In Atlas Obscura’s She Was There Q&A series, we speak to scientists who are writing long-forgotten women back into history.
In Marvel Comics, Black Panther, of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, leads a band of warriors named Dora Milaje. These women are elite fighters, feared and admired for their training in martial arts and hand-to-hand combat – and they are inspired by a group of real women in history: the warriors of the Kingdom of Dahomey.
Hollywood loves these female warriors, known in their own languages as Agoji warriors or Mino, dubbed “Dahomey Amazons” by the French in the 18th century. The upcoming movie the woman king, starring Viola Davis, is based on these warriors, the only documented all-female army in history.
As a graduate student, Lynne Ellsworth Larsen – now a professor of art history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock – began studying the Kingdom of Dahomey (ca. West African region for much of the 18th and 19th centuries. After I came across the book Leopard’s wives by Edna Bay, Larsen became addicted to the gender politics of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Her article “Women and Warriors: The Royal Women of Dahomey as Representatives of the Kingdom” for The Routledge Companion to Black Women’s Cultural Storiesdeals with the influence of Dahomey women beyond the borders of the kingdom.
The women of Dahomey played an important role in all aspects of Kingdom life. Although the king had ultimate leadership, royal women left their mark on the world of politics, religion, and especially the military. Atlas Obscura spoke to Larsen about the evolution of the Dahomey Warriors, the way they were portrayed in the French media at the time, and what their legacy would be.
How did the warrior women of Dahomey come to be as an army? In your article you speak of several theories.
So that’s debatable, isn’t it? We are not sure. Some say it could be as early as King Houegbadja [who ruled circa 1645 until 1685], who was the first king to settle at Abomey, the capital of their kingdom. He had a core of elephant warriors, so we know women were armed and hunting at least by this point. After Houegbadja died, his son Akaba ascended the throne and ruled until his death around 1716. When Akaba died, his twin sister took his place. Scholars debate whether she was a real queen or just a placeholder for Aqaba’s legacy, but either way she was quite in charge of the kingdom. She would have needed a female guard to protect her in the palace. Visible, armed female warriors may have been used in their day. Now it’s being challenged again because they may have been introduced before.
There were other instances where it seemed like kings needed a larger army than they needed to win certain battles, so they had armed warrior women at their backs. But it looks like it was during the reign of King Guezo [who ruled from 1818 until 1858] that the female warriors became a very clear, visible, famous part of their kingdom and were feared by their neighbors. This was a slave trade economy, so war became part of their annual duties. There was farming season and war season and part of that was expanding and strengthening the kingdom and part of that was gathering people for the slave trade. Unfortunately, the female warriors were part of this hideous part of history.
Did you come across similar armies of women only back then in Africa?
Not that I can think of. Women in West Africa can have a lot of power. So with the Dahomey we are talking about the female warriors, but there were also female court members to balance the male court. The Queen Mother in Dahomey was considered a king’s “ruling companion”. However, I love the idea of having Dora Milaje-type armies across the continent.
In 1890 the first Franco-Dahomeian war began. What role did the warrior women of Dahomey play? How were the reactions from the French side? How do you think that contributed to how they were portrayed in the European media at the time?
So this is really interesting because the French had their mission in the kingdom of Dahomey, right? Your civilizational mission. Part of their justification for exploiting the land and people of these West African areas is that there were these women who brought trophy heads to the king as proof that they had taken lives. For the French, this was the height of barbarism and primitivism, and this became a call to justify colonization.
The French had permanent exhibits where they reenacted battles that would take place, which is really interesting when you know that female warriors in Dahomey often performed reenactments for the king’s court. When the king had visitors, ceremonies could be performed. It has also been used as a form of entertainment. These women came and performed exhibition fights to show off their skills and impress the visitors. They climbed over roofs and caught fire. According to colonial accounts, it was quite a spectacle to behold.
So it was interesting that the French did these reenactments for a very different purpose, just as collecting heads served a purpose for the kings of Dahomey. Even during the Columbian Exposition in America [in 1893]they had painted large shields of Dahomey warriors holding a head.
What legacy does this all-female army leave behind? How does comparing the Dahomey to white Greek fantastic Amazons complicate the perception and reality of these real African warrior women?
I think that’s the whole point. We don’t want to mythologize. The scholar in me takes on complexity. I love the idea of powerful black women having agency and doing things that Europeans thought only men could do. I love the idea of breaking up these hierarchies. However, I don’t want to gloss over and say that they weren’t also involved in this horrible slave trade. I don’t think we should ignore that they were part of that system, part of a patriarchal system. Yes, they were powerful, but it was still the king who made those decisions. In terms of legacy, I would celebrate representation and would celebrate strength and agency where they are, but I would also be wary of idealization and glossing over complexity.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.