Dahomey, Women Warriors/Wives of the King
Dahomey, Women Warriors/Wives of the King
Precolonial African societies had a clear but flexible gender-based division of tasks that excluded women's participation in the military as warriors. It is possible that in Africa, as elsewhere, war and gender existed in a relationship of "reciprocal causality" (Goldstein 2001, pp. 6, 191, 410). Female armed forces that served the kings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Dahomey (present-day Benin), nicknamed Amazons by European visitors in reference to the prodigious female warriors of Greek mythology, constitute the only documented exception to that rule.
This institution, which probably was borrowed in the early seventeenth century by Dahomey, may have begun with female "rangers of the forest" (Forbes 1966) called gbeto, who specialized in hunting elephants. With the attrition of the elephant population, the gbeto no longer hunted for ivory but for the royal palaces' needs for meat and ceremonial sacrifices in Abomey, the capital city. Selected for their exceptional endurance, the gbeto dressed in brown shirts and knee-length trousers; they sported two antelope horns attached above their foreheads by an iron or gold ring. Separated into two regiments under Gezo (1818–1858), the four hundred gbeto remained an elite corps among women warriors until the end of Amazonism.
The first record of women's presence in the battles fought by Dahomey for territorial expansion toward the Atlantic coast and access to the international slave market concerns a 1708 operation. In his 1728 onslaught on Whydah, King Agadja, who was short of men, also used women warriors who greatly exceeded his expectations. His successors also owed important victories to women soldiers whose loyalty to the crown was legendary. For instance, in 1818 Adandozan's female guard fought to the death to protect the king from conspirators. Gezo's reign is considered the "Golden Age of Amazonism" (Almeida-Topor 1984, p. 38). He increased the recruitment of female warriors, organizing some 2,500 women in permanent divisions and units that included his personal guard.
Typically, the women were recruited among young prisoners of war (i.e., slaves), drafted from Dahomean commoners' families, and chosen from among volunteers. Occasionally, adulterous or rebellious women would be recruited. They wore a sleeveless waistcoat, trousers, and a white cotton hat ornamented with blue stylized crocodiles. They were armed with blunderbusses and muskets, bows and arrows, and eighteen-inch-long razors mounted on a two-foot pole and weighing eighteen pounds. Women warriors ostensibly displayed amulets, sang self-praises, and observed impeccable discipline. Proud of being exceptional women, they nevertheless cultivated a masculine appearance to fit into the palace's military culture.
Though not sexually involved with the king, women warriors were given the title Wives of the King. In fact, they were held to celibacy (and often given an amenorrhea-inducing contraceptive), though records of punishments for pregnancy point to their will to recover some control over their bodies. Marriages between a king and a woman soldier remained exceptional, though Glèlè married Tata Ajachè and Behanzin married Dimedji.
A cornerstone of Dahomean resistance to French colonial forces, Amazonism dissolved with Behanzin's capitulation in 1894. In anticipation of the war that broke out in 1890, Behanzin (1889–1894) had reformed the female troops to maximize their efficiency in the face of European technology. Women soldiers fought heroically on the front line against French officers and African tirailleurs (riflemen), attempting to cut the enemy's throats with their teeth and sink enemy boats. Despite enormous casualties, they also engaged in guerrilla warfare. In 1894, the fifty survivors, along with the reserves, began to return to family life without seemingly transforming existing gender relationships.
There are many descriptions of Dahomean women warriors by European travelers, colonial administrators, and army officers, and a group posing as Amazons was on display at the zoological garden in Paris in 1890. Though seen through a voyeurist lens, the Amazones, who dispelled the myth of women's physical inferiority, provided a welcome alternative to two other African icons promoted by nineteenth-century scientific racism: the bestial Hottentot Venus and the blissful Tirailleur senegalais. African images of Dahomean women soldiers are carved on bas-reliefs on the royal palaces in Abomey. The novelist Paul Hazoumé evoked those warriors in Doguicimi (1938). Roger Gnoan Mballa's controversial movie Adangaman (2000) focuses on their role as slave hunters. The Beninese singer Edia Sophie paid homage to them in the popular song "Oum kpé zon toé" (1965), and in 1961 a musical band of Guinean women gendarmes took the name Les Amazones de Guinée. The internationally renowned Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo often is referred to as the Amazon of Afrofunk.
Almeida-Topor, Hélène d.' 1984. Les Amazones. Paris: Rochevignes.
Bay, Edna B. 1983. "Servitude and Worldly Success in the Palace of Dahomey" In Women and Slavery in Africa, ed. Claire C. Robertson and Martin A. Klein. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Forbes, Frederick E. 1966. Dahomey and Dahomans. London: Longman. (Orig. pub. 1851.)
Goldstein, Joshua S. 2001. War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice-Versa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.