The army of women of the
The Dahomey Amazons are the only documented all female official frontline combat military unit in modern history. They were a sub-Saharan band of female warriors who left enemies and their European colonisers fleeing. The army went by other names, including Mino, meaning “Our Mothers’ in the Fon language.
Protecting their king on the bloodiest of battlefields, they emerged as an elite fighting force in the Kingdom of Dahomey, the present-day Republic of Benin. Described as untouchable, sworn in as virgins, swift decapitation was their trademark.
King Houegbadja (645 to 1685), 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".
Houegbadja's son King Agaja (1708 to 1732) established a female bodyguard armed with muskets. According to tradition, Agaja developed the bodyguard into a militia and successfully used them in Dahomey's defeat of the neighbouring kingdom of Savi in 1727. The group of female warriors was referred to as Mino, meaning "Our Mothers" in the Fon language, by the male army of Dahomey. While European narratives refer to the women soldiers as "Amazons," they called themselves "Ahosi" (king's wives) or Mino (our mothers).
Girls were recruited and given weapons as young as eight-years-old, and while some women in society became soldiers voluntarily, others were also enrolled by husbands who complained of unruly wives they couldn’t control.
Other accounts indicate that the Mino were recruited from among the king's wives of which there were often hundreds.
During their membership, they were not allowed to have children or be part of married life. Many of them were virgins. The regiment had a semi-sacred status, which was intertwined with the Fon belief in Vodoo. The Mino trained with intense physical exercise. They learnt survival skills and indifference to pain and death, storming acacia-thorn defences in military exercises and executing prisoners.
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.
Ruthlessness and insensitivity was prevalent amongst them
The women learnt survival skills, discipline and mercilessness. Insensitivity training was a key part of becoming a soldier for the King. 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.
A French delegation visiting Dahomey in 1880s reported witnessing an Amazon girl of about sixteen during training. The records note that she took three swings of the machete before completely removing the head of a prisoner. She wiped the blood from her sword and swallowed it. Her fellow Amazons screamed in frenzied approval. It was customary in the region as warriors of the time to return home with their heads and genitals of opponents.
It was a chance to escape lives of forced domestic drudgery. Serving in the army offered women the opportunity to “rise to positions of command and influence”, taking prominent roles in the Grand Council, debating the policy of the kingdom. They all had slaves too.
Stanley Alpern, the author of the only full-length English-language study of them, wrote “when Amazons walked out of the palace, they were preceded by a slave girl carrying a bell. The sound told every male to get out of their path, retire a certain distance, and look the other way.”
The last surviving Amazon of Dahomey died at the age of 100 in 1979, a woman named Nawi who was discovered living in a remote village. In a 1978 interview with a Beninese historian, she claimed to have fought the French in 1892.
They were also said to be the most feared women to walk the earth and changed the African women narrative.