The regiment was heavily armed. Among them, a group known as “Reapers” carried three-foot straight razors, polished to a gleam: capable, it was said, of slicing a man in two.
In training exercises, the warriors scaled huge walls made from acacia branches, each branch adorned with two inch thorns, cutting and slicing into their skin. Soldiers were encouraged, even trained, to become indifferent to pain and even death. This “insensitivity training” included the ritual execution of prisoners in some pretty nasty ways, including hurling bound prisoners over a parapet. The regiment saw active combat for over a century, successfully defending their country and king. Thousands lost their lives.
It wasn’t Themyscira. It’s not a scene from a Marvel movie.
The warriors were the Mino. Sometimes called the Dahomey Amazons, the all-female military regiment of Dahomey, part of what we now call Benin, were actually known as Mino or Minon: “our mothers”.
Some believe the warriors evolved from a group of female hunters called gbeto. Others trace the women warriors to a palace bodyguard made up of the King’s “3rd” wives. Others offer a more banal explanation: women outnumbered men, and when the ranks of combat troops needed boosting, the King turned to his female subjects.
By the middle of the 19th century, women made up about ⅓ of the army, broken up into a number of regiments, including huntresses, riflewomen, archers, gunners, and the aforementioned, razor-wielding, man-slicing reapers.
The ranks were made up both conscripted captives as well as Dahomey women, some as young as 8. Despite how it might seem, it wasn’t hard to recruit women. The traveler Sir Richard Burton visited Dahomey in the 1860s. He noted that “when amazons walked out of the palace, they were preceded by a slave girl carrying a bell. The sound told every male to get out of their path, retire a certain distance, and look the other way.” To even touch these women meant death.”
Maybe they were on to something….
History loves nothing better than to shame women, so it’s no surprise that some stories of the Mino paint a picture of a group of lascivious, sexually voracious women. In reality, the opposite was true. The Mino were legally married to the King, effectively rendering them celibate, unable to marry or have children of their own.
Before George RR Martin, they were the true unsullied.
The Mino also played a role in the kingdom’s politics. In a particularly cruel twist of the historical knife, for most of the mid 19th century, the women “generally supported peace (with neighboring tribes) and stronger commercial relations with England, favouring the trade in palm oil above that in slaves; this set them at odds with their male military colleagues.”
I don’t know. I think seeing a warrior coming at you with a three-foot razor you’re not going to care too much what they’re sporting under their skirts. Still, it begs the question: if you’re prepared to put the safety of your throne and country in the hands of women, are you really relying on a bizarre twist of logic that by killing they’ve been ‘man-letted’?
That brings mansplaining to a whole different level.
The Mino defended the Dahomey kingdom until the late 19th century, when European powers got super serious about carving up sovereign Africa into colonized chunks for their own benefit. The Dahomey forces, including the Mino, were eventually outnumbered and out weaponed by French.
In 1979, Nawi, the last surviving Mino warrior died. She was well over 100 years old, old enough to see her country overthrow its colonizers by regaining independence in 1960.
If the descriptions of the Mino sound familiar, they should. The Dora Milaje, the female warriors from The Black Panther, are loosely based on the Dahomey Amazons.
Patriotism, even armed conflict, is not the sole purview of men–even women who have been bamboozled into thinking they were men. The violence is upsetting, particularly because we like to think of women as nurturers rather than fighters. But the truth is, women are complex. And the promise of power, of prestige, of a life elevated out of the mundane, coupled with a patriotic fervor, was likely enough to convince thousands of women to risk their lives for king and country. Or perhaps it was the lure of being regarded as worthy in a world which routinely does not see us as such.
Happy Women’s History Month.