African Amazons – The Real Warriors of The Woman King
On September 9, 2022, Viola Davis leads a star-studded cast in the historical epic, The Woman King. The film follows General Nanisca as she trains the next generation of the kingdom of Dahomey's legendary all-women elite warriors. European observers named them the Dahomey Amazons, after the legendary Amazons of Greek myth. The Woman King is reportedly based on a true story, but what is the story of these mighty women?
The Kingdom of Dahomey
Back before the Scramble for Africa and the widespread erasure of historical African excellence, there were many advanced kingdoms on the continent. While their technology was nowhere near the guns employed by the Europeans, they were culturally advanced.
One such place was the kingdom of Dahomey. Bordering the mighty Oyo Empire, the kingdom of Dahomey had to match their neighbor's numbers through ferocity in battle.
Dahomey was founded in West Africa some time in the early 1600s by the Fon people. Their first king, Do-Aklin, wouldn't be remembered as a great warrior or builder. His son was the first real conqueror, defeating a local chieftain and establishing the royal palace.
Dakodonou, Do-Aklin's son, succeeded in negotiating his people's settlement within the territory of a tribe of Gedevi people. When he met the chief to ask for more land, the chief of the Gedevi said:
“Should I open up my belly and build you a house in it.”
So Dakodonou killed the chief on the spot and took over his village. That was the first conquest of the Dahomey. He would conquer two more tribes during his reign. It would be his son, Houegbadja, who would build the infrastructure for a lasting kingdom. Houegbadja is considered to be the first true king of the Dahomey kingdom.
The next great Dahomey king was Agaja. He would expand their territory by conquering the kingdom of Wydah. Increasing your territory in such a short time can put your kingdom on the radar of powerful neighbors. Agaja's conquests expanded the Dahomey lands from the Abomey Plateau to the Atlantic Ocean. That didn't sit well with the mighty Oyo Empire.
Dahomey was successful in war due to their standing army of professional soldiers. Their neighbors were less focused on war, and as a result they were easy pickings for the mighty Dahomey.
What followed would be a long and bitter war with the Oyo Empire. Eventually, Dahomey would be cowed and forced to become a tributary state to the Oyo. They would chafe under the Oyo.
Agaja's son, Tegbesu, defeated his elder brother in his pursuit of the throne. He was faced with the trouble of legitimizing his rule over the people conquered by his father. Bolstering the economy was one of his main goals, and he did it by turning to slavery. Dahomey was fuelled by the slave-trade.
Another iconic role in Dahomey-life came into being during Tegbesu's reign. The Kpojito, Queen Mother, would rule as coregent and serve as high-priest in matters of faith. Kpojito Hwanjile was the coregent at the time of Tegbesu. She was credited with the creation of two new Vodun gods.
Three generations, and four kings, later King Ghezo rose to power in 1818. He is depicted in The Woman King by John Boyega. Ghezo ended Dahomey's tributary status to the Oyo. He dealt with growing pressure by the British Empire to end the slave trade.
King Ghezo temporarily ceased capturing and trading slaves, but resumed the practice 5 years later. His war with the Oyo may have ended well, but his other military campaigns did not go well. Eventually, he would be unable to secure enough humans to sell into slavery, and he would opt to sell his own citizens to make up the difference.
King Ghezo was the one to change the Agojie, Dahomey Amazons, from a force of bodyguards to an elite special forces unit.
Dahomey Amazons – The Mightiest Women of Their Time
The Agojie of Dahomey are reminiscent of the Dora Milaje of Wakanda in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Dahomey's mighty warriors were the inspiration for Marvel's Dora Milaje. Take away the hyper-advanced sci-fi technology, and you're left with nearly identical military units. The Dahomey Amazons preferred using the machete to the spear, but they would likely have been able to wield them.
During the reign of the third king of Dahomey, Houegbadja, a group of elephant hunters was founded. The hunters were all women, and they were notorious for their bravery. This first incarnation of the Dahomey Amazons was named the Gbeto.
The metamorphosis of the Gbeto to the Agojie is described in a historical anecdote. Upon returning from a successful elephant hunt, King Ghezo praised the Gbeto for their courage and prowess. They replied that:
“a nice manhunt would suit us better”
Ghezo remade their order into the Agojie on the spot, or so the story goes. Another theory, suggested by Stanley Alpern, suggests that the women were initially instated as palace guards. Stanley Alpern wrote the only full-length English study of the Dahomey Amazons.
Actress Viola Davis mentions reading Alpern's book to prepare for her role. Unfortunately, the book seems to have a bit of a racist and misogynistic bent to it. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Viola Davis had this to say:
“There is one book, The Amazons of the Black Sparta—written by a white man. I had to cross out a lot of it because it was full of editorial comments like, “They looked like beasts. They were ugly. They were mannish.” You had to sift through all of that.”
Women made ideal guards of the king's palace. Men weren't allowed on the premises after dark, but women were free to come and go. The Dahomey Amazons were all formally married to the king. However, the marriage was never consummated and the Agojie lived lives of (public) celibacy.
The historian Robin Law of the University of Stirling has a theory on why the Agojie arose only in Dahomey. He posits that they arose not from a society with gender equality, and were likely formed out of necessity. Dahomey's chief enemy was the Yoruba people of Oyo. The Yoruba outnumbered the Fon of Dahomey by around 10-1.
While the Agojie of Dahomey weren't the only female warriors of their time, they were the only all-female unit to actively participate in war. Throughout their time as a fighting force they suffered anywhere between 6,000 and 15,000 casualties. You could often find the Dahomey Amazons in the thickest fighting.
Training a group of people for the type of close-up brutal fighting that the Dahomey Amazons would see requires a few things. Most importantly, you want them to feel no remorse or hesitation when disemboweling someone. Part of their training involved something called “Insensitivity Training”. This involves the Agojie carrying a bound prisoner in a basket and throwing them off of a 16-foot platform. Crowds would gather to watch the training and would beat the prisoner to death after their fall.
Another part of their training was witnessed by a European missionary called Father Borghero. He was honored with a military demonstration by Dahomey's finest. They were made to scale a barricade made of Acacia tree limbs covered in vicious thorns. Scaling the wall once would have been impressive, but they were made to do it twice. The Dahomey Amazons ignored their wounds and kept up the demonstration without slowing.
Viola Davis portrays General Nanisca in The Woman King. Her character is a grizzled veteran of countless battles. She prepares the next generation of Dahomey Amazons for their future as fearless soldiers.
Nanisca was a real Agojie. She killed her first human while she was still a teenager. War became her life until her death in 1890. Her deeds would be recorded by the French Doctor, Jean Bayol who went to Abomey in 1889.
He wrote of a teenage recruit who had never killed before. She was commanded to perform an execution on a bound prisoner in a basket. The Dahomey were fond of putting people in baskets, it seems. This is how Jean Bayol described Nanisca's first kill:
“She walked jauntily up to, 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.”
Nanisca appears three months later. She presumably continued to fight in King Béhanzin's wars. The attack that would spell the end of Nanisca's time on Earth happened in 1889. Dahomey Amazons attacked a village under the protection of France.
The village's leader consoled his people by promising that the French flag would protect them. Unfortunately for them, the French flag was no match for the warriors on the field. Before cutting off the village leader's head, the Agojie general said:
“So you like this flag? Eh bien, it will serve you.”
This kicked off a full-scale war between the Kingdom of Dahomey and the French Empire. Two major battles was all it took for the war to be over, and Jean Bayol was right there in the thick of it.
The assault on the town of Cotonou began at dawn, as was the Agojie way. Heavy rain reduced visibility and made it difficult for the French soldiers to bring their superior weapons to bear.
Bayol, not a fighter himself, was desperately trying to survive the onslaught of the Dahomey Amazons. He saw young Nanisca decapitating his Chief Gunner with a single mighty blow. She had been practicing, it seems.
The tide of battle turned once the French were able to make use of their guns. After the smoke cleared, Jean Bayol found Nanisca's body among the many casualties. This is what Jean Bayol recorded about finding Nanisca's body on the field that day:
“The cleaver, with its curved blade, engraved with fetish symbols, was attached to her left wrist by a small cord, and her right hand was clenched around the barrel of her carbine covered with cowries.”
The Fall of The Dahomey Amazons
Following the first two battles, the Dahomey and French agreed to a tentative peace. Béhanzin took the opportunity to try to equip his warriors with modern weaponry. He knew that the war was only just beginning.
Soon enough, the French had amassed a force to conquer the Kingdom of Dahomey. Over the course of 7 weeks, they clashed 23 times. The Dahomey Amazons were the last to surrender.
Legend holds that they performed one final act of resistance after the defeat of Dahomey. Members of the Agojie hid themselves among the normal Dahomey women who were taken by the French officers as slaves.
Each woman allowed herself to be seduced by a French officer. That night, they waited for the Frenchman to fall asleep before slitting his throat with his own bayonet.
The Last Agojie - Dahomey's Final Amazon
In 1978 a Beninese historian found a woman living in Kinta village. Her name was Nawi, and she was incredibly old. Nawi claimed to be a surviving member of the Dahomey Agojie.
Thuso Mbedu prtrays Nawi in The Woman King (2022).