Gelele, King of the Amazons

The origins of the Dahomey Amazons (also known as the Mino) are contested, but general consensus is that they arose out of the King’s harem in 1645, turning into a bodyguard and eventually morphing into an elite killing force under King Agadja (1708-1740).

Their training would make a SEAL cry – running up barricades made of two-inch acacia thorns, survival training in forests for nine days with just a machete, and insensitivity training: the required slaughter of helpless prisoners of war in front of the community in annual ceremonies. They were also expected to perform public executions. A French naval officer named Jean Bayol visited the Abomey in December in 1889. In his written account, he writes of Nanisca, a teenage recruit who had yet to kill someone. When ordered to execute a young, bound prisoner, she “walked jauntily up to him, swung her sword three times with both hands, then calmly cut the last flesh that attached the head to the trunk… She then squeezed the blood off her weapon and swallowed it.” Obviously, all written accounts should be taken critically, but given the general viciousness of their insensitivity training, (the hurling of prisoners off walls to baying crowds below), the story is not unlikely.

They ran for brutally long distances, did live-fire exercises using prisoners of wars as moving targets and generally trained harder and longer than their male counterparts. Wielding two-handed, double-bladed machetes on staffs, clubs and old muskets, the Dahomey Amazons became the frontline of the army, destroying armies twice as large. They trained and fought in battalions, two of which were called The Elephant Destroyers and The Reapers respectively. The Reapers were famed for their weapon: three-foot long razors, wielded capably in two hands.

They crushed the Kingdom of Savi and the Whydah people in 1727, then publicly executed 4 000 prisoners of war. They crushed the Allada. And for what might considered extra credit now, they captured Okeadon by sneaking over the walls at night and opening the gates, allowing the rest of the Amazons in for plenty of murderous fun. It is estimated that in the course of four major campaigns in the latter half of the 19th century, they lost between 6 000 and 15 000 of these warrior women.

"There they are, 4 000 warriors, the 4 000 black virgins of Dahomey, the monarch's bodyguard, motionless in their war garments, with gun and knife in hand, ready to leap forward at the master's signal.

Old or young, ugly or beautiful, they are wonderful to look at. They are as well built as the male warriors and their attitude is just as disciplined and correct, lined up as though against a rope".

M. Edward Chaudoin "Three months in captivity in Dahomey" . 1891

And it was a good life for these women – not only did they escape the drudgery of household duties, but they had access to tobacco and alcohol, as well as many as 50 slaves. When the Mino left the palace, they were preceded by a slave girl ringing a bell to warn men to get out of their path and avoid eye contact. Strangers could not approach them on pain of death. Essentially married to the king, they were made celibate in theory. Historians believe that the women were recruited not because of any idea of gender equality - they were seen as men from the moment of their first disembowelment – but because the Fon were so outnumbered by their neighbours and needed the women to round out their army. The Smithsonian provides evidence from accounts at the time:

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—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 1840s—at which point King Gezo expanded the corps to as many as 6 000.

In 1894, at the beginning of the war between the troops of General Dodds and the kingdom of Abomey, the army contained about 4 000 amazons divided into three brigades. "They are armed with double-bladed knives and Winchester rifles. These amazons perform wonders of bravery; they come to within 50 feet of our positions to be killed..." (Captain Jouvelet, 1894).

After many, many decades of unsurpassed military prowess, the Dahomey Amazons finally met their match. It took seven weeks and 23 battles for the French to finally subdue these superbly skilled fighters, who had none of the ordinance but balls bigger than any other nation. They were praised by the French and English for their discipline, their skill and their toughness. This in spite of a Dahomey warrior decapitating a French governor, making his wife wrap his head in the tri-colour flag and bringing it home to the king. And despite this, in their last stand the Dahomey women were praised for their outstanding bravery by their enemies:

A French Foreign Legionnaire named Bern lauded them as “warrioresses… [they] fight with extreme valour, always ahead of the other troops. They are outstandingly brave… well trained for combat and very disciplined.” A French Marine, Henri Morienval, thought them “remarkable for their courage and their ferocity… flung themselves on our bayonets with prodigious bravery.”

All but 50 of the 4 000 Dahomey Amazons died in their battles with the French. Some of those that remained, however, toured the United States as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It is estimated that the last of the Amazons died in 1979, aged well over 100, and saw her country gain its independence.

Even if we parse through all the stories and adjust them to account for the Western gaze and biases in reporting, there still remains the story of a towering military force. Though they may have been recruited to supplement numbers initially, they showed remarkable aptitude and bravery doing what was considered then (and still is) the work of men. It also challenges the dominant narrative of Africa: that its women are weak and powerless, subject to the whims of men and government. For that reason alone, it is a history worth sharing.

  • 1645: King’s harem members become first members of the king’s bodyguard, and later the Mino
  • 1708- 1704: King Agadja turns the bodyguard into an elite killing force
  • 1727 – The Dahomey Amazons crush the Kingdom of Savi and the Whydah people, and execute 4 000 prisoners
  • 1840s – Dahomey army at its peak, with 6 000 women warriors
  • 1894: Beginning of the Dahomey-Franco war, which lasts 7 weeks. The Mino are crushed and only 50 survive. King Behanzin goes into exile
  • 1979 – The last of the Dahomey Amazons dies, aged over 100.