by Meilan Solly: A new film stars Viola Davis as the leader of the Agojie, the all-woman army of the African kingdom of Dahomey…
At its height in the 1840s, the West African kingdom of Dahomey boasted an army so fierce that its enemies spoke of its “prodigious bravery.” This 6,000-strong force, known as the Agojie, raided villages under cover of darkness, took captives and slashed off resisters’ heads to return to their king as trophies of war. Through these actions, the Agoije established Dahomey’s preeminence over neighboring kingdoms and became known by European visitors as “Amazons” due to their similarities to the warrior women of Greek myth.
The Woman King, a new movie starring Viola Davis as a fictionalized leader of the Agojie, tells the story of this all-woman fighting force. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the film takes place as conflict engulfs the region, and the specter of European colonization looms ominously. It represents the first time that the American film industry has dramatized the compelling story.
The Woman King opens in 1823 with a successful raid by the Agojie, who free captives bound for enslavement from the clutches of the Oyo Empire, a powerful Yoruba state in what is now southwestern Nigeria. Dahomey has long paid tribute to the Oyo but is beginning to assert itself under the leadership of Ghezo and General Nanisca. A parallel plotline finds Nanisca, who disapproves of the slave trade after experiencing its horrors personally, urging Ghezo to end Dahomey’s close relationship with Portuguese slave traders and shift to production of palm oil as the kingdom’s main export.
The real Ghezo did, in fact, successfully free Dahomey from its tributary status in 1823. But the kingdom’s involvement in the slave trade doesn’t align as neatly with the historical record. As historian Robin Law notes, Dahomey emerged as a key player in the trafficking of West Africans between the 1680s and early 1700s, selling its captives to European traders whose presence and demand fueled the industry—and, in turn, the monumental scale of Dahomey’s warfare.
Though the majority of individuals taken prisoner by Dahomey were enslaved abroad, a not-insignificant number remained in the kingdom, where they served on royal farms, in the army or at the palace. In truth, Ghezo only agreed to end Dahomey’s participation in the slave trade in 1852, after years of pressure by the British government, which had abolished slavery (for not wholly altruistic reasons) in its own colonies in 1833. Though Ghezo did at one point explore palm oil production as an alternative source of revenue, it proved far less lucrative, and the king soon resumed Dahomey’s participation in the slave trade.
In response to concerns about how her movie will depict Dahomey’s engagement with European slave traders, Prince-Bythewood told the Hollywood Reporter, “We’re going to tell the truth. We’re not going to shy away from anything. But also we’re telling a part of the story which is about overcoming and fighting for what’s right.”
Portraying the Agojie, through Nanisca’s actions, as critics of the slave trade makes for a “nice story,” says Larsen in an interview. “Do I think it’s historically accurate? I’m skeptical.” She adds, “These women are symbols of strength and of power. But … they’re [also] complicit in a problematic system. They are still under the patriarchy of the king, and they are still players in the slave trade.”
Maria Bello, an actress and producer who co-wrote the story The Woman King’s script is based on, first learned about the Agojie during a 2015 trip to Benin. Recognizing the subject’s cinematic appeal, she persuaded producer Cathy Schulman to find a studio willing to finance the project. Prince-Bythewood and Davis joined the team soon after. “It was a constant push and fight to convince people that we deserve a big budget, that we deserved to tell a story like this,” Prince-Bythewood tells the Los Angeles Times.
That the film was greenlit at all likely stems from the blockbuster success of 2018’s Black Panther, which testified to the demand for entertainment created by and featuring Black creatives. The movie’s Dora Milaje regiment was inspired by the Agojie.
“For so long, Hollywood has only ever framed Africa in stereotypical ways,” Aje-Ori Agbese, an expert on African cinema at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, tells Ms. magazine. “So [The Woman King], centered on African women and African history, will generate a conversation. We have Black Panther to thank for that.”
Who were the Agojie?
The first recorded mention of the Agojie dates to 1729. But the unit was possibly formed even earlier, toward the beginning of Dahomey’s existence, when King Huegbadja (reigned circa 1645 to 1685) created a corps of woman elephant hunters. Alternatively, Hangbe, who briefly ruled as regent following the death of her brother in the early 18th century, may have introduced the women warriors as part of her palace guard. Either way, the Agojie reached their peak in the 19th century, under Ghezo, who formally incorporated them into Dahomey’s army. Thanks to the kingdom’s ongoing wars, Dahomey’s male population had dropped significantly, creating an opportunity for women to replace men on the battlefield.
“More perhaps than any other African state, Dahomey was dedicated to warfare and slave-raiding,” wrote Stanley B. Alpern in Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey, the first full-length, English-language study of the Agojie. “It may also have been the most totalitarian, with the king controlling and regimenting practically every aspect of social life.”
Dahomey’s standing army was an anomaly in and of itself, as most other African kingdoms disbanded their forces when not actively at war. The fact that the Agojie and their male counterparts wore uniforms also set them apart, establishing the Dahomean military as an organized, highly visible fighting force.
“They’re meant to have a public face,” says Larsen. “They wanted to … be feared by their neighbors. This was a slave trading kingdom, so warfare was part of their annual cycle. They needed to gather humans to be part of this heinous transatlantic slave trade,” as well as for human sacrifices to posthumously deified kings.
The Agojie’s ranks included volunteers and forced conscripts alike. “Regiments were recruited from slaves, some of them captured as early in age as 10 years old, also the poor, and girls who were rebellious,” said Terri Ochiagha, an expert on colonial and postcolonial Nigeria at the University of Edinburgh, in the 2018 Smithsonian Channel documentary series “Epic Warrior Women.” In The Woman King, Nawi ends up in the army after refusing to marry an elderly suitor.
During the 17th century, the Agooji were a battle-hardened, all-female warrior force that held a special place within the African kingdom of Dahomey. Most were former slaves, with only the bravest and toughest admitted into the fold.
All of Dahomey’s women warriors were considered ahosi, or wives of the king. They lived in the royal palace alongside the king and his other wives, inhabiting a largely woman-dominated space. Aside from eunuchs and the king himself, no men were allowed in the palace after sunset.
As Alpern told Smithsonian magazine in 2011, the Agojie were considered the king’s “third-class” wives, as they typically didn’t share his bed or bear his children. Because they were married to the king, they were restricted from having sex with other men, although the degree to which this celibacy was enforced is subject to debate. In addition to enjoying privileged status, the warriors had access to a steady supply of tobacco and alcohol. They also had enslaved servants of their own.
To become an Agojie, recruits underwent intensive training, including exercises designed to harden them to bloodshed. In 1889, French naval officer Jean Bayol witnessed Nanisca (who likely inspired the name of Davis’ character in The Woman King), a teenager “who had not yet killed anyone,” easily pass a test of wills. Walking up to a condemned prisoner, she reportedly “swung her sword three times with both hands, then calmly cut the last flesh that attached the head to the trunk. … She then squeezed the blood off her weapon and swallowed it.”
Another common form of training involved mock assaults that found recruits scrambling across towering walls of acacia thorns. In the words of a British traveler who examined the barriers, “I could not persuade myself that any human being, without boots or shoes, would, under any circumstances, attempt to pass over so dangerous a collection of the most efficiently armed plants I had ever seen.” The warriors bore the pain without complaint, and the bravest among them received acacia thorn belts marking their stoicism.
The Agojie’s divisions consisted of five branches: blunderbuss or artillery women, elephant hunters, musketeers, razor women, and archers. Surprising the enemy was of the utmost importance. Warriors snuck up on villages at or before dawn, taking captives and decapitating those who resisted. Though European accounts of the Agojie vary widely, what “is indisputable … is their constantly outstanding performance in combat,” wrote Alpern in Amazons of Black Sparta. With the rest of the Dahomean army, these women warriors were “the scourge and terror of the whole surrounding country, always at war and generally victorious,” as an American missionary later recounted.
What happened to the Agojie?
Dahomey’s military dominance started to wane in the second half of the 19th century, when its army repeatedly failed to capture Abeokuta, a well-fortified Egba capital in what is now southwest Nigeria. An 1851 battle with the Egba, who’d settled in the region following the decline of the Oyo Empire, resulted in the deaths of up to 2,000 Agojie; in 1864, King Glele, who succeeded Ghezo a few years earlier, sought to avenge his father’s defeat at Abeokuta but was forced to retreat after just an hour and a half of fighting. Dahomean forces continued to target Egba villages until the early 1890s, when war with the French threatened the kingdom’s very existence.
Dahomey’s encounters with European colonizers had historically revolved mainly around the slave trade and religious missions. As the Scramble for Africa ramped up, however, tensions between Dahomey and France escalated. In 1863, the French declared the neighboring kingdom of Porto-Novo a colonial protectorate, angering Glele, who considered Porto-Novo a vassal of Dahomey. Glele also clashed with the French over the port city of Cotonou.
As Larsen articulates, the existence—and dominance—of Dahomey’s women warriors upset the French’s “understanding of gender roles and what women were supposed to do” in a “civilized” society. The women’s “flaunting of ferocity, physical power and fearlessness was manipulated or corrupted as Europeans started to interpret [it] in their own context of what they felt societies should be,” she says. For the French, the Agojie were simply “more fuel for their civilizing mission,” which sought to impose European ideals on African countries.
The First Franco-Dahomean War began on February 21, 1890, just two months after the accession of Glele’s son Kondo, who took the name Béhanzin upon claiming the throne. On March 4, the Dahomean army attacked the French at Cotonou, only to fall to the Europeans’ vastly superior firepower. Nanisca, the teenager who’d left such an impression on French officer Bayol the previous year, decapitated the enemy’s chief gunner but died on the battlefield. Upon seeing Nanisca’s body, Bayol wrote that a “cleaver, its curved blade engraved with fetish symbols, was attached to her left wrist by a small cord, and her right hand was clenched round the barrel of her carbine covered with cowries.”
After facing a similar defeat at the Battle of Atchoupa on April 20, Dahomey agreed to a peace treaty assenting to French control over Porto-Novo and Cotonou. The lull in warfare lasted less than two years—an intermediary period that Béhanzin spent equipping his army with weapons equal to, or at least better matched with, the French’s. According to Alpern, upon receiving news of the French’s declaration of war, the Dahomean king said, “The first time, I was ignorant of how to make war, but now I know. … If you want war, I am ready. I wouldn’t stop even if it lasted 100 years and killed 20,000 of my men.”
Béhanzin proved true to his word. Over the course of seven weeks in fall 1892, Dahomey’s army fought valiantly to repel the French. The Agojie participated in 23 separate engagements during that short time span, earning the enemy’s respect for their valor and dedication to the cause. As one marine noted, “[N]either the cannons, nor the canister shot, nor the salvo fire stops them. … It is really strange to see women so well led, so well disciplined.” Though sources disagree on the number of women warriors who fought in the Second Franco-Dahomean War, Alpern cites 1,200 to 2,500 as a likely range.
At the village of Adégon on October 6, the Agojie suffered arguably their worst losses yet, with just 17 soldiers returning from an initial force of 434. Béhanzin’s brother Sagbaju Glele, who lived until the 1970s, told a local historian that the battle brought a moment of clarity for Dahomey’s courtiers, who now realized the inevitability of their kingdom’s destruction. The Dahomean army made a final stand at Cana in early November. The last day of fighting, reported a French marine colonel, was “one of the most murderous” of the entire war, beginning with the dramatic entrance of “the last Amazons … as well as the elephant hunters whose special assignment was to direct their fire at the officers.” The French officially seized the Dahomey capital of Abomey on November 17.
Between 2,000 and 4,000 Dahomean soldiers—including both men and women—died during the seven-week war. Of the roughly 1,200 Agojie in fighting shape at the beginning of the war, just 50 or 60 remained ready for battle by its end. Comparatively, the French side lost 52 Europeans and 33 Africans on the battlefield.
After the war, some of the surviving Agojie followed Béhanzin into exile in Martinique or served his brother, a puppet king installed by the French. Others tried to reenter society, to varying degrees of success. Still others toured Europe and the United States, performing dances and battlefield reenactments at “living exhibitions” that played into racist stereotypes of African people. At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, visitors to the “Dahomey Village” were welcomed by a pair of juxtaposed paintings: an Agojie holding up an enemy’s severed head and a white colonizer raising his helmet. “You have these parallel images of what was considered barbaric and what the civilizers were here to correct,” says Larsen.
Last year, Leonard Wantchekon, an economist at Princeton University and native of Benin who leads research seeking to identify the Agojie’s descendants, told the Washington Post that French colonization proved detrimental to women’s rights in Dahomey, with colonizers barring women from political leadership (in addition to serving as warriors, ahosi could become royal cabinet ministers) and educational opportunities.
“The French made sure this history wasn’t known,” he explained. “They said we were backward, that they needed to ‘civilize us,’ but they destroyed opportunities for women that existed nowhere else in the world.”
Nawi, the last known surviving Agojie with battlefield experience (and the probable inspiration for Mbedu’s character), died in 1979, at well over 100 years old. But Agojie traditions continued long after Dahomey’s fall, with descendants of the warrior women sharing stories about their formidable ancestors and participating in religious rituals. When actress Lupita Nyong’o visited Benin for a 2019 Smithsonian Channel special, she met a woman identified by locals as an Agojie who’d been trained by older warriors as a child and kept hidden within a palace for decades.
Speaking with History.com, Wantchekon emphasizes the central role played by women in Dahomean society. “When we push back against [colonialist] misconception[s] and embrace the culture of gender equality that was thriving in Benin and places like it before colonization,” he says, “it is a way to embrace the legacy of this exceptional group of African female leaders that European history tried so hard to erase.”