The Dahomey Amazons are the only documented female army in modern history and one of the world’s unsolved curiosities. While the West turns their story into fetishized cinema, their home nation immortalized them in bronze.
BY: Kylie Kiunguyu
The Esplanade des Amazones is a public square located in Cotonou, Benin. It houses the ‘Amazon’, a 30-meter-tall statue built as a tribute to the only all-female army in the world. These Amazons belonged to the Kingdom of Dahomey, a West African empire that existed from 1625 to 1894. How they came to be or what their original purpose was is an unresolved dilemma. Some sources claim they were elephant hunters whose power was redirected to fighting neighboring tribes and possibly the French. Other sources claim that they served as royal guards to the nearly obliterated Queen Tassi Hangbe.
According to historian Bienvenu Akoha, who credits this latest version of events with being the first Amazon. After being “silently installed” as head of the army following the death of her twin brother King Akaba, she was publicly proclaimed Queen of Dahomey upon her return from her military campaigns. During her short reign (before being ousted by her brother), Queen Hangbe allowed women to participate in activities from which they were traditionally prohibited, including hunting. Over time, she built an all-female battalion. Dahomey Amazons were recruited and trained from an early age, making them ruthless and “more efficient” warriors than men.
These warriors then served the kings who came after Queen Hangbe. One of them, King Gezo, who reigned over Dahomey from 1818 to 1858, officially integrated the Amazons into his army and installed Seh Dong Hong Beh at their head. She is known for leading 6,000 female warriors in a war against the Egba Fortress of Abeokuta in 1851. She not only took the fortress but also obtained slaves and beheaded the chief for refusing to recognize her because she was a warrior. In 1882, Seh-Dong and the Amazons fought against French colonists for trading rights and won, despite having fewer weapons. According to UNESCO, the Dahomey Women’s Army did not disappear until the fall of the Kingdom of Dahomey at the end of the 19th century.
Cotonou Amazon Statue
This rich and unique history that was once on the verge of obliteration has been immortalized in a 30-meter bronze statue in Cotonou, the economic center of Benin. The Amazon in the statue wields a machete and a rifle reminiscent of their supposed motto, “Win or Die”.
In order to reclaim its past and correct biased historical accounts, Benin used the example of Senegal’s Renaissance monument to pay homage and engrave the memory of the intrepid women who protected and served their native land.
“The French made sure that this story was not known,” Beninese economist Leonard Wantchekon, a professor of international affairs at Princeton University, told the Washington Post. “They said we were backward, that they had to ‘civilize’ us, but they destroyed opportunities for women that didn’t exist anywhere else in the world.”
Alongside the restitution of historical treasures and the creation of the longest graffiti fresco in Africa (a visual spectacle over 940 meters long that celebrates the rich history of Benin from the year 1150 to the present day), the statue is another enhancement of Beninese history and culture and a tourist attraction faithful to the identity of the country.
On the other side of the pond…
American actress Viola Davis (a disappointing casting decision due to her nationality, not her acting skills) is set to give what will hopefully be a moving performance in ‘The Woman King’. Sony’s upcoming historical action epic was inspired by the events of the Kingdom of Dahomey and the legacy of the true Amazons of Dahomey. While Davis is likely to make us cringe with Hollywood’s standardized “African accent”, we can’t wait to see the real Africans in the set, Thuso Mbedu (South African), Masali Baduza (South African ), Chioma Antoinette Umeala (Nigeria), Makgotso Monyemorathoe (South Africa), Thando Dlomo (South Africa), Jimmy Odukoya (Nigeria), Tuks TAD Lungu (Zimbabwe), Sivuyile Ngesi (South Africa) and the Legend Angelique Kidjo .
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