Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 May 2014
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.
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.
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36 Ibid., 84.
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