A few years ago, while doing research for a project, I came across an article about the Dahomey Amazons–the only thoroughly documented Amazons (warrior women) in world history who lived in what is now modern-day Benin, Africa.
The article praised the young French street artist, YZ, for using the images of the Dahomey Amazons to inspire women in Senegal. At first, I was enthralled, then angry. Why wasn’t this gem of history well-known? Real Amazons. Black women living in Africa.
YZ’s art resonated with me. She sought to resurrect these unrecognized figures in world history, stating: “Many women have fought for their rights and the rights of their people, yet few of them have been recognized for their achievements and many stayed unknown.”
YZ was referring specifically to the Dahomey Amazons of the First Franco-Dahomean War in 1890. When European countries began to colonize and divy up Africa, the Dahomey Kingdom fell under French influence. The Dahomeys fought a seven-week war against the French. According to historian Mike Dash, in their last battle, 1,500 Dahomey Amazons took to the battle-field to defend their lands. Despite the brave effort, they lost, and only 50 Amazons survived.
The French, even with their win, praised the military prowess of these warriors:
As I learned about the bravery of these warrior women, I wanted to project feminist ideals onto the motivations behind their actions. For example, perhaps these women chose military life as a conscious effort to combat their inequality to men? However, more research revealed that these women were forced into the role. According to historian Stanley Alpern, the Dahomey King’s assistants were instructed to tour the kingdom and pick out those suitable for the role of palace guards. Typically, these were girls and women considered badly behaved, disobedient, unattractive, or unwanted by their husbands. Wealthy families also offered their daughters to the palace guard in hopes of increasing their clout with the King.
As soldiers of the King, these women were technically also married to him, and sworn to celibacy under threat of death. Further, the warriors did not perceive themselves as female warriors, but as honorary men. Alpern cites a song by the Amazons that has been passed down orally:
We are men, not women
Whatever town we attack
We must conquer
Or bury itself in its ruins
And another song:
Let us march in a virile manner
Let us march boldly, like men.
There was no revolution for gender equality happening in Dahomey, and women possessed very little agency. Does this take away from the honorable legacy the Dahomey Amazons represent for artists like YZ? And what does this mean for others who look to the past to write the story of tomorrow?
We can still celebrate the Dahomey women; we should celebrate these women. Not only because they demonstrated considerable skill and bravery on the battlefield, but because they defy past and current stereotypes about the military prowess of women. The Dahomey Amazons are an inspiration to women everywhere who operate in male-dominated fields. And they are an inspiration, too, to women who may feel powerless in certain areas of their life, convinced that they are weak and incapable.
Still, I wonder about the inner lives of these women. How did they feel about the abandoned traditions of wives and mothers? Did they ache for a family or another life of their own choosing? What did they do beyond preparing their bodies as weapons of war? What did they desire?
Perhaps someday these questions will be musings for a movie. But for now, historical records and inspired art will have to do.
Alpern, Stanley B. Amazons of Black Sparta:The Women Warriors of Dahomey. NYU Press. 1998.
Dash, Mike. “Dahomey’s Women Warriors.” Smithsonian.com, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/dahomeys-women-warriors September 2011.
Rojo, Jamie, and Steven Harrington. “YZ and Her ‘Amazone’ Warrior Women On Senegalese Walls.” http://www.brooklynstreetart.com/theblog January 4, 2015.