Dancing kings and female warriors of Dahomey

The kings of Dahomey were absolute rulers of a militaristic state which grew rich from the slave trade. When they received visitors they would always put on ostentatious displays. A large contingent of soldiers would show up, brandishing their weapons and waving flag-staves decorated with human skulls and with the jawbones of their enemies. But in addition, the kings of Dahomey would dance before the visitors, accompanied by drums and by singing soldiers. Afterwards 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 CE, 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, learned survival skills, how to storm defenses and execute prisoners. They were not allowed to have children or to marry. By the mid-19th century, there was between 1,000 and 6,000 of these female warriors, making up 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 female adversaries, but before long they learned how to fight 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 severe 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 really are appropriate role models for young black women today can be discussed.

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