Dancing kings and female warriors of Dahomey

The kingdom of Dahomey, located in today’s Benin, was a state which benefited greatly from the slave trade. In Africa slaves have been traded since ancient times but with the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth-century the demand increased dramatically. The kings of Dahomey captured people in raids in the interior of the continent, or made enemies into prisoners of war, and then sold them on to the Europeans.

The kings of Dahomey were absolute rulers of a militaristic state and when they received foreigners they put on an ostentatious display. A large contingent of soldiers would show up, brandishing their arms and waving flag-staves decorated with human skulls and with the jawbones of their enemies. Then the music would start and the king, accompanied with by drums and by singing soldiers, would start to dance before his visitors. After having danced a few minutes the soldiers would fire their guns in a salute and the king would approach the visitors and shake hands with with them.

The kings of Dahomey had an elite guard made up entirely of women, known as the mino. They were established in the seventeenth-century, initially as a group of elephant hunters, but later they became the king’s body guard, equipped with muskets and regular uniforms. They also participated in slave raids. The mino underwent rigorous physical exercises, learnt survival skills, how to storm defenses and execute prisoners. They were not allowed to have children or to marry. By the mid-19th century, they numbered between 1,000 and 6,000 women, about a third of the Dahomeyan army.

The mino participated in the wars against France. The French soldiers had initially found it difficult to fight women, but before long they fought back. In a battle in 1890 many of the mino were killed after an intense hand-to-hand combat with the French. The female battalion was disbanded after Dahomey became a French colony in 1894. Interviews with former female soldiers conducted in the 1930s indicated that many of them had problems adapting to civilian life.

The mino guard has recently been discovered by Hollywood and American popular culture. There is  no doubt that they provide an image of female empowerment. Whether they actually are appropriate role models for young black women today can be discussed.

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