The Amazons of Black Sparta

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Firstly, that name itself is rather insulting because it implies that any female warrior elite  from other cultures will always play second fiddle to the Greek Amazons of legend, of which there is not one single shred of archaeological proof to confirm their existence.  In fact, except for Sparta, where women enjoyed an unprecedented freedom compared to the other Greek city states of that era where they were basically second-class citizens useful only for political marriages and baby-making, the female warrior elite of the Fon of Dahomey (Benin), to which this silly title refers to, were not myths but a very real and potent military force which kept the French from conquering this kingdom for a hundred years until they were finally overwhelmed long after the male elements of the army had been wiped out, or had surrendered.

As we know, the Greeks shamelessly appropriated not only knowledge from ancient Africa and tried to pass it off as their own, but also myths and legends.  Most of the early Greek pantheon are simply the old Egyptian gods with Greek names.  The great philosophers such as Socrates and Aristotle studied where?  In Alexandria, Egypt, the seat of the greatest library and collection of scholars this world has ever seen.  So it makes sense that they would appropriate the legend of an elite female fighting force as well, that actually originated in Africa.

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Although the female warriors of the Fon were not from ancient times, the reason why I bring them up is, well, because they are not from ancient times.  Their very existence during the industrialization of the Western world in the 18th and 19th centuries demonstrates this tradition was not at all that unusual in the African continent, where women were highly valued not just for their child-bearing capabilities, but also for their knowledge, leadership and yes, fighting abilities.  And female warriors were not unique to Africa as we know for in even in England, Queen Boudicca of the ancient Britons and her daughters, whupped the Romans for quite some time, burning, pillaging and otherwise terrorizeing the fearsome Roman legionaires until she was finally overwhelmed and defeated after a protracted campaign tto keep her country free from the foreign invaders.  She too, led her troops into battle,  driving her own battle chariot into the midst of the slaughter.  These traditional of powerful female warriors were just that–a tradition–one that had roots deep in the African psyche, indeed the human psyche until the ascendancy of the sun gods and their dominanace over the traditional Mother Cults that were the norm back then.  And they were able to thrive in Africa because in there a higher value is placed on women than men.  Or at least it used to that way, until the creeping rot of Westernalization began to set in and corrupt the very soul of the continent.

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But let me not get side-tracked.

The history of female warriors in Africa is common knowledge to most Africans; but in the West where most information about Black Africa was suppressed to complete the transformation of Blacks all over the globe from a proud and ancient race, to the end products of the global slave trade and the rape and pillaging of the African continent and its people that we see today, this information was inflammatory.  How dare these darkies lay claim to traditions that could possibly give them strength?

For the better part of 200 years, thousands of female soldiers fought and died to expand the borders of their West African kingdom. Even their conquerors, the French, acknowledged their “prodigious bravery.”

Dahomey, in what is now called Benin, in the early 18th and 19th centuries, was renowned as a “Black Sparta,” a fiercely militaristic society bent on conquest, whose soldiers struck fear into their enemies all along what is still known as the Slave Coast. In one of the many accounts of these women warriors which have survived the purge by the French of all things African in their colonies, a priest by the name of Father Borghero describes what he saw as he watchdewd these women drill.

“3,000 heavily armed soldiers march into the square and begin a mock assault on a series of defenses designed to represent an enemy capital. The Dahomean troops are a fearsome sight, barefoot and bristling with clubs and knives. A few, known as Reapers, are armed with gleaming three-foot-long straight razors, each wielded two-handed and capable, the priest was told, of slicing a man clean in two.  The soldiers advance in silence, reconnoitering. Their first obstacle is a wall—huge piles of acacia branches bristling with needle-sharp thorns, forming a barricade that stretches nearly 440 yards. The troops rush it furiously, ignoring the wounds that the two-inch-long thorns inflict. After scrambling to the top, they mime hand-to-hand combat with imaginary defenders, fall back, scale the thorn wall a second time, then storm a group of huts and drag a group of cringing “prisoners” to where Glele stands, assessing their performance. The bravest are presented with belts made from acacia thorns. Proud to show themselves impervious to pain, the warriors strap their trophies around their waists.

The general who led the assault appears and gives a lengthy speech, comparing the valor of Dahomey’s warrior elite to that of European troops and suggesting that such equally brave peoples should never be enemies. Borghero listens, but his mind is wandering. He finds the general captivating: “slender but shapely, proud of bearing, but without affectation.” Not too tall, perhaps, nor excessively muscular. But then, of course, the general is a woman, as are all 3,000 of her troops. Father Borghero had been watching the King of Dahomey’s famed corps of “amazons,” as contemporary writers termed them—the only female soldiers in the world who then routinely served as combat troops.”

Dahomey’s female troops were not the only martial women of their time. There were at least a few contemporary examples of successful warrior queens, the best-known of whom was probably Nzinga of Matamba, who I discussed in my previuos post, one of the most important figures in 17th-century Africa—a ruler who fought the Portuguese, quaffed the blood of sacrificial victims, and kept a harem of 60 male concubines, whom she dressed in women’s clothes.

What made Dahomey’s women warriors unique was that they fought, and frequently died, for king and country. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that, in the course of just four major campaigns in the latter half of the 19th century, they lost at least 6,000 dead, and perhaps as many as 15,000. In their very last battles, against French troops equipped with vastly superior weaponry, about 1,500 women took the field, and only about 50 remained fit for active duty by the end, a staggering number of casualties, yes but considering they fought against a force with the superior firearms that allowed the Europeans to conquer the world, it is a wonder that they lasted that long.  also, the fact that there were at least 15,000 elite, highly trained, and very deadly women in arms, speaks volumes as to their value as soldiers.

The corps still existed 20 years later, when the kingdom at last found itself caught up in the “scramble for Africa,” which saw various European powers competing to absorb slices of the continent into their empires. Dahomey fell within the French sphere of influence, and there was already a small French colony at Porto-Novo when, in about 1889, female troops were involved in an incident that resulted in a full-scale war. According to local oral histories, the spark came when the Dahomeans attacked a village under French suzerainty whose chief tried to avert panic by assuring the inhabitants that the tricolor would protect them. “So you like this flag?” the Dahomean general asked when the settlement had been overrun. “Eh bien, it will serve you,” she then said. At the general’s signal, one of the women warriors beheaded the chief with one blow of her cutlass and carried his head back to her new king, Béhanzin, wrapped in the French standard.

The First Franco-Dahomean War, which ensued in 1890, resulted in two major battles, one of which took place in heavy rain at dawn outside Cotonou, on the Bight of Benin. Béhanzin’s army, which included female units, assaulted a French stockade but was driven back in hand-to-hand fighting. No quarter was given on either side. Only the sheer firepower of their modern rifles won the day for the French.

The Dahomeans were no match for the large French force that was assembled to complete the conquest two years later. That seven-week war was fought even more fiercely than the first. There were 23 separate battles, and once again female troops were in the vanguard of dahomey’s forces, and not as cannon fodder, but as the elite. The women were the last to surrender, and even then—at least according to a rumor common in the French army of occupation—the survivors took their revenge on the French by covertly substituting themselves for Dahomean women who were taken into the enemy stockade. Each allowed herself to be seduced by French officer, waited for him to fall asleep, and then cut his throat with his own bayonet.

To see more about these warriors visit

In a society of powerful kings, how can one ever, for even one second believe that the ruler of an empire the size and strength of that of Dahomey, would entrust his own life and the welfare of his kingdom to women if even for one moment he and indeed his entire culture truly believed they  women were the weaker sex?

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Next up:  The Matriarchs of the Ashanti


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