For the better part of 200 years, thousands of female soldiers fought and died to expand the borders of their West African kingdom. Even their conquerors, the French, acknowledged their "prodigious bravery."
"If soldiers go to war they should conquer or die."
Motto of the Dahomey Amazons
The СDahomey AmazonsТ or СMinoТ ("our mothers" in the Fon language) were an all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey (in present-day Benin) formed from the Fon people. They lasted until the end of the 19th century. They were so named by Western observers and historians due to their similarity to the semi-mythical Amazons of ancient Anatolia and the Black Sea.
The Dahomey Amazons are the only documented all-female official front-line combat arms military unit in the world history. Tough, violent blood-and-guts women single-mindedly devoted to hardening themselves into ruthless instruments of battlefield destruction, these machete-wielding, musket-slinging lady terminators were rightly-feared throughout Western Africa for over 250 years, not only for their fanatical devotion to battle, but for their utter refusal to back down or retreat from any fight unless expressly ordered to do so by their king.
Amazon warrioresses of Dahomey. Sketch by French colonel Dinnematin-Dorat. 1890
Photo by Frey, H. (Henri), 1847-1932. New York Public Library
King Houegbadja (who ruled from 1645 to 1685), the third King of Dahomey, is said to have originally started the group which would become the Amazons as a corps of female elephant hunters called the gbeto, who would go out on organized, efficient pachyderm hunts while the men were out fighting in wars
Houegbadja's son King Agadja (ruling from 1708 to 1732) established a female bodyguard armed with muskets. European merchants recorded their presence. According to tradition, Agadja developed the bodyguard into a militia and successfully used them in Dahomey's defeat of the neighboring kingdom of Savi in 1727. The group of female warriors was referred to as Mino by the male army of Dahomey.
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 soldiers from foreign captives, though women soldiers were also recruited from free Dahomean women, some enrolled 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 behavior.
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. The Mino trained with intense physical exercise. Discipline was emphasized. Serving in the Mino offered women the opportunity to "rise to positions of command and influence" in an environment structured for individual empowerment.
The women soldiers were rigorously trained, given uniforms, and equipped with Danish guns (obtained via the slave trade). 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 - units were under female command. Some accounts note that each male soldier had a Mino counterpart.
In the latter period, the Mino were armed with Winchester rifles, clubs and knives. Captives who fell into the hands of the Mino were often decapitated.
ЕIt is noon on a humid Saturday in the fall of 1861, and a missionary by the name of Francesco Borghero has been summoned to a parade ground in Abomey, the capital of the small West African state of Dahomey. He is seated on one side of a huge, open square right in the center of the town Ц Dahomey is renowned as a УBlack Sparta,Ф a fiercely militaristic society bent on conquest, whose soldiers strike fear into their enemies all along what is still known as the Slave Coast. The maneuvers begin in the face of a looming downpour, but King Glele is eager to show off the finest unit in his army to his European guest.
As Father Borghero fans himself, 3,000 heavily armed soldiers march into the square and begin a mock assault on a series of defenses designed to represent an enemy capital. The Dahomean troops are a fearsome sight, barefoot and bristling with clubs and knives. A few, known as Reapers, are armed with gleaming three-foot-long straight razors, each wielded two-handed and capable, the priest is told, of slicing a man clean in two.
The soldiers advance in silence, reconnoitering. Their first obstacle is a wallЧhuge piles of acacia branches bristling with needle-sharp thorns, forming a barricade that stretches nearly 440 yards. The troops rush it furiously, ignoring the wounds that the two-inch-long thorns inflict. After scrambling to the top, they 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 УprisonersФ to where Glele stands, assessing their performance. The bravest are presented with belts made from acacia thorns. Proud to show themselves impervious to pain, the warriors strap their trophies around their waists.
The general who led the assault appears and gives a lengthy speech, comparing the valor of DahomeyТs warrior elite to that of European troops and suggesting that such equally brave peoples should never be enemies. Borghero listens, but his mind is wandering. He finds the general captivating: Уslender but shapely, proud of bearing, but without affectation.Ф Not too tall, perhaps, nor excessively muscular. But then, of course, the general is a woman, as are all 3,000 of her troops. Father Borghero has been watching the King of DahomeyТs famed corps of Уamazons,Ф as contemporary writers termed themЧthe only female soldiers in the world who then routinely served as combat troops.
When, or indeed why, Dahomey recruited its first female soldiers is not certain. Stanley Alpern, author of the only full-length English-language study of them, suggests it may have been in the 17th century, not long after the kingdom was founded by Dako, a leader of the Fon tribe, around 1625. One theory traces their origins to teams of female hunters known as СgbetoТ, and certainly Dahomey was noted for its women hunters; a French naval surgeon named Repin reported in the 1850s that a group of 20 gbeto had attacked a herd of 40 elephants, killing three at the cost of several hunters gored and trampled. A Dahomean tradition relates that when King Gezo (1818-58) praised their courage, the gbeto cockily replied that Уa nice manhunt would suit them even better,Ф so he drafted them drafted into his army. But Alpern cautions that there is no proof that such an incident occurred, and he prefers an alternate theory that suggests the women warriors came into existence as a palace guard in the 1720s.
Women had the advantage of being permitted in the palace precincts after dark (Dahomean men were not), and a bodyguard may have been formed, Alpern says, from among the kingТs Уthird classФ wivesЦthose considered insufficiently beautiful to share his bed and who had not borne children. Contrary to 19th century gossip that portrayed the female soldiers as sexually voracious, DahomeyТs female soldiers were formally married to the kingЧand since he never actually had relations with any of them, marriage rendered them celibate.
Group portrait with the so called 'Dahomey Amazons', visiting Europe. February 1891
From New York Public Library. Author Alexandre d'Albeca (1858Ц1896)
At least one bit of evidence hints that Alpern is right to date the formation of the female corps to the early 18th century: a French slaver named Jean-Pierre Thibault, who called at the Dahomean port of Ouidah in 1725, described seeing groups of third-rank wives armed with long poles and acting as police. And when, four years later, DahomeyТs women warriors made their first appearance in written history, they were helping to recapture the same port after it fell to a surprise attack by the Yoruba Ц a much more numerous tribe from the east who would henceforth be the DahomeansТ chief enemies.
DahomeyТs female troops were not the only martial women of their time. There were at least a few contemporary examples of successful warrior queens, the best-known of whom was probably Nzinga of Matamba, one of the most important figures in 17th-century AngolaЧa ruler who fought the Portuguese, quaffed the blood of sacrificial victims, and kept a harem of 60 male concubines, whom she dressed in womenТs clothes. Nor were female guards unknown; in the mid-19th century, King Mongkut of Siam (the same monarch memorably portrayed in quite a different light by Yul Brynner in The King and I) employed a bodyguard of 400 women. But MongkutТs guards performed a ceremonial function, and the king could never bear to send them off to war. What made DahomeyТs women warriors unique was that they fought, and frequently died, for king and country. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that, in the course of just four major campaigns in the latter half of the 19th century, they lost at least 6,000 dead, and perhaps as many as 15,000. In their very last battles, against French troops equipped with vastly superior weaponry, about 1,500 women took the field, and only about 50 remained fit for active duty by the end.
None of this, of course, explains why this female corps arose only in Dahomey. Historian Robin Law, of the University of Stirling, who has made a study of the subject, dismisses the idea that the Fon viewed men and women as equals in any meaningful sense; women fully trained as warriors, he points out, were thought to УbecomeФ men, usually at the moment they disemboweled their first enemy. Perhaps the most persuasive possibility is that the Fon were so badly outnumbered by the enemies who encircled them that DahomeyТs kings were forced to conscript women. The Yoruba alone were about ten times as numerous as the Fon.
Backing for this hypothesis can be found in the writings of Commodore Arthur Eardley Wilmot, a British naval officer who called at Dahomey in 1862 and observed that women heavily outnumbered men in its towns Ч a phenomenon that he attributed to a combination of military losses and the effects of the slave trade. Around the same time Western visitors to Abomey noticed a sharp jump in the number of female soldiers. Records suggest that there were about 600 women in the Dahomean army from the 1760s until the 1840sЧat which point King Gezo expanded the corps to as many as 6,000.
No Dahomean records survive to explain GezoТs expansion, but it was probably connected to a defeat he suffered at the hands of the Yoruba in 1844. Oral traditions suggest that, angered by Dahomean raids on their villages, an army from a tribal grouping known as the Egba mounted a surprise attack that that came close to capturing Gezo and did seize much of his royal regalia, including the kingТs valuable umbrella and his sacred stool. УIt has been said that only two amazon СcompaniesТ existed before Gezo and that he created six new ones,Ф Alpern notes. УIf so, it probably happened at this time.Ф
Recruiting women into the Dahomean army was not especially difficult, despite the requirement to climb thorn hedges and risk life and limb in battle. Most West African women lived lives of forced drudgery. GezoТs female troops lived in his compound and were kept well supplied with tobacco, alcohol and slaves Ц as many as 50 to each warrior, according to the noted traveler Sir Richard Burton, who visited Dahomey in the 1860s. And Уwhen Amazons walked out of the palace,Ф notes Alpern, Уthey were preceded by a slave girl carrying a bell. The sound told every male to get out of their path, retire a certain distance, and look the other way.Ф To even touch these women meant death.
The Dahomean Amazons were recruited in a number of ways. Sometimes they were volunteers Ц women who were sick of their bullshit day-to-day lives, poor women seeking battlefield glory, or even the occasional royal concubine who decided she was much more comfortable cutting people in half for the King than she was producing male heirs for him. Even more awesomely than that, however, was that if a woman was "too misbehaved" to make a proper wife for a nice Dahomean boy, the girl's father (or husband!) could appeal to the King and His Royal Highness would conscript her into the Amazons. Once a woman was in the Amazons, she became off-limits Ц she was forbidden to have sex (because if she got pregnant she couldn't fight), and the crime for any man laying even a single finger on an Amazon was instant death.
While Gezo plotted his revenge against the Egba, his new female recruits were put through extensive training. The Amazons went through intense physical training that far exceeded anything the male soldiers were willing to undertake. They competed with each other in wrestling and hand-to-hand unarmed combat, and underwent grueling calisthenics (gymnastic exercises) and brutally-long runs on a daily basis. In order to foster the stoical acceptance of pain, they had to climb a thirty-foot wall lined with thorny acacias without showing pain. Recruits 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 terrible, but that's just how it was Ц the Amazons were in constant competition for glory with the male units, and they knew that if anyone was going to take them seriously either at home or on the battlefield, they needed to be twice as hard as anyone else out there. And they were. They kept their weapons and uniforms clean, marched in lock-step precision, and when these women sprinted barefoot and pissed into combat beneath their unit battle flag Ц a Voodoo fetish made from the bones and skin of dead enemy soldiers Ц everyone who saw them pretty much pissed themselves and ran for it.
The aspect of Dahomean military custom that attracted most attention from European visitors, however, was Уinsensitivity trainingФ Ч exposing unblooded troops to death. At one annual ceremony, new recruits of both sexes were required to mount a platform 16 feet high, pick up baskets containing bound and gagged prisoners of war, and hurl them over the parapet to a baying mob below. There are also accounts of female soldiers being ordered to carry out executions. Jean Bayol, a French naval officer who visited Abomey in December 1889, watched as a teenage recruit, a girl named Nanisca Уwho had not yet killed anyone,Ф was tested. Brought before a young prisoner who sat bound in a basket, she Уwalked jauntily up to, swung her sword three times with both hands, then calmly cut the last flesh that attached the head to the trunkЕ She then squeezed the blood off her weapon and swallowed it.Ф
"Insensitivity training": Human sacrifice in the kingdom of Dahomey.
Female recruits look on as Dahomean troops hurl bound prisoners of war to a mob below.
From the book 'Dahomey and the dahomans' by Frederick E. Forbes, 1849-1850.
Pre Colonial Africa
It was this fierceness that most unnerved Western observers, and indeed DahomeyТs African enemies. Not everyone agreed on the quality of the DahomeansТ military preparedness Ч European observers were disdainful of the way in which the women handled their ancient flintlock muskets, most firing from the hip rather than aiming from the shoulder, but even the French agreed that they Уexcelled at hand-to-hand combatФ and Уhandled admirably.Ф
For the most part, too, the enlarged female corps enjoyed considerable success in GezoТs endless wars, specializing in pre-dawn attacks on unsuspecting enemy villages. It was only when they were thrown against the Egba capital, Abeokuta, that they tasted defeat. Two furious assaults on the town, in 1851 and 1864, failed dismally, partially because of Dahomean overconfidence, but mostly because Abeokuta was a formidable targetЧa huge town ringed with mud-brick walls and harboring a population of 50,000.
By the late 1870s Dahomey had begun to temper its military ambitions. Most foreign observers suggest that the womenТs corps was reduced to 1,500 soldiers at about this time, but attacks on the Yoruba continued. And the corps still existed 20 years later, when the kingdom at last found itself caught up in the Уscramble for Africa,Ф which saw various European powers competing to absorb slices of the continent into their empires. Dahomey fell within the French sphere of influence, and there was already a small French colony at Porto-Novo when, in about 1889, female troops were involved in an incident that resulted in a full-scale war. According to local oral histories, the spark came when the Dahomeans attacked a village under French suzerainty whose chief tried to avert panic by assuring the inhabitants that the tricolor would protect them. УSo you like this flag?Ф the Dahomean general asked when the settlement had been overrun. УEh bien, it will serve you.Ф At the generalТs signal, one of the women warriors beheaded the chief with one blow of her cutlass and carried his head back to her new king, Behanzin, wrapped in the French standard.
The First Franco-Dahomean War, which ensued in 1890, resulted in two major battles, one of which took place in heavy rain at dawn outside Cotonou, on the Bight of Benin. BehanzinТs army, which included female units, assaulted a French stockade but was driven back in hand-to-hand fighting. No quarter was given on either side, and Jean Bayol saw his chief gunner decapitated by a fighter he recognized as Nanisca, the young woman he had met three months earlier in Abomey as she executed a prisoner. Only the sheer firepower of their modern rifles won the day for the French, and in the battleТs aftermath Bayol found Nanisca lying dead. УThe cleaver, with its curved blade, engraved with fetish symbols, was attached to her left wrist by a small cord,Ф he wrote, Уand her right hand was clenched around the barrel of her carbine covered with cowries.Ф
In the uneasy peace that followed, Behanzin did his best to equip his army with more modern weapons, but the Dahomeans were still no match for the large French force that was assembled to complete the conquest two years later. That seven-week war was fought even more fiercely than the first. There were 23 separate battles, and once again female troops were in the vanguard of BehanzinТs forces. The women were the last to surrender, and even thenЧat least according to a rumor common in the French army of occupationЧthe survivors took their revenge on the French by covertly substituting themselves for Dahomean women who were taken into the enemy stockade. Each allowed herself to be seduced by French officer, waited for him to fall asleep, and then cut his throat with his own bayonet.
Battle at Dogba between the French troops and Dahomey female troops. September 19, 1892
From New York Public Library. Author Alexandre d'Albeca (1858Ц1896)
Their last enemies were full of praise for their courage. A French Foreign Legionnaire named Bern lauded them as УwarrioressesЕ fight with extreme valor, always ahead of the other troops. They are outstandingly brave Е well trained for combat and very disciplined.Ф A French Marine, Henri Morienval, thought them Уremarkable for their courage and their ferocityЕ flung themselves on our bayonets with prodigious bravery.Ф
Most sources suggest that the last of DahomeyТs women warriors died in the 1940s, but Stanley Alpern disputes this. Pointing out that Уa woman who had fought the French in her teens would have been no older than 69 in 1943,Ф he suggests, more pleasingly, that it is likely one or more survived long enough to see her country regain its independence in 1960. As late as 1978, a Beninese historian encountered an extremely old woman in the village of Kinta who convincingly claimed to have fought against the French in 1892. Her name was Nawi, and she died, aged well over 100, in November 1979. Probably she was the last.
What were they like, these scattered survivors of a storied regiment? Some proud but impoverished, it seems; others married; a few tough and argumentative, well capable, Alpern says, of Уbeating up men who dared to affront them.Ф And at least one of them still traumatized by her service, a reminder that some military experiences are universal. A Dahomean who grew up in Cotonou in the 1930s recalled that he regularly tormented an elderly woman he and his friends saw shuffling along the road, bent double by tiredness and age. He confided to the French writer Helene Almeida-Topor that one day, one of us throws a stone that hits another stone. The noise resounds, a spark flies. УWe suddenly see the old woman straighten up. Her face is transfigured. She begins to march proudlyЕ Reaching a wall, she lies down on her belly and crawls on her elbows to get round it. She thinks she is holding a rifle because abruptly she shoulders and fires, then reloads her imaginary arm and fires again, imitating the sound of a salvo. Then she leaps, pounces on an imaginary enemy, rolls on the ground in furious hand-t0-hand combat, flattens the foe. With one hand she seems to pin him to the ground, and with the other stabs him repeatedly. Her cries betray her effort. She makes the gesture of cutting to the quick and stands up brandishing her trophyЕ
She intones a song of victory and dances:
The blood flows,
You are dead.
The blood flows,
We have won.
The blood flows, it flows, it flows.
The blood flows,
The enemy is no more.
But suddenly she stops, dazed. Her body bends, hunches, How old she seems, older than before! She walks away with a hesitant step.
She is a former warrior, an adult explainsЕ. The battles ended years ago, but she continues the war in her head.Ф
Fierce brave Dagomey female warriors of the past still surprise, inspire andЕ appal people. Dahomey Amazons were represented in the 1987 film СCobra VerdeТ by German director Werner Herzog. Ghezo's Amazons play a significant role in the novel Flash for Freedom! By George MacDonald Fraser.
Armed women with the King at their head, going to war. 1793
The history of Dahomy, an inland Kingdom of Africa - New York Public Library.
Illustration by Archibad Dalzel
Female Soldier, Dahomey, 1849-50. Source: Frederick E Forbes, 'Dahomey and the Dahomans', London 1851
University of Virginia
Dahomey's female hunters, the gbeto, attack a herd of elephants.
Ghezo, King of Dahomey. 1852
He expanded the female corps from around 600 women to as many as 6,000.
From "The Uncle Tom's Cabin Almanack", 1853. New York Public Library
Female officers pictured in 1851, wearing symbolic horns of office on their heads.
Drawing of female Royal Guards of King of Dahomey. 1898
Source Naturfolkenes liv, page 314. Author W. Dreyer
Amazon in Ambush. 1896
From 'Souvenirs de la campagne du Dahomey'
New York Public Library. Author Frederic Schelameur
An Amazon. 1895
From 'From La France au Dahomey'
New York Public Library. Author: Alexandre d'Albeca (1858Ц1896)
Amazons of Dahomey in Battle.
Illustration from Illustrated Travels edited by H W Bates (Cassell, c 1880).
Look and Learn
Dahomey female warrior and her war appliances
Sketch from Colonial Warfare
Dahomey female warrior.
Reconstruction by Graeylin