Nanlèhoundé Houédanou wants people to know more about the Amazons of Dahomey, the only documented female army in modern history. Researchers have spent decades combing through European and West African archives to craft a portrait from the jottings of French officers, British traders and Italian missionaries.
Yet a crucial piece of the Amazon legacy has been lost to the eraser of time and colonial rule: Their humanity.
“My Amazon was gentle,” said Houédanou, who, at 85, is one of the last people on Earth to have grown up with one. “She was known for protecting children.”
History is often told through the lens of conquerors. Generations of American schoolchildren learned more about the 15th century “discoveries” of Christopher Columbus than his record of enslaving Indigenous people. Britain framed its 1897 takeover of a storied West African kingdom as a “punitive mission,” glossing over the mass theft of priceless bronzes.
After France seized what is now southern Benin in 1894, colonial officers disbanded the territory’s unique force of women warriors, opened new classrooms and made no mention in the curriculum of the Amazons. Even today, many in the country of 12 million know little about their foremothers.
“The French made sure this history wasn’t known,” said the Beninese economist Leonard Wantchekon, a professor of international affairs at Princeton University. “They said we were backward, that they needed to ‘civilize us,’ but they destroyed opportunities for women that existed nowhere else in the world.”
Now a team of Beninese researchers is working to reshape the narrative. For the last three years, historians at the African School of Economics, a private university that Wantchekon founded near Cotonou, the capital, have been tracking down descendants of Amazons across the nation.
They aim to glean local memories for a book that can be taught in schools — to present a three-dimensional view of the real Amazons. Only 50 of the women are thought to have survived the two-year war with France. The last died in the 1970s.
Finding their grandchildren has proved increasingly difficult as time slips away. Unlike the letter-writing Europeans of yesteryear, West Africans preferred the oral tradition, passing down stories from generation to generation. Not much has been documented about the Amazons after the war.
“These stories are dying with people,” said Serge Ouitona, a researcher on the project. “The Amazons were powerful. They had influence. But everyone stopped talking about them after the colonial conquest.”
‘A novelty in modern history’
For at least three centuries, the Kingdom of Dahomey was a West African power that drew comparisons to Sparta. European visitors gushed about its women fighters: She-soldiers. Medusas. Spinster warriors.
The name that stuck in modern Benin: Amazons.
“Whatever might have been the prowess of the Amazons among the ancients, this is a novelty in modern history,” Archibald Dalzel, a British administrator in the region, wrote in 1793.
A French official later called Dahomey “assuredly the only country in the world that offers the singular spectacle of an organization of women as soldiers,” according to the American journalist Stanley Alpern. The French publishing house Larousse declared the women “the only historical Amazons known.”
Their origin is murky, but historians say the Amazons probably rooted under Queen Hangbè, who reigned alongside her twin brother in the early 1700s and kept an entourage of female bodyguards.
By the mid-1800s, Dahomey boasted thousands of female troops as it sought to outmuscle rival kingdoms. When clashes erupted, victors were known to force their enemies into labor or sell them in the slave trade.
Amazons began training in girlhood: swinging blades, loading Flintlock muskets, climbing thorny barricades. They drank imported brandy and belted out war songs.
The tradition ended when France invaded. In the face of defeat, a French general wrote, the women “gave proof of very great bravery,” Alpern found.
Nearly 2,000 Amazons died in the slaughter, historians estimate, and the 50 survivors faded into a nation transformed. Little trace of them is left in Abomey, the kingdom’s former capital.
A pair of artisans at the reconstructed palace of King Glele — each of Dahomey’s 12 kings built their own palace — stitch banners of Amazons toting rifles, brawling with men and clutching severed heads.
A rusty sign across town informs onlookers that a Catholic church now occupies the grounds of a former Amazon camp.
And paint is chipping off the statue of a female warrior in a neighboring village. Visitors must wade through chest-high brush to reach her.
Houédanou speaks at community meetings of her step-grandmother: Nafivovo, the warrior who fixed okra soup for hungry children.
Tall and wiry, she landed in the village of Nangahoué after the war and harvested palm oil for money before marrying Houédanou’s grandfather. The couple shared a clay-brick house, where her relatives live today and neighbors blast hip-hop on the radio.
“It’s my job to keep her alive,” said Houédanou, sitting in the doorway of that home. “I’m one of the oldest people in this village, so it’s up to me to teach the young people their history.”
Seniority gives her the floor when people gather to discuss big issues — elections, drought, the pandemic — and she shares stories about Nafivovo. It’s hard to get the teenagers to care, she said, so she tries to keep it entertaining.
“With war songs,” Houédanou said. She broke into a tune: We are proud children of the kingdom. We will defend it.
Houédanou was a teenager when the Amazon died. Memories surge when she smells a certain mustard spice. Navifovo cooked for neighborhood kids. They ran to the house when they were in trouble.
“Their parents couldn’t beat them here,” Houédanou said, grinning. “Even before we started talking about ‘human rights,’ Navifovo wouldn’t allow it.”
“Everyone knew the old lady would win the fight.”
Adana yearned for the battlefield. Housework was not for her, she told her grandchildren. She’d rather be ambushing an enemy. Tussling with her bare hands, her preferred weapons. The musket took too long to load.
“She told me how she used to strangle people,” said her granddaughter, 72-year-old Ayebeleyi Dahoui. “She used her long nails.”
She curled her fingers into claws.
Dahoui was about 12 when she first heard the war stories. Her grandmother urged her to join the military someday if she could. Adana thought battle imparted life lessons: Be patient. Stay calm. Act deliberately.
The Amazon taught her grandchildren self-defense as they hit puberty. Dahoui never used the choke move, but she internalized a sense of readiness.
One day after she’d had children of her own, she took them to a market and got into an argument with a woman over who would buy the last ears of corn. The woman attacked Dahoui. Her babies were screaming. So she bashed the foe with a ceramic bowl.
“I might have run away,” Dahoui said, “but Grandma taught me to stand up for myself.”
The village of Detohou had no tobacco before the Amazon showed up.
After surviving the battle with France, Yaketou rejected gender roles. She spurned domestic chores that women normally shouldered to build a crop empire.
Yaketou knew where to find the plant for smoking — Dahomey had sacked her town years earlier and then made her into a warrior. Her old neighbors had it. So off she walked.
“She was very enterprising,” said her step-grandson, 73-year-old Dah Djika Dégbo.
Dégbo was young when she died — perhaps 5 — so his memories of Yaketou are fuzzy. But he recalls growing up with pride: His grandfather had married an Amazon. Her sack of tobacco seeds turned into a business that employed other women.
Dégbo’s granddaughter-in-law works in the trade.
“This is her legacy,” he said.
Yaketou struggled to get pregnant, so the family built her a concrete fertility temple on the outskirts of town. When this offering to the gods did not produce a baby, Yakouto shifted her focus to mentoring girls.
These days, the younger women in Dégbo’s orbit have left the village for the capital, seeking better work.
He credits the Amazon’s influence.