Founded in the early 17th century, the west African kingdom of Dahomey was a bellicose, expansionist state. It is said the king’s primary duty was to ‘make Dahomey always larger’; one 18th-century king, Agaju, boasted that – whereas his grandfather had conquered two countries, his father 18, and his brother, who took the throne before him, 42 – he himself had conquered 209.
European contact with Dahomey came through the slave trade, a commodity the kingdom had a regular supply of through its military campaigns. But first European visitors in the 1720s were surprised to find the king guarded exclusively by women armed with muskets. These were not merely ceremonial bodyguards: there are multiple accounts of the women being heavily involved in fighting that resulted from contested successions, such as those that followed the deaths of Tegbesu in 1774 and Kplenga in 1779.
Historians disagree when the women’s palace guard expanded into an army; it may have happened some time in the 18th century. But European witnesses in 19th century regarded the women’s army, typically smaller than its male counterpart, to be the superior force: better equipped and more disciplined. Where the men shot muskets from the hip, the women took aim and fired from the shoulder. They were “the mainstay of the kingdom”, Richard Burton, in Dahomey on a diplomatic mission in 1863-4, said.
Some accounts suggest the women were more formidable in battle too: when Dahomey laid siege to the Egba stronghold at Abeokuta in 1851 they lost some 2,200 soldiers in the attempt. The only Dahomeans to breach the city’s defences were four women.
These fighting women fascinated western visitors, who called them ‘amazons’ – a striking example of men interpreting an unfamiliar culture through the prism of their own. The Dahomeans called them ahosi, the generic term for all king’s wives, of whom there were typically several thousand. But again the term ‘wife’ is again misleading. While ordinary women in Dahomey were, the Frenchman Edouard Chaudoin noted, considered inferior beings, elevation to the ahosi gave them significant status and power. Women in the palace had political and other roles that were the equal of their male counterparts: attending councils, interpreting, advising the king what to say.
Why did Dahomey, uniquely, have a women’s army? One answer is attrition: the state of constant warfare depleted the number of available men. “People have no time for peaceful pursuits,” Burton wrote; “war, war, war is alone thought of and the king gives them no rest.” Another may be the mystique of terror: the ferocious reputation of the women soldiers, allied with the sheer strangeness of fighting women, helped in what we would now call psychological warfare.
When the British sent envoys arguing for Dahomey to renounce slavery, the then king, Gezo (1818-58), told them: “my people are a military people, male and female… I cannot send my women to cultivate the soil, it would kill them”. But there is evidence that when palace officials came to villages to pick young women for the ahosi, their families tried to hide them. Until the latter half of the 19th century much of its army, male and female, was comprised of former captives; while they enjoyed high status, many of the fighting ahosi remained slaves to the end.
They last saw action at Cana, in the last battle of a losing war against the French, on November 4 1892.
This piece first appeared in the November 2021 issue of History Today.
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Image: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons