The Dahomey Amazons are the only documented frontline female troops in modern warfare history.
The Amazons of Dahomey were a military corps of women appointed to serve in battles under the direction of the Fon king of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the present-day Republic of Benin.
They acquired the name “amazons” by western observers due to their similarities to the mythical amazons of ancient Anatolia and the black sea.
King Houegbadja started the group as a detachment of “elephant huntresses” and his son King Agadja later recognized their talent and loyalty, and decided to expand their use by creating an all-female militia.
E. Chaudoin in his account, Three months in captivity in Dahomey describes the Mino as, “There they are, 4,000 warriors, the 4,000 black virgins of Dahomey, the monarch’s bodyguard, motionless in their war garments, with gun and knife in hand, ready to leap forward at the master’s signal.”
“Old or young, ugly or beautiful, they are wonderful to look at. They are as well built as the male warriors and their attitude is just as disciplined and correct, lined up as though against a rope“
Only the strongest, healthiest and most courageous women were recruited and had extensive training and drilling. Some of them became soldiers voluntarily and others were enrolled by husbands who complained of unruly wives they couldn’t control.
During their membership the women had to take an oath of celibacy, they had to disavow any relation to their family and were not permitted to marry. All these actions were to ensure the women’s first loyalty was to the monarch.
During the peak, around 1850, they made up around a third of the entire Dahomey army. It was during the reign of King Guezo, Amazons number increased from 600 to 6,000.
Defeat was never an option for the Dahomey women and they fought to the death. Amazons of Dahomey have played a key role in the fight to conquer the kingdom of Ouidah. In 1840, they helped to capture the fortress of the Mahee at Attahapahms.
They were armed with Dutch muskets, machetes and a razor used for beheading victims since it was a custom of warriors to return home with heads of their opponents.
The Dahomey Amazons experienced defeat for the first time when they attacked the city of Abeokuta (today’s Nigeria) but despite their defeat Europeans witnessed that the Dahomey Amazons were superior to the male soldiers in both skill and bravery.
The last battles of the Amazon women were during the Franco-Dahomean Wars in 1890 and 1892. When the French conquered Dahomey they prohibited women from serving in the military or bearing arms.
The Amazons eventually died off. The last known surviving Amazon of Dahomey is thought to be a woman named Nawi who died in 1979 aged over 100 years.