of men likely led the kings of Dahomey to recruit women into the army.
King Houegbadja (who ruled from 1645 to 1685), the third King of Dahomey, is said to have originally started the group which would later become the Amazons as a corps of elephant hunters called the gbeto.
Houegbadja's daughter Queen Hangbe (ruling from 1716 to 1718) established a female bodyguard. European merchants recorded their presence. According to tradition, her brother and successor King Agaja successfully used them in Dahomey's defeat of the neighbouring kingdom of Savi in 1727. The group of female warriors was referred to as Mino, meaning "Our Mothers" in the Fon language, by the male army of Dahomey. Other sources contest the claim that King Agaja's older sister Queen Hangbe was the ruler to establish the units, some even going so far as to question whether or not Queen Hangbe actually existed.
From the time of King Ghezo (ruling from 1818 to 1858), Dahomey became increasingly militaristic. Ghezo placed great importance on the army, increasing its budget and formalizing its structure from ceremonial to a serious military. While European narratives refer to the women soldiers as "Amazons", they called themselves ahosi (king's wives) or Mino (our mothers).
Ghezo recruited both men and women as soldiers from foreign captives. Female soldiers were also recruited from free Dahomean women, with some enrolled from as young as 8 years old. Other accounts indicate that the Mino were recruited from among the ahosi ("king's wives"), of which there were often hundreds. Some women in Fon society became soldiers voluntarily, while others were involuntarily enrolled if their husbands or fathers complained to the king about their behaviour.
Membership among the Mino was supposed to hone any aggressive character traits for the purpose of war. During their membership they were not allowed to have children or be part of married life (though they were legally married to the king). Many of them were virgins. The regiment had a semi-sacred status, which was intertwined with the Fon belief in Vodun. Oral Dahomean tradition holds that, upon recruitment, the Amazons were subjected to female genital mutilation.
The Mino trained with intense physical exercise. They learned survival skills and indifference to pain and death, storming acacia-thorn defenses in military exercises and executing prisoners. Discipline was emphasised.
Serving in the Mino offered women the opportunity to "rise to positions of command and influence" in an environment structured for individual empowerment. The Mino were also wealthy and held high status.
The Mino took a prominent role in the Grand Council, debating the policy of the kingdom. From the 1840s to 1870s (when the opposing party collapsed), the majority of Amazons generally supported peace with the Egba of Abeokuta arguing instead to raid smaller, less defended tribes. This set them at odds with their male military colleagues who supported a full-on assault of Abeokuta. Civilian council members that allied with the Agojie also advocated for stronger commercial relations with England, favouring the trade of palm oil above that of slaves.
Apart from the council, the Annual Customs of Dahomey included a parade and reviewing of the troops, and the troops swearing of an oath to the king. The celebrations on the 27th day of the Annual Customs consisted of a mock battle in which the Agojie attacked a "fort" and "captured" the slaves within, a custom recorded by the priest Francesco Borghero in his diaries.
Combat and structureEdit
The women soldiers were rigorously trained and given uniforms. By the mid-19th century, they numbered between 1,000 and 6,000 women, about a third of the entire Dahomey army, according to reports written by visitors. The reports also noted variously that the women soldiers suffered several defeats, but that the women soldiers were consistently judged to be superior to the male soldiers in effectiveness and bravery.
The women soldiers were said to be structured in parallel with the army as a whole, with a center wing (the king's bodyguards) flanked on both sides, each under separate commanders. Some accounts note that each male soldier had a mino counterpart. In one mid-19th century account by an English observer, it was documented that the women that had three stripes of whitewash around each leg were honored with marks of distinction.
The women's army consisted of a number of regiments: huntresses, riflewomen, reapers, archers and gunners. Each regiment had different uniforms, weapons and commanders.
In the latter period, the Dahomean female warriors were armed with Winchester rifles, clubs and knives. Units were under female command. An 1851 published translation of a war chant of the women claims the warriors would chant, "a[s] the blacksmith takes an iron bar and by fire changes its fashion so have we changed our nature. We are no longer women, we are men."
Conflict with neighbouring kingdomsEdit
The Dahomey kingdom was often at war with its neighbors, and captives were needed for the slave trade. The Dahomey women soldiers fought in slave raids, as referenced in the Zora Neale Hurston non-fiction work Barracoon, and in the unsuccessful wars against Abeokuta.
Conflict with FranceEdit
First Franco-Dahomean WarEdit
European encroachment into West Africa gained pace during the latter half of the 19th century, and in 1890 King Béhanzin started fighting French forces in the course of the First Franco-Dahomean War. European observers noted that the women "handled admirably" in hand-to-hand combat, but fired their flintlocks from the hip rather than firing from the shoulder.
The Amazons participated in one major battle: Cotonou, where thousands of Dahomey (including many Amazons) charged the French lines and engaged the defenders in hand-to-hand combat. The Amazons were decisively crushed, with several hundred Dahomey troops being gunned down. Reportedly 129 Dahomey were killed in melee combat within the French lines.
Second Franco-Dahomean WarEdit
By the end of the Second Franco-Dahomean War, special units of the Amazons were being assigned specifically to target French officers. After several battles, the French prevailed in the Second Franco-Dahomean War and put an end to the independent Dahomean kingdom. French soldiers, particularly of the French Foreign Legion, were impressed by the boldness of the Amazons and later wrote about their "incredible courage and audacity" in combat.
Against a military unit with decidedly superior weaponry and a longer bayonet, however, the Dahomey Amazons could not prevail. During a battle with French soldiers at Adegon on 6 October during the second war, the bulk of the Amazon corps were wiped out in a matter of hours in hand-to-hand combat after the French engaged them with a bayonet charge. The Dahomey lost 86 regulars and 417 Dahomey Amazons, with nearly all of those deaths being inflicted by bayonets; the French lost 6 soldiers.
Disbandment and legacyEdit
The troops were disbanded when the kingdom became a French protectorate. Oral tradition states that some surviving Amazons secretly remained in Abomey afterwards, where they quietly assassinated a number of French officers. Other stories say the women pledged their services in protection of Agoli-Agbo, the brother of Béhanzin, disguising themselves as his wives in order to guard him.
Some of the women married and had children, while others remained single. According to a historian who traced the lives of almost two dozen ex-amazons, all the women displayed difficulties adjusting to life as retired warriors, often struggling to find new roles in their communities that gave them a sense of pride comparable to their former lives. Many displayed a tendency to start fights or arguments that frightened their neighbours and relatives.
Between 1934 and 1942, several British travellers in Abomey recorded encounters with ex-Amazons, then old women who spun cotton or idled around courtyards. An unknown number of women are said to have trained with the members of the Dahomey Amazons after they were disbanded, in effect continuing the tradition. They never saw combat. Around 2019, Lupita Nyong'o interviewed one of these who was still alive.
Nawi, the last Dahomey AmazonEdit
The last survivor of the Dahomey Amazons is thought to have been a woman named Nawi. In a 1978 interview in the village of Kinta, a Beninese historian met Nawi, who claimed to have fought the French in 1892. Nawi died in November 1979, aged well over 100.
In popular cultureEdit
This section needs additional citations for verification. (March 2021)
In Empire: Total War you can recruit Dahomey Amazon units if you have conquered certain regions in North Africa.
In 2015, UNESCO published the comic novel The Women Soldiers of Dahomey as part of their UNESCO Series on Women in African History. As an artistic and visual interpretation intended for private or public use in classrooms, it tells the story of the Amazons in connection with European colonial rule in Africa and ends with their legacy for the present-day Republic of Benin: "In addition to the imprint that they have left on the collective memory, the women soldiers bequeathed to the Republic of Benin dances that are performed to this day in Abomey, songs and legends. There are many women soldiers in Benin’s armed forces today. They keep the memory of the women soldiers of the Kingdom of Dahomey alive."
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