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Western observers and historians named them due to their similarity to the mythical Amazons of ancient Anatolia and the Black Sea. King Houegbadja, the third King of Dahomey, is said to have originally started the group which would become the Amazons as a corps of elephant hunters called the gbeto. European merchants recorded their presence. According to tradition, the King's son King Agaja successfully used them in Dahomey's defeat of the neighboring kingdom of Savi in 1727. The group reference as Mino, meaning "Our Mothers," came from the male army of Dahomey.
From the time of King Ghezo, Dahomey became increasingly warmongering. He placed great importance on the army, increasing its budget and formalizing its structure from a ceremonial to a stern military. Ghezo recruited both men and women soldiers, from foreign captives, though women soldiers were also recruited from free Dahomean women, some enrolled as young as eight years old. Some women in Fon society became soldiers voluntarily, while others were involuntarily enrolled if their husbands or fathers complained to the king about their behavior. Membership among the Mino was supposed to hone any aggressive character traits for war. During their membership, they were not allowed to have children or be part of married life (though they were legally married to the king). Many of them were virgins.
The regiment had a semi-sacred status, intertwined with the Fon belief in Vodun. The Mino trained with intense physical exercise. They learned survival skills and indifference to pain and death, storming acacia-thorn defenses in military exercises and executing prisoners. Discipline was emphasized. Serving in the Mino offered women the opportunity to "rise to positions of command and influence" in an environment structured for individual empowerment. The Mino were also wealthy and held high status. The Mino took a prominent role in the Grand Council, debating the kingdom's policy. From the 1840s to the 1870s (when the opposing party collapsed), they generally supported peace with Abeokuta and stronger commercial relations with England, favoring the trade in palm oil above that in slaves; this set them at odds with their male military colleagues.
Apart from the Council, the Annual Customs of Dahomey included a parade and review of the troops, and the troops swore an oath to the king. The celebrations on the 27th day of the Annual Customs consisted of a mock battle in which the Amazons attacked a "fort" and "captured" the slaves within, a custom recorded by the priest Francesco Borghero in his diaries. The women soldiers were rigorously trained and given uniforms. By the mid-19th century, they numbered 1,000 and 6,000 women, about a third of the entire Dahomey army, according to reports written by visitors. These documented reports also indicated that the women soldiers suffered several defeats. The women soldiers were said to be structured in parallel with the army, with a center wing (the king's bodyguards) flanked on both sides, each under separate commanders. Some accounts note that each male soldier had a female warrior counterpart.
In a mid-19th century account by an English observer, it was documented that the women with three stripes of whitewash around each leg were honored with marks of distinction. The women's army consisted of many regiments: huntresses, riflewomen, reapers, archers, and gunners. Each regiment had different uniforms, weapons, and commanders. In the latter period, the Dahomean female warriors were armed with Winchester rifles, clubs, and knives. Units were under female command. The Dahomey Kingdom was often at war with its neighbors, and captives were needed for the Middle Passage. The Dahomey women soldiers fought in slave raids, as referenced in the Zora Neale Hurston non-fiction work Barracoon, and the unsuccessful wars against Abeokuta. European intrusion into West Africa gained pace during the latter half of the 19th century with the 1884 Berlin Conference.
In 1890 King Béhanzin started fighting French forces during the First Franco-Dahomean War. European observers noted that the women "handled admirably" in hand-to-hand combat but fired their flintlocks from the hip rather than firing from the shoulder. The Amazons participated in one major battle: Cotonou, where thousands of Dahomey (including many Amazons) charged the French lines and engaged the defenders in hand-to-hand combat. Despite the compliments given to them by the Europeans, the Amazons were decisively crushed, with several hundred Dahomey troops being gunned down. At the same time, reportedly 129 Dahomey were killed in melee combat within the French lines.
By the end of the Second Franco-Dahomean War, special units of the Amazons were being assigned specifically to target French officers. After several battles, the French prevailed and ended the independent Dahomean kingdom. French soldiers, particularly of the French Foreign Legion, were impressed by the boldness of the Amazons and later wrote about their "incredible courage and audacity" in combat. Against a military unit with decidedly superior weaponry and a longer bayonet, however, the Dahomey Amazons could not prevail. During a battle with French soldiers at Adegon on October 6 during the second war, the bulk of the Amazon corps was wiped out in a matter of hours in hand-to-hand combat after the French engaged them with a bayonet charge.
The troops were disbanded when the kingdom became a French protectorate. Oral tradition states that some surviving amazons secretly remained in Abomey afterward, where they quietly assassinated some French officers. Other stories say the women pledged their services to protect Agoli-Agbo, the brother of Béhanzin, disguising themselves as his wives to guard him. Some of the women married and had children, while others remained single. According to a historian who traced the lives of almost two dozen ex-amazons, all the women displayed difficulties adjusting to life as retired warriors, often struggling to find new roles in their communities that gave them a sense of pride comparable to their former lives. Many tended to start fights or arguments that frightened their neighbors and relatives.
Between 1934 and 1942, several British travelers in Benin’s capital of Abomey recorded encounters with ex-amazons, now old women who spun cotton or idled around courtyards. An unknown number of women are said to have trained with the members of the Dahomey Amazons after they were disbanded, continuing the tradition yet never seeing combat. Around 2019, actress Lupita Nyong'o interviewed one of those still alive. The last survivor of the Dahomey Amazons is thought to have been a woman named Nawi. In a 1978 interview in the village of Kinta, a Beninese historian met Nawi, who claimed to have fought the French in 1892. Nawi died in November 1979, aged well over 100.
In 2018, it was announced that the rights to a feature film called The Woman King had been acquired, inspired by the Dahomey Amazons, starring Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o, and describing the story of Nanisca (Davis), general of the Amazons, and her daughter Nawi (Nyong’o). We chose this month/date because it aligned with the beginning of the first Franco-Dahomean War.