The Woman King throws a light on Benin’s female warriors

The Woman King throws a light on Benin’s female warriors

Dominique Somda

“The Woman King” is a high-budget Hollywood film that has been awaited since 2018, when it was revealed that Viola Davis would play the lead role in the film about the “amazons” of Dahomey.

Thuso Mbedu, an up-and-coming South African actor, has a crucial role in the film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and will shortly be shown in theaters nationally.

The action movie is contributing to growing global interest in the historical female warriors of Dahomey, a West African kingdom that flourished in the 1700s and 1800s in what is now Benin.

Amazons were exceptionally skilled warrior women. Locals and outsiders who had come to explore and colonize the land were frightened and intrigued by their presence. Protectors of the king, the anti-colonial women warriors are known as Agoodjies in Fon, one of the several languages spoken in Benin.

 

“The Woman King” is not the first Hollywood film to feature Dahomey’s “amazons” in recent years.

Lovecraft Country, a popular television series, highlighted the strong warriors (in an episode where Hippolyta Freeman, a black woman in pre-civil rights America, experiences a triumphant, cosmic journey of liberation).

The Dora Milaje were the soldiers of Wakanda in the blockbuster film “Black Panther.” Modeled after the Agoodjie, they are Black Panther’s defenders. These incarnations have helped push the warriors of Dahomey to the forefront of popular culture.

On social media and in reviews, the film is praised as a prime example of “ferocious” depictions of black femininity, in stark contrast to prevalent popular culture tropes.

Who were these women, and how does their legacy continue to echo in modern-day Benin?

Une statue est dévoilée

Amazon, a monumental bronze sculpture by Chinese sculptor Li Xiangqun, was unveiled in Cotonou, Benin, on the 62nd anniversary of the country’s independence from France, July 30.

It features a young girl warrior wearing a tunic with a belt and carrying a shotgun and a short sword. Amazon joins two other newly constructed anti-colonial resistance monuments.

The statue is in response to a 2018 exhibition about warriors hosted in Cotonou. The new museum is anticipated to open in 2024 in Abomey, the former royal capital of the Dahomey rulers, which will feature these objects.

It appears that the government of Benin has charged them with both resurrecting national pride and embodying a new female power. The “amazons” are once again among us.

Who were the combatants?

Regarding these renowned female fighters, a great deal has been written. The explicit connection to the Amazons, a mythical tribe of female hunters and soldiers from ancient Greece, was made for the first time in the 1700s by European males who encountered the Agoodjie in Dahomey.

By the mid-1800s, the term “amazon” was commonly used.

The female warriors discovered by explorers and traders in the Fon (Dahomey) kingdom caused amazement due to their purported gender-bending military ability.

Dahomey was one of numerous kingdoms in the Aja-Yoruba region (between present day Togo and south-west Nigeria).

Its regional supremacy lasted the 1700s and 1800s, when Dahomey transformed from a supplier of slaves for the African kingdoms of Allada and Hueda (Ouidah) – a significant port in the transatlantic slave trade – to the principal coastal broker.

The combative prowess of Dahomey’s female warriors was respected and feared, especially when they were perceived as transgressively imitating male ferocity.

They may have appeared to be fighting as men. Yet, at the royal palace, their status was comparable to that of wives, concubines, and slaves.

Not always did the female warriors battle for the independence of their nation. They participated in the numerous conflicts between Dahomey’s rulers and its neighbors.

They played a significant role in hostilities and raids that resulted in the slavery of a great number of Africans. In an interview with anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, Cudjo Lewis (previously known as Kossula), “the last survivor of the American slave trade,” remembered the terrible raid on his community and the female warriors who robbed him of his freedom.

Return of the monarch

The role of Viola Davis in “The Woman King.” Ilze Kitshoff/Sony Pictures Entertainment photograph

In the past decade, a real-life queen has been reinstated in history books and the hearts of the Beninese people. During her reign from 1716 to 1718, Queen Tassi Hangbé is frequently credited with creating the corps.

As a child growing up in Cotonou in the 1980s, I knew her less than her twin brother and predecessor, King Akaba. Long ago, Hangbé’s rule was described as a simple regency.

One analysis indicates that she did not appear on the king’s list (the list of Dahomey’s sovereigns) until the 1900s.

The sole female name in the dynasty is hers. Hangbé has a convoluted past. Agadja, younger brother of the royal twins and Hangbé’s successor, was largely responsible for her extinction.

The queen was possibly neither a warrior nor the creator of the “amazons.”

Female hunters and warriors certainly existed prior to the establishment of the Dahomey empire in the 1700s, according to a 1998 study.

Historians argue that Hangbé’s relationship with Akaba resulted in a dualistic organization of men and women throughout the kingdom.

For example, male commanders had their female counterparts, demonstrating the principle of genders complementing one another to form a whole.

The heritage of Hangbé is renowned. The Queen Hangbé Foundation (Fondation Reine Hangbé) intends to restore the historical significance of the twin sister and to combat violence against women.

Despite rumors that the new statue in Cotonou was inspired by her, the government has made it clear that the statue does not favor any one kingdom or ethnic group in Benin.

Instead, the monument is a tribute to the Beninese women who fought against gender-based violence in the past and present.

Additionally, Benin has lately enacted a number of legislation safeguarding women and their reproductive rights.

Disrupting male dominance

The “amazons” of Dahomey were unique, but queens and princesses led armies and resisted colonial expansion elsewhere on the African continent, including Queen Nzinga of Angola and Queen Nana Yaa Asantewaa of Ghana.

According to a number of African feminists, African women have never been weak and defenseless. The feminization of the spectacle of violence creates a sense of thrilling disruption in a historically male-dominated society.

The film will definitely throw further light on the extraordinary legacy of the Agoodjies as a result of the buzz surrounding “The Woman King” and the conversations it has already sparked.

Not exotic heroines, mythological figures, or comic book characters, but all-too-real combatants of the “slave coast” of West Africa.

The nationwide release of “The Woman King” occurs on September 30.

Dominique Somda is a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Cape Town’s Institute of Humanities in Africa.

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