The Dahomey Amazons are a unique phenomenon in world history because they are the only documented female military unit. This group of female “terminators,” who lived south of the Sahara and terrified European colonizers, was called “Dahomey Amazons” by foreigners. They called themselves N’Nonmiton, which means “our mothers.
The Dahomey Amazons were considered elite troops in the Kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Republic of Benin). N’Nonmiton protected their king during the bloodiest battles and were considered untouchables. And their special “thing” was the decapitation of their victims.
The Amazons are not mythical characters at all. The last surviving Dahomey Amazon died quite recently, in 1979 at the age of 100. It was a woman named Navi who the researchers found living in a remote village. And in the 19th century, 6,000 female soldiers served in the Amazon corps (in total, there were 25,000 people in the army, that is, about a third of the entire Dahomean army were Amazons).
Their history dates back to the 17th century. Scientists suggest that the Amazon corps was originally formed as elephant hunters. But they managed to impress the king of Dahomey so much with their skills that the king wanted to see them as his bodyguards. Another theory suggests that since women were the only people allowed to stay in the king’s palace after dark, it is not surprising that women were the king’s bodyguards.
The strongest, healthiest, and most courageous women were selected in N’Nonmiton. They then underwent a rigorous preparation process, during which they turned into real killing machines that were feared throughout Africa for more than two centuries.
The Amazons were armed with Dutch muskets and machetes. By the early 19th century, their corps had become a full-fledged military unit, completely loyal to their king. The girls at N’Nonmiton were recruited (and given weapons) from just eight years of age. Some women in society volunteered to become soldiers, while others were given bodyguards by their husbands, who complained about undisciplined wives they could not control.
From the beginning, the Amazons were taught to be strong, fast, ruthless, and able to withstand great pain. The exercises, which resembled some form of gymnastics, included jumping over walls covered with thorny acacia branches. Also, the preparation included expeditions to the jungle without equipment, with one machete, which lasted ten days. It is not surprising that the Dahomey Amazons fought to the death…. of a stranger or their own in battle.
N’Nonmiton women were not allowed to marry or have children while serving as soldiers. Moreover, it was believed that they were officially married to the king, but even the king did not dare to break their vow of chastity. And if the Amazon was touched by any other man, and not by the king, then this meant certain death for him.
In the spring of 1863, British explorer Richard Burton arrived in West Africa to establish a British mission in coastal Dahomey and make peace with Dahomey.
The Dahomeans were a warring nation that actively used slaves, in which they mainly turned captured enemies. But most of all, Barton was struck by the elite Dahomey warriors: “These women had such well-developed skeletons and muscles that only by the presence of breasts it was possible to determine gender.”
The main weapons were Dutch guns, and the Dahomey Amazons used machetes to decapitate and dismember their victims. It was then customary among the Dahomeans to return home with the heads and genitals of their opponents.
Despite the brutal preparation, it was a chance for many women to escape the boring life that women in Dahomey society were doomed to. Upon admission to N’Nonmiton, women were given the opportunity to climb the social ladder of the local community, take command positions, and gain influence. They could even become rich, but that rarely happened.
Stanley Alpern, the author of the only full-length treatise in English devoted to the study of the Amazons, wrote: “When the Amazons left the palace, a slave girl with a bell always walked in front of them. The ringing of the bell told every man to turn from his path, retire a certain distance and look in the other direction.”
Even after the French, with the support of the Foreign Legion, conquered Dahomey in the 1890s, the rule of fear of the Amazons continued. French soldiers who stayed with Dahomey women overnight were often found dead in the morning, with their throats slashed. The underestimation of female opponents very often led to an increase in the number of casualties among the French invaders.
Towards the end of the Second Franco-Dahomean War, the French began to win only after the support of the Foreign Legion. The last of the king’s forces surrendered, with most Amazons killed in 23 battles during the Second War. The Legionnaires later wrote of the “incredible bravery and audacity” of the Amazons. They also stated that the most terrible women on Earth live in this place.