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From daughters to soldiers, from wives
to weapons, they remain the only documented frontline female troops in modern
warfare history. A sub-saharan band of female terminators who left their
European colonisers shaking in their boots, foreign observers named them
the Dahomey Amazons while they called themselves N’Nonmiton, which
means “our mothers” in Fon, the language of the Fon people of Dahomey, now in
present-day Benin. Some European historians and observers called them the
Dahomey Amazons as they reminded them of the mystical and powerful all women’s
army called Amazons in Greek mythology.
Fon Woman. Photo credit: Wikipedia
Protecting their king on the bloodiest of battlefields,
they emerged as an elite fighting force in the Kingdom of Dahomey in, the
present-day Republic of Benin. Described as untouchable, sworn in as
virgins, swift decapitation was their trademark.
The Dahomey Amazons are the only
documented all-female official front-line combat arms military unit in modern
history. Tough, uber-intense asskicking women single-mindedly devoted to
hardening themselves into ruthless instruments of battlefield destruction,
these machete-wielding, musket-slinging lady terminators were rightly-feared
throughout Western Africa for over250 years, not only for their fanatical
devotion to battle, but for their utter refusal to back down or retreat from
any fight unless expressly ordered to do so by their king. If you were some
poor conscript douchebag militia soldier hanging out around your barracks and
you saw these scary-as-fuck kill-chicks suddenly start charging out of the
woods in your direction, screaming their war chants with their muskets barking
fire and their signature double-edged two-foot-long machetes brandished
threateningly over their heads, you had one fleeting moment to overcome your
crippling panic and defend yourself. Because if you failed to kill them – and I
mean if you failed to kill every single last one of them, some
murderous woman was going to club your unconscious with a musket butt, drag you
back to her capital, chop off your head with one swing of her machete, boil the
skin off of your decapitated face, and then use your skull to decorate the
royal palace.
Created around 1645 by the Dahomey
King Ada Honzoo, the Amazons weren’t initially designed to serve as frontal
assault shock troops sent in to crush the enemy’s spirits (and skulls) in a
frenzied wave of bloodlusted fury. Instead, they started out as a small team of
women who specialized in bringing down elephants, and who would go out on
organized, efficient pachyderm hunts while the men were out fighting in wars.
Eventually, possibly due to a lack of manpower or possibly because of their
ruthless efficiency, Ada Honzoo promoted them to his personal bodyguard unit,
expanding the unit to 800 women warriors with spears, bows, and war clubs,
which in turn grew in size to an elite military unit of over 4,000 warriors. As
a shout-out to their roots the Amazons chose to honor their heritage by naming
their first battalion the Elephant Destroyers. The second battalion, it should
be noted, were known as the Reapers – women who ditched those pesky flintlock
muskets and instead went to battle armed with a razor-sharp three-foot machete
they wielded with two hands.
Theories suggest they started as a corps of elephant hunters
who impressed the Dahomey King with their skills while their husbands were
away fighting other tribesA different theory suggests that because
women were the only people permitted in the King’s palace with him after dark,
they naturally became his bodyguards. Whichever is true, only the strongest,
healthiest and most courageous women were recruited for the
meticulous training that would turn them into battle-hungry killing
machines, feared throughout African for more than two centuries.
A French delegation visiting Dahomey in
the 1880s reported witnessing an Amazon girl of about sixteen during training.
After beheading a prisoner, she wiped the blood from her machete and swallowed
it, while her fellow Amazons screamed in frenzied approval.
Only the strongest and most
courageous women were recruited into the group which bound the women legally to
the king in a vow of chastity. As such, they were disallowed to marry or have
children. Some women joined out of their own volition, but others were enrolled
to become soldiers by husbands who complained that they were uncontrollable.
Certain theories suggest the group started as a corps of elephant hunters who
impressed the King with their skills while their men were away fighting other
tribes. Others insist that, because women were the only people permitted in the
King’s palace with him after dark, they naturally became his bodyguards.
Whichever way, these women, called the Ahosi of Dahomey, Mino or the Dahomey
Amazons, were famous for their incredible ability to fight men.
From the start, they were trained to be strong, fast,
ruthless and able to withstand great pain. Exercises that resembled a form of
gymnastics included jumping over walls covered with thorny acacia
branches. Sent on long 10-day “Hunger Games” style expeditions in the
jungle without supplies, only their machete, they became fanatical about
battle. To prove themselves, they had to be twice as tough as the men.
Often seen as the last (wo)men standing in battle, unless expressly
ordered to retreat by their King, the Dahomey women fought to the death– defeat
was never an option.
Joining the group required
mercilessness. One recruitment ceremony involved testing if potential soldiers
were ruthless enough to throw bound human prisoners of war to their deaths from
a fatal height.
The N’Nonmiton (our mothers), as
they fondly called themselves, often fought to the death unless expressly
ordered to retreat by the King. After the Franco-Dahomean Wars, in which many
French soldiers died for underestimating the Amazons, the legionnaires wrote
about the “incredible courage and audacity” of the Amazons.
Even after French expansion in
Africa in the 1890s subdued the Dahomey people, their reign of fear continued.
Uniformed French soldiers who took Dahomey women to bed were often found dead
in the morning, their throats slit open.
Of the 4,000 Dahomey Amazons under
King Behanzin’s command, nearly all of them were killed hurling themselves
fearlessly into battle. Only 50 women survived, and most of them, awesomely
enough, went to the United States and joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
They fought bravely, nobody can deny
that, battling the French in 24 pitched battles between 1890 and 1894, but
ultimately their sword-swinging mayhem was no match for a modern industrial
world power with top-of-the-line weaponry. Their charges were beaten off by
intense gunfire, and in hand-to-hand combat the twenty-inch French rifle
bayonets had roughly twice the reach of the Dahomey knives and machetes. The
French conquered Dahomey in January 1894, driving King Behanzin into exile.
The group was disbanded in the 20th
century as part of the French colonial expansion. Nawi, the last surviving
Dahomey Amazon, died in 1979 at the age of 100.
A Dahomean who grew up in Cotonou in the 1930s recalled that
he regularly tormented an elderly woman, who used to be an Amazon he and his
friends saw shuffling along the road, bent double by tiredness and age. He
confided to the French writer Hélène Almeida-Topor that:
one day, one of us
throws a stone that hits another stone. The noise resounds, a spark flies. We
suddenly see the old woman straighten up. Her face is transfigured. She begins
to march proudly… Reaching a wall, she lies down on her belly and crawls on her
elbows to get round it. She thinks she is holding a rifle because abruptly she
shoulders and fires, then reloads her imaginary arm and fires again, imitating
the sound of a salvo. Then she leaps, pounces on an imaginary enemy, rolls on
the ground in furious hand-to-hand combat, flattens the foe. With one hand she
seems to pin him to the ground, and with the other stabs him repeatedly. Her
cries betray her effort. She makes the gesture of cutting to the quick and
stands up brandishing her trophy….
She intones a song of
victory and dances:
The blood flows,
You are
blood flows,
We have
blood flows, it flows, it flows.
blood flows,
enemy is no more.
suddenly she stops, dazed. Her body bends, hunches, how old she seems, older
than before! She walks away with a hesitant step.
She is a
former warrior; an adult explains…. The battles ended years ago, but she
continues the war in her head.
In 2015, a French street
artist, YZ, begun her own campaign to pay tribute to the fierce female
fighters of the 19th century. Working
in Senegal, south of Dakar, she pastes large-format photograph prints she found
in local archives of the warrior women.
they were also said to be the most feared women to walk the earth, they would
also change how women were seen and respected in Africa and beyond.




By Johnson Okunade
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