The Dahomey Amazons or Mino were a Fon all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the present-day Republic of Benin which lasted until the end of the 19th century. They were so named by Western observers and historians due to their similarity to the semi-mythical Amazons of ancient Anatolia and the Black Sea.
King Houegbadja (who ruled from 1645 to 1685), the third King of Dahomey, is said to have originally started the group which would become the Amazons as a corps of elephant hunters called the gbeto.
Houegbadja’s son King Agaja (ruling from 1708 to 1732) established a female bodyguard armed with muskets. European merchants recorded their presence. According to tradition, Agaja developed the bodyguard into a militia and successfully used them in Dahomey’s defeat of the neighbouring kingdom of Savi in 1727. The group of female warriors was referred to as Mino, meaning “Our Mothers” in the Fon language, by the male army of Dahomey.
From the time of King Ghezo (ruling from 1818 to 1858), Dahomey became increasingly militaristic. Ghezo placed great importance on the army, increasing its budget and formalizing its structure from ceremonial to a serious military. While European narratives refer to the women soldiers as “Amazons,” they called themselves ahosi (king’s wives) or mino (our mothers).
Ghezo recruited both men and women soldiers from foreign captives, though women soldiers were also recruited from free Dahomian women, some enrolled as young as 8 years old. Other accounts indicate that the mino were recruited from among the ahosi (“king’s wives”) of which there were often hundreds.Some women in Fon society became soldiers voluntarily, while others were involuntarily enrolled if their husbands or fathers complained to the king about their behaviour.
Membership among the mino was supposed to hone any aggressive character traits for the purpose of war. During their membership they were not allowed to have children or be part of married life (though they were legally married to the king). Many of them were virgins. The regiment had a semi-sacred status, which was intertwined with the Fon belief in Vodun. The mino trained with intense physical exercise. Discipline was emphasised. Serving in the mino offered women the opportunity to “rise to positions of command and influence” in an environment structured for individual empowerment.
Combat and structure
The women soldiers were rigorously trained, given uniforms, and equipped with Danish guns (obtained via the slave trade). By the mid-19th century, they numbered between 1,000 and 6,000 women, about a third of the entire Dahomey army, according to reports written by visitors. The reports also noted variously that the women soldiers suffered several defeats, but that the women soldiers were consistently judged to be superior to the male soldiers in effectiveness and bravery.
The women soldiers were said to be structured in parallel with the army as a whole, with a center wing (the king’s bodyguards) flanked on both sides, each under separate commanders. Some accounts note that each male soldier had a mino counterpart.
In the latter period, the mino were armed with Winchester rifles, clubs and knives. Units were under female command. Captives who fell into the hands of the mino were often decapitated.
Conflict with France
European encroachment into West Africa gained pace during the latter half of the 19th century, and in 1890 King Béhanzin started fighting French forces in the course of the First Franco-Dahomean War. According to Holmes, many of the French soldiers fighting in Dahomey hesitated before shooting or bayoneting the Mino. The resulting delay led to many of the French casualties.
Ultimately, bolstered by the Foreign Legion, and armed with superior weaponry, including machine guns, along with cavalry and Marine infantry, the French inflicted casualties that were ten times worse on the Dahomey side. After several battles, the French prevailed. The Legionnaires later wrote about the “incredible courage and audacity” of the Amazons. The last surviving Amazon of Dahomey is thought to be a woman named Nawi who died in 1979.