The Dahomey Amazons were a Fon all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) which lasted until end of the 19th century. They were so named by Western observers and historians due to their similarity to the semi-mythical Amazons of Ancient Greece.
King Houegbadja (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 royal bodyguards after building a new palace. Houegbadja’s son King Agadja (1708 to 1732) developed these bodyguards into a militia and successfully used them in Dahomey’s defeat of the neighbouring kingdom of Savi in 1727.
European merchants recorded their presence, as well as similar female warriors amongst the Ashanti peoples. For the next hundred years or so, they gained reputation as fearless warriors. Though they fought rarely, they usually acquitted themselves well in battle.From the time of King Ghezo (1818 to 1858), Dahomey became increasingly militaristic. Ghezo placed great importance on the army and increased its budget and formalized its structures.
The women warriors were rigorously trained and given uniforms. By this time the Amazons consisted of between 4000 and 6000 women, about a third of the entire Dahomey army.European encroachment into west Africa gained pace during the latter half of the 19th century, and in 1890 King Behanzin started fighting French forces in the course of the First 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. Ultimately, bolstered by the Foreign Legion, and armed with superior weaponry, including machine guns, the French inflicted casualties that were ten times worse on the Dahomey side. After several battles, the French prevailed. The Legionnaires later wrote about the “incredible courage and audacity” of the Amazons.The last surviving Amazon died in 1979.
Members could enroll voluntarily, or were involuntarily enrolled (conscripted) if their husbands complained to the King about their behaviour. Membership of the Amazons 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. Many of the Amazons were virgins.
The regiment had a semi-sacred status, which was intertwined with the Fon belief in Vodun.The Amazons trained with intense physical exercise. Discipline was emphasised. In the latter period, the Amazons were armed with Winchester rifles, clubs and knives. Units were under female command. Captives were often decapitated
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