The Dora Milaje are a fictional team of women who serve as special forces for the Kingdom of Wakanda. The Dora Milaje are a perfect example of female strength and a glimpse into a far true, if oft-forgotten, piece of history. While I was not aware of the inspiration behind the Dora Milaje when I watched Black Panther, it became clear to me after I learned about the Dahomey Amazons that they might have been the source of inspiration behind these strong women. The Dahomey Amazons were also known as Mino (meaning ‘our mothers’ in Fon). They were an all-female military army of the Republic of Benin known then as the Kingdom of Dahomey.
The Dahomey Amazons are not works of fiction and are not mythical characters. There are at least a few other examples of successful warrior queens in history, the best-known of whom is probably Nzinga of Matamba. She was an important figure in 17th-century Angola—a ruler who fought the Portuguese, quaffed the blood of sacrificial victims, and kept a harem of 60 male concubines. Nonetheless, the Dahomey Amazons today remain the only documented frontline female troops in modern warfare history. The last surviving Amazon of Dahomey, a woman named Nawi was discovered living in a remote village and died at the age of 100 in 1979. The term ‘Amazons’ was given to them by Western observers due to their similarities in build to the Amazons in Greek mythology. However, they called themselves N’Nonmiton, which means “our mothers.” They protected their king on the bloodiest of battlefields and emerged as an elite fighting force in the Kingdom of Dahomey.
Their history goes back as far as the 17th century, and theories suggest they started as a corps of elephant hunters who impressed their King Houegbadja (who ruled from 1645 to 1685) with their skills while their husbands were away fighting other tribes. Another theory is that because women were the only people permitted in the King’s palace with him after dark, they naturally became his bodyguards.
It is important to note that a number of the Amazon warriors became soldiers voluntarily, while others were involuntarily enrolled due to their husbands or fathers reporting about their behaviour. Regardless, it was only the strongest, healthiest and most courageous women recruited and trained to become feared warriors hailed throughout Africa for more than two centuries.
If we go to war, we cannot come back empty-handed; if we fail to catch elephants, let us be content with flies: the king only knows where the war shall be.
Quote From The Women Warriors of Dahomey
The Dahomey Amazons were not allowed to have children or partake in any form of family life, as they were formally married to the King though they didn’t have sexual relations with him. Though most of them remained celibate, a few got married to respected dignitaries of the kingdom. They did enjoy certain privileges like a good stock of tobacco and alcohol, and residing in the King’s palace after dark, which the men were not allowed to do. They also had as many as 50 slaves per soldier. The slaves walked in front of them on trips outside the community. The slave rang a small bell alerting people of the Amazons approaching and for them to give way, bow and avert their eyes. The Amazons were celebrated and contributed to the growth of the Dahomey Empire.
By the 19th century, they had grown from a 600 female troop to around 6,000. Ehen King Béhanzin, the last king of Dahomey was overthrown by the French in the Second Franco-Dahomean War. The troops were disbanded when the kingdom became a French protectorate. Oral tradition states that some surviving amazons secretly remained in Abomey afterwards, where they quietly assassinated a number of French officers. Other stories say the women pledged their services in the protection of Agoli-Agbo, the brother of Béhanzin, disguising themselves as his wives to guard him. Some of the women married and had children, while others remained single.
According to a historian who traced the lives of almost two dozen ex-amazons, all the women displayed difficulties adjusting to life as retired warriors, often struggling to find new roles in their communities that gave them a sense of pride comparable to their former lives. Many displayed a tendency to start fights or arguments that frightened their neighbours and relatives.
Between 1934 and 1942, several British travellers in Abomey recorded encounters with ex-amazons, now old women who spun cotton or idled around courtyards. An unknown number of women are said to have trained with the members of the Dahomey Amazons after they were disbanded, in effect continuing the tradition.
In 2015, a French street artist, YZ, begun her campaign to pay tribute to the fierce female fighters of the 19th century. Researching her personal history as a descendent from slaves, her portraits tell these women’s stories with a new force. She named this series of strong warriors “Amazone”. Working in Senegal, south of Dakar, she pasted large-format photograph prints she found in local archives of the warrior women. You can see more of her installations here.