While Europe largely has mythology of the Amazons, Africa has real history to speak of. Out in Benin, there was a lethal force of women who feared nothing and no-one. They were the Amazon myth come to life! Their valour was the stuff of legends and the Historical Museum of Abomey says they would say, “We are men not women. Those coming back from war without having conquered must die. If we beat a retreat our life is at the king’s mercy. Whatever town is to be attacked we must overcome it or we bury ourselves in its ruins.” Whereas most countries only started admitting women into army ranks recently, Benin had led the charge and created a ferocious team of strong women who made the art of war look easy.
Stanley Alpern, the author of Amazons of Black Sparta said King Houegbadja, Dahomey’s third king may have started the group as one for elephant hunting called the gbeto. A French surgeon named Repin had reported seeing a group of 20 gbeto attacking a herd of 20 elephants, succeeding in killing three. According to the gbeto theory, it was Haouegbadla’s son, Agaja, who then established a female bodyguard armed with muskets. A Dahomean tradition says when King Gezo praised the group for its bravery, the gbeto said they were better suited to man-hunts. Starting at around 800, the group grew to an unprecedented 6,000 under King Gezo. This number was roughly half the armed forces of the kingdom. The women could neither marry nor have children as long as they were in the army. Some of the women joined the group voluntarily while others were forcibly taken after complaints from their husbands.
The army largely won its battles but the first notable failure came when the Dahomean Amazons failed to take Abeokuta, the capital of Egba. In the coming years, the group’s numbers were reduced and after the Berlin Conference, Dahomey became a French colonial territory. With such a militant group of women, the French were always going to have problems. The spark as identified by Smith Sonian Mag was when the Dahomeans attacked a village under French suzerainty. They beheaded the Chief and wrapped his head with the French flag. The First Franco-Dahomean war then broke out.
The war is said to have resulted in two main battles, one of which had taken place in heavy rain at dawn outside Cotonou. In this battle, Jean Bayol watched as the French army’s chief gunner was killed by a fighter he recognised as Nanisca. Not for modern armoury, the day could have easily turned out differently. Even after their defeat, they were the last to surrender and the French had nothing but praise for them saying they were outstandingly brave.
The Dahomey Amazons were known as N’Nonmiton which means “our mothers” in the Beninese Fon language. The last remnant of this unbelievable group of ladies of steel is said to have died in the 1940s but as late as 1978, a Beninese woman named Nawi convincingly claimed to have fought the French in 1892. She may have been the last Amazon. The group was undoubtedly the fore-runner of the modern female recruits seen in most armies around the world. In fact, the world will struggle to glean through highly patriarchal histories to find another effective army regiment entirely made up of women.
The usual narrative is that of housewives whose sole purpose was to maintain homes and provide support to men who would go to war and be the providers and protectors. The N’Nonmiton flip the coin and introduce a whole new African narrative. The sad part is at that time, their whole aspiration was to become men at war instead of embracing their femininity. They did not know the world would appreciate them for simply being women who protected their territory and shocked the enemy. To the modern African woman, this elite group of soldiers is a reminder that no matter what anyone says, an African woman is strong and can play protector and provider just as well as men can. The modern African Amazon will ascend to high places in the corporate world lead and define the politics of the world and hopefully achieve all this without pretending manhood is the crest of all human achievement.
Image Credit: Wikicommons