Contemporary postcard of the “Amazons of Dahomey”
(Source: Köln Postkolonial - Postcolonial Cologne)
You may have seen images of African women in memes claiming "these are the Amazons of Dahomey..."
You may have seen them and thought..."What a powerful representation of the strength of Black women everywhere. What a resilient people we are." But what if I told you that the photos you are looking at are fakes? And that each one is a distortion of the truth?
The truth is: those are not the great women warriors of the Kingdom of Dahomey pictured there. The men and the children we see in these pictures are not the pride of Dahomey either.
Some of those people were originally from outside the region now referred to as the nation of Benin, where historical Dahomey stood for generations. Some of them had never even seen the African continent.
UK historian Jeffrey Green writes:
It is known that a small group of Africans from Sierra Leone worked as ‘Dahomey Warriors’ in Brighton in 1908, and that Joseph Lee, an African American from Maryland, worked for years as Bata Kindai Amgoza Ibn Lobagola and published books in the 1920s. Images were everything it seems.
One show featured the official band of the British colonial army in the Caribbean - the West India Regiment. Recruits would have been pulled from Barbados and Jamaica. (Ironically, this military unit was employed against African people and were known for helping the British conquer the Ashanti Empire in modern-day Ghana.)
The casts that appeared in Cologne (Germany) were composed of African women from Togo.
After the French obliterated Dahomey in West Africa and exiled their king for defying their absolute colonial authority, they captured people from the surrounding villages and paraded them around Europe as the "Dahomey Amazons". "Dahomey Amazons" in Europe were billed as prisoners of war. However, it was often said that the real warriors of Dahomey would rather take their own life than to be captured by their enemies alive.
Against this background, the people who we see in these pictures were innocent bystanders being passed off as trophies to the colonial powers. For the people of Europe, each show was a rare opportunity to scoff at the wild brutes who thought they stood a chance against the march of civilization.
These poor souls were forced into public exhibits at circuses, at museums, and at human zoos in such places as Paris (France), London (England), and Frankfurt (Germany).
They were not allowed to return home whenever they wanted. They would eat when their "bosses" said they were hungry.
They were coaxed to perform dances, sword-fights, and even wrestling matches between children in a makeshift stage set labeled as a "Dahomean village." Even the few who may have had the misfortune of leaving the ruins of that once-great empire were nothing but petting animals - their entire culture reduced to a window for the White gaze.
The Cologne City Gazette reported that one of the female performers was taken to the local hospital for a minor hand injury she suffered while wielding a sword. Despite the 'good' care she received, she was 'yearning and dreaming [to] go to Africa.'
"Don't die here," she said to the leader of the troop who was visiting her, "not buried among [the] Whites." She was terrified.
By all indications, this woman eventually recovered. Another performer named Jambga was not so lucky. She died while being treated for pneumonia.
Reportedly, city residents described the funeral as "an additional and free spectacle." Fellow performers held a traditional home-going service for the deceased at the cemetery in which no Whites were allowed.
From Amazons of Black Sparta : The Women Warriors of Dahomey (2011)
(Source: Wikipedia Commons)
Names such as "Senior Warrior Gumma" and "Princess Fassie" appeared in advertisements and on postcards.
Tourists journeyed from all over to see them.
But these were not the mighty monsters they were looking for.
The word "Amazons" was a label that was given to the army of Dahomey by Europeans. This name was based on the fierce Amazonians of Greek mythology - women who secluded themselves from men and defended their own territory in what is now believed to have been western Russia.
So what did the great warrior women of Dahomey actually look like?
The Amazons wore 'tunics and white calottes, with two blue patches, meant for crocodiles.
This is all a far cry from the pornographic "soldiers in petticoats" which were being fawned over for years on end in the German press.
It seems there is no end to the wild misconceptions about the women the Dahomeans called the mino (our mothers) or ahosi (the king's wives).
With a large emphasis on the female forces of Dahomey, it would be easy to believe that this regiment of Black women were the totality of the army.
But that is not the case.
D'Albéca, in his account of the Franco-Dahomean Wars, wrote that the "Amazons" were usually accompanied by an army of men three to five times as large.
This was not simply an African army to fight off European invaders. Nor was it built to make a statement on the role of women in African societies. The Mino as a military unit was assembled for one purpose: to serve the king. In the course of their duties, they made many enemies.
On one hand, they were the vanguard of an entire community. But Africa's "Amazonians" were also a double-edged sword.
We can hardly ignore the reality that Dahomey was an actor in the slave trade, which displaced many Africans and their descendants to other lands.
For the better part of the 18th and 19th centuries, until the fall of Dahomey in 1894, they raided weaker villages and went to war with the surrounding nations, plundering and taking prisoners to serve as domestic servants and tradesmen. Sometimes, as King Kpengla explained to a group of Englishmen in the late 1700s, their pleading victims were executed outright, to serve the ancestors of the royal family in the afterlife. At other times, these captives were sold as slaves to the British and Portuguese.
The customs of Dahomey as it relates to the "Amazons" and their 'slavehunting,' says Burton, 'have made the country in parts a desert.'
The surviving members of King Behanzin's Dahomey "Amazons"
early 20th century
Photographer: François-Edmond Fortier
(Source: Wikipedia Commons)
The history of the Mino of Dahomey is one shrouded in glory and in shame.
The old allure of the "Black Amazons" found its great resurgence in the wake of the Disney movie Black Panther (2018). The warriors of King T'challa painted a portrait of Black potential unparalleled in modern entertainment. But as we celebrate the comportment of the Dora Milaje in a world of Black déclassé, and as we honor the tenacity of the Mino in the face of White bravado, in the restructuring of our future, let us be careful that we do not inadvertently perpetuate past injustices.
Why should we continue to share these images of our people so blindly?
Why should we continue to acknowledge the fantasies of men whose business was only to turn people into profits?
We have seen that when we do our own research and dig a little deeper, we realize that there is more to the popular narrative than meets the eye.
It is important that we find the inspiration to persevere with whatever little we can still glean of our greatness. Equally important is the conservation of our true history.
Read more about the Franco-Dahomean wars and the "Amazon" dance groups from the Journal of Black Research here.
Scientific Researcher, Independent Historian, and Co-Founder of Black Research Central
Black Research Central
When Negritude Meets Pettitude.