Epic images from The Woman King show a powerful Viola Davis starring in a movie that’s already smashed it at the box office with a debut topping $19 million. While the film takes creative license over the true story of the Agojie, an all-female unit of warriors who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s, it’s already proving to be a fitting tribute to a historic and formidable fighting force.
The Kingdom of Dahomey’s history spans 300 years (1600 to 1904) and it was here in west Africa, in what is now known as the Republic of Benin, that King Ghezo (or Gezo) ruled from 1818 until 1858 following a coup d'état of his brother, Adandozan. During Ghezo’s reign, he was protected by the brave and skillful all-female Agojie who were known by Europeans as the “Amazons” of Dahomey.
In classics, “Amazons” has been used as a term to describe warrior women from across the globe and is often associated with practices such as reproducing with men as a means to build a larger army of women, sometimes castrating or killing any male offspring produced as a result. These myths were more likely an exaggeration, explains The 'Amazons' of Dahomey author Robin Law, which perhaps more accurately depicts historic male fear of potential female power.
King Ghezo, who features in The Woman King, is by some accounts credited with the formation of the Agojie though there is evidence for some kind of female force being present in the kingdom prior to his appointment. Whatever their origins, come Ghezo’s reign the Agojie had turned from hunters and a royal guard to a courageous army that fought to the death to protect their kingdom.
The accolade granted them access to the palace precincts after dark, writes Mike Dash for Smithsonian magazine, something Dahomey’s men weren’t permitted to do. Here, they were granted access to alcohol, tobacco, and slaves, and were free to travel the grounds with a bell ringer that told the men of Dahomey to get out of their way.
Roles in the Kingdom of Dahomey were routinely granted to male and female counterparts, explained Agojie scholar and historical adviser on The Woman King, Professor Leonard Wantchekon, to the Guardian. “What is very unique is social norms in Dahomey were very gender inclusive. Girls played with boys and took part in any activity that boys are involved in, which is farming and trading, cultural activities. There had always been a strong sense of equitable gender norms and representation of women in government.”
Beyond Dahomey, the Agojie were the most celebrated example of “Amazons” in precolonial Africa and in modern day have inspired films such as The Woman King and Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, which both depict women as holding many societal positions as queens, mothers, council members, and warriors.
In reality, the multifaceted role of Agojie women grew as the Palace of Dahomey evolved, wrote architectural historian Lynn Ellsworth Larsen in her chapter titled Wives and Warriors, published in The Routledge Companion to Black Women’s Cultural Histories (2021). As she uncovered, unraveling the gender dynamics of the Kingdom of Dahomey is no easy task.
The Agojie are thought to have first been recruited from among the King’s wives (of which he could have thousands living within the palace walls) and, later, captives. This itself would seem to stand as counterevidence to the Amazons’ rumored penchant for procreating and killing babies, as their formal marriage to the king meant that if they weren’t involved with him then they were effectively celibate (a lifestyle that – according to Amélie Degbelo, author of Les Amazones du Dahomey [1645 – 1900], as referenced by Law – was sometimes encouraged by the practice of clitoridectomy).
"While the historic royal women of Dahomey had substantial political and spiritual infuence, the question remains: were they ultimately supporters or even enablers of a patriarchal system?" posited Larsen, who on the one hand argues that the Agojie still existed until the patriarchal rule of a king to whom they were subservient. Then again, the king reigned with his kpodjito, or reign mate, who while not as present is thought to have been equally influential in Dahomey society. As Larsen rightfully pointed out, "In our suppositions about Dahomey’s women, we must likewise be wary of imposing a western, contemporary version of feminism on another culture, time, and place."
While the Agojie weren’t the only female warriors to have existed come Ghezo’s reign, some believe them to be unique in the extent to which they fought and defended, sometimes losing thousands in battle. Ghezo’s violent overthrowing of his brother may go some way toward explaining his desire for a close-knit band of warriors as he reportedly feared turbulence and treachery among his subjects.
Over time, the Agojie came to be more feared (among Europeans, at least) than their male counterparts as demonstrated by Captain Duncan of the Life Guards (the senior regiment of the British Army) who said, “[The Agojie’s] appearance is more martial than that of the men, on a campaign I should prefer the women of that country as soldiers to the men. After all I have seen in Africa, it appears to me that the King of Dahomey possesses an army superior to any other west of the Great Sahara.”
The Agojie were credited with better aim, explained Law, as they shot their muskets from their shoulder (rather than the waist, like the men) and could reload and fire their weapon in less than 30 seconds while it took their counterparts around 50. However, despite their efficacy over males in battle, the association of fighting with masculinity was upheld even by the Agojie themselves.
In a report from the 1920s, says Law, the ex-Amazon Tata Aj ache recalled being told "You are a man" after killing and disemboweling her first enemy. It even extended as far as seeing weakness as a feminine trait, having reportedly sang of their victory over Atakpame with the words:
We marched against the Atahpahms as against men,
We came and found them women.
Their transition from enrollment to warrior was the result of grueling training that taught them how to fight, how to kill without hesitation, survival skills, and pain tolerance. Their killing methodologies included disembowelment and decapitation with the heads of their enemies sometimes being retained as trophies.
Their ferocity and efficiency earned them recognition from far across the globe as elite warriors, but it would come to an end when the Kingdom of Dahomey fell into the sights of Europeans making a scramble for Africa. It was a site of particular interest with access to many coastal towns, and though France made several deals to turn specific locations into French protectorates, negotiations soon turned hostile. Eventually, the French launched a military takeover led by General Alfred-Amédée Dodds in 1892, with the Agojie reportedly falling in November of that year.
While the Agojie are remembered best for their ferocity, as demonstrated in the epic trailer for The Woman King, American director Gina Prince-Bythewood hopes to capture these women in their complexity. As women who saw empowerment through their skill and standing, they also experienced loss of life and agency by those same traits, and should be remembered for all that they endured and survived.
“We didn’t want to show them as just one thing – badass women who killed,” Prince-Bythewood told Vanity Fair. “They also laughed and loved and cried. We wanted to show their full humanity, not just the cool part that that would look good in a trailer.”
The Woman King is available to watch in cinemas now.