Model for “The Woman King”: The Agojie – Female Soldiers in West Africa

  • Female warriors are rare, most of them are myths or literary fiction.
  • The Kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa – the present-day Benin Republic – already had female soldiers with the Agojie, who represented an elite unit there. They were known for their discipline but also their cruelty towards the enemy.
  • Her memory lives on – and is also reflected in recent productions such as Marvel’s “Black Panther” or the latest drama “The Woman King” (starting October 6).

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Amazons are known from Greek mythology. According to tradition, they were warriors and men ruled. It is reported that they even cut the breast so that they could shoot better with a bow. It is still uncertain whether the tradition has the essence of truth – no one has actually met such people outside of legend.

In the Middle Ages, armies were made up of men, and there was no place for women. The Viking Age warriors in Scandinavia are more likely to represent literary fiction than reality. However, there has been a special development in West Africa in the modern era. In the kingdom of Dahomey, women not only served in the army, but were also well trained. Agojie, as they are called, represent the elite in the army.

Dahomey – a ‘superpower’ in West Africa

The Kingdom of Dahomey was established in the early 17th century. She grew up with the city of Abomey as its center. It was one of several kingdoms that existed in West Africa at the time and were often in conflict with each other.

Dahomey managed to spread to the coast to the south. The area was then called the Slave Coast because it played a major role in the transatlantic slave trade. To work on plantations in the New World, Europeans needed many slaves, which they bought from Africa.

Dahomey became very active in this regard, especially captives captured in wars and raids, but the locals were also sold. In addition, political opponents were permanently eliminated in this way. Through this highly profitable business, Dahomey has been able to increase its prosperity exponentially over the decades.

Since when were there female recruits?

It is no longer possible to say exactly when the first women appeared in Dahomey as soldiers. It is widely believed that they were originally part of the royal bodyguard tasked with guarding the palace. But it is also suspected that their origins could be in the activity such as elephant hunters.

In any case, their number increased with the territorial expansion of the kingdom. Since many men died as a result of wars and the slave trade also contributed to this, at the beginning of the 19th century, King Gezo (also: Ghezo) significantly expanded the existing women’s army in order to compensate for the losses. Despite his strength within the region, Dahomey had no sovereignty. Above all, the neighboring kingdom of Oyo was a formidable opponent, with frequent military conflicts. In this way, the proportion of women enlisted in Dahomey increased, and they were officially part of the army.

Young women were now regularly drafted into the army. However, it was not only about the local population, but also the integration of female prisoners into the army. Thus the Ajuji consisted of members of different tribes in the region. It is believed that at their peak they made up about a third of Dahomey’s soldiers.

“Black Sparta”: military training and deprivation

Agojie underwent very intense training. It is designed so that they can act quickly and recklessly and withstand severe pain. For example, it is reported that they had to climb the slopes with thorny bushes. Expeditions filled with deprivation also took place.

There were heavy exercises and regular military exercises were conducted. However, these differed greatly from what was known in Europe, as they were associated with dance as well as music. For example, women threw the guns they were carrying into the air and then skillfully caught them again.

British explorer Richard F. Burton, who came to Dahomey in 1863, was amazed at the powerful bodies of the Aguji and referred to them as the “Black Spartans”.

In addition to guns, Agojie used batons and daggers as weapons.

Isolation and political influence

They had some privileges, for example they were allowed to live in royal palaces. However, they had to observe celibacy. However, the king could take them as his wife, and they were rarely married to other high personalities in the kingdom. The status of the Agojie in Dahomey can also be seen in the tradition of the maid who rings the bell when the soldiers are outside. Then the residents had to give way to them and avert their eyes.

Basically, belonging to the Agojie meant the social advancement of the woman, because she was respected and could exercise political influence over the king. Last but not least, they had access to supplies, including tobacco and alcohol.

Wars with France: The End of Dahomey

After the end of the slave trade, European powers began to seize the African regions that were interesting for their raw materials. France was the most active colonial power in West Africa. Treaties with Dahomey allowed French merchants to settle in the port city of Cotonou. There, however, the French increasingly expanded their power. Most importantly, they took control of the port, which the Dahomey saw as undermining their sovereignty, and led to the War of 1890. During the fighting, the Agojie managed to break through a French fortress, but in the end the army was forced to retreat. As a result, Dahomey signed a peace treaty under which Cotonou and the neighboring town of Porto-Novo were ceded to France.

But this peace did not last long. When a French gunboat was shot in the Dahomey region in 1892, France attacked the kingdom with three thousand soldiers. In addition to French officers and members of the Foreign Legion, many soldiers were deployed from Senegal and Gabon. The leader of the expedition, Colonel Alfred Dodds, was himself of mixed heritage and was born in Senegal.

To halt the French advance towards Abomey, Dahomey launched a series of targeted raids along the route of the march. Many Agojie also participated in these, and most of them perished in this war. The better-equipped French forces were finally able to capture Abomey. The French now ruled the area, but a local king appointed by them still ruled the area. In 1900 France took control of the area directly. This ended the Kingdom of Dahomey and it became a French colony.

Colonialism also ended the history of female soldiers, and the phenomenon disappeared from West Africa. The last Agogi survivor died in 1979.

constant attention

The memory of female warriors and soldiers at that time remained in the collective memory. In popular culture, Agojie’s history is revisited in the comedy “Black Panther,” which debuted in 1998 as an elite female unit called Dora Milaje serving the fictional black African state of Wakanda. In the movie “Black Panther” released in 2018, these traits gained obvious traits from Agojie and provided a huge boost in the popularity of these warriors. Last but not least, the topic is also important to emerging feminism in Africa. With “The Woman King” comes a historical movie, which for the first time deals with the history of Agojie.

Sources used:

  • Female Soldiers in Dahomey (UNESCO Series on Women in African History), 2014
  • Fleur MacDonald: The Legend of Boys’ Brave Warriors, bbc.com, August 27, 2018.
  • Donia Sedky and Antje Dekhan: The Rise of Africa’s Women, Deutschlandfunk Kultur (online) from 20 April 2021
  • Mike Dash: Women of the Dahomey Warriors, Smithsonian Magazine (online) September 23, 2011
  • Werner Beukert: The Atlantic Slave Trade from Dahomey 1740-1797. Economic Anthropology and Social History, Wiesbaden 1978.

“The Woman King” tells the story of the Agojie, an elite women-fighting unit from the Kingdom of Dahomey. Known and fearless as martial arts and toughness, the warriors are the inspiration for Dora Milaji from Marvel hit Black Panther. Newcomer Thoso Mbedo as young recruit Naoi and Jun Boyega (“Star Wars”) King Gezu also revealed in an interview whether they were aware of Aguji’s fascinating story before filming began.

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