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Women Warriors of Benin July 23, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

Having tested the limits of masculinity yesterday Beach feels obliged to pay tribute, today, to the fairer sex. He will pass through time to the late nineteenth century and through space to Dahomey (today part of Benin) in Africa where several thousand women formed an important part of the royal army there.

Now, of course, women often prove violent in myth – think of the Amazons cutting off their breasts to better draw their bows. There are also lots of examples in traditional and not so traditional societies where women take up weapons in times of desperation: the role of women in the various European resistance movements 1939-1945 is a fascinating one. But it is rare – apologies to any matriarchs – to find an example of a society (not under stress) where women routinely serve as warriors. Rare but not unknown…

Welcome to the armed ahosi (or wives) of the king of Dahomey. Beach should say here at the outset that he has not perused (yet) Alpern’s Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey (1999). He has – in large part through the fault of readers with their  irresistible recommendations – spent a fortune on books this summer and has to call a halt. But he has, in his wider browsing, stumbled on some accounts that make these razor-wielding dames sound like a force of nature.

The amazons [invariable European term for the warrior ahosi] are not supposed to marry, and, by their own statement, they have changed their sex. ‘We are men’, say they, ‘not women’. All dress alike, diet alike, and male and female emulate each other: what the males do, the amazons will endeavour to surpass. They all take great care of their arms, polish the barrels, and, except when on duty, keep them in covers… The amazons are in barracks within the palace enclosure, and under the care of the eunuchs and the camboodee or treasurer. In every action (with males and females), there is some reference to cutting off heads. In their dances – and it is the duty of the soldier and the amazon to be a proficient dancer – with eyes dilated, the right hand is working in a sawlike manner for some time, as if in the act of cutting round the neck, when both hands are used, and a twist is supposed to finish the bloody deed.

As a further scene setter take this list of ahosi warriors from a nineteenth-century account. All these were present within the king’s retinue and marched by a European visitor. Beach particularly enjoyed the union jacks sandwiched between the muskets and human skulls. Note that this list is greatly curtailed to avoid a surfeit of ahosi. Oh to have been there!

60 amazons of the elephant destroyers

20 carrying war stools, ornamented with human skulls

20 amazons armed with muskets

20 amazons carrying drums ornamented with twenty-four skulls

12 amazons, band of drums, &c. 20 amazons armed with muskets

12 carrying drum ornamented with twelve skulls

20 amazons armed with blunderbusses

12 amazons, band of elephant’s tusk horns

20 amazons, armed with muskets

1 amazon leading a horse

20 amazons, armed with muskets

12 forming a band, drums

60 amazons, armed with muskets

12 forming a band, drums

20 amazons

1 amazon leading a horse

12 forming a band, elephant’s tusk horns

60 amazons guarding a carriage drawn by four, and attended by four of the king’s wives under parasols

20 amazons

40 amazons, armed with muskets, guarding eight skull-surmounted banners

60 amazons, banners, skulls, &c., surrounding the lady holding the title of royal mother

20 amazons, armed with muskets

60 amazons, banners, skulls, &c., surrounding the royal grandmother

60 amazons, banners, and attendants, round two ancient ladies of the harem, bearing the title of dowager queens

10 women carrying human skulls

40 amazons, banners, &c., round one dowager queen

70 amazons, banners, &c., round one dowager queen

30 women dance before the queen

60 amazon band, and dancing women

30 band and singing women round one royal wife, in a cuirass

20 amazons, armed with muskets

2 amazons carrying British union-jacks

30 royal wives, handsomely dressed

2 amazons carrying each a large knife mounted on a human skull.

And just in case anyone refuses to believe the evidence of these last paragraphs and suspects that the ‘broads’ dress up for curious European tourists and then go back to being royal wives when the visitors have left town:

All the successful amazons in the late war then passed the throne ; and one of their generals, assisted by two other officers, proclaimed the name of each amazon and of her prisoner. Four hundred and twenty five are said to have brought prisoners, and thirty-two the heads of enemies. Several that had been wounded were introduced to us by name.

And if this is too abstract consider this modern account of the attack in 1850 on the city of Abeokuta, one of their rare failures. (239 based on an eye-witness British account)

The women fighters advanced ahead of the men and… simply passed right over the thorn bushes and fearlessly attacked the wall, some women making it over and into the city before being cut down. A fierce battle then raged, but, with the help of their massed firepower, the Egba were able to force the women to retreat. The Dagomean army lost three thousand soldiers, of which two thousand soldiers were amazons  - an indication of the ferocity with which the amazons carried forward the attack.

For all that the ‘amazons’ prided themselves on being men, (see above) they also prided themselves on being better than their male equivalents. There are several references to arguments between amazon generals and male soldiers in the royal court: and the above numbers suggest that the ahosi may have been right to boast of their superiority.

At the end of the nineteenth-century the ahosi warriors met, though, their nemesis: French machine guns. They are armed with double-bladed knives and Winchester rifles. These amazons perform wonders of bravery; they come to within 50 feet of our positions to be killed.

Any other ‘amazons’ from medieval or modern times: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

24 July 2011: New Moon writes in with a useful site. Women Warriors in History.  Naturally missed on Beach’s extensive web research. ‘Your article about the Woman warriors of Benin also reminded me of something I read many years ago about a Welsh princess called Gwenllian who fought against the Normans. There’s some historical information here plus a ghost story.’ Invisible also has a host of examples: ‘Not quite Amazons, but like the Dahomean women warriors, the burrnesha, ‘sworn virgins’ of Albania, changed their sex to live like men. Highlighted here is a relatively recent article about the lives of these women.  I thought also of ‘The Grenadier Squaw’ a Shawnee ‘Peace’ (rather than War) Chief, but I cannot find that she actually did much fighting. This from an Ohio Historical Society plaque, is a quick summary of her story. Grenadier Squaw was chief of the largest Shawnee Indian village, located on the south bank of Scippo Creek, upon the Pickaway Plains in 1774. Born about 1720, Non-hel-e-ma, sister of Chief Cornstalk, was named ‘Grenadier Squaw’ by white traders because of her imposing stature, regal bearing and unflinching courage. She spoke three languages, serving as peacemaker and interpreter between Indians and whites. Because of her friendship, she accepted Christianity. After the peace treaty in 1774, she was disowned by her people and became a homeless exile.   (if you scroll down there is a short article about the Grenadier Squaw.)  And just for fun, Helga the Terrible and a film.’ Thanks New Moon and Invisible!!

25 July 2011: More Vikings… It was only a matter of time. Invisible is the donor. ‘Freydís Eiríksdóttir, Erik the Red’s natural daughter.  (Not the best translation I’ve seen, but you can read the original on the website.) ‘Now it came to pass that a bull, which belonged to Karlsefni’s people, rushed out of the wood and bellowed loudly at the same time. The Skrælingar, frightened thereat, rushed away to their canoes, and rowed south along the coast. There was then nothing seen of them for three weeks together. When that time was gone by, there was seen approaching from the south a great crowd of Skrælingar boats, coming down upon them like a stream, the staves this time being all brandished in the direction opposite to the sun’s motion, and the Skrælingar were all howling loudly. Then took they and bare red shields to meet them. They encountered one another and fought, and there was a great shower of missiles. The Skrælingar had also war-slings, or catapults.Then Karlsefni and Snorri see that the Skrælingar are bringing up poles, with a very large ball attached to each, to be compared in size to a sheep’s stomach, dark in colour; and these flew over Karlsefni’s company towards the land, and when they came down they struck the ground with a hideous noise. This produced great terror in Karlsefni and his company, so that their only impulse was to retreat up the country along the river, because it seemed as if crowds of Skrælingar were driving at them from all sides. And they stopped not until they came to certain crags. There they offered them stern resistance.Freydis came out and saw how they were retreating. She called out, ‘Why run you away from such worthless creatures, stout men that ye are, when, as seems to me likely, you might slaughter them like so many cattle? Let me but have a weapon, I think I could fight better than any of you.’ They gave no heed to what she said. Freydis endeavoured to accompany them, still she soon lagged behind, because she was not well; she went after them into the wood, and the Skrælingar directed their pursuit after her. She came upon a dead man; Thorbrand, Snorri’s son, with a flat stone fixed in his head; his sword lay beside him, so she took it up and prepared to defend herself therewith.Then came the Skrælingar upon her. She let down her sark and struck her breast with the naked sword. At this they were frightened, rushed off to their boats, and fled away. Karlsefni and the rest came up to her and praised her zeal. Two of Karlsefni’s men fell, and four of the Skrælingar, notwithstanding they had overpowered them by superior numbers. After that, they proceeded to their booths, and began to reflect about the crowd of men which attacked them upon the land; it appeared to them now that the one troop will have been that which came in the boats, and the other troop will have been a delusion of sight. The Skrælingar also found a dead man, and his axe lay beside him. One of them struck a stone with it, and broke the axe. It seemed to them good for nothing, as it did not withstand the stone, and they threw it down.’ I love the image of this heavily pregnant woman, baring her breast and slapping it with a probably bloodied sword. In her later adventures, she leads expeditions, cons her husband into killing a rival by claiming he assaulted her, and murders a number of innocent women with an axe when her men refuse to do so. Not at all a nice woman, but she certainly had the gift of leading by intimidation.’ Thanks yet again, Invisible!

12 nov 2011: SY writes in: ‘for the study of warrior women. The following appears in The Travels of Ibn Battutah: ‘On the second day after our arrival at the port of Kailukari [Cambodia?] the princess summoned the captain, officers and merchants to a banquet she had prepared for them, according to her custom…. When I greeted the princess she said to me in Turkish, ‘How are you? Are you well?’ She seated me near her…She asked me from which country I came. I said ‘From India’. She said: ‘The pepper country?’ I said yes. She asked about that country and events there and I answered her. She said ‘I must invade it and take possession of it. Its wealth and its soldiers please me.’ I said to her ‘do so…. The ship owner told me that this princess had in her army women, serving women and slaves, who fought like men, and that she goes out among her troops of men and women, invades the territory of her enemies, is present at the fighting, and engages the champions. He told me there was a fierce battle between her and one of her enemies in which many of her soldiers were killed and her army was on the point of fleeing; but she forced her way forwards and broke through the armies till she reached the king against whom she was fighting, pierced him with a lance thrust and killed him. At this point his troops fled, and she brought his head on a spear, which his family recovered from her for much treasure.’ Thanks SY! She spoke Turkish!!!!

30 Nov 2011:Invisible writes ‘At a local booksale today, I saw a book called The Encyclopedia of Amazons: Women Warriors from Antiquity to the Modern Era by Jessica Amanda Salmonson. (She writes fantasy and sci-fi). I just glanced at it – it wasn’t in very good shape – mostly entries of a paragraph or two, but seemed to have a wide variety.’ Thanks Invisible!