TSL Women’s History Month in Focus: Warrior Women of the Dahomey

This is part of The Shadow League’s Women’s History Month In Focus series celebrating excellence in sports, entertainment and culture.

She intones a song of victory and dances:The blood flows,You are dead.The blood flows, We have won.The blood flows, it flows, it flows.The blood flows, The enemy is no more. But 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.

French writer Hlne Almeida-Topor

Some like to pretend that women are dainty waifs incapable of handling extreme physical activity of any kind. We have all these weird norms in western civilization that are supposed to reflect chivalry, but ultimately appear to be chauvinistic and just plain old stupid when looked at objectively. Hell, the United States military just allowed women on the frontline in combat in 2013. Most believe this indicative of some kind of advancement in our cultural zeitgeist.

But it’s actually an indictment on how back-ass-wards (sic) American society is when it comes to recognizing the combat genius of some of the world’s most successful women warriors. The funny thing about the Western interpretation of Warrior Women is that many of our contemporary ideas come from fiction. Women warriors have been the catalyst for many fictional accounts that pay homage to the millenia old tradition of women fighters. Wonder Woman, the Bionic Woman, Storm of the X-Men, Michonne off the Walking Dead, Starbuck from the revised Battlestar Galactica series on Syfy and Xena Warrior Princess are but a spec of the multitudes of other fictional offerings that have made millions of us cheer.

Image title

But there are many instances of real life women warriors that battled great empires possessing vastly superior weaponry to an impasse. Historically, the first mention of Amazons as a race of fierce women warriors comes from Greek mythology. However, the title of Amazon was later transposed onto groups of fighting women from Iran to the Ukraine, Libya to South America. This practice proves that women warriors were no historic anomaly. 

Image title

One of the fiercest and most successful groups of women warriors in the history of the world were from the Kingdom of Dahomy, modern day Benin. According to the Smithsonian, 17th century author Stanley Alpern, who wrote the only full-length account of these warriors, the kingdom began recruiting women warriors shortly after it was founded by Fon Tribe chief Dako in 1625. They began as women hunters. According to one account, Dahomey’s female fighters were ceremonially married to the king but never actually had relations with him.

Image title

(Nzinga of Matamba)

In 1725, French slaver Jean-Pierre Thibault described seeing women acting as police in the capital. Four years later, these warriors participated in an attack on the port of Ouidah to reclaim it after it was taken by the more numerous Yoruba tribe to its east. The best known of these tenacious warriors was Queen Nzinga of Matamba.

She fought off the then powerful Portuguese, ceased the practice of human sacrifice and had a harem of 60 men that she dressed in women’s clothing.

It is believed that a woman who claimed to have fought against the French in 1882 named Nawi was the last of them. She died in 1979. Reminiscent of the tenacity and resilience that most can only aspire to, the women warriors of Dahomey were one of the best fighting forces in the history of the world.

Back to top