Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 6
The Fon Kingdom of Dahomey (in modern-day Benin) was well established by the mid-eighteenth century and had a much-feared ethos of expansion and control over neighbouring polities. Dahomey’s economic power relied heavily on the export of Africans into the international 'slave trade' during the 1700s.
Dahomey, like many African kingdoms of the time, collected prisoners of war. These war captives became of great value as Europeans offered highly sought-after goods in return for these human prisoners.
As such, the African portion of the so-called slave trade was built on conflict, which aided the territorial expansion of kingdoms like Dahomey. The selling of war captives to Europeans brought wealth and weapons, which were used to fuel repetitive conflicts by successive kings who sought to expand their kingdom further.
As a result of these relentless pursuits for expansion, the Dahomey had an army that was feared throughout the region. However, what was unusual about this army was the inclusion of women as soldiers and royal guards.
Observers note how four armed women stood guard near the king, holding muskets on their shoulders or pistols in their hands. Europeans were enthralled with such imagery and wrote about what they saw:
"Each [woman] well armed with a small musketoon and a small short sword for which the scabbard is ordinarily of crimson velvet; their only clothing is a little wrapper of silk around the hips, which comes down to their knees. Thus armed and with two or three flags of silk, these women with commanders march slowly in rows of four each."
Female soldiers were seen marching in formation as part of parades to display royal wealth and power. Typically there were four or five companies, with as many as one hundred women in each, amounting to a sizable force of powerful women.
Evidence of these women participating in active combat before the nineteenth century is scarce. However, one example from 1729 had female soldiers placed at the rear of the army, their presence serving to frighten the enemy. In 1781, there was a further report of the king leading eight hundred women to war upon learning that a military troop of his male soldiers had been defeated.
Throughout their existence, the women of the Dahomey military expanded their structure into several units. This policy of modernisation also included the acquisition of more advanced firearms and tactics. The women's army was strengthened particularly during the reign of King Ghezo (1818-1858), who instituted the principle of regular recruitment and created new regiments.
Each regiment had its own female commanders, specific uniforms and weapons, as well as its own guardian spirits, dances, songs and military parades.