The Real History Behind the Female Warriors that Inspired ‘The Woman King’
Africanized Hollywood seems to be the latest money-maker in Hollywood, and big-budget studios like Marvel, which is behind Black Panther and the upcoming Black Panther 2, have reaped the benefits of Africanized Hollywood by carting away billions of dollars’ worth of ticket sales at the box office.
In case the term is unfamiliar, Africanized Hollywood is the West’s way of showing that they care about countries beyond their shores. They particularly seek to tell stories about African kingdoms that have fallen or contemporary ruling kingdoms. Since the 21st century is all about representation, Africa is now being reimagined and portrayed on the big screen as more than a continent that has dusty roads and impoverished citizens.
Sony Pictures’ latest film The Woman King has already made a big splash at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and critics are already singing its praises to the ends of the earth, but did you know that the blockbuster film is based on true events that happened in the 17th century?
The film stars Academy Award winner, Viola Davis and a host of other talented actors in an epic tale that takes place in the Kingdom of Dahomey. Located in present-day Benin, it was a nation that was built off the backs of conquest and slave labor. Due to the diplomatic relations the kingdom had with the Europeans, purchasing slaves was seamless. It is reported that hundreds of thousands of slaves were sold to European merchants during Dahomey’s glory days. It is also worthy to note that during the Atlantic Slave Trade that lasted for three centuries, slaves from Dahomey and beyond (they were a military world power and they captured the men, women, and children of their defeated nations as spoils of war), were sold for foreign items like gun powder, rifles, tobacco, cowry shells, and cocoa.
The Kingdom of Dahomey had an all-female military squad, dubbed by the Western media as the “Dahomey Amazons” though their native name is Agojie. These women were known for defending their kingdom till their last drop of blood and they existed in the 1600s. They conquered many neighboring nations like the Savi in 1727 and went head-to-head with French slave traders in 1890 during the Franco-Dahomean wars that left hundreds of them dead.
Their formation was borne out of a necessity. The male population of Dahomey was fizzling out because of the incessant warfare that the kingdom engaged in with neighboring West African nations. Dahomey’s third king, Houegbadja, who ruled from 1645 to 1685 is recorded as the initiator of the Agoije and he was instrumental in providing the women with crude and sophisticated weapons that they would use in battle.
Before the women were known as the “Dahomey Amazons” and Agojie, they were fondly called Mino (meaning: our mothers) during the reign of King Ghezo. He ruled for 41 years. John Boyega portrays him in the film and he was known as an egotistical monarch who prioritized military strength over everything. He lauded the army over development, increased its budget, and made sure that he recruited capable people who were not afraid to die for their nation. Dahomean females were recruited into Mino either by choice or by force. The ones who were recruited by force were the “stubborn” women who had offended their husbands or fathers. Their involuntary enlistment was seen as punishment for their “bad behavior” and the hope was that through the army, they would learn “manners and respect.”
To be an Agojie, you had to have thick skin and an even thicker mental fortress. All the females swore their loyalty to the ruling king. They were not allowed to have children and those who already had children prior to their enlistment were bestowed a new honor as “wives of the king.” Thus, they were offered the opportunity of starting over on a clean slate. Virginity was highly encouraged and marriage was discouraged.
They were given uniforms and made to physically train under extreme conditions. In the scorching heat and pouring rain, they would storm thorn-infested bushes and practice military exercises like the execution of prisoners. They learned how to survive on little to nothing and were disciplined to the point that they were able to stand toe to toe with the existing male army. The Agojie consisted of archers, hunters, snipers, reapers, and gunners. By the mid-19th century, there were about 6,000 female warriors with more being recruited daily.
Apart from being a military force to be reckoned with, the Amazons were involved in the political lives of the Dahomenas. They served as members of the Ground Council (similar to a King’s Court) and debated policies that affected the kingdom. They voted for an end to the war with the people of Abeokuta and took the bold step of proposing that palm oil be sold to the Europeans instead of slaves. Of course, their proposal was unpopular and met with resistance from the males on the Council who felt that the sale of palm oil was a less lucrative venture than slave trade.
The Amazonian army was commanded by females. In the film, Davis plays the role of a fictional commander, General Nanisca, who trains the Amazons for battle against a European slave merchant, Santo Ferreira, and his cohorts. From the trailer, Santo is likely going to be King Ghezo’s thorn in the side. Hero Fiennes Tiffin, known for playing Hardin Scott in the “After” franchise, plays him.
When the Kingdom of Dahomey became a French protectorate in 1892, the Agojie disbanded. Many of the warriors retired and settled into civilian life by getting married and having children. Some remained single and struggled to adjust to life without the aggression of war.
Historically, the Agojie is recorded as the only known female military squad in contemporary warfare. Their legacy lives on to date and their descendants can still be found in Benin.
The Woman King has already premiered in Canada and the United States. The scheduled release date for the film in Nigeria is October 4 but select cinemas like Silverbird Cinemas have already started “Advance Screening” the film.