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The Dahomey Amazons or Mino, which means "our mothers," were a Fon all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the present-day Republic of Benin which lasted until the end of the 19th century. They were so named by Western observers and historians due to their similarity to the mythical Amazons of ancient Anatolia and the Black Sea.
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. The group of female warriors was referred to as Mino, meaning "Our Mothers" in the Fon language, by the male army of Dahomey. Other sources contest that King Agaja's older sister Queen Hangbe was the ruler to establish the units, however some contest if Queen Hangbe actually existed.
From the time of King Ghezo (ruling from 1818 to 1858), Dahomey became increasingly militaristic. Ghezo placed great importance on the army, increasing its budget and formalizing its structure from ceremonial to a serious military. While European narratives refer to the women soldiers as "Amazons", they called themselves ahosi (king's wives) or Mino (our mothers). Europeans exchanged goods such as knives, bayonets, firearms and fabrics for prisoners that the Dahomey captured during wars and raids.
Ghezo recruited both men and women soldiers from foreign captives, though women soldiers were also recruited from free Dahomean women, some enrolled as young as 8 years old. Other accounts indicate that the Mino were recruited from among the ahosi ("king's wives") of which there were often hundreds. Some women in Fon society became soldiers voluntarily, while others were involuntarily enrolled if their husbands or fathers complained to the king about their behavior.
Membership among the Mino was supposed to hone any aggressive character traits for the purpose of war. During their membership they were not allowed to have children or be part of married life (though they were legally married to the king). Many of them were virgins. The regiment had a semi-sacred status, which was intertwined with the Fon belief in Vodun.
The Mino trained with intense physical exercise. They learnt survival skills and indifference to pain and death, storming acacia-thorn defenses in military exercises and executing prisoners. Discipline was emphasised.
Serving in the Mino offered women the opportunity to "rise to positions of command and influence" in an environment structured for individual empowerment. The Mino were also wealthy and held high status.
The Mino took a prominent role in the Grand Council, debating the policy of the kingdom. From the 1840s to 1870s (when the opposing party collapsed), they generally supported peace with Abeokuta and stronger commercial relations with England, favouring the trade in palm oil above that in slaves; this set them at odds with their male military colleagues.
Apart from the Council, the Annual Customs of Dahomey included a parade and reviewing of the troops, and the troops swearing of an oath to the king. The celebrations on the 27th day of the Annual Customs consisted of a mock battle in which the Amazons attacked a "fort" and "captured" the slaves within, a custom recorded by the priest Francesco Borghero in his diaries.
Combat and structure
The women soldiers were rigorously trained and given uniforms. By the mid-19th century, they numbered between 1,000 and 6,000 women, about a third of the entire Dahomey army, according to reports written by visitors. These documented reports also indicated that the women soldiers suffered several defeats.
The women soldiers were said to be structured in parallel with the army as a whole, with a center wing (the king's bodyguards) flanked on both sides, each under separate commanders. Some accounts note that each male soldier had a female warrior counterpart. In an 1849/50 account by an Englishman, it was documented that the women that had three stripes of whitewash around each leg, were honored with marks of distinction.
The women's army consisted of a number of regiments: huntresses, riflewomen, reapers, archers, and gunners. Each regiment had different uniforms, weapons and commanders.
In the latter period, the Dahomean female warriors were armed with Winchester rifles, clubs and knives. Units were under female command. An 1851 published translation of a war chant of the women claims the warriors would chant, "a[s] the blacksmith takes an iron bar and by fire changes its fashion so have we changed our nature. We are no longer women, we are men."
Conflict with neighbouring kingdoms
The Dahomey kingdom was often at war with its neighbors, and captives were needed for the slave trade. The Dahomey women soldiers fought in slave raids, as referenced in the Zora Neale Hurston non-fiction work Barracoon, and in the unsuccessful wars against Abeokuta.
Conflict with France
First Franco-Dahomean War
European encroachment into West Africa gained pace during the latter half of the 19th century, and in 1890 King Béhanzin started fighting French forces in the course of the First Franco-Dahomean War. European observers noted that they "handled admirably" in hand-to-hand combat, but that they did not know how to use their flintlocks. The Amazons participated in one major battle: Cotonou, where thousands of Dahoney (including many Amazons) charged the French lines and engaged the defenders in hand-to-hand combat. Despite the compliments given to them by the Europeans, the Amazons were decisively crushed, with several hundred Dahomey troops being gunned down while 129 Dahomey were killed in melee combat within the French lines. The French lost 5 men killed and a few dozen wounded.
Second Franco-Dahomean War
According to Holmes, many of the French soldiers fighting in Dahomey hesitated before shooting or bayoneting the Amazons. The resulting delay led to many of the French casualties. By the end of the Second Franco-Dahomean War, special units of the Amazons were being assigned specifically to target French officers. After several battles, the French prevailed in the Second Franco-Dahomean War and put an end to the independent Dahomean kingdom. The legionnaires were impressed by the boldness of the Amazons and later wrote about the "incredible courage and audacity." Against a military unit with decidedly superior weaponry and a longer bayonet, however, the Dahomey Amazons could not prevail. During a battle with French soldiers at Adegon on October 6 during the second war, the bulk of the Amazon corps were wiped out in a matter of hours in hand-to-hand combat after the French engaged them with a bayonet charge. For the loss of 86 Regulars and 417 Amazons, the Dahomey only managed to kill 6 French troops in the melee.
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 protection of Agoli-Agbo, the brother of Béhanzin, disguising themselves as his wives in order 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 travelers in Abomey recorded encounters with ex-amazons, now old women who spun cotton or idled around courtyards. The last survivor of the Dahomey Amazons is thought to have been a woman named Nawi. In a 1978 interview with a Beninese historian, Nawi claimed to have fought the French in 1892. Nawi died in November 1979, aged well over 100.
In popular culture
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The unit is also depicted in (a special edition of, and now DLC of) PC game Empire: Total War. In the African Kingdoms expansion to Age of Empires II, Gbeto are the Malian unique unit. In either game, the Dahomey/Gbeto are the only female military units.
A segment of QI Series 7 Episode 7 discussed Dahomey Amazons and showed a photo.
The main character of Charles R. Saunders fantasy novel Dossouye, an ahosi of Abomey, is closely modelled on the Dahomey ahosi.
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