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On the Origins of the Amazons of Dahomey*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2014

Extract

Among the most intriguing unresolved historical questions concerning the women soldiers of Dahomey are the journalist's basic when, how and why (the who and where are givens). We know the amazons' terminal date precisely: the fourth of November 1892, when they fought their last battle against the French at the gates of Cana. But assertions in the literature as to when they got started range all the way from the reign of Wegbaja (ca. 1640-ca. 1680-85) to that of Glele (1858-89).

Neither Wegbaja nor Glele can seriously be considered as the originator of the amazons, though the former has a far better claim than the latter. The Wegbaja thesis rests on a tradition that he created the well-known corps of elephant huntresses, the gbeto, and on speculation that they became the first amazon unit. The gbeto may even predate Wegbaja: Palau Marti cites a tradition that he organized pre-existing huntresses into a special corps. Lombard offers the plausible explanation that since women provisioned the royal palace, it was only natural that some of them furnish game for the king's table. Dunglas seems to have been the first to write down the tradition tracing the gbeto to Wegbaja; he was inclined to accept it. P.K. Glèlè says Wegbaja began employing women as personal guards. Cornevin states, without giving his source, that it was the gbeto themselves who doubled as the king's bodyguards. None of this can be proved, and in any case no one has suggested that Wegbaja ever used women as real soldiers.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © African Studies Association 1998

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Footnotes

*

This paper grew out of research for a book titled Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey (London, 1998) scheduled for co-publication in July 1998 by C. Hurst & Co. Ltd. of London and New York University Press.

References

1 Le Hérissé, A., L'ancien royaume du Dahomey: moeurs, religion, histoire (Paris, 1911), 67.Google Scholar Le Hérissé was the first author to identify the gbeto as the oldest amazon unit, but he wrongly credited their founding to Gezo. See also Prévaudeau, Marie-Madeleine, Abomey-la-mystique (Paris, 1936), 9394Google Scholar; Polanyi, Karl, Dahomey and the Slave Trade (Seattle, 1966), 28Google Scholar; Maroukis, Thomas Constantine, “Warfare and Society in the Kingdom of Dahomey: 1818-1894” (Ph.D., Boston University, 1974), 108.Google Scholar

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7 A school of one, Paul Mimande, holds that Glele founded the amazons, thus betraying abysmal ignorance of a large body of testimony: Mimande, Paul, L'héritage de Béhanzin (Paris, 1898), 23.Google Scholar Paul Mimande was the pseudonym of Viscount Armand de la Loyère, acting governor of Dahomey in 1895-96. See d'Almeida-Topor, Hélène, Les amazones: une armée de femmes dans l'Afrique précoloniale (Paris, 1984), 167Google Scholar; Garcia, Luc, Le royaume du Daliomé face à la pénétration coloniale (1874-1894), (Paris, 1988), 245n31.Google Scholar

8 Also known as Ahanbé, Hãgbé, Hangbé, or Xãgbé, sometimes preceded by Tasi, Tassi, or Tassin.

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12 Nzinga of Matamba, an outstanding warrior queen in seventeenth-century Angola, suffered a similar fate. Joseph C. Miller found in 1969 that local traditional histories, “which accurately preserve the titles of other seventeenth-century … rulers,” were “damningly silent” about her. Nzinga of Matamba in a New Perspective,” JAH, 16(1975), 213, 213n20.Google Scholar

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18 Musée de l'Homme inventory no. M.H.31.36.3.

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27 Degbelo, , “Amazones,” 35.Google Scholar The Ouéménou are said to have been so impressed by Akaba's female militia that they started one of their own but it fizzled out.

28 Ibid., 174.

29 Anonymous, Les panthères noires du roi Ghézo,” Calao, no. 15 (juin 1977), 25Google Scholar, cited in Degbelo, , “Amazones,” 3536Google Scholar, and Almeida-Topor, , Amazones, 3334.Google Scholar

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31 PRO, FO 84/827, Fanshawe to Admiralty, 19 July 1850, enclosing Forbes's 139-page journal. The statement is on p. 71 (my pagination).

32 Degbelo, , “Amazones,” 36, 37, 39, 40.Google Scholar See also Garcia, , Royaume, 131.Google Scholar

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35 CAOM, DFC, Côtes d'Afrique, no. 104, carton 75, “Relation du Royaume de Judas en Guinée, De son Gouvernement, des moeurs de ses habitans, de leur Religion, Et du Negoce qui sy fait,” 25 (my pagination).

36 Ibid., 84.

37 Des Marchais' account can be found in two places: Labat, Jean-Baptiste, Voyage du chevalier Des Marchais en Guinée, isles voisines, et à Cayenne, fait en 1725, 1726 & 1727 (4 vols.: Paris, 1730)Google Scholar, and in the mariner's original manuscript, “Journal du Voiage du Guinée et Cayenne Par Le Chevalier Des Marchais Capitaine Comandant La fregatte de la Compagnie des Indes, L'Expédition Pendant les Années 1724, 1725 et 1726,” which survives as Fonds Français 24223 in the Bibliothèque Nationale. Curiously, our information about first- and second-class royal wives comes from Labat (2:79), not Des Marchais directly. Des Marchais had visited Whydah in 1704 and a journal from that period (Add. MSS 19560) is in the British Library. Paul Hair has advised me that it promises but fails to include material on Whydah, and he suggests that Labat may have had access to that missing portion. Alternatively, Labat may have had opportunities to consult Des Marchais after the latter's return to France. See Nardin, Jean-Claude, “Que savons-nous du chevalier Des Marchais?” in Daget, Serge, ed., De la traile à l'esclavage (2 vols.: Nantes, 1988), 1:344.Google Scholar Labat and the Paris MS. are in general accord on the police role of third-class wives. See Labat, , Voyage, 2:96–98, 251Google Scholar, and Marchais, Des, “Journal,” f. 48v, f. 60r.Google Scholar

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52 Burton, , Mission, 256Google Scholar; Reade, Winwood, “The Kingdom of Dahomey” in Bates, H.W., ed., Illustrated Travels: a Record of Discovery, Geography and Adventure, II, part 24 (1870), 358Google Scholar; Skertchly, , Dahomey, 450, 454Google Scholar; Dubarry, Armand, Voyage au Dahomey (Paris, 1879), 156Google Scholar; Chautard, Pierre-Eugène, le Dahomey (Lyon, 1890), 6Google Scholar; Ellis, , Land of Fetish, 56Google Scholar; Ellis, , The Ewe-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa (London, 1890), 183, 290Google Scholar; Barbou, Alfred, Histoire de la guerre au Dahomey (Paris, 1893), 21Google Scholar; Grandin, Léonce, A l'assaut du pays des noirs: le Dahomey, (2 vols.: Paris, 1895), 1:242Google Scholar; Verdal, Georges, “Les amazones du Dahomey,” Education Physique, n.s. 29 (janvier 1934), 55Google Scholar; Herskovits, Melville J., Dahomey, an Ancient West African Kingdom (2 vols.: New York, 1938), 2:84Google Scholar; Meyerowitz, Eva L.R., “‘Our Mothers’: the Amazons of Dahomey,” Geographical Magazine, 15 (1943), 446Google Scholar; Dunglas, , “Contribution,” 159–60Google Scholar; Biobaku, S. O., The Egba and Their Neighbours, 1842-1872 (Oxford, 1957), 38Google Scholar; Mercier, P. and Lombard, J., Guide du Musée d'Abomey (Porto-Novo, 1959), 20Google Scholar; Cornevin, , République populaire, 105–06Google Scholar; Polanyi, , Dahomey, 28Google Scholar; Glélè, , “Royaume,” 78.Google Scholar

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54 See note 52. Dunglas, , “Contribution,” 160Google Scholar, says that Agaja's use of women against Whydah “as regular troops” forming “the reserve and rear guard” was “a real success: this lesson was not lost on the Dahomeans.”

55 Law, Robin, “A Neglected Account of the Dahomian Conquest of Whydah (1727): the ‘Relation de la Guerre de Juda’ of the Sieur Ringard of Nantes,” HA, 15 (1988), 321–38.Google Scholar

56 Ibid., 327.

57 Ibid., 335n17. As for the children, Law, ibid., 335-36n18, cites references in Snelgrave, (New Account, 78)Google Scholar and Smith, William (A New Voyage to Guinea ([London, 1744], 192)Google Scholar to boy apprentice warriors.

58 Law, , “Further Light,” 219Google Scholar, with emphasis added.

59 Ibid., 217.

60 Ibid., 222n18; Law, , “‘Amazons‘,” 249.Google Scholar

61 Law, , “Further Light,” 217.Google Scholar

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63 Degbelo, , “Amazones,” 23.Google Scholar

64 Typescript copy of untitled, unpublished book by T.B. Freeman, Methodist Missionary Society Archives, Biographical West Africa, Box 597, 168; CMS (Church Missionary Society), CA2/016/34, extracts by C. Chapman from J. Dawson's journal and from his letters to F. Fitzgerald, 17 November 1862, 21; Foà, Edouard, Le Dahomey (Paris, 1895), 23, 255–56Google Scholar; Brunet, and Giethlen, , Dahomey, 63Google Scholar; Maire, , Dahomey, 49Google Scholar; Le Hérissé, , Ancien royaume, 67Google Scholar; Prévaudeau, , Abomey-la-mystique, 9394Google Scholar; Djivo, Adrien, Guézo la rénovation du Dahomey (Paris, 1977), 7071.Google Scholar

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66 Law, , “‘Amazons’,” 250.Google Scholar

67 Ibid., 249.

68 Norris, , Memoirs, 128–30Google Scholar; Dalzel, , History, 204–05Google Scholar; Pires, , Viagem, 79.Google Scholar

69 de Pommegorge, Pruneau, Description, 162, 181–82.Google Scholar

70 PRO, T 70/31, William Mutter to Committee, 27 May 1764; Dupuis, Joseph, Journal of a Residence in Ashantee (2d ed.: London, 1966), 237–39Google Scholar; Rattray, R.S., Ashanti Law and Constitution (London, 1929), 221Google Scholar; Boahen, Adu, “Asante-Dahomey Contacts in the 19th Century,” Ghana Notes and Queries, no. 7 (January 1965), 12, note 9Google Scholar; Akinjogbin, , Dahomey, 124, 124n2Google Scholar; Fynn, J.K., Asante and Its Neighbours, 1700-1807 (London, 1971), 9697Google Scholar; Wilks, Ivor, Asante in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Eng., 1975), 320–33Google Scholar, notes 51-77; Law, Robin, The Oyo Empire, c. 1600-c.1836 (Oxford, 1977), 170–71Google Scholar; Law, , “Dahomey and the Northwest,” Cahiers du Centre de Recherches Africaines, no. 8 (1994), 159–60.Google Scholar

71 Norris, , Memoirs, 108–09.Google Scholar

72 Labarthe, , Voyage, 148–49.Google Scholar Labarthe quotes from a report by Montaguère without naming him.

73 Dalzel, , History, xxi.Google Scholar

74 Ibid., plate II, opp. p. 54.

75 Ibid., 175-77.

76 Akinjogbin, , Dahomey, 162, 162n3, 163, 163n1.Google Scholar The documents are PRO, T 70/1162, William's Fort, Whydah, Day Book, 2, 24, 27 January 1779. See also Law, , Oyo, 167, 167n118.Google Scholar

77 Law, , “‘Amazons’,” 249.Google Scholar

78 Pires' exact phrase (Viagem, 68) is “mais de 800 mulheres: esquadrâo de sua familia, que sempre o acompanha para qualquer parte.” “Esquadrão” once designated a Portuguese infantry unit.

79 Brue, , “Voyage fait en 1843, dans le royaume de Dahomey, par M. Brue, agent du comptoir français établi à Whydah,” Revue Coloniale, 7 (septembre 1845), 63.Google Scholar Some three years before Brue, British trader Thomas Hutton visited Abomey and gauged the strength of the king's female “body-guard” at an even 1,000. That, at least, was the recollection of his uncle, William Mackintosh Hutton, who regretably lost Thomas' detailed written account of the trip, PP 1842 (551), xi.1, Report from the House of Commons Select Committee on the West Coast of Africa, Minutes of Evidence, Button, W.M., 22 July 1842, 673.Google Scholar

80 Monléon, , “Le cap des Palmes, le Dahomey, Fernando-Pô et lîle du Prince, en 1844,” Revue Coloniale, 6 (mai 1845), 66.Google Scholar

81 Forbes, , Dahomey, 2:89Google Scholar; Akinjogbin, , Dahomey, 175–86Google Scholar; Law, , “History and Legitimacy,” 445.Google Scholar

82 Forbes, , Dahomey, 2:88.Google Scholar

83 Maire, , Dahomey, plate XI, 3031.Google Scholar The object of such boiling was surely to obtain bone trophies.

84 Burton, , Mission, 112.Google Scholar

85 Ibid., 254. Burton repeated his view in a paper he read to British ethnologists in 1864: The Present State of Dahome,” Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London, n.s. 3(1865), 405.Google Scholar

86 Burton, , Mission, 112n4, 254Google Scholar; idem., “Present State,” 405.

87 Wilmot, A.P.E., “Despatches from Commodore Wilmot Respecting His Visit to the King of Dahomey in December 1862 and January 1863,” Irish University Press Series of British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies: Africa 50 (Shannon, 1971), 438.Google Scholar Regarding the figure of 5,000 amazons, he appears to be quoting himself. The sexual imbalance must have been accentuated by the preference for males in the Atlantic slave trade.

88 Le Hérissé, , Ancien royaume, 325.Google Scholar

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