If you have watched Marvel’s Black Panther film, you might agree that one of the most outstanding things about it is the performance by the Dora Milaje. The all-female team of fictional characters, sworn to protect the throne and the kingdom, fights with the strength and agility traditionally associated with the most vicious male soldiers.
One might think that such female power could only exist in fiction, but did you know the film was based on an actual, real-life army that existed in West Africa from the 17th century to the 19th century?
The N’Nonmiton/Mino Warriors were an elite force made entirely of female warriors avowed to protect the king of the kingdom of Dahomey, which was based in the current state of Benin.
In the kingdom of Dahomey, men, other than the king and those closest to him by blood, were not allowed to enter the palace. While there were bodyguards around the palace, there was no one inside the palace to protect the king.
One day, during King Houegbadja’s reign, assassins from Europe came disguised as beautiful maidens to entertain the king. Their mission was to force the king to sign an agreement, handing over some of the coastal lands to the French. They would then murder him before leaving quietly without being noticed, and that way, the king’s death would be blamed on prostitutes; no one would suspect what really happened.
As Houegbadja laid on the bed, waiting to be entertained, the men took out their swords, and holding them over his neck, ordered him to sign the document.
In the chambers, there were two of the king’s regular women, who the assassins decided to murder as well. One assassin grabbed one of the women. The woman bit his hand and his neck, completely severing the blood vessels on one side of his neck. In a moment of confusion, the other woman jumped for the other assassin and drove a sword through his belly. The king killed the third and last assassin using his dagger.
The king, seeing how the women saved his life, decided to give them formal training.
He created a special unit for women only, and provided them with all the resources they needed for training and battle. And that is how the Amazons were born.
“The whites are coming. I charge you with the protection of the throne and the kingdom,” the king directed. A prophesy had been told that white people would try to steal the locals’ land, and the king entrusted the security of the kingdom with the newly-formed all-female military unit.
Later recruits were sworn in as virgins and expected to live a celibate life. They were given the title, “N’Nonmiton”, meaning “our mothers”, not because they were maternal but due to how they carried out their duty with dedication, protecting the throne and the kingdom as fiercely as a mother would protect her children.
On the battlefield, the Mino were in constant competition with the male soldiers. And surprisingly, they showed greater stamina.
Rigorous training was a crucial part of being a Mino. For instance, they would lead expeditions of a “hunger games” style, where they were sent to the woods armed only with a machete and taking no supplies.
Recruits were given the training from the very start. The exercises were aimed at building speed, strength, ruthlessness, and the ability to withstand great pain. Military-style gymnastics were also included, where the women would jump over high walls covered with branches of thorny acacia. Their training was twice as robust as that of the male soldiers.
The women’s brand was speedy beheading. Surrender was never an option unless the king directed them to do so. Often, they were left as the last women standing, with their opponents’ body parts scattered chaotically in pools of their blood. Many times, the women would come back to the palace dancing to songs of triumph, with the heads of their opponents in their hands. Insensitivity was their mark.
But being a Mino was not all about fighting and defending the throne. It was also a position of prestige that gave the women unique privileges. For instance, the members got special seats in the grand council, the land’s senate. With their positions, they were able to participate in policy-making matters pertaining to the kingdom’s governance.
Moreover, the women had many supplies at their disposal, including wine, tobacco, gold, and slaves. Often, when a Mino walked out of the palace, she was preceded by a slave carrying a bell. The bell’s sound was to warn every man in the way to step aside and look the other way.
Richard Burton, the European explorer, arrived in the West African coast in 1863 and entered the kingdom of Dahomey. He had been sent by the British government to try and make peace with the inhabitants of the land.
He observed that the Dahomey people loved war and often captured their enemies, selling them out as slaves. But it was the female soldiers’ unit, the Mino, that amazed Burton the most.
“Femininity can only be distinguished by the bosom,” reported Burton. The explorer observed that in most other ways, including muscular build and strength, the women were equal to, sometimes greater than, the men. He nicknamed them “Black Sparta”.
A little later, in the 1880s, the French arrived in West Africa as part of their expansion campaigns. These were the people who suffered the most at the hand of the Dahomey Amazons.
One day, French mercanaries were sent to ambush the Dahomey king during his regular trips to the northern port. He travelled guarded only by about 20 Mino girls. The French, underestimating the Mino girls, sent 10 soldiers armed with muskets to kill the king. Little did they know what awaited them. Even with their guns, they were no match for the girls, who were armed only with machetes. The Mino massacred the soldiers brutally, leaving only one of them to go free.
“Those are not women; they are vicious beasts,” he reported. The soldier explained the girls took swings of the machete before cutting off some of the soldiers’ heads. They had let him go to warn his people to leave Dahomey and never return.
Although the French ultimately won, taking the kingdom and disseminating the Mino unit was a daunting task. It had been 23 battles before the French managed to defeat the Dahomey Amazons, with thousands of French casualties.
The French had to bring in specialized weapons, including machine guns, to overcome the Amazons. And not just that. Were it not that they got help from other European nations, including the British, they wouldn’t have defeated the Dahomey Amazons. “The courage and audacity of these ladies are unfathomable,” reported the French Legion.
Many terms have been used to describe the Dahomey Amazons – ruthless, cruel, the most feared women to walk the earth. But these highly organized soldiers introduced a whole new perspective in which women in Africa and around the globe would be viewed. They made it clear that women can be incredibly strong and self-sufficient.