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What ‘The Woman King’ gets wrong — and right — about Dahomey’s warriors

The new film tells an embellished story of Dahomey women soldiers.

Viola Davis attends “The Woman King” premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9. (Unique Nicole/Getty Images)

“The Woman King,” directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Viola Davis, tells an embellished story about female soldiers from the Kingdom of Dahomey, one of the most powerful and militarized African states during the 18th and 19th centuries. The film is set in 1823, when the Kingdom of Dahomey eventually defeated the Kingdom Oyo. Despite this victory, Dahomey continued waging wars and selling its prisoners in the Atlantic slave trade until the 1860s, when the trade to Brazil and Cuba were finally banned.

Few people know that Dahomey was the first African kingdom to develop an all-female military regiment. Whereas European visitors to Dahomey called the soldiers “Amazons,” an allusion to the Greek mythological women warriors, they were locally known as Agodjie. “The Woman King” challenges western depictions of these West African women as either minor players in Atlantic history or simply savage warriors. Instead, the Hollywood movie portrays the soldiers as central historical actors who influenced political decisions and who not only fought wars side by side with men but led entire regiments.

As many motion pictures do, the film distorts and idealizes the history of Dahomey’s women warriors. They were not freedom fighters as portrayed in the movie. Rather, like other West African women, they were trying to survive in the tumultuous period of the Atlantic slave trade. Nevertheless, the film does help to dismantle some long-standing stereotypes associated with the Agodjie by restoring their agency and challenging the historical European accounts of them simply as bloody warriors.

The Kingdom of Dahomey emerged in the 17th century, but its territorial expansion began in the 18th century, a period marking the height of the Atlantic slave trade. As Dahomey and its inland capital Abomey had no exit to the sea, the kingdom’s army conquered the neighboring Kingdom of Allada in 1724, and then the Kingdom of Hueda in 1727. The conquest of Hueda gave Dahomey the control of its seaport Ouidah, the second-busiest African slave-trading port until the final ban of the Atlantic slave trade in the 1860s.

Historians disagree about when the all-female regiment was created. After the death of King Huegbadja, who ruled Dahomey between approximately 1645 and 1685, his son Akaba succeeded him on the throne. After Akaba’s death (probably in 1716), Tassi Hangbé, Akaba’s twin sister, occupied the throne for a few years until her youngest brother, Agaja, was enthroned as King of Dahomey in 1718. Therefore, the female regiment may have emerged as Hangbé’s royal guard during her short rule.

Some accounts by European visitors to Dahomey during Agaja’s reign reported the presence of armed women protecting Abomey’s palaces. Some 18th century visitors referred to royal parades with regiments of up to 500 women, while written sources report the Agodjie fighting wars later in the 19th century. At its peak, the all-female regiment had an impressive number of 8,000 warriors.

At least initially, the king of Dahomey recruited the Agodjie from royal women who were considered his wives. However, during the rule of King Gezo (1818-1859), played in the film by John Boyega, they were also recruited outside the walls of the palace. As the movie accurately portrays, the female regiment included prisoners captured during wars waged by Dahomey against its neighbors.

European enslavers and colonizers described the Agodjie as unattractive women who had to remain virgins. Indeed, chastity was expected among those considered royal wives. Many Agodjie may have remained sexually inactive during their period of service. But several did become pregnant, something the movie portrays when Nanisca (Viola Davis) becomes pregnant after being raped repeatedly while held captive by the Kingdom of Oyo. Existing sources also refer to Agodjie who became pregnant in circumstances that probably involved consensual sex. Moreover, after the end of their military service, some Agodjie married and had children as well.

As royal wives and members of the royal army, the Agodjie were trained to fight wars as well as kill and capture men, women and children to be sold into slavery in the Americas. Like most West African women during the era of the Atlantic slave trade, the Agodjie were left with little choice. Some female soldiers were war captives who were incorporated in the all-women regiment. During their service, they could capture prisoners to be sold in the slave trade or be captured and sold as enslaved people themselves.

When the French invaded Dahomey in 1890, the Agodjie still existed, but in much smaller numbers. With the rest of the Dahomean army, the female regiment fought the French invaders between 1892 and 1894.

Most of the remaining Agodjie died fighting the French. But nearly 50 women became war veterans, and several of them raised families. Today, their descendants remember their ancestors as brave women who fought as soldiers in an era of great violence for African women, at a time when most western White women were confined to domestic roles.

“The Woman King” simplifies Dahomey’s complicated history by transforming it into an anti-slavery kingdom. In doing so, it misses a crucial historical reality by focusing on the story of Dahomey’s female soldiers as African liberators. Dahomey rulers never opposed the Atlantic slave trade. They were deeply engaged in waging wars and selling their enemies into slavery. Several women joined the Dahomean army as captives of war and therefore were forced to serve in the all-female regiment.

Most Agodjie were killed in battle while resisting the French conquerors at the end of the 19th century. Europeans explored the history of the female warriors during the 19th and 20th centuries. The French collected the bodies and belongings of the Agodjie killed in battle and incorporated them in museum collections. In 2002, a skull reported to be that of an Agodjie transformed into a dish and cover was put on sale by Christies. If the skull’s origin is accurate, it’s probably one of the only existing preserved remains of an Agodjie. Stolen and commodified, the body of this woman had the same fate as the remains of other men, women and children who were victims of the Dahomean army.

Despite the expected pitfalls of a work of fiction, “The Woman King” does something the European colonizers never did: It remembers these women soldiers in nuanced ways that give them back their humanity.