Dahomey’s Women Warriors

From F.G. Forbes, “Dahomey and the Dahomans” (London,1851): A Dahomey woman warrior, with a musket, club, dagger—and her male enemy’s severed head.

Much was made in the press about Muammar al-Gaddafi’s retinue of female bodyguards (pictured below, and known as “Haris al-Has”) when they appeared in his entourage in the 1980s. It was widely rumored, for example, that they took a vow of celibacy as part of their service. Recently, however, several of them have come forth and reported they were subjected to rape and sexual abuse by Gaddafi, his sons, and his inner circle. And while there were instances where they took bullets for him (with one giving her life), not much has been written or said about their exploits in defending their boss during the armed struggle to overthrow his regime. Sadly, as more information emerges, they appear mostly as victims of Gaddafi’s cult of narcissism and as accomplices, some willing and others not, in his vast security apparatus.

Whatever the case, Gaddafi, in his fanciful quest to become the “King of Kings” in Africa may have borrowed his idea for a retinue of Amazonian bodyguards directly from a kingdom that was dubbed “a small Black Sparta,” by noted British traveler Richard F. Burton. Burton numbered among several visitors to the West African nation of Dahomey (renamed Benin in 1975) that noted its militarism, imperialist policies, and subordination of its citizens to state rule.

The recruitment, training and organization of females into an elite royal bodyguard occurred in the Dahomean court as early as the 17th century. But it is an 18th century ruler of the country named Gezo, who is credited with expanding an existent troop of six hundred women warriors into an army of formidable female fighters numbering six thousand.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

When, or indeed why, Dahomey recruited its first female soldiers is not certain. Stanley Alpern, author of the only full-length Engish-language study of them, suggests it may have been in the 17th century, not long after the kingdom was founded by Dako, a leader of the Fon tribe, around 1625. One theory traces their origins to teams of female hunters known as gbeto, and certainly Dahomey was noted for its women hunters; a French naval surgeon named Repin reported in the 1850s that a group of 20 gbeto had attacked a herd of 40 elephants, killing three at the cost of several hunters gored and trampled. A Dahomean tradition relates that when King Gezo (1818-58) praised their courage, the gbeto cockily replied that “a nice manhunt would suit them even better,” so he drafted them drafted into his army. But Alpern cautions that there is no proof that such an incident occurred, and he prefers an alternate theory that suggests the women warriors came into existence as a palace guard in the 1720s.

The article also cites the real possibility the last member of this famous female fighting corps lived until as recently as November 1979.

Click the link that follows to read the rest of the article posted by Mike Dash on Smithsonianmag.com: Dahomey’s Women Warriors.

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