“A little-known piece of African history…and rather too much other stuff.”
Back in the mid-19th century, the West African kingdom of Dahomey had a singular army, led not by men, but by women. Even now, the “Amazons” of Dahomey represent an almost unique fighting force, the only confirmed case in history where the best soldiers in a male-led society were female. Their origins date back to rules forbidding men from being in the royal palace after dusk, leaving women to act as palace guards. When King Gezo took the throne in 1818, he was so impressed by the loyalty of his female protectors that he made them his army’s elite. So they remained, as many as 8,000 of them, until wiped out at the century’s end by vastly better-armed French colonial troops. Even then, they commanded respect. “These young women were far and away the best men in the Dahomeyan army, and woman to man were quite a match for any of us” – and this wasn’t any regular French soldier writing, but a member of the elite Foreign Legion.
Edgerton’s book tells their history, as well as seeking, though failing to find, parallels elsewhere in history. He also discusses Dahomean society, which followed a dual cosmology, balancing life/death, left/right, and male/female, appointing for each male official a kjopito or “mother”, who would shadow them. These diversions into areas of doubtful relevance e.g. how the king maintained power, are due to a shortage of firsthand data. While sometimes memorable (aware of the shortage of marriageable women caused by his massive harem, the King financed a corps of royal prostitutes, to serve the needs of his male subjects at low cost), unless you’re interested in 19th-century African culture, these sidetracks are largely padding.
Even so, it’s still under 200 pages, including notes, bibliography and index. There is some fascinating material, just not enough to justify the recommended retail price. I picked up a remaindered copy, though, and at the princely cost of $3.00, certainly have no hesitation in recommending it.
By: Robert B. Edgerton
Publisher: Westview Press, 2000, $25.00