Moviegoers are breathless with anticipation as the awaiting the opening of the Marvel blockbuster “Black Panther,” arriving at theaters this weekend. While much of the fanfare is naturally focused on the title character, “T’Challa,” and his fictional African homeland of Wakanda, there’s also significant excitement about the roles portrayed by Kenya’s Lupita Nyong’o as “Nakia and Zimbabwe’s Danai Gurira, as “Okoye,” the leaders of the “Dora Milaje,” Wakanda’s elite, highly-trained, all-female security force.
Already, the trailers vividly depicting a fearless group of tall, female assassins battling foes with martial arts precision is awe-inspiring. It explodes previous screen of African women as merely docile mothers and daughters, or sex objects. In “Black Panther,” African women step dramatically from the margins into the spotlight as warriors, equal to, if not superior, to friend or foe.
But this bit of cinematic fantasy is not simply conjured up from imagination. There are, in fact, real life antecedents from a now obscure but no less significant history of African women as warriors in the not so distant past – a tradition that predates the creation of the United States Marine Corps by 100 years.
In parts of what are the modern day African nations of Benin and Togo, the Amazons, an elite, all-female contingent of lethal warriors were respected and feared for a period of more than 200 years.
Formed by Dahomean King Houeghadja (1645-85) of the Fon people in the 17th century, the legendary Amazons, known either as the N’nonmiton or “our mothers,” also known as Ahosi, of “the wives,” comprised a force of as many as 6,000 female soldiers. At one time, they made up nearly a third of the kingdom’s army.
Initially, historians say the Amazons were recruited by the king from groups of women, known as gbeto, who hunted elephants deep in the equatorial rain forests of Dahomey (present day Benin). The Fon, who fought a series of conflicts with rival ethnic groups, had a shortage of able-bodied fighting men, lost in war or to slaving raids that fed Europe’s Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The first European accounts of the king formed the huntresses into formal fighting units. Recruits, some starting as early as eight-years-old, were annually drawn from volunteers, women or young girls captured in battle, or the troubled or disobedient daughters or wives, who were involuntarily forced into service by fathers or husbands.
Once enrolled, the female recruits were given intense and specialized training. They became adept at scaling thorn hedges, having to prove their stamina and tolerance to pain. Resourcefulness was put to the test by a nine-day expedition in the forest, in which they were given only modest provisions and a machete to survive. The former hunters also mastered the use of traditional weapons, such as spears, knives and machetes, and, eventually Dutch flintlock muskets. They also became adept at hand-to-hand combat, especially wrestling.
In one exercise, the Amazons were challenged, along with their male counterparts, to mount a 16-foot high platform, pick up baskets containing bound and gagged prisoners of war, and then hurled them over a parapet to angry mobs.
Having proven their mettle, the king made the Amazon his bodyguard, initially numbering 400. Taking an oath of loyalty to the king, they were also considered his wives, thus sworn to celibacy. It was then they were given the formal titles of Ahosi, “the wives.” With the lofty collective title came an oath of personal loyalty to the king. Officially wives, they were sworn virgins, therefore, prohibited not only from having children and also considered untouchable.
The King sometimes gave members of Amazon as brides to warlords, dignitaries or soldiers who had distinguished themselves in service to Dahomey.
As the king’s bodyguards, the N’nonmiton rose to prominence within the palace, given a seat at the grand council, where they debated the major issues facing the kingdom. They were also given separate quarters within the royal palace compound – where no man, save for eunuchs of the king, himself, was allowed access after nightfall. The royal guard was allowed to partake in luxuries, such as tobacco and alcohol. They were also allowed to keep their own slaves.
In his book, “Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey,” historian Stanley Alpern, drawing from accounts written by visitors to the kingdom, wrote:
“When Amazons walked out of the palace, they were preceded by a slave girl carrying a bell. The sound to every male was to get out of their path, retire to a certain distance, and look the other way.”
It was during these initial contacts with Europeans that the Amazons were dubbed after the Greek mythological warriors of the Black Sea.
An Italian missionary Francesco Borghero, wrote of a visit he made to the kingdom in 1861, when he was summoned by the king to a parade ground in the Dahomean capital, Abomey.
In his account, Borghero wrote of seeing 3,000 female soldiers, armed with clubs, knives and three-foot long straight razors. Of the Amazons, the Christian missionary described them as “slender, but shapely, proud of beating, but without affection.”
British explorer Richard Burton, who traveled through Dahomey two years later, described the Amazons thusly:
“Such was the size of the female skeleton and muscular development that in many cases, femininity could be detected only by the bosom.”
The Amazons were called upon to serve on the frontlines of wars with neighboring states, as well as carried out slaving raids. Their various units were noted for their strength, speed and ruthlessness. In some cases, their victims were either decapitated or emasculated with their heads brought back as trophies for the king.
In fact, the Amazons were organized into five distinct military units:
- Gbeto – groups of 20 or more huntresses, who preyed upon elephant herds;
- Gulohento – the riflewomen, armed with flintlock rifles to snipe from a distance, as well as short swords for combat at close quarters;
- Nyekplohento – the much-feared reapers of the Amazonian infantry, who were skilled in hand-to-hand combat and armed with machetes, long and short with knives;
- Gohento – the Amazonian archers, reputedly lethal at long distances with bows and arrows;
- Agabalya – the last regiment to be formed, they were specially trained with European cannons used to break enemy fortifications.
Each unit was outfitted with its distinctive uniforms and flag, as well as drilled in their own battle songs and dances.
Photo of Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh
Perhaps the most famous of the Amazons was Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh, whose name literally meant “God Speaks True.” In 1851, she led a 6,000-strong, all-female army against the fortress of the neighboring Egba people at Abeokuta. The assault was aimed at obtaining slaves, as the Dahomean kingdom participated actively in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. She was depicted in a drawing at the time carrying a musket in one hand, the other carrying the decapitated head of an enemy.
There are no mentions of Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh in the first military conflicts between the Dahomean Kingdom and the French, which began in 1851 and ended with the defeat of the Africans in 1894.
Perhaps, most famously, the Amazons fought tenaciously against French Marines and Legionnaire in the early 1890s in Dahomey’s ultimately failed effort to resist colonialism. The female regiments fired artillery and Dutch flintlock muskets, as well as fought the European invaders hand-to-hand.
One Legionnaire officer, who wrote of facing the Amazons, lauded their “incredible courage and audacity.” The Ahosi specifically targeted French officers. The bravery of the native all-female units was conspicuous, whether it was charges into lines of 20-inch long French bayonets or bravely facing the weapon that won the war –- the maxim or the machine-gun.
In another account, the Amazons were sent to a French military encampment, where they offered themselves to several officers. Taken into the officers’ quarters, the women allowed themselves to be seduced by the Frenchman, only to slit the throats of their unsuspecting paramours once they fell asleep. The French would, ultimately exact their revenge in the last stages of the Franco-Dahomean wars.
After the French declared administrative control of Dahomey, the Amazon units were disbanded. In addition, one of the first decrees from the colonial governor was to prohibit women from serving in the military or bearing arms. The last of the Amazons, a woman known as Nawi, is reported to have died in Benin in 1979.
Until the well into the 20th century, the Amazons were the only women in the world who were routinely sent into combat.
In the early 1980s, Libya’s ever-eccentric Libyan dictator, Muammar Qadhafi, created a modern-day version of the Amazons, known officially as al-Rahibat al-Thawriyyat or the “Revolutionary Nuns.” Whenever or wherever Qadhafi traveled, his all-female bodyguards, remained close by, causing as much consternation as their leader.
As bizarrely as the madcap Qadhafi would dress in public, the Amazonian Guard caused perhaps an even greater stir whenever they appeared, especially overseas. Most of the “nuns” were tall, nearly all were beautiful. Often clad in camouflage uniforms and shouldering either AK-47 or Berretta assault rifles, Qadhafi’s female bodyguards also wore four-inch heels, their faces always perfectly made-up and their hair stylishly coiffed.
Lest anyone be deceived by their glamorous looks, the 200-strong Amazonian Guard was created as an elite force, given advanced special training in arms at martial arts. And the bodyguards earned a combative reputation in a series of diplomatic dust-ups and scuffles while accompanying the globetrotting Qadhafi on official trips from Nigeria to Egypt to Ethiopia.
Although not sworn to celibacy or prohibited from marrying, the Amazonian Guard pledged their loyalty to Qadhafi. They proved it in 1998, when an assassination attempt was made on Qadhafi during a public appearance in Libya. One of the nuns was killed using her body to shield Qadhafi from bullets; two others were wounded in the attack.
Perhaps the most trusted member of Qadhafi’s bodyguards was Fatima Baroud, who was photographed countless times close by the Libyan leader’s side.
However, when the NATO-aided rebellion overthrew Qadhafi in 2011, the leader fled Tripoli, he did so with a small, private army of loyalists and white South African mercenaries. It was only after Qadhafi’s death that inside story of the Amazonian Guard was revealed.
The barracks of the once-feared nuns was abandoned and looted. Former members told reporters that they were high school or college students who had not volunteered, but had been personally selected by either Qadhafi or his cronies. Once forcibly removed from their homes, the “nuns” claimed they were groomed and then raped by Qadhafi, his son, Hannibal, and others. Many suffered severe retribution after the revolution, although some like, Fatima Baroud, have simply disappeared.
The Amazonian Guard, like the Amazons before them, has been disbanded. But several African countries, like Somalia and Ugandan, have women serving in combat units. In Benin, the modern day successor to Dahomey, female units have been formed, with some of the soldiers performing ceremonies in homage to the Amazons.