This is another article from my "Stories about African and African descent people that need to be on the big screen." Originally I was planning on doing a 3 part series. I realized how difficult it would be to narrow down all the choices, I mean we're talking about hundred upon hundreds of iconic people! Here's the new plan, I will just put out these types of articles periodically, with each focused on a single person or group of people. I apologize to the readers who've waited (yep, a really long time) for part 2. Hey, I've made the wait worth your while - okay, it's time to learn something new!
Are you ready, Billy?
As a fan of comic books and comic book related movies I've always wanted to see my favorite heroes on the big screen. I've been fortunate enough to live in an era that allows me to see all of this come true, but there's something missing. Where are the huge female superhero movies?! It still blows my mind that we have numerous Batman and Superman movies. Still, there's no Wonder Woman movie insight? Hey, look on the bright side, we're going to see her in 2016 with Batman and Superman... Then you'll have to wait until probably 2018? Just to see her in a solo movie, sounds good, right!
Hold on now! We don't have to wait forever for a Wonder Woman movie when we can have a movie on some real amazons - the Amazons of Dahomey. This is a part of history I wish more people knew about, especially women. Here's some background info... (Warning: REALLY LONG ARTICLE!)
Kingdom of Dahomey:
Now called Benin located in West Africa was once an African Kingdom which lasted from 1600 to 1900. Developing in the early 1600's Dahomey would soon rise to power in the 1700's by conquering key cities along the Atlantic coast. The Dahomey was known for its fierce military, which allowed it to be a popular location for the Atlantic slave trade. It's reported that the kingdom was responsible of supplying 20% of the slaves to Europe and the Americas. Only prisoners of war and criminals (rapists, murderers and thieves) from neighboring/conquered tribes would be chosen. In return the Dahomey or any other African ruler would receive superior firearms, ammunition or something beneficial to that individual.
There was a strict rule that nobody from their own kingdom would be traded. In many customs throughout Africa if you were a prisoner of war turned "slave" you would be allowed to keep your birth name, religious faith and most times allow your family to join you. You were officially a "child" of the king and queen. Your heart and soul will forever be faithful towards your new family (the kingdom).... Never will you be treated less than a human being or some sort of livestock.
Dahomey is home to natives called the Fon or "Fon nu" people who are an ethnic and linguistic group. The Fon people and their language still exist throughout Benin including southwest Nigeria. This group makes up more than 3,500,000 people! When it comes to religion the majority of Fon practice their national religion of Vodun aka Voodoo while the rest are Christians.
Let's get into the politics of the Dahomey Kingdom before we move on to the next section. Just like the rest of early (or ancient) Africa many of the tales were passed on orally instead of in writing like the Greeks and Romans. Most of the written information provided about the Dahomey's were by European merchants, military leaders, and adventurers/travelers.
It was implied that the kingdom was an absolute monarchy with a tyrant as their king... Well, this isn't entirely true because many of these statements were predominately written by European slave traders that would write down anyone non-European as a "savage". On the contrary, we find out later by historians that Dahomey was in fact a very conscious political and fair monarchy. That held little tolerance for outsiders that tried to screw them over. The King of Dahomey was the sovereign power of the kingdom and everyone within his kingdom were his "family".
Every king was part of the Alladaxonou dynasty, the oldest son would usually be the next in line to rule. But, it was never that easy, in order to be king there were long and thought out discussions within the Great Council. The council was hosted by different dignitaries throughout the kingdom that would meet yearly at the Annual Customs of Dahomey. Both men and women would have lengthy discussions on whom to decide as their next king. After their discussion the present king would declare the consensus of the group.
Before they were ever called Amazons they started out as a small team of women that were specialized in killing elephants aka gbeto (freaking elephant hunters!). They would go out on well coordinated, organized and efficient hunts while the men went to war. There's no legitimate explanation why King Ada Honzoo decided to create an all female unit besides these two reasons - 1.) Lack of manpower and so many casualties during wars against neighboring tribes/kingdoms. 2.) There are reports on how much the king praised the gbeto for their ruthless efficiency.
It's the year 1645 and the Amazons are finally "born" by the Dahomey King Ada Honzoo. At this time 400 of these women were promoted to be the king's personal bodyguard unit. Over time this small unit of 400 bodyguards would turn into an 6,000 strong elite military unit of all females and commanded by females.
Awesome Fact: In remembrance of their hunting days the Amazons decided to honor their heritage by naming their first battalion the "Elephant Destroyers" and their second battalion was known as the "Reapers".
The Amazons of Dahomey:
How did a woman become an Amazon? Were they forced to join? I knew it!... No-no, not at all. If you're one of those people thinking that the women had no choice, but to join. The truth is more than 95% of the women volunteered! Amazons were recruited in numerous ways and there were females, young as 8 years old when enrolled (badass little kids). Sometimes women would join because they were tired of their boring day-to-day lives, lower class women wanted to seek glory within the battlefield, wives of the king would decide to join because decapitating the enemy was right up their alley and the 5% were forced to join due to aggressive behavioral issues with their families.
In other words, if your daughter or wife has a funky ass attitude send her this way to the army of women that can't wait to get blood on their hands, have a nice day! The training was literally hell on Earth. It has been recorded and it's a fact that the Amazons went through intense physical training that far exceeded their male counterparts. The women were expected to train much harder than the men and outperform them as well because they were the king's elite unit!
Training involved intense calisthenics, wrestling, bare-knuckle fighting to test their heart, grueling long runs in the African heat on a daily basis! To test their endurance and pain tolerance they would've climbed a thirty foot wall that was aligned with thorny brambles (vines with thorns). As weeks went by the training grew worse as they were sent into the woods for 9 days to survive with only their machete. This part I'm about to tell you is messed up, but at the same time it's a very interesting training technique.
In order to prepare the women psychologically and emotionally for warfare, they would run live-fire exercises by purposely arming their prisoners of war with spears, old muskets (not a lot), clubs and positioning them behind a stockade. Once the prisoners were out of sight the women would attack their position, killing everyone they could catch... That's some messed up sh*t, right? But, this was necessary, not because of their elite status as warriors, but because they were women. They already knew that men respected them, but that wasn't enough to the Amazons. Everyday they had to train harder and kill so many enemies on the battlefield in such a brutal fashion that the Grim Reaper himself, wouldn't dare come your way. They weren't just respected.... They were feared.
When the Amazons weren't slaughtering their enemies, they were treated as goddesses back home. First of all every Amazon was a virgin and was not allowed to be married. The original name for the Amazons before they were given that name "Amazons" by Europeans was Mino, meaning "Our Mothers". This name originated from the Fon language and it came from the male army of Dahomey because they had tremendous respect for the Dahomey women.
Back to the luxuries of being an Amazon- All of them lived in the king's royal compound, they were well supplied with the best alcohol and tobacco that money could buy. Not only that, but they were supplied with servants as many as 50 per an Amazon! According to Smithsonian.com - European traveler Sir Richard Burton, who visited Dahomey in the 1860's stated:
“When amazons walked out of the palace, they were preceded by a slave girl carrying a bell. The sound told every male to get out of their path, retire a certain distance, and look the other way.”
To touch an Amazon meant death.
"Conquer or Die":
The Amazons of Dahomey were unlike any warriors that the world had ever seen. They were praised for their bravery, courage, heart, fearlessness and being straight up frightening on the battlefield. It's said that the Amazons would welcome death and would charge forward just to get some of the enemies blood on their blades to lick off (no joke). Under the rule of King Ada Honzoo the Kingdom of Dahomey started out as a small tribe that grew into a massive empire that stretched across West Africa. By 1721 the Kingdom of Savi was conquered and later that same year the Whydah people were conquered.
After the victory over the Whydah people there was a public execution of 4,000 prisoners of war as sacrifices to the Vodun gods. After that gruesome sacrifice it seemed as if the Amazons were winning more and more of their battles. From destroying the Allada and infamous conquering of Okeadon. During the night a hand-full of Amazons snuck over the Okeadon wall to unlock the gate from the inside to let their sisters in. Sometimes these women would take their job a little too seriously... They had a motto "Conquer or Die" this was a very strict code by swearing an oath that you would die facing the enemy and never surrender. If you did surrender you would be decapitated on the spot by a fellow sister.
What made them even more fearsome were their will to kill every enemy or bring him forth towards their king to behead as an offering to the gods (even cutting off their genitals). This would mean the Amazons would spend a couple days out in the wild looking for enemy soldiers that fled the battle after successfully conquering a tribe or kingdom. The reign of the Amazon was coming to a halt near the 19th century and it all started in 1890.
4,000 warriors, the 4,000 black virgins of Dahomey:
King Behanzin (the last king of an independent Dahomey) decided to screw things up for his kingdom by ordering his elite unit of female warriors to attack a port city that was making big money on the slave trade "movement". Little did Behanzin know he sent his Amazons into a French protectorate. During this era, the French were the powerhouses of Europe and they wanted some action in Africa!
Just like the Amazons were trained to do they assaulted the walls, lit the city on fire and rushed right into the governor's palace. As the governor coward in the corner of the room, holding the French flag for dear life, he screams with tears running down his cheeks "This will protect me!"
The governor was decapitated, his wife was forced to pick up his head and wrap it up in the French flag. Sparing his wife's life they told her to leave. The bloody decapitated head in flag was delivered to their King Behanzin as a gift.
Well, the French didn't take this lightly and declared war on the Dahomey! Do you want to know how the Dahomey responded with this "threat"? The king pretty much said (not exact words) "If you want to f**k with us I'll send my Amazons to kill you tonight while you sleep". On March 4, 1890 6,000 Amazons attacked the French city of Kotonou. Effortlessly climbing the walls, the Amazons knew right away they were overpowered when it came to weapons as the French were equipped with Gatling guns and cannons.
As they were only equipped with a worn out musket, rifle (Winchester), 3ft long machete and a long knife for scalping the enemy.
As the Amazons broke the wooden stockade with their bare hands, then stuck their rifles through the holes to fire upon the walls defenders. The French were hesitating whether or not to fire because they were women, but once the Amazons made it over the walls they said "screw that" and fired! One of the French soldier's writes about seeing his best friend decapitated with one swing of a machete from an angry Amazon. He continues to write that a second soldier attacked the same woman, knocking the weapon from her hands with his rifle butt, she threw the young man to the ground and tore his larynx out with her teeth...
Even though that was really badass the Amazons just couldn't pull the victory in this battle. Within 24 battles against the French the Dahomey lost every single one. The French would conquer Dahomey by January 1894, driving King Behanzin into exile. With so many fierce battles against the French the Amazons dropped to 4,000 and by the end of the final battle only 50 survived.
E. Chaudoin in "Three months in captivity in Dahomey" describes them as follows in 1891: "There they are, 4,000 warriors, the 4,000 black virgins of Dahomey, the monarch's bodyguard, motionless in their war garments, with gun and knife in hand, ready to leap forward at the master's signal. Old or young, ugly or beautiful, they are wonderful to look at. They are as well built as the male warriors and their attitude is just as disciplined and correct, lined up as though against a rope".
I'm sorry for the very long article, but I think this was a really cool subject and it would make a great story to tell on the big screen. There's a lot more to these women and the Kingdom of Dahomey. Unfortunately, I could not fit everything I wanted to into this article so I've provided links below where you can read more about the Amazons.
I hope you learned something new and I really hope that you enjoyed reading my article :)