Amazon Army of Dahomey (1818–1892)
Amazon Army of Dahomey (1818–1892)
An army of women in West Africa who fought a war against French expansionism.
The West African nation of the Dahomey was formed in the 17th century and owed its rapid growth to an advanced military structure. In the early 18th century, because of encroachments of neighboring tribes and European colonizers, King Agadja began to form an army that included women. They became a permanent part of the Dahoman force in 1818, when the usurping King Gezo, anxious to maintain his position, enlisted his many wives to form a permanent phalanx to defend him in civil war. Michael Crowder has called the Amazon Army of the Dahomey, an army of women, "one of the most impressive armies in West Africa." These women helped secure the independence for the people of Dahomey, called the Fon, between 1818 and 1822.
Though the actual fighting force numbered about 1,700, there were about 2,500 Amazons, most of whom were official wives of the king. Their weapons were muskets, blunderbusses, bows and arrows, duck-guns, and short swords that were used in close fighting. They were especially fond of the military tactic of ambush. "When still a few days' march from the town or village to be attacked they lit no fires and observed silence," wrote the Mackseys in the Book of Women's Achievement. "Avoiding trodden paths, they made their own way through the bush and (barefoot) through the thorny acacia defences, noiselessly surrounding the objective by night to attack in mass just before dawn." Since their aim was to capture slaves or fodder for the king's 500 annual human sacrifices, they killed only in self-defense.
The Amazons enjoyed the privileges of royalty. They lived and were fed in the palace, and passing sojourners on the road made way for them. But as the king's wives, they were also restricted. Except for the king, any involvement with another man brought death. Thus, more frequently than not, depending on the energy of their king, they were forced to live in an almost perpetual state of chastity.
Though originally the legion had been made up of loyal non-Dahoman captives, after King Gezo died in 1858, Amazons were recruited throughout the kingdom, even from important Fon families. They were involved in the war with the Egba in the 1840s, and attacks on Yoruba towns in 1851, 1864, 1883, and 1885. The British explorer Sir Richard Burton visited them in 1863 and offered his European view of the women: "They were mostly elderly and all of them hideous. The officers were decidedly chosen for the size of their bottoms…. They manoeuvre with the precision of a flock of sheep." It is interesting to note, in light of his account, that the Amazons soon became "the most warlike, and the most feared, of all the Dahoman troops," as stated by David Ross in West African Resistance. "It was they who bore the brunt of the fighting in a number of the most important of the nineteenth-century Dahoman wars. It was they who tended to suffer most severely when the Fon either won a Pyrrhic victory or sustained a costly defeat."
Dahomey occupied the southern third of what is today the republic of Dahomey, flanked by the rivers Ouéme and Cuffo. Its capital was
Abomey. Around 1820, the Dahoman army, which included the Amazons, had captured and annexed the kingdoms of Allada and Whydah to the south. They headed east, incorporating the kingdoms of Cotonou and Agony. Fortunately, all these peoples spoke a common language and shared many traditions, and the regions quickly banded into one state. As the kingdom grew, so did the notion that the territory of Dahomey was sacred and had to be preserved at all costs by its people. Theirs was a sacred trust: a mandate that the territory and institutions they had inherited from their ancestors be passed on to their heirs.
Throughout the 19th century, vigorous trading went on between the Europeans and the Fon; at first, it was slaves at the busy port of Whydah; later, palm oil at the port of Cotonou. Produced on the plantations in the interior, the palm oil was transported by way of the River Ouéme, a strategically important river of commerce, to Cotonou.
In the 1870s, trading between France and the Fons was friendly. But in the 1880s, the French began to assert that the port of Cotonou had been given to them in the trading treaties of 1868 and 1878. In truth, French merchants had inserted forged clauses. It didn't help the Fons' cause when the boundary kingdom of Port Novo—which had been a tributary to Dahomey—became a French protectorate and repudiated Dahomey's hold on it. Nor did it help that the Fon leader King Behanzin had been recently installed and lacked the power of earlier kings.
In November 1889, the French sent Dr. Jean Bayol, a zealous champion of French expansion, to settle the affair. Bayol arrived in Abomey and met with Crown Prince Kondo to demand Cotonou. Kondo balked. Then on February 22, 1890, Bayol sent 360 French soldiers to occupy Cotonou and put its Fon administrators under arrest. With the two countries now at war, the Dahoman army began to mobilize. By the 1880s, about half of the Dahoman's 4,000 standing army was comprised of the famous Amazons who had developed into one of the most important units in the Dahoman army. In this emergency, about 12,000 regional warriors were also conscripted.
As the men and women of Dahomey marched toward Cotonou in February of 1890 in their formal four-division formations (a flexible structure that changed in combination depending on circumstances), they carried either flintlock rifles or rapid-firing rifles, acquired in trade with the Germans. Most of their experience, however, was in attacking and controlling border towns. A dawn attack, on March 4, 1890, left 127 of the Fon dead inside the French lines, including the she-Gaou (or Khetungan), the leader of the left division of the Amazons. (The right was led by the she-Kposu [or Akpadume].) Regrouping, the Dahoman army began to lead raids on palm oil plantations around Port Novo, hoping to weaken the French economically.
It only fueled Bayol, who saw his chance and justification to take over the entire Dahoman coast. The French Cabinet, however, disagreed and recalled him to France. Though his successor was instructed to hold Cotonou but effect an honorable peace, the wishes of the French Cabinet were obstructed by colonial officials and the Fons' unwillingness to hand over Cotonou. Fighting did not cease, and the French claimed a major victory near the village of Atchoupa. Finally, a peace settlement was agreed upon on October 3, 1890. Though the French flag now flew over Cotonou, the French also had to reimburse the Fon annually 20,000 francs, compensation for loss of customs revenue. More important, Dahoman authorities could return to the town to cater to the need of Fon inhabitants. Thus, in their eyes, it was still under Dahoman hegemony.
But no one was happy with the peace. The Fon began to equip their army with more efficient weapons. They bought 1,700 rapid-firing rifles, six Krupp cannons, five machine guns, and amassed 400,000 cartridges and shells. For their part, the French were sorry that they had negotiated a peace before acquiring more territory. By November 1891, colonial administrators had convinced the French parliament to resume hostilities under the first pretense. On March 27, 1892, the Resident of Port Novo, while making a trip up the River Ouéme in the gunboat Topaz, was fired upon by Fon soldiers. It didn't matter that the Resident was threatening deep into Dahoman territory; the Topaz incident became the rallying cry.
Colonel Alfred-Amedée Dodds, commander of French troops in Senegal, arrived in Cotonou on May 20. Within three months, he had assembled an expeditionary force of 2,000, and they began to move up the River Ouéme in late September with the intention of attacking Abomey. The entire Fon army, knowing this was where they were the most vulnerable, sat waiting between the river and their capital. One month later, though they had fought bravely and with ferocity, the Dahoman army was completely destroyed. They had been short of provisions, less disciplined, unschooled in modern fighting techniques, and unused to a steady advance. It is estimated that 2,000 Fon were killed, 3,000 wounded, while the French lost 10 officers and 67 men. The Amazon army was effectively wiped out.
Macksey, Joan, and Kenneth Macksey. Book of Women's Achievements. NY: Stein & Day, 1975.
Ross, David. "Dahomey," in West African Resistance: The Military Response to Colonial Occupation. Edited by Michael Crowder. NY: Africana Publishing, 1971.