Dahomey’s Warrior Women: “Women Written Out of History”
In West Africa, the Dahomey Warrior Women involves a fascinating history that spans nearly 200 years. It was during this time that the elite squad of female warriors fought and died for the border rights and inter-tribal issues in the ancient kingdom of Dahomey.
Dahomey’s women warriors made their first appearance in written history, they were helping to recapture the same port after it fell to a surprise attack by the Yoruba – a much more numerous tribe from the east who would henceforth be the Dahomeans’ chief enemies.
According to the traveler Sir Richard Burton, who visited Dahomey in the 1860s.
Recruiting women into the Dahomean army was not especially difficult, despite the requirement to climb thorn hedges and risk life and limb in battle. During Ghezo’s reign (King of Dahomey) female troops lived in his compound and were kept well supplied with tobacco, alcohol and workers – as many as 50 to each warrior.
These women, who outranked their male counterparts, were given far more privileges, including the ability to come and go from the palaces as they pleased (unlike the men). They were so revered for their warrior prowess.
The Smithsonian explains, that men were taught to keep their distance: Women had the advantage of being permitted in the palace precincts after dark and Dahomean men were not. Every male was get out of their path, retire a certain distance, and look the other way. To even touch these women meant death.
Contrary to 19th century gossip that portrayed the female soldiers as sexually voracious, Dahomey’s female soldiers were formally married to the king—and since he never actually had relations with any of them, marriage rendered them celibate.
As colonialist ambitions grew in the region, the Dahomey female warriors eventually grew sparse. Fierce combat missions to crush the independent kingdom eventually succeeded, and in the 1940s, it is said that was the last of the female warriors.