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A photograph of the Dahomey Amazons

Who were the Dahomey Amazons? West Africa's fearsome female fighters

The Dahomey Amazons around 1890 - colourised (Public Domain)

It’s not known for certain when or why the first all-female army formed in Dahomey, Africa. Still, in the centuries since, the Dahomey Amazons have continued to inspire countless generations.

From the Dora Milaje warriors of Wakanda in Marvel’s Black Panther to The Woman King starring Viola Davies, fans of the big screen might be surprised to learn the very real and historical origins of these fierce female warriors. Here’s everything you need to know about the Dahomey Amazons.

Where was Dahomey?

Dahomey was a kingdom that thrived in West Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries. Located in present-day Benin, Dahomey remained a kingdom between 1625 and 1894, when the last king was defeated by the French.

Who were the Dahomey Amazons?

The Dahomey Amazons were an all-female army tasked with defending the Empire of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th centuries. The fierce and often terrifying warriors were nicknamed the Dahomey Amazons by European traders after the legendary warrior women of Greek mythology.

The women of the Dahomey Amazons referred to themselves as the Mino, meaning our mothers in the Fon language, or ahosi, meaning King’s wives.

Where did the Dahomey Amazons come from?

There’s no concrete date for when the Mino first became an army. The earliest record that hints at women forming a defensive coalition can be seen in the account of a French slaver who was visiting the port of Ouidah in 1725.

He recalled seeing women in groups defending the port while carrying poles and stated that they appeared to be acting as the port’s equivalent of law enforcement.

The first written historical account of the Mino would appear just four years later when they’re credited with recapturing the port of Ouidah following its fall to the Yoruba - a rival tribe of Dahomey.

What were the Dahomey Amazons Known for?

The Dahomey Amazons are most well-known for being one of the few documented all-female armies worldwide. Their emergence is believed to have been one of necessity following the catastrophic dip in the male Dahomey population following years of ongoing violence with neighbouring West African provinces.

What was life like for the Dahomey Amazons?

Sadly, not all the women in the army were there by choice. Many were enslaved people and foreign captives forced into service, while others were free Dahomey women who had been conscripted into the Mino from as young as eight years old.

Other women forced into service had been sent there following a complaint to the king by their fathers or brothers, who didn’t like their behaviour. It was believed that time in the Mino would mould any undesirable or aggressive behaviour into a perfect instrument for war.

Life for the Mino was incredibly strict. Although they were considered wives of the king, anything that might interfere with their ability to fight was forbidden. This meant that relationships, marriage, and having children were forbidden.

Women were subjected to fierce, almost ritualistic daily regimens and trained with intense exercise regimes. They trained under intense and often torturous conditions to become indifferent to pain and were desensitised to death.

By the 19th century, the Mino numbered between 1,000 and 6,000 women.

What wars did the Dahomey fight in?

The Kingdom of Dahomey accumulated much of its wealth through the slave trade. The kingdom was often at war with its neighbouring provinces, with the Dahomey Amazons leading the raids into neighbouring countries. Captives taken by the Dahomey Amazons were often sold into slavery.

As European countries began to colonise the African continent, Dahomey was a key location of interest due to its already bustling slave trade in the port city of Ouidah. Dahomey fought two wars against the French, and while successfully rebuffing them during the First Franco-Dahomean war, they suffered significant losses.

What happened to the Dahomey Amazons?

The Second Franco-Dahomean war was much less successful, and the Kingdom of Dahomey was defeated by France. Following this defeat, the Dahomey Amazons were disbanded.

Not much is known about what happened to the women of the Mino, but it is likely that once under French occupation, they were returned to their hometowns and expected to live traditional lives. Many of the women would go on to have families, something that was forbidden during their time in the Mino, while others were said to have continued their training with new generations of women in the hopes of keeping the tradition alive.

Are there still Dahomey Amazons alive today?

The last woman who was believed to have been an original Dahomey Amazon died in 1979, aged well over 100 years old. While no original Dahomey Amazons are alive today, their legacy is continued by their descendants, who continue to tell the stories of their warrior ancestors.