The descendants of the Amazons are now fighting to recapture their humanity

They were the world's only all-female army, now those that descended from the Amazons are fighting time and colonialism to recover their humanity, writes Danielle Paquette

Tuesday 31 August 2021 00:01 BST
The stone statue of an Amazon in a village near Abomey, Benin
The stone statue of an Amazon in a village near Abomey, Benin (The Washington Post)

Her step-grandmother could remove a man’s head with a curved blade. She could scale a wall of thorns. She devoted her life to defending the king.

These details – all true, the elderly woman says – landed in the notes of foreign explorers. But they failed to capture the whole story.

Nanlehounde Houedanou wants people to know more about the Amazons of Dahomey, the only documented female army in modern history. Researchers have spent decades combing through European and west African archives to craft a portrait from the jottings of French officers, British traders and Italian missionaries.

Yet a crucial piece of the Amazon legacy has been lost to the eraser of time and colonial rule: their humanity.

“My Amazon was gentle,” says Houedanou, who, at 85, is one of the last people on Earth to have grown up with one. “She was known for protecting children.”

History is often told through the lens of conquerors. Generations of American schoolchildren learned more about the 15th-century “discoveries” of Christopher Columbus than his record of enslaving indigenous people. Britain framed its 1897 takeover of a storied west African kingdom as a “punitive mission”, glossing over the mass theft of priceless bronzes.

After France seized what is now southern Benin in 1894, colonial officers disbanded the territory's unique force of women warriors, opened new classrooms and made no mention in the curriculum of the Amazons. Even today, many in the country of 12 million know little about their foremothers.

“The French made sure this history wasn't known,” says the Beninese economist Leonard Wantchekon, a professor of international affairs at Princeton University. “They said we were backward, that they needed to ‘civilize us’, but they destroyed opportunities for women that existed nowhere else in the world.”

The Amazons were powerful. They had influence. But everyone stopped talking about them after the colonial conquest

Now a team of Beninese researchers is working to reshape the narrative. For the past three years, historians at the African School of Economics, a private university that Wantchekon founded near Cotonou, the capital, have been tracking down descendants of Amazons across the nation.

They aim to glean local memories for a book that can be taught in schools, to present a three-dimensional view of the real Amazons. Only 50 of the women are thought to have survived the two-year war with France. The last of them died in the 1970s.

Finding their grandchildren has proved increasingly difficult as time slips away. Unlike the letter-writing Europeans of yesteryear, West Africans preferred the oral tradition, passing down stories from generation to generation.

“These stories are dying with people,” says Serge Ouitona, a researcher on the project. “The Amazons were powerful. They had influence. But everyone stopped talking about them after the colonial conquest.”

For at least three centuries, the Kingdom of Dahomey was a West African power that drew comparisons to Sparta. European visitors gushed about its women fighters: She-soldiers. Medusas. Spinster warriors.

The name that stuck in modern Benin: Amazons.

“Whatever might have been the prowess of the Amazons among the ancients, this is a novelty in modern history,” Archibald Dalzel, a British administrator in the region, wrote in 1793.

Nanlèhoundé Houédanou, 85, speaks at village meetings about her Amazon step-grandmother, Nafivovo (The Washington Post)

A French official later called Dahomey “assuredly the only country in the world that offers the singular spectacle of an organisation of women as soldiers”, according to the American journalist Stanley Alpern. The French publishing house Larousse declared the women “the only historical Amazons known”.

Their origin is murky, but historians say the Amazons probably rooted under Queen Hangbè, who reigned alongside her twin brother in the early 1700s and kept an entourage of female bodyguards.

By the mid-1800s, Dahomey boasted thousands of female troops as it sought to out-muscle rival kingdoms. When clashes erupted, the victors forced their enemies into labour or sold them as slaves.

Amazons began training in girlhood: swinging blades, loading flintlock muskets, climbing thorny barricades. They drank imported brandy and belted out war songs.

The tradition ended when France invaded. In the face of defeat, a French general wrote, the women “gave proof of very great bravery”, Alpern found.

Historians estimate that nearly 2,000 Amazons died in the battle, and the 50 survivors faded into a nation transformed. Little trace of them is left in Abomey, the kingdom's former capital.

A pair of artisans at the reconstructed palace of King Glele – each of Dahomey’s 12 kings built their own palace – stitch banners of Amazons toting rifles, brawling with men and clutching severed heads.

Across town, a rusty sign informs onlookers that a Catholic church now occupies the grounds of a former Amazon camp. Paint is chipping off the statue of a female warrior in a neighbouring village. Visitors must wade through chest-high brush to reach her.

Dah Djika Dégbo, 73, with the tobacco crop first brought to his village by his Amazon step-grandmother, Yaketou (The Washington Post)

At community meetings, Houédanou speaks of her step-grandmother Nafivovo, the warrior who fixed okra soup for hungry children. Tall and wiry, she landed in the village of Nangahoué after the war and harvested palm oil for money before marrying Houédanou's grandfather. The couple shared a clay-brick house, where her relatives live today.

“It's my job to keep her alive,” says Houédanou, sitting in the doorway of that home. “I’m one of the oldest people in this village, so it’s up to me to teach the young people their history.”

Seniority gives her the floor when people gather to discuss big issues – elections, drought, the pandemic – and she shares stories about Nafivovo. It’s hard to get the teenagers to care, she says, so she tries to keep it entertaining.

“With war songs,” Houédanou adds. She breaks into a tune: “We are proud children of the kingdom. We will defend it.”

Houédanou was a teenager when the last Amazon died. Memories surge when she smells a certain mustard spice that Navifovo used to cook for the neighbourhood kids. They ran to her house when they were in trouble.

“Their parents couldn’t beat them here,” Houédanou says, grinning. “Even before we started talking about ‘human rights’, Navifovo wouldn’t allow it.” She laughs. “Everyone knew the old lady would win the fight.”

Adana yearned for the battlefield. Housework was not for her, she told her grandchildren. She'd rather be ambushing an enemy. Tussling with her bare hands, her preferred weapons. The musket took too long to load.

“She told me how she used to strangle people,” says her granddaughter, 72-year-old Ayebeleyi Dahoui. “She used her long nails.” She curls her fingers into claws. “Like this.”

Ayebeleyi Dahoui, 72, says her Amazon grandmother, Adana, preferred fighting with her hands (The Washington Post)

Dahoui was about 12 when she first heard the war stories. Her grandmother urged her to join the military someday if she could. Adana thought battle imparted life lessons: Be patient. Stay calm. Act deliberately.

The Amazon taught her grandchildren self-defence as they hit puberty. Dahoui never used the choke move, but she internalised a sense of readiness.

One day after she’d had children of her own, she took them to a market and got into an argument with a woman over who would buy the last ears of corn. The woman attacked Dahoui. Her babies were screaming. So she bashed her foe with a ceramic bowl.

“I might have run away,” Dahoui says, “but Grandma taught me to stand up for myself.”

The village of Detohou had no tobacco before the Amazon showed up.

After surviving the battle with France, Yaketou rejected gender roles, spurning domestic chores that women normally shouldered in order to build a crop empire.

Yaketou knew where to find the plant for smoking – Dahomey had sacked her town years earlier and then made her into a warrior. Her old neighbours had it. So off she walked.

Yaketou struggled to get pregnant, so the family built her a concrete fertility temple on the outskirts of town

“She was very enterprising,” says her step-grandson, 73-year-old Dah Djika Dégbo.

Dégbo was young when she died – perhaps five – so his memories of Yaketou are fuzzy. But he recalls growing up with pride: His grandfather had married an Amazon. Her sack of tobacco seeds turned into a business that employed other women.

Dégbo’s granddaughter-in-law works in the trade.

“This is her legacy,” he says.

Yaketou struggled to get pregnant, so the family built her a concrete fertility temple on the outskirts of town. When this offering to the gods did not produce a baby, Yakouto shifted her focus to mentoring girls.

These days, the younger women in Dégbo’s orbit have left the village for the capital, seeking better work.

He credits the Amazon’s influence.

© The Washington Post

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