The History of the Kingdom of Dahomey and the Dahomey Amazons

The Woman King, starring Viola Davis, will explore a raging war from the perspective of a fearless and powerful military regiment. Prior to its September 2022 release, the film’s striking first photographs caught the internet’s attention. Many people may be wondering if The Woman King’s all-woman army and the Kingdom of Dahomey are real. The answer for both is a resounding yes. The Kingdom of Dahomey and the Dahomey Amazons have a rich and interesting background that you should know prior to diving into the film. Let’s take a trip way back in time and uncover some vital, and at times complex, West African history. 

The History of the Kingdom of Dahomey 

The Kingdom of Dahomey existed from circa 1600 until 1904 within what is presently known as Benin, a West African country. The area was initially settled by the Fon people, a Gbe ethnic group that still exists today. They took residence on the Abomey plateau, establishing a king to rule over them. It wasn’t until their third king, Houegbadja, came into power in 1645 that the collective truly began to organize and hone their power.

map of kingdom of dahomey
Encyclopedia Britannica

Under his influence, administration and religious practices (their dominant religion was Vodun) got a firm foundation as they did what any kingdom must do to establish its dominance and authority: conquer nearby areas. By the 18th century, the Kingdom of Dahomey was on a path of economic growth and expansion.  Much of this came from the abysmal practice of slave trading, which they did with European traders. It was a matter of either enslave others or become enslaved yourself and Dahomey chose the former.

The kingdom would capture people and sell them in the Atlantic slave trade in exchange for goods like rifles, tobacco, and alcohol. And the Kingdom of Dahomey kept some captives to enslave within its territory, forcing them to work on plantations and cultivate food for its army and royalty. The Annual Customs of Dahomey would often feature the mass execution of enslaved people for human sacrifice, giving gifts, and Vodun ceremonies. 

The Kingdom of Dahomey became known for its intricate artwork, Vodun traditions, and its all-woman military unit known as the Dahomey Amazons. (More on them later, of course.) Near the mid-1800s, the kingdom began to decline with pressure from Britain to stop slave trading. During this time, King Ghezo (whom John Boyega will portray in The Woman King) was in charge and staunchly against ending this lucrative business. Spoiler Alert: things do not end well for him.

Dahomey began to crumble for the fearsome kingdom in several ways. The Royal Navy put a blockade and patrols up at Dahomey’s coast, the nearby safe haven refugee city-state of Abeokuta defeated them in a major battle, and growing tensions with France set the stage for war in the impending decades.

There were two Franco-Dahomean wars, which ended in 1894 with France taking over. The Kingdom of Dahomey eventually became French Dahomey, a colony, ten years later. It transitioned to a self-governing colony, the Republic of Dahomey, with full independence coming in 1960. In 1975, the area got yet another name, the People’s Republic of Benin, which later simply became the Republic of Benin. That is the official name today, but is colloquially known as Benin. 

The Rise of the Dahomey Amazons

Yes, the history of the Kingdom of Dahomey is quite a lot. But how did the Dahomey Amazons fit into all of this? Their origins are murky but they came to be during the rule of Houegbadja as a collective of hunters known as gbeto. A lot of the documentation about them comes from the perspectives of European visitors, including naming them Amazons. However, they called themselves Mino, which means “our mothers” in Fon language. Some of them were also ahosi (“king’s wives).

As expected, documenters saw the Dahomey Amazons as “overly masculine,” inciting fear among them. The collective became large in number with estimations upwards of 6,000 women by the mid 19th-century. They would remain single, dedicating their lives to the kingdom and eschewing things associated with traditional womanhood. 

photo of dahomey amazons from kingdom of dahomey

The Kingdom of Dahomey’s penchant for frequent conquests and violence led to many men’s deaths. And, the kingdom gave up many of their own people as slaves (by force) to the more powerful Oyo Empire. This is where the Dahomey women hunters likely rose in the military ranks to become fighters. Some of them were captives but many came from Dahomey, volunteering to be of service. Of course, women who did not “play by the rules” ended up in the regiment. They could hone their “undesirable” traits into something useful for war.

They went through intense training, getting into supreme physical shape and deadening their overt emotions towards death and violence. Becoming a Mino was an avenue for many women to obtain what they didn’t have previously: wealth, status, and influence. There were different specializations among them with some being experts with rifles or bow and arrow, their uniforms marking regiment distinctions. Viola Davis’ character Nansica represents one of the Mino’s commanders, a woman warrior whose skill and leadership surpasses her counterparts.

Of course, they fought in the Franco-Dahomean wars and disbanded after France’s takeover. Some of the warriors went on to live a “traditional” life while others struggled after years of combat. Interestingly, the last living Dahomey Amazon is thought to be Nawi, a main character in The Woman King played by South African actress Thuso Mbedu.

In the film, Nawi will be a recruit who comes under the tutelage of Nansica. She spoke with a historian in 1978, saying she fought against the French nearly 90 years prior. She died in November of the following year with her age estimated over 100. While this seems nearly impossible, the regiment did have girls as young as 8 join their ranks. So, it is quite possible she was a pre-teen or even teenager who fought those battles. 

The Woman King‘s Take on History
Viola Davis in The Woman King first look photo kingdom of dahomey amazons
TriStar Pictures

The Dahomey women warriors have popped up in recent entertainment like Lovecraft Country and Black Panther. The Dora Milaje obviously draw some inspiration from these warriors. Now they are coming to full focus in The Woman King. The series synopsis reveals that Nansica, the General of the unit, and Nawi, a recruit, will fight alongside each other against enemies who enslaved their people and tried to destroy their lives. With the inclusion of Boyega’s king, we know that we will see some of the “beginning of the end” for Dahomey. But we may also get looks into the origins, too.

Of course, this film is “inspired by true events” which means it will not function like a documentary or story that sticks strictly to the facts. There will be creative liberty taken and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Kingdom of Dahomey engaged in some morally skewed (to put it lightly) practices that were the norm of this time period. But behind the wars sanctioned by royals and gore are actual human beings. These women likely served because they wanted to protect the ones they love or prove themselves in some manner. Or they were not given a choice in their life trajectory.

Viola Davis stands with an army in the grassland in the woman king
TriStar Pictures

In many war/conflict situations, each side perceives themselves as the protagonist…right? The synopsis indicates the film will show this conflict through their heroic lens. Perhaps the narrative will pit them against real-life enemies like the British and French along with other African communities. The Woman King is a great vehicle to humanize the Dahomey Amazons aka the Mino in a way that white male documenters did not in their observations. It will be interesting to see how this film will depict the Kingdom of Dahomey and its women warriors.

Featured Image: TriStar Pictures/WikiCommons

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