Probably created at the beginning of the 18th century, the elite troops of women soldiers of Dahomey (now Benin) contributed to the military might of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th centuries. These warrior women are the "Mino" ("our mothers" in the Fon language), nicknamed the "Amazons of Dahomey" by Europeans, in reference to the myth of female warriors during the Antiquity. An army of women unique in the world in the 18th century.
Enlisted as children, they lived isolated in royal palaces. Their life was devoted to the handling of weapons, to trainings punctuated by military songs and choreographies, to wars of conquest and to the protection of the King.
Having taken a vow of chastity by joining the Dahomey army, these elite warriors, who were not allowed to marry or have children while in service, possessed an almost sacred status that condemned most men daring to lay a hand on them to death.
“Win or die” was their motto.
Heads shaved and wearing a white cap adorned with blue caimans, they had a manly gait and black eyes. They were formidable warriors who decapitated their adversaries and brandished their heads to crush all resistance. The Amazons underwent intense training in combat and weapon handling. They were psychologically conditioned to resist pain and ignore pity.
At the end of the 19th century, four thousand warriors could be mobilized in the event of a conflict. They were divided into different units, each with its own uniforms, flags, songs and combat dances.
These formidable warriors surpassed men by their courage and their effectiveness in combat.
Victories... until the final defeat
Women soldiers have distinguished themselves over and over again throughout the history of the Kingdom of Dahomey.
The reign of these combatants continued during the French colonial expansion in Africa during the 1890s. But, at the end of the second Franco-Dahomean war, the French will win the battle.
The Amazons were mostly all killed during the 23 battles of this conflict.
Their unwavering determination will make a lasting impression, some legionaries stressing in their writings "their audacity and their incredible courage".
Nawi, the last of the Dahomey Amazons known, died in 1979.
Despite the harshness of life as a female soldier, being part of the king’s bodyguard was a way for many Dahomey women to escape a life devoted to domestic chores. Serving as part of the Amazons offered women not only independence and the opportunity to hold important positions in the military, but also the opportunity to serve on the Grand Council and influence the politics of the kingdom.
To learn more about these women warriors, I invite you to read "Queens of Africa and Heroines of the Black Diaspora" (Medu Neter) by journalist and author Sylvia Serbin (available in French)
I like to highlight women in love with art, women who are passionate, committed and inspiring. Even though I do it all year round (see my interview series dedicated to women in art), March is a great opportunity to put them in the spotlight once again!
I will introduce you to exceptional women who have marked the history of Africa but also contemporary artists and designers who, each in their own way, work for the influence of Africa!
Exceptional women in African history
Many exceptional women have contributed to the history of the African continent but they are absent from the teachings. Fortunately for us, oral and written sources exist allowing their history to be traced.
The common point between all these queens, warriors, prophetesses, resistance fighters, activists is that they have given their lives for rights: the right to enjoy one's territory, the right for women...