International Women’s Day (IWD) is a global day that celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. In recognition of this day, we celebrate one of the few documented female armies in modern history – the Dahomey Amazons. The Dahomey Mino (Fon: Agojie, Agoji, Mino, or Minon) were an all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey, located in what is now known as Benin, West Africa.
Their emergence was due to the high casualties experienced by the male population in the violent and frequent warfare with neighbouring West African states. Dahomey’s kings, therefore, recruited women into the army. This led to the creation of a group of fierce, courageous, and respected women soldiers. In this article, we will delve into the origin, recruitment, membership, political role, combat, and structure of the Dahomey Amazons.
King Houegbadja, the third King of Dahomey, established the group that later became the Mino as a corps of elephant hunters called the gbeto. His daughter, Queen Hangbe, is said to have established a female bodyguard. European merchants recorded their presence.
According to tradition, King Agaja, Queen Hangbe’s successor, used them successfully in Dahomey’s defeat of the neighbouring kingdom of Savi in 1727. The group of female warriors was referred to as Mino, meaning “Our Mothers” in the Fon language, by the male army of Dahomey. However, some sources contest the claim that Queen Hangbe established the units, going so far as to question whether she even existed.
From the time of King Ghezo, Dahomey became increasingly militaristic. Ghezo placed great importance on the army, increasing its budget and formalizing its structure from ceremonial to a serious military. While European narratives refer to the women soldiers as “Amazons,” they called themselves ahosi (king’s wives) or Mino (our mothers).
Dahomey’s kings recruited both men and women as soldiers from foreign captives. Female soldiers were also recruited from free Dahomean women, with some enrolled from as young as eight years of age. The Mino were also recruited from among the ahosi (“king’s wives”), of which there were often hundreds. Some women in Fon society became soldiers voluntarily, while others were involuntarily enrolled if their husbands or fathers complained to the king about their behaviour.
Membership among the Mino 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 (though they were legally married to the king). Many of them were virgins. The regiment had a semi-sacred status, which was intertwined with the Fon belief in Vodun. Upon recruitment, the Amazons were subjected to female genital mutilation according to oral Dahomean tradition.
The Mino trained with intense physical exercise, learned survival skills, and developed indifference to pain and death, storming acacia-thorn defenses in military exercises and executing prisoners. Discipline was emphasised. Serving in the Mino offered women the opportunity to “rise to positions of command and influence” in an environment structured for individual empowerment. The Mino were also wealthy and held high status.
The Mino took a prominent role in the Grand Council, debating the policy of the kingdom. From the 1840s to 1870s, the majority of Mino generally supported peace with the Egba of Abeokuta, arguing instead to raid smaller, less defended tribes.
Despite their fearsome reputation and impressive military achievements, the Dahomey Amazons ultimately faced defeat when they went up against the French army in the First Franco-Dahomean War of 1890. Although the women put up a valiant fight, their weapons were no match for the firepower of the French, and they were ultimately defeated. After the war, the French abolished the regiment, and the women were forced to return to civilian life.
Today, the Dahomey Amazons are remembered as symbols of female empowerment and strength. Their legacy lives on in the stories and traditions of West Africa, as well as in popular culture. Many contemporary African women’s organizations draw inspiration from the Mino, seeing them as pioneers in the fight for gender equality and social justice.
Despite their controversial practices, such as female genital mutilation and enforced celibacy, it is clear that the Mino played an important role in the political and military history of the Kingdom of Dahomey. By challenging gender norms and empowering women to take on leadership roles, the Amazons paved the way for future generations of women to do the same.
The Dahomey Amazons were a remarkable group of female warriors who defied societal expectations and proved their worth on the battlefield. Their story serves as a reminder that women have always been capable of incredible feats of strength, bravery, and leadership, and that their contributions to history should never be overlooked or forgotten. On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the legacy of the Mino and honor their memory as trailblazers for women’s rights and empowerment.