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Science And Nature

The warriors of the West African kingdom were formidableand female

Published September 14, 2022

14 min read

Call it mere coincidence or perhaps a masterstroke of tourism-focused timing. Earlier this season, when news spread a hundred-foot-tall statue of Queen Tassi Hangbe have been erected in the West African nation of Benin, you can almost hear the faint click clack of calculators accumulated the revenue from future travelers inspired to go to after having seen the movie THE GIRL King.

Historical extravaganzas generally fare well at the box office, especially ones involving vivid costumery and spirited combat. But this latest entry advantages from perfect timing once more, in the wake of the 2018 blockbuster film Black Panther. That epic tale of the fictional African nation of Wakanda was an ideal precursor for a movie steeped in the lore and history of a real-life band of African female warriors, whose fierce prowess stunned all they encountered.

But conferring the label Amazons on these women soldiers of West Africas Kingdom of Dahomey is really a non-starter for historian Pamela Toler.

Along with it being truly a decidedly colonial reference, youre type of reinforcing the theory they are exceptions, and that no ordinary woman could possibly be bigger than life, she says. Thats an extremely European perspective on these amazing women.

Toler, writer of the book Women Warriors: AN URGENT History, says its vital that you know the entire story of the all-female regiment of warriors who existed from the late 1600s to the first 1900s. Actually, an study of their origins and the society they arose from offers a more multidimensional image of the women warriors and the legacy they left out.

The rise of the kingdom of Dahomey

Until recent decades, almost all popular culture depictions of Africa have characterized the continent being an uncivilized, agrarian milieu prior to the arrival of Europeans like Portuguese explorer Henry the Navigator in the 15th century.

On the other hand, powerful ancient civilizations flourished through the entire continent, like the prehistoric Land of Punt and the kingdoms of Aksum and Nubia in northeast Africa; the West African empires of the Ashanti, Mali, and theSonghai; and the Kingdom of Zimbabwe.

In West Africa, Dahomey carved an indelibly powerful legacy. As outlined in the Encyclopedia Britannica, the kingdom established a well-organized government where the king was considered semi-divine and had absolute control over economic, political, and social affairs. He was supported by way of a council of officials chosen from the commoner class because of the allegiance to the king and commitment to the nations development.

Its geographic usage of the ocean, and the strategic prowess of its leaders, helped Dahomey vanquish other coastal kingdoms such as for example Allada and Whyda. However the emergence and expansion of the transatlantic slave trade ultimately helped seal its dominance. Its estimated that from the 1720s until 1852, once the British imposed a naval blockade, Dahomeys rulers sold thousands of individuals from neighboring tribes and nations to the British, French, Portuguese, among others. (The untold story of the international slave trade.)

Aside from the slave trade, Dahomey fought to obtain fertile land for farming also to boost its trade in palm oil. Taxes and duties collected from those two ventures helped Dahomey build an imposing military presence.

Eventually, continuous raids on neighboring communities significantly reduced the amount of males, which set the stage for women to step in to the role of guardians and protectors.

Origins of Dahomeys women warriors

One account of these origins contends they were elephant hunters who served under King Houegbadja, the 3rd king of Dahomey, from around 1645 to 1685.Referred to as Gbeto in the Fon language, UNESCOs Ladies in African History portal writes they, hunted all sorts of game, including elephants, probably the most valuable and difficult of animals to kill.

Elephants were almost completely destroyed from the region by the mid-19th century. The Gbeto were then built-into the army of women soldiers. They wore brown blouses and brown-and-blue knee-length shorts.

These women fighters were also known by other names in the Fon languages, including Agojie, Agoji, Mino, or Minon. However the prevailing origin story of the Dahomey women warriors is that the group was formed at the behest of Queen Hangbe, daughter of Houegbadja, who rose to power after her twin brother Akaba died under mysterious circumstances in the first 1700s.

The truth that Hangbe amassed a squadron of women ready to die protecting her and their kingdom was an extraordinary feat in the deeply patriarchal Dahomey society. (Fierce and female, these seven warriors fought their way into history.)

These female fighters weren’t concubines or servants obliged to defer to any mans whims. Plus they didnt just spring out from the ether; historians have long noted the prominence of ladies in some African societies. In the book Continent of Mothers, Continent of Hope: Understanding and Promoting Development in Africa Today, author Torild Skard writes concerning the Dahomey warriors:

(They) were renowned for his or her zeal and ferocity. Probably the most fearsome were armed with rifles. There have been also archers, hunters and spies. They exercised regularly to be physically and mentally fit for combat. They sang, Men, men stay! May the men stay! May they raise corn and grow palm trees We head to war. You should definitely in combat, they guarded the royal palaces in Abomen and grew fruit and veggies. They might also venture out and take captives to market as slaves.

The truth behind the myths

Though its tempting to believe that Dahomeys female warriors could have quite definitely resembled the sleek, ferociously glamorous fighters depicted in Black Panther, historian Toler says the truth is quite different.

By the 1800s, contemporary accounts of these is that their uniforms were so much like their male counterparts, people fighting against them dont realize theyre women until theyre close up in hand-to-hand combat, Toler says. They probably wore long shorts, a tunic, and a cap, not the sexualized almost swimwear youd see in modern-day depictions of female warriors.

Tales of these exploits astonished many European explorers and slave traders, and the regions female fighters helped burnish Dahomeys reputation as a force to be reckoned with. (These nine memorials trace the global impact of slavery.)

By all accounts, these were fearsome, excellent marksmen, Toler says. These were skilled with hand-to-hand fighting, using weapons which were nearly the same as machetes. And there is absolutely nobody there to inform them they shouldnt be engaged in combat, or they didnt have top of the body strength as you heard in European and UNITED STATES history until recently.

Some records of Dahomean warfare involve battles with neighboring kingdoms for control of coastal cities, a shift began in the late 1870s following the kingdom decided to let France claim the town of Cotonou as a protectorate. By 1883, nearby Porto-Novo, among Dahomeys rivals, was similarly designated.

However in 1889, a fresh king found power. King Behanzin balked at European interference and finally ordered slave raids along with other hostilities against those French protectorates. This resulted in Second Franco-Dahomean War, which lasted from 1892 until 1894, and which some historians indicate as end of a dominant role for the Dahomey women warriors.

Legacy of the ladies warriors

Historians like Toler are wanting to see if THE GIRL King will yield a far more contextual depiction of the women who opt for path that rejected limitations or gender restrictions. Thats critically important, because the image of the African woman on the global stage includes a good way to evolve toward becoming empowered versus impoverished.

There is absolutely no arguing that women made significant contributions to the development of African nations as traders, educators, cultivators, priestesses, healers, and much more. And even though leaders such as for example Ana Nzinga, queen of Ndongo, Kongo prophet Dona Beatriz, and Idia, queen mother of Beninjoined by modern-day heroines like Nobel Peace Prize winners Wangaari Maathai and Ellen Johnson Sirleafamplify the energy and prowess of African women, art curator and historian Alexander Ives Bortolot summarizes the rest of the challenge:

There may be without doubt that important and celebrated women existed in other periods of African history, but before the era of connection with Europe, written records of these names and achievements simply usually do not exist. Indigenous narratives about them haven’t survived to the present-day or have yet to be recognized and recorded. Because the study of African history continues, however, the identities of other notable African women will certainly be revealed.

Possibly the rise in depictions of real-life African women as powerful and self-defining might help make that happen goal. The more folks who find out about the Dahomey women warriors, the higher, Toler says.

They proved that women are more powerful than society thinks they’re, than even they themselves may believe, she says. That they had the decision to fight, also it was a completely appropriate one.

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