ICONIC WOMEN: The Mino of Dahomey or the Dahomey ‘Amazon’ Warriors/Dahomey Amazons

From the late 17th century until the end of the 19th century, the Kingdom of Dahomey in the what is today the West African nation of Benin (sandwiched between Nigeria on the east and Togo to their west) an incredible regiment made up of only women, from within the Fon community, challenged and refuted gender norms by occupying spaces usually reserved for men. 

This all-women Fon army was originally established by Dahomian king King Houegbadja, the third king of Dahomeny, who ruled from 1645 to 1685, with the intention of having these women serve as elephant hunters known as ‘gbeto’. Later, during Houegbadja’s son King Agadja reign during the early 1700s he developed the gbeto into an established bodyguard and warrior unit who became known as the Mino meaning ‘our mothers’ in Fon - a name given to them by the men’s army of Dahomey. During this time, the Mino gained one of their first major successes in being part of the Dahomey army that defeated the neighbouring kingdom of Savi in 1727. Their incorporation into the army was done to increase the size of the Dahomey military, thus appearing larger and more intimidating to their opponents.

In King Ghezo’s time, between 1818 to 1858, great emphasis was put on Dahomey’s army and military units, perhaps due to the growing threat of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the threat that neighbouring ethnic groups may have posed as a result of it. As a result, King Ghezo poured much of his resources into developing the Dahomian army, including the Mino, increasing their budget, formalizing their structure and training, and arming them with guns obtained from the Dutch through trade.

It is said that by the mid-19th century there were between 1,000-6,000 women in the Mino unit which comprised of both free Dahomian women and women who may have been taken as captives during war. Women in the Mino, sometimes referred to as ahosi (the king’s wives) were not permitted to marry or have children as the were considered wives of the king. This allowed the women to obtain positions of great power and influence as they were highly revered in Dahomian within the army - especially for their braver, and within society as well.

As European colonial forces began to move more aggressively throughout Africa in the 1800s, French forces on colonial campaigns in West Africa placed increasing pressure on the Dahomian Kingdom leading to an outbreak of war between French and Dahomian forces in 1890. The first Franco-Dahomian War broke out in that year with the Dahomey Army led by anti-colonialist King Behanzin. Part of the French forces consisted of Tirailleurs - French-trained Senegalese and Gabonese soldiers who had been recruited due to their countries being colonized by France. Despite the Dahomian army being greater in number, they were ill-equipped in comparison to the French and lost the war resulting in Dahomey being added to France’s colonial territories in West Africa.

This defeat also signified the disintegration of the Dahomian army and thus the women who the Europeans had referred to as the ‘Dahomey Amazons’. The last surviving Mino is thought to have been a woman named Nawi who died in 1979.

Someone needs to make a sci-fi animated fantasy or make a comic about or inspired by these women.

(sources 1, 2, 3)

 AUGUST: Highlighting African Women


Marcus Garvey with Prince Kojo Tovalou-Houenou of Dahomey, called the “Garvey of Africa”, and George O. Marke. In Harlem 1924.

Kojo Tovalou Houénou (born Marc Tovalou Quénum; 25 April 1887 – 13 July 1936) was a prominent African critic of the French colonial empire in Africa. Born in Porto-Novo (a French protectorate in present-day Benin) to a wealthy father and a mother related to the king of the Kingdom of Dahomey. He was sent to France for education at the age of 13, received a law degree, medical training, and served in the French armed forces as an army doctor during World War I. Following the war, Houénou became a minor celebrity in Paris; dating actresses, writing books as a public intellectual, and making connections with many of the elite of French society. In 1921, he visited Dahomey for the first time since 1900 and upon returning to France became active in trying to build bonds between France and Dahomey. In 1923, he was assaulted in a French nightclub by Americans who objected to an African being served in the club and the attack served to change his perspective and increase his efforts to confront racism. He founded an organization and a newspaper with the help of other African intellectuals living in Paris like René Maran and traveled to New York City to attend Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) conference. Upon returning to France, Houénou was considered a subversive by the French government, his newspaper went bankrupt, the organization he founded folded, and he was forced to leave France and move back to Dahomey. Following unrest attributed to him in Dahomey, he relocated eventually to Dakar, Senegal where he continued to be harassed by the French authorities. He died from Typhoid fever in 1936 while imprisoned in Dakar, after being arrested on contempt of court charges.

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The Yoruba people, of which there is at the present time more than 25 million, occupies the western South corner of Nigeria, by all the edge of Dahomey and it extends until he himself Dahomey. At the east and the north, the Yoruba culture arrives at its limits in the Niger river. Nevertheless, ancestral cultures directly related to the Yorubas bloomed to the north of Niger (Map). The archaeological discoveries and the genetic studies indicate that the ancestors of the Yorubas can have lived in this territory from prehistory. Archaeological evidences indicate that a society proto-Yoruba with high technological and artistic levels, was living to the north of Niger in the first millenium on ours was, and they already had knowledge of the iron.

The Ifa theology raises that the creation of the humanity occurred in the sacred city of Ile-Ife, where Oduduwacreated mainland of the water. Much later a unknown number migrated towards Ile Ife. In this point the western ones were sinergized with African Eastern and some hypotheses cradles in the similarity of the Egyptian sculptures and the found ones in the city been of Ife, indicate that the originating Yorubas can descend from the Oduduwa of Egypt and that these founded the first kingdoms. The Yorubas called themselves “the children of Oduduwa”.

These Yoruba city-kingdoms comprised of more than 25 kingdoms, all of them centralized. Of all of them, it is Ile-Ife, the universally recognized as most important. Is believed that its foundation dates from year 850. His eternal rival, the kingdom of Oyo, to the northwest of Ife, was based approximately towards the 1350 DC. The Oni (king) of Ife and the Alafin de Oyo still are considered as Yoruba kings and they respect them in Nigeria by the people. Other important kingdoms were Itsekiri, Ondo and Owo in the Southeastern, Ekiti and Ijesha to the northwest and the Egbado, Shabe, Ketu, Ijebu, and Awori in the southwest.

The Portuguese explorers “discovered” the Yoruba cities and their kingdoms in century XV, but cities such as Ife and Benin, among others, have been in their sites by hundreds of years before the European arrived.

The kingdom of Oyo was based with the aid of the Portuguese arms. At the end of the 18th century takes place a civil war in which one of the sides obtains the support of the Fulani, that in year 1830 took control of the control of all the Oyo empire. The Fulani invasion pushed many Yoruba towards the south where the towns of Ibadan and Abeokuta were based. In 1888, with the aid of a British mediator, Yorubas and Fulanis signed an agreement by which they regained the control on its earth. In 1901 Yorubaland it is colonized officially by the British empire, who settle down an administrative system that maintains great part of the structure of Yoruba government.

During all these years Ife maintained its vital importance like sacred city, cradles of the Yorubas and it bases of its religious thought. Until recently time, the Yorubas was not considered to themselves like a single nation. Rather they were considered like citizens of Oyo, Benin, Yagba, among other cities. These cities considered the inhabitants of Lakes and Owo, for example, like foreign neighbors. The Yorubas kingdoms not only fought against the Dahometans, but also to each other. The Yoruba name was applied to all these people related linguistically and culturally by its neighbors of the north, the Hausas.

The typical old Yoruba cities, were urban centers with farms to his around that they extended by dozens of miles or more. Oyo and Benin were founded by kings of Ife or their descendants. Benin directly obtained its ritual knowledge of Ife, and the religious system of Ifa divination expanded from Ife not only through all the Yoruba territory, but that reached to everybody. A system of common Yoruba beliefs dominated the region from Niger, moving towards the east to the Gulf of Guinea in the south.

It was not by accident that the Yoruba culture expanded through Atlantic until America. Hunters of European slaves captured million of African violently and they sent them in overloaded negreros boats towards America. Wars for slaves began from the kingdom of Dahomey against some of the Yorubas kingdoms, and similars wars between such Yorubas, took these wear prisoners as slaves available for their transportation towards America. Yorubas slaves were sent to English, French, Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the new world, and in a great part of these places, the Yorubas traditions survived with great force. In Cuba, Brazil, Haiti and Trinidad, the religious rites Yorubas, beliefs, music and myths are enthroned to the present time. In Haiti the Yorubas was called Anagos. Haitian religious activities gave an honor place to the rites and Yorubas beliefs, its pantheon includes numerous deities of Yoruba origin.

The slavery in the United States was very different from other colonized regions. The language and the culture of these captives were cruely eliminated, where the African received the capital punishment generally to exert their practices.

In Cuba, it happened a process of mixing of the Yoruba religion with the catholic, giving rise to a new system, known as Rule of Osha or Santería, that is the one that with more force has extended to Latin America, the United States and Europe. This resurgence in popularity and interest of the adaptation of Yoruba and Ifa with the catholicism, arrived at the United States through the Puerto Ricans in the 40 ’ s and the 50 ’ s (which previously had received it from Cuba) and soon in the 60 ’ s with the flow of Cuban refugees.

In Cuba, the pantheon of the Yorubas deities has survived intact, next to a complex of rites, beliefs, music, dances and myths of Yoruba origin.

Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou | Demoiselles de Porto-Novo

Existing within the faded walls of a family home at the centre of one city’s complex history, these are the Demoiselles de Porto Novo.

As the title would suggest, the solitary figure within these images are of young women from the port city, and former capital of French Dahomey. Demoiselles de Porto-Novo the portraiture series, is part of a broader body of work and project entitled Citizens of Port-Novo by Beninois photographer Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou.

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Images courtesy of  Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou and Jack Bell Gallery. All rights reserved.



At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England

Walter Dean Meyers

In 1849, a young African girl came within moments of being sacrificed in the bloody Dahomian ritual called the “watering of the graves.” But Commander Frederick E. Forbes, the young British captain of the HMS Bonetta, intervened, provoking Dahomian King Gezo to offer the girl as a gift to Queen Victoria instead. Forbes named the girl Sarah Forbes Bonetta and took her back to England, where she became Queen Victoria’s protege. Walter Dean Myers discovered the kernel of Sarah’s story in a bundle of original letters he purchased from a London book dealer. From these letters, along with excerpts from Queen Victoria’s diary, newspapers, and Forbes’s published account of the Dahomans, Myers pieced together Sarah’s life. In his unembellished narrative we learn about Sarah’s capture by the slave-trading Dahomans; her rescue by Forbes; her life in England under the Forbes’ care; her regular visits to the Queen; her stay at a missionary school in Sierra Leone and abrupt return to England; her marriage and early death. Yet, as horrific and miraculous as the events of Sarah’s life are, Myers can only pose questions about who Sarah really was (“What were her dreams for her own future…? What images came to her as she rode in the pony cart with the royal children? How often did she think of Dahomey? Of King Gezo?”). Sarah’s chatty, unprovocative letters, which hint at the upperclass Englishwoman she became, reveal nothing about her African heritage or about the traumatized girl she must have been (Myers could not even discover her African name). Ironically, this seeming weakness proves the ultimate testimony to Sarah’s life-the very absence of her voice bears undeniable witness to her story.

We must not reduce African societies to just villages. We are talking about the destruction of empires, states and nations. Even if we just talk about West Africa, Dahomey was a state; Benin was a state; Ashanti was a state. And it is important not to see Africa as just a collection of underdeveloped villages. For this is part of the European lie to claim an undeserved and untenable superiority…When the European first came to Africa, he had to pay taxes and tribute on the coast and had to stay on the coast. And in Dahomey, they made him build his houses in mud, not in stone to show how impermanent his residence was. And he exchanged ambassadors where he could. He exchanged ambassadors not only with Songhai, but also with Angola, Congo and other states. It was at first a necessary mutual respect for policy…But eventually, Africa, an old centre of civilisation, began to decline and capitalism began to rise, and you have a shift then in the balance of power. And the Europeans began to strengthen themselves on the coast. And appropriating knowledge from Africa and Asia and synthesising technique, they began to shift the balance of power. They began to go inland.
—  Maulana Karenga

The Dahomey Amazons or Mino were a Fon all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey(present Benin) which lasted until the end of the 19th century. They were so named by Western observers and historians due to their similarity to the semi-mythical Amazons.

The Amazon army corps, made up of female warriors, is said to have been established by King Agadja (1708-1740). His father, King Houégbadja, had already created a detachment of “elephant huntresses” (gbeto) who were also bodyguards. But Agadja developed the female bodyguard into a militia. The group of female warriors was referred to as Mino, meaning “Our Mothers” in the Fon language, by the male army of Dahomey.

E. Chaudoin in "Three months in captivity in Dahomey" describes them as follows in 1891:

"There they are, 4,000 warriors, the 4,000 black virgins of Dahomey, the monarch’s bodyguard, motionless in their war garments, with gun and knife in hand, ready to leap forward at the master’s signal.

Old or young, ugly or beautiful, they are wonderful to look at. They are as well built as the male warriors and their attitude is just as disciplined and correct, lined up as though against a rope”.

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