The Dahomey Amazons

Over the years I have come to believe that pages on my websites should have a maximum size, and if that size is exceeded, the page becomes cumbersome.  Then the page can take a long time to load in slow browsers, Internet search engines find them a challenge to index, and no visitor to the website will have the attention span to read the whole page in one sitting.  Back in the early years of The Xenophile Historian, I put that page size limit at 75 KB; more recently the limit has been 120 KB.

For the new pages I have written in the past decade, I have used that size to determine which pages will be uploaded in one piece (not counting pictures), and which will be divided into more than one part before uploading.  So far the largest page to get that treatment was the last chapter of my Latin American history project; it went up on the site in seven parts.

Recently it occurred to me that some of my African history pages were big enough to divide when I first uploaded them, but I didn’t.  One of those pages is Chapter 6, which covers African history from 1415 to 1795 A.D.  This was the period when Europeans explored the coast of Africa, but across most of the continent they weren’t ready to go into the interior, so the African kingdoms were still going strong.  Well, that page took up 180 KB, so last week I divided the chapter in two; here is how it is now organized:

Chapter 6: The Forest Kingdoms

1415 to 1795
Part I

Prince Henry’s Captains

The Way to the Orient


Kongo and the Rise of Modern Slavery

Mwene Mutapa

Cross vs. Crescent: The Indian Ocean and East Africa

Cross vs. Crescent: The Mediterranean Front and the Maghreb

Morocco and the Sahel Out of Balance

Part II

East African Tribal Migrations

Dutch, French, English and Omani Intruders


Oyo and Dahomey


Luba, Lunda and Kuba

The Barbary States

The Cape Colony

Madagascar Coalesces

The Effects of the Slave Trade on Population

The other change that I made to the chapter was to elaborate on one subject:  the warriors of the kingdom of Dahomey (in present-day Benin).  Previously I casually mentioned that Dahomey employed female warriors, in this paragraph:

The two kings following Dakpodunu turned away slave raids from Allada, defeated two invasions from Oyo (1680 & 1698), and found time to increase the size of the kingdom to forty towns. The next king, Agaja (1708-32), did even better, conquering Allada in 1724 and Whydah (also spelled Ouidah), the French-built port on the coast, in 1727. Today Agaja is mainly known for creating a female royal bodyguard, arming them with muskets and machetes; Europeans nicknamed these warriors the “Dahomey Amazons.”  However, he met his match in Gberu, the king of Oyo. From 1726 to 1730 Oyo invaded almost every year during the dry season, until Agaja agreed to pay an annual tribute. This tributary status lasted until 1818, but Dahomey continued to expand and prosper, first because of the slave trade, and later by exporting palm oil, an essential ingredient of soap, from large plantations.

This month I read an article on the Dahomey Amazons, so I added two footnotes to include what I learned.  Here is the one in Chapter 6:

A previous king, Wegbaja (1650?-1680?) recruited women to hunt elephants. Agaja put women in his army because he was impressed by his father’s huntresses and because wars and slave raids had caused a shortage of men. While some women joined willingly, there are also reports of wives being drafted into the unit if their husbands complained to the king about their behavior. I wish someone would explain to me how turning the wife into a killing machine was considered the solution for a troubled marriage. It reminds me of the gun shop that put an ad on the Internet saying, “We provide quick solutions for women in spousal abuse situations.”

Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh, a leader of the Amazons in 1851. If her husband complained about her cooking, I’m sure he only did it once!
Wikimedia Commons.

While in the army, Dahomeyan women were not permitted to have children or marry — children would get in the way of their duties and the women were considered married to the king — but since the king did not actually have sex with them, many Amazons were virgins. They were also given a grueling physical training that was tougher than what the male soldiers endured. During wartime their motto was, “Whatever the town to be attacked, we will conquer or bury ourselves in its ruins.” Any Amazon that fled from battle without being ordered by the king to withdraw was executed on the spot. In return for the strict discipline they had to live under, the Amazons were given extraordinary privileges for women in those days: they were allowed to have alcohol, tobacco, and as many as fifty slaves. They were considered better warriors than the men even when defeated, and the king revered them so much that the penalty for touching an Amazon was death.

Incidentally, after Haiti became independent in 1804, the Haitian emperor, Henri Christophe, hired (male) palace guards from Dahomey.

Now since this military unit lasted until 1894, I put the other footnote in the next chapter.  Quote:

Because Dahomey faced a serious challenge in the mid-nineteenth century from the Yoruba, a much larger tribe, the Dahomeyan kings enlarged the Amazon Corps from 800 warrior women to 6,000 — roughly half the size of the whole Dahomeyan army. The trouble with the French started when Dahomey attacked a village that happened to be a French protectorate. The Amazons found the chief of the village in his palace, holding a French tricolor flag, and shouting, “This will protect me!” Sure it did; on the Dahomeyan general’s command, the Amazons beheaded the chief and took his head to their king, wrapped in the flag. But when the French armed forces arrived the Dahomeyans found that even they could not beat a modern army. The Amazons were armed mainly with their traditional muskets and machetes, while the French had a gunboat to bombard the enemy, plus gatling guns and the latest rifles. Over the course of twenty-four battles (many fought hand-to-hand), superior firepower decided it for the French.

It is said that 1,500 Amazons took part in the last battles against the French, and 50 were still able to fight at the end of it all. Needless to say, the Amazon corps was disbanded when the French took over. Of the survivors, we believe the last was a woman named Nawi. She had plenty of memories about fighting the French in the 1890s, so when she died in 1979, she had to be more than a century old.

Unquote:  Who was it who referred to women as “the weaker sex?”