The Fon people, also called Fon nu, Agadja or Dahomey, are a major African ethnic and linguistic group. They are the largest ethnic group in Benin found particularly in its south region; they are also found in southwest Nigeria and Togo. Their total population is estimated to be about 3,500,000 people, and they speak the Fon language, a member of the Niger-Congo language group.If you were impressed by the fierce female warriors of Wakanda in the recently released Black Panther film, you’ll be pleased to know that these Amazonian warriors existed in real life. The Dora Milaje, who protect King T’Challa in the film, can be compared to the valiant Dahomey Amazons, a tribe of elite warrior women feared across West Africa, who existed from as early as the 17th century up until the early 20th century. In The ‘Amazons’ of Dahomey by Robin Law, the women inhabited the kingdom of Dahomey, now known as the Republic of Benin, and were recruited while married as virgin wives to their king. They were so named by Western observers and historians due to their similarity to the mythical Amazons of ancient Anatolia and the Black Sea.
These women commanded the highest respect and were so fierce, they were feared by all who knew them, even the French, who expanded into their territory in the 1890s. Writer Stanley Alpern said these warriors were often preceded by a slave girl carrying a bell, which told every male to get out of their way. To touch any of these women meant death. Customary battle tactics included beheading their enemies, often returning with the heads and genitals of their opponents.
King Houegbadja (who ruled from 1645 to 1685), the third King of Dahomey, is said to have originally started the group which would become the Amazons as a corps of elephant hunters called the gbeto. Houegbadja’s son King Agaja (ruling from 1708 to 1732) established a female bodyguard armed with muskets. European merchants recorded their presence. According to tradition, Agaja developed the bodyguard into a militia and successfully used them in Dahomey’s defeat of the neighbouring kingdom of Savi in 1727.
According to a report by Smithsonian Magazine, unlike other armed female forces, the Dahomey Amazons were not simply bodyguards but actively went to war many times, and fought to the death. “What made Dahomey’s women warriors unique was that they fought, and frequently died, for king and country.” “Even the most conservative estimates suggest that, in the course of just four major campaigns in the latter half of the 19th century, they lost at least 6,000 dead, and perhaps as many as 15,000. In their very last battles, against French troops equipped with vastly superior weaponry, about 1,500 women took the field, and only about 50 remained fit for active duty by the end.” By the 1840s, the number of Amazons grew to as many as 6,000 women. When at last the female amazons succumbed to French forces in the 19th century, they were praised for their bravery.