The above troupe, billed as “Amazons” when appearing in 1891 at the Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris, included talented performers from the Kingdom of Dahomey (within the boundaries of present-day Benin), who wowed European audiences with dances, drills and sharpshooting. They were not, however, the authentic Dahomey Amazons. Around the same time those real warrior-women of West Africa were fighting for their lives against French invaders.
A kingdom of predominantly Fon people, Dahomey rose to power in the early 17th century. A powerful and militaristic society, Dahomey’s influence ballooned with the advent of the European slave trade. Conquering neighbors and selling captives to passing European ships proved lucrative for the kingdom, while the sailors supplied them with high-quality European arms.
There are many origin stories for the all-female military units of Dahomey. According to one tradition, they began as a corps of elephant hunters, or gbeto (“huntresses” in Fon). According to another, they began as royal bodyguards drawn from the king’s wives (or ahosi). The most common name for them, though, was Mino, or “Our Mothers.”
The women who served as Mino came from all walks of life. Some were captives or slaves raised as warriors from a young age. Others volunteered, seeing agency and status in military service. Indeed, the Mino were highly respected. Athletic and seldom armored, they led many charges and were often considered braver than male counterparts. Outside the ranks, they had seats on the royal councils of Dahomey, where their input on affairs of state was valued in otherwise patriarchal West Africa.
With the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, Dahomey went into decline through the 19th century and lost successive battles against its African rivals. In 1890 territorial disputes with France led to the First and Second Franco-Dahomean wars. Though the heavily armed French Foreign Legion and supporting gunboats far outmatched the Dahomey warriors, at the end the core of the Mino — all that remained of the kingdom’s military — refused to surrender and died in a series of costly bayonet charges in 1894.
According to oral tradition, those Mino who survived during the French occupation slipped into the shadows, assassinating French officers and training future generations of women warriors.
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