Named after the race of women warriors from Greek mythology, the Dahomey Amazons were an all-female military regiment in the Kingdom of Dahomey, now present-day Benin.
Reportedly assembled in the mid-to-late 1600s, the Amazons were known for their indifference to pain and fierceness in battle, as well as having great socio-political influence over their kingdom. To protect and enrich their own empire, there were periods when the Amazons cooperated with European colonialists, selling captured enemies from regional scuffles in exchange for weaponry and goods.
By the mid-1800s, they numbered between 1,000 to 6,000 women. When the French invaded Dahomey in 1892, the Amazons put up an aggressive resistance. Afterward, the French soldiers noted their “incredible courage and audacity” in combat, as cited by the African American Registry, an online consortium of Black history educators.
Fierce battling between the Amazons and Europeans continued, but the African female warriors were eventually outnumbered and outgunned and, within a few years, they were largely wiped-out.
While the Amazons were certainly powerful fighters, Leonard Wantchekon, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, argues it's important to look beyond the shock value of their female warrior status when considering the Amazons’ legacy in history.
“The most important feature of the Amazons was not that they could kill like men,” says Wantchekon, a Benin native. “They were also regular people with regular lives, as well as well-respected cultural and political leaders in their communities.”
There is a widespread misconception that gender equity is a western value, adds Wantchekon, when in fact, European colonization was a detriment to women’s rights in Benin, where the French disassembled the Amazons and banned female education and political leadership.
“When we push back against this misconception and embrace the culture of gender equality that was thriving in Benin and places like it before colonization,” Wantchekon adds, “it is a way to embrace the legacy of this exceptional group of African female leaders that European history tried so hard to erase.”