The “Amazons” of Dahomey
The kingdom of Dahomey was located in what is now Benin, bordered by Togo on the west and Nigeria on the east. According to some accounts, the origin of these women warriors may have been as elephant hunters, possibly as early as the 1600’s during the reign of King Wegbaja. What is known with greater certainty is that by the 1700’s women were being used as law-enforcers and palace guards. In Dohemey, no male (other than eunuchs) were allowed in the royal palace after dark, and few entered in daytime. This left guarding the palace to eunuchs and a certain number of armed women.
The transformation of these palace guards into a “regular” army, with its own set of commanders, occurred around 1830, when King Gezo needed to bolster the number of troops in the Dahomian army, a move that was especially important to Dahomey, since the kingdom was often at war with numerically superior opponents.
These warriors were often observed by visiting Europeans at state ceremonies and staged “mock” battles, and by most accounts (with the exception of noted traveler Sir Richard Burton) the visitors reported their fighting skills to be the equal of (and usually superior to) those of the males in the dohomian army.
The first Europeans to observe them in actual battle were missionaries living in nearby Abeokuta, which Dohomey attacked in 1851 and again in 1864. Their accounts indicate that the female contingents of the Dahomian army fought fiercely and bravely. Although Dahomey lost both times, the only ones to breach the defenses of Abeokuta were the “amazons”.
The last Europeans to provide eyewitness accounts of the “amazons” in battle were the French colonial military, who defeated Dahomey in the second of two franco-dahomian wars in 1892. Again the ferocity and capability of the women warriors were noted, in this case by their better-equipped European opponents.
Throughout the century and a half that “amazons” served as regular military, they seem to have comprise roughly one quarter of the dahomian army. Throughout this period, their main weaponry was the musket and a machete-like short sword. They also usually carried an oversized folding straight-razor, used for beheading their victims. (It was a common custom in the region to return home with the head and genitals of those who were killed). By the second franco-dahomian war, breech-loading rifles had been adopted. However, they were no match for the superior rifles and bayonets of the French.
While many of the women were natives of Dahomey, many were captives from neighboring kingdoms. By all accounts they were fiercely loyal to the king. In their occupation they were to remain celibate. They considered themselves to be “men”, and derided defeated male opponents as “women”.
The last surviving “amazons” are reputed to have lived into the mid-Twentieth Century.
For more information the two following books provide a wealth of information on these women, including an extensive compilation of original sources:
Robert B. Edgerton (2000), Warrior Women: The Amazons of Dahomey and the Nature of War, Westview Press.
Stanley B. Alpern (1998), Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey, New York University Press.
Wikipedia also has some useful links to these women and Dahomey.