Who Were the Real Women Warriors of Dahomey?

By: Dave Roos  | 
Dahomey warriors
The Dahomey warriors, or Agojie, were a frontline military unit who were fierce and valiant. However, their ties to the trans-Atlantic slave trade are difficult to dispute. Public Domain

From the 1600s through the 19th century, West Africa was home to a succession of sophisticated and powerful kingdoms. As in Europe, Asia and the Americas during this time, rival powers in West Africa waged bloody wars for economic, political and cultural dominance.

For centuries, the Kingdom of Dahomey was the wealthiest and most feared of these West African powers, and Dahomey became famous for its elite army of women warriors called the Agojie, whom wide-eyed European observers dubbed the "Dahomey Amazons" after their fictional counterparts in Greek myth.


The hit 2022 film "The Woman King" stars Oscar-winner Viola Davis as Nanisca, an Agojie general bravely defending her kingdom, led by King Ghezo, against an unholy alliance between Dahomey's archrival, the Oyo Kingdom and European slave traders.

But while the real-life Agojie, the world's only all-female army, were immensely brave and skilled warriors, the film has been criticized for misrepresenting Dahomey and King Ghezo's true role in the Atlantic slave trade. The truth is that from 1640 to 1860, much of Dahomey's wealth came from raiding rival kingdoms and selling millions of captives to Portuguese slave traders. And as Dahomey's finest and fiercest warriors, the Agojie were critical to the success of those slave-capturing raids.

After the slave trade ended in the mid-19th century, Dahomey's storyline changed and the Agojie were indeed able play the role of freedom fighters, as the filmmakers would like us to see them. The enemies at that time were French colonizers who wanted to seize control of West Africa. As always, the Agojie fought valiantly for their king, but their story didn't have a happy ending.


The Origins of Dahomey's Female Warriors

Viola Davis
Viola Davis plays Nanisca, a Dahomey warrior, in "The Woman King." Ilze Kitshoff/Sony Pictures

According to oral histories passed down through the centuries, the first Dahomean kings settled in modern-day Benin in the early 1600s. King Huegbadja built the Dahomean capital in Abomey, about 80 miles (128 kilometers) inland from the Atlantic coast. The story goes that he formed a special band of female elephant hunters, possibly the earliest predecessors of the Agojie.

Next came Huegbadja's son King Akaba, who placed thousands of uniformed female fighters at the rear of his army as it marched into battle. The women weren't meant to fight — not at first, at least — but the sight of such a large and organized army intimidated Dahomey's weaker rivals.


When Akaba died unexpectedly, his twin sister Tassi Hangbe was quietly installed as "regent" or queen, explains Lynne Ellsworth Larsen, an art history professor at the University of Arkansas Little Rock who conducted research in Benin on the royal women of Dahomey.

"You have a woman ruling the kingdom," says Larsen, "and Queen Hangbe would have needed a female guard to keep the palace in order."

After Queen Hangbe's brief reign, a King Ajaba came to power and significantly expanded the Dahomey's routes in the Atlantic slave trade. King Ajaba was followed by his son, King Tegbesu, who reorganized the royal court to achieve a kind of gender balance that was centuries ahead of its time. He implemented the kpojito, which was a female reign-mate of the king. Kpojito Hwanjile and King Tegbesu ruled together, balancing the power between male and female. This ideology endured until the end of Dahomey kingdom.

"You had a male court and a female court, and a female army to balance out the male army," says Larsen. "The female soldiers also had privileges in the palace, where the male soldiers did not."


Dahomean Women Become the Fearless Agojie

Dahomey warriors
This female Dahomey warrior is depicted with a severed human head. Human sacrifices were commonplace in the Dahomey kingdom.
Public Domain

But it wasn't until the 19th-century reign of King Ghezo and his successor King Glele that Dahomey's female fighters officially became the Agojie, a standing army of thousands of virginal women warriors who lived in the palace and became infamous for their ruthlessness in battle.

"Neighbors feared the Agojie — they were highly skilled," says Larsen, who points to precolonial accounts of Europeans who were treated to military displays in Dahomey.


In 1861, a Portuguese missionary watched thousands of Agojie scale a wall of thorn-covered acacia branches and ignore their painful wounds as they executed a vicious mock attack on a village. And in 1889, a French naval officer witnessed a young Agojie recruit (reportedly Nanisca) who was ordered to execute a prisoner to prove her "insensitivity" to killing.

"She walked jauntily up [to the prisoner], swung her sword three times with both hands, then calmly cut the last flesh that attached the head to the trunk," reported the officer. "She then squeezed the blood off her weapon and swallowed it."


How Were the Dahomey Involved in the Atlantic Slave Trade?

The Gate of No Return
The Door of No Return in Oidah, Benin, stands to commemorate the more than 1 million enslaved Africans who were deported from the area, the majority of them never to return. Dave Primov/Shutterstock

The horrors of the Atlantic slave trade predate the Kingdom of Dahomey, but as soon as Dahomean kings captured the coastal port of Ouidah in the early 1700s, they became actively involved in the lucrative industry of buying and selling human beings.

Ouidah was situated on a large bay known as the Bight of Benin, which was one of the most active slave ports in West Africa. From 1640 to 1860, roughly 2 million people were exported from the Bight of Benin into slavery, equaling one-fifth of all enslaved Africans who were shipped off to plantations in Brazil, the Caribbean and North America, historian Patrick Manning wrote in his 2004 book "Slavery, Colonialism and Economic Growth in Dahomey, 1640-1960."


The Kingdom of Dahomey was responsible for capturing and selling most of those individuals into slavery at a rate of 7,000 to 15,000 each year. And by the reigns of King Ghezo and King Glele, when the Agojie constituted a standing army of 6,000 female fighters, women warriors were leading many of the fearsome raids that captured and kidnapped countless enemies for sale into slavery.

In 1928, African American author Zora Neale Hurston interviewed a formerly enslaved Alabama man named Oluale Kossola, who had been captured as a young boy in Benin in a dawn raid by the Agojie. When Kossola's king refused to pay tribute to Dahomey, he was beheaded, then the Agojie swept through the village, taking captives and even mutilating the wounded, according to the New Yorker.

"No man kin be so strong lak de woman soldiers from de Dahomey," Kossola told Hurston, before he was unable to continue the interview. "Kossola was no longer on the porch with me," Hurston wrote. "He was squatting about that fire in Dahomey. His face was twitching in abysmal pain. It was a horror mask."

In return for captives, Manning says in his book, Dahomean kings were paid in imported goods like tobacco and rum from Brazil and the Caribbean, cloth from India, cowries from the Maldives and manufactured goods from Europe.


Why Were the Agojie Cast as Savages?

Dahomey warriors
Throughout the Franco-Dahomean Wars, the French press portrayed the Dahomeans — and particularly the Agojie — as savages. Public Domain

In the 19th century, every European power wanted a piece of Africa's wealth, and in 1863 French forces occupied Porto-Novo, a port city not far from Ouidah, and named it a French protectorate, which angered the Dahomeans. Tensions escalated until all-out war broke out in 1890.

The Agojie, armed with outdated rifles and swords, fought with characteristic fearlessness against the French, but even the women's superior training and ferocity was no match for the Europeans' heavy artillery and numbers.


"[They] flung themselves on [our] bayonets with prodigious bravery," reported a soldier with the French Foreign Legion. "[N]either the cannons, nor the canister shot, nor the salvo fire stops them. ...It is really strange to see women so well led, so well disciplined."

In the Second Franco-Dahomean War, fought in 1892, the results were even more lopsided. According to Smithsonian magazine, between 2,000 and 4,000 Dahomean men and women were killed during seven weeks of fighting, compared to 52 Europeans and 33 Africans who fell on the French side. The Agojie were gutted, with only 50 or 60 female warriors left alive from a regiment that started with 1,200.

Throughout the Franco-Dahomean Wars, the French press portrayed the Dahomeans — and particularly the Agojie — as the lowest type of "savages."

"Illustrated newspapers were a new thing and they published full-page spreads of female warriors with a machete raised in one hand and bloodied head in the other," Larsen says. "It was a misuse of these women, who were their own people and skilled in what they did. But for French colonials, it was a sign of their barbarity. According to French ideas of gender roles in the 19th century that was not OK."

In that way, "The Woman King" showcases the bravery, loyalty and skill of the Agojie, and treats them with a deep respect that was denied them by the outside world. However, whether the filmmakers could have accomplished that while including a more nuanced and accurate portrayal of their involvement in the slave trade is another question.