The Dahomey Amazons are the only documented all-female official front-line combat arms military unit in modern history. Tough, uber-intense asskicking women single-mindedly devoted to hardening themselves into ruthless instruments of battlefield destruction, these machete-wielding, musket-slinging lady terminators were rightly-feared throughout Western Africa for over 250 years, not only for their fanatical devotion to battle, but for their utter refusal to back down or retreat from any fight unless expressly ordered to do so by their king. If you were some poor conscript douchebag militia soldier hanging out around your barracks and you saw these scary-as-fuck kill-chicks suddenly start charging out of the woods in your direction, screaming their war chants with their muskets barking fire and their signature double-edged two-foot-long machetes brandished threateningly over their heads, you had one fleeting moment to overcome your crippling panic and defend yourself. Because if you failed to kill them – and I mean if you failed to kill every single last fucking one of them, some murderous woman was going to club you unconscious with a musket butt, drag you back to her capital, chop off your head with one swing of her machete, boil the skin off of your decapitated face, and then use your skull to decorate the royal palace.
Created around 1645 by the Dahomey King Ada Honzoo, the Amazons weren't initially designed to serve as frontal assault shock troops sent in to crush the enemy's spirits (and skulls) in a frenzied wave of bloodlusted fury. Instead, they started out as a small team of women who specialized in bringing down elephants, and who would go out on organized, efficient pachyderm hunts while the men were out fighting in wars. Eventually, possibly due to a lack of manpower or possibly because of their ruthless efficiency, Ada Honzoo promoted them to his personal bodyguard unit, expanding the unit to 800 women warriors with spears, bows, and war clubs, which in turn grew in size to an elite military unit of over 4,000 warriors. As a shout-out to their roots the Amazons chose to honor their heritage by naming their first battalion the Elephant Destroyers. The second battalion, it should be noted, were known as the Reapers – women who ditched those pesky flintlock muskets and instead went to battle armed with a razor-sharp three-foot machete they wielded with two hands.
"Give a dog a bone and he will break it and eat. So will we do with the cities of the enemy."
The Amazons were recruited in a number of ways. Sometimes they were volunteers – women who were sick of their bullshit day-to-day lives, poor women seeking battlefield glory, or even the occasional royal concubine who decided she was much more comfortable cutting people in half for the King than she was producing male heirs for him. Even more awesomely than that, however, was that if a woman was "too misbehaved" to make a proper wife for a nice Dahoman boy, the girl's father (or husband!) could appeal to the King and His Royal Highness would conscript her into the Amazons. Sure, maybe Joe Asshole didn't need an uppity woman talking shit about how she didn't want to be a fucking housekeeper, but the King figure he could put her talents to work for the good of the country (and he did). Once a woman was in the Amazons, she became off-limits – she was forbidden to have sex (because if she got pregnant she couldn't fight), and the crime for any man laying even a single finger on an Amazon was instant death.
The Amazons went through intense physical training that far exceeded anything the male soldiers were willing to undertake. They wrestled, fought, and underwent grueling calesthenics and brutally-long runs on a daily basis. They climbed a thirty-foot wall lined with thorny brambles without showing pain. Recruits were sent into the woods with just a machete and told to survive for nine days. They trained for live-fire exercises by arming enemy prisoners of war with clubs, positioning them behind a stockade, and then assaulting it and killing everyone they could catch. Yeah, it's fucked up, but that's just how it was – the Amazons were in constant competition for glory with the male units, and they knew that if anyone was going to take them seriously either at home or on the battlefield, they needed to be twice as hard as anyone else out there. And they were. They kept their weapons and uniforms clean, marched in lock-step precision, and when these women sprinted barefoot and pissed into combat beneath their unit battle flag – a Voodoo fetish made from the bones and skin of dead enemy soldiers – everyone who saw them pretty much pissed themselves and ran for it.
"With these guns in our hands and powder in our cartridge boxes, what has the King to fear?
So, thanks to these crazy chicks and their unstoppable thirst for the warm blood of their recently-eviscerated enemies, King Ada Honzoo and his successors not only kept his woefully-undersized tribe from being crushed by the powerful enemy kingdoms that surrounded him, they crushed them so brutally that by the time the dust and blood spray cleared the Kingdom of Dahomey was a massive empire stretching across Western Africa. They conquered the Kingdom of Savi in 1727. Later that same year, they conquered the Whydah people, then publicly executed 4,000 prisoners of war as sacrifices to the Voodoo gods. They crushed the Allada. They captured Okeadon when Amazons snuck over the walls during the night, unlocked the gate from the inside, then watched as the rest of their sisters flooded into the city in a wave of murderous fury, collecting so many skulls that the King of Dahomey built a throne out of it and still had extras to decorate the walls of his royal palace.
The Dahomey Amazon motto was "Conquer or Die". These women swore an oath to die facing the enemy (any Amazons that fled a battle without being ordered to withdraw by the King himself were summarily executed on the spot), and, quite honestly, these chicks didn't have much tolerance for anyone else who didn't adhere to their admittedly-strict rules. And… they took it a little far sometimes. Like, after they'd conquer an enemy city, while the King and his men were pillaging and introducing themselves to their new subjects, the Dahomey Amazons would spend the next couple days running through the wilderness looking for enemy soldiers who had fled the battle. If they caught them, they'd drag the terrified warrior back by his hair. Then they'd spend the next couple days cutting the guy's ears off, gouge out his eyes, and cutting off his fingers – a process that would take 3 days – and on the fourth day they'd mercifully drag him before the king, decapitate him, and then lick his blood off the blade of their weapon. Then the guy's skull would be thrown onto the pile with the rest, the Dahomey would break out into one of their heroic battle chants, and then everyone would get really fucking hammered on rum and gin and dance until the sun came up.
Blood for the Blood God. Skulls for the Skull Throne.
In the 1850s King Gezo expanded the number of women soldiers to 6,000 – roughly half of his fighting forces. Under his command, the Dahomey conquered all of present-day Benin and most of Nigeria, including capturing several crucial ocean ports that allowed them to set up a lucrative trade route with the Europeans where they would sell captured POWs into slavery in exchange for guns and bullets. Kicking back on a throne made from the skulls and severed heads of vanquished enemy kings, surrounded by his loyal Amazon bodyguards, the King merely had to wave around his scepter (an awesome-looking thing fashioned from the leg bone of a defeated rival), and his fanatically-loyal warriors would pull their enemies apart limb from limb until all that remained was a sea of blood.
It got to the point where every year there was a popular festival where the most senior Amazon commander would come to the king and make an argument for which rival civilization the Dahomey should obliterate next. The king would listen to his advisor, pick one target, and then the commander would go back to her unit, give her soldiers the name of a city, and they'd crush that entire civilization to dust with machetes and musketballs.
"Whatever the town to be attacked, we will conquer or bury ourselves in its ruins."
Well, as is the case any time you're talking about 19th-century African history, the Dahomey eventually bit off more than they could chew when they ran into the full might of a powerful, ultra-wealthy European nation with a modernized military and no compunctions about using it. One of the main differences is that this time it was the African nation that started the shit, mostly because they had no fucking respect for the French (or anyone else for that matter).
It started in 1890, as King Behanzin was continuing his family's tradition of beating the shit out of everyone around them. One day he chose to capture some jackass bullshit port city that was horning in on his slave trade action, and he patentedly refused to give a shit that the town he was sending his Amazons to fuck up was actually a French protectorate. The Amazons assaulted the walls, set the city on fire, and rushed into the governor's palace. They found the Governor standing there, clutching the tri-color French flag, screaming about how "this will protect me!"
The Dahomey Amazons decapitated him, made the guy's wife wrap the severed head up in the flag, then delivered the bloody head of the brutally-executed governor to their king still wrapped in a French flag.
Well, the French thought this was a little less than awesome, and they declared war on the Dahomey. The Dahomey responded by assaulting the French city of Kotonou on March 4, 1890, rushing straight-on into the walls despite the fact that the Amazons were using flintlock muskets and the French had fucking Gatling guns and cannons. At first the French were a little hesitant to open fire on an army of gunslinging women, but they found their resolve pretty quickly when the first line of Amazon troops hit the wooden stockade, pulled it apart with their hands, then stuck their muskets through the holes and blasted the defenders at close range. At one point during this battle the Dahomey even made it over the wall, and one French soldier write about seeing his best friend decapitated with one swing of a machete from a pissed-off Amazon. When a second soldier knocked the weapon out of the woman's hand with his rifle butt, she threw him on the ground and tore out his larynx with her teeth.
The French turned the tide of the battle when they had a fucking gunboat start opening fire on the Dahomey, and quite honestly no amount of bravery is going to save you when you're carrying ancient out-of-date muskets and your enemies are launching artillery shells and shooting at you with machine guns. The attack was driven off.
I won't get too much into the gory details, but from this point on it gets kind of bad for the Dahomey Amazons. They fought bravely, nobody can deny that, battling the French in 24 pitched battles between 1890 and 1894, but ultimately their sword-swinging mayhem was no match for a modern industrial world power with top-of-the-line weaponry. Their charges were beaten off by intense gunfire, and in hand-to-hand combat the twenty-inch French rifle bayonets had roughly twice the reach of the Dahomey knives and machetes. The French conquered Dahomey in January 1894, driving King Behanzin into exile.
Of the 4,000 Dahomey Amazons under King Behanzin's command, nearly all of them were killed hurling themselves fearlessly into battle. Only 50 women survived, and most of them, awesomely enough, went to the United States and joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.
|"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".
Smithsonian History Blog
The Amazons of Dahomey
Cummins, Joseph. History's Great Untold Stories. National Geographic, 2007.
Edgerton, Robert B. Warrior Women. Westview, 2000.
Forbes, Frederick Edwyn. Dahomey and the Dahomans. Longman, 1851.
Shaw, Albert. The Review of Reviews. Review of Reviews, 1892.