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The Amazons of Dahomey Were Real-Life Dora Milaje Who Took on the French Army

Happy Black History Month! For each of the 28 days of February, we at The Mary Sue will have a post about a black woman you should know about—some you may have heard of, some a little bit more obscure, and some fictional who still deserve a lot of love. 

Black Panther Dora Danai

Day Thirteen: The N’Nonmiton or Amazons of Dahomey

I touched on the Amazons of Dahomey last month, when Marvel released the “Warriors of Wakanda” featurette about the Dora Milaje. However, I felt like they absolutely deserved their own post.

So the N’Nonmiton, or, Dahomey Amazons, were a group of warrior women founded by King Agaja of Dahomey (the present-day Republic of Benin) in the 18th century. They are considered to be the world’s first full-time, all-female combat fighting force. I first heard about the Dahomey Amazons on an episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class.

Part of their origin, according to Matt Smith of Smithsonian Magazine, is that teams of female hunters known as gbeto already existed in Dahomey, and they were well regarded. One myth about their origin holds that in around 1850, a French naval surgeon named Repin reported that a group of 20 gbeto had attacked a herd of 40 elephants, killing three at the cost of several hunters gored and trampled. After their triumph, Smith explains, Dahomean tradition holds 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 into his army.”

While there is no proof that this is the real origin of the N’Nonmiton, it does show us that in Dahomey, the women were trained to be just as ferocious in battle as the men. While other cultures like the Vikings did have female warriors, the Dahomey Amazons were much more a military force than a collection of individual female badasses. As Smith explains:

“What made Dahomey’s women warriors unique was that they fought, and frequently died, for king and country. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that, in the course of just four major campaigns in the latter half of the 19th century, they lost at least 6,000 dead, and perhaps as many as 15,000. In their very last battles, against French troops equipped with vastly superior weaponry, about 1,500 women took the field, and only about 50 remained fit for active duty by the end.”

Just like the Dora Milaje, they were considered “brides to the king” and were to remain chaste and refrain from having families. Their training was extensive, and they were expected to be unflinching in the face of blood, brutality, and various types of torture. They were trained by climbing thorn hedges. And during an annual ceremony, new recruits of both sexes were required to stand atop a platform that was 16 feet high, pick up baskets containing bound and gagged prisoners of war, and hurl them over the wall to a mob below. That was considered part of their “insensitivity training.”

They were a fierce fighting force, who unnerved Westerners because they were ruthless, proficient in combat, and had an Africanness to them that startled the French who visited. Smith quotes a few historical sources who described the N’Nonmiton after fighting them:

“Their last enemies were full of praise for their courage. A French Foreign Legionnaire named Bern lauded them as ‘warrioresses … [who] fight with extreme valor, always ahead of the other troops. They are outstandingly brave … well trained for combat and very disciplined.’ A French Marine, Henri Morienval, thought them “remarkable for their courage and their ferocity … flung themselves on our bayonets with prodigious bravery.”

During the First Franco-Dahomean War, these women fought in battle against the French. And while they were overwhelmed by the French’s weapons, that did not stop them from rushing to the front lines and being the last to surrender. Even then, they did not go quietly, according to a rumor. Apparently, the survivors took their revenge on the French by covertly replacing themselves in exchange for the Dahomean women who were captured by the enemy. “Each allowed herself to be seduced by [a] French officer, waited for him to fall asleep, and then cut his throat with his own bayonet.”

Most sources say that the last of the known N’Nonmiton was a woman named Nawi, from the village of Kinta, who died at well over 100 years old in November of 1979.

The legacy of the N’Nonmiton, despite not being fully recognized by history, is that of an amazing fighting force who was ferocious enough that even the French army had to take notice.

(image: Marvel Studios/ Disney)

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