The women soldiers of Dahomey

Elite troops of women soldiers contributed to the military power of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The troops were dissolved following the fall of Behanzin (Gbêhanzin), during French colonial expansion at the end of the nineteenth century.

Pedagogical Unit

A life apart, close to the ruler

A life in the royal palaces


In the seventeenth century, the women soldiers of Dahomey probably constituted the King’s bodyguard; they became an elite corps in the army from the mid-eighteenth to late nineteenth century. Today, they remain one of the most famous women’s armies in the history of humanity.

Their collective spirit and war-readiness were based on a strict and unique lifestyle: they were often recruited in early adolescence and lived apart from men in the royal palaces.

Their rigorous training was punctuated by military exercises, rituals, dances, songs, war cries and military parades, which, according to historical testimonies, they had mastered to perfection.

A status of their own

By becoming soldiers, these women, whatever their background, adopted a specific way of life and were kept apart from the remainder of the population.

During royal ceremonies, for example, they were physically separated from their male counterparts by a line of plaited raffia leaves (referred to as the ‘bamboo line’ in the literature on Dahomey).

In the town they were preceded by a female servant ringing a small bell to alert people to their arrival. The inhabitants were required to give way to them, stand aside and avert their eyes.

A life in the royal palaces

The women soldiers of Dahomey lived in the royal palaces in Abomey, Cana, Zagnanado, Hoja and Zassa. Men were denied access to these palaces other than during public festivities, and only women servants and eunuchs could move freely inside.

The women soldiers were sworn to celibacy. However, in practice, the oath was not always kept. Some had lovers whom they were obliged to conceal, ensuring that they left the palace in the early hours.

They used contraceptive plants to avoid pregnancy and herbal abortives if necessary. Women soldiers who did become pregnant risked punishment, imprisonment or death.

In addition, some women soldiers were given in marriage by the King to dignitaries and officers.

Royal Palaces of Abomey. Photograph by Dominik Schwarz, 2008.

The women soldiers and their King

The King of Dahomey never appeared in public without his escort of women soldiers, who were thus closely linked to the King’s official and private life, especially those women in his bodyguard corps.

In the eyes of the Dahomey people, the King’s image was therefore linked closely to the women soldiers. The same held true for foreign visitors, who never failed to remark that, during their visits, the King was always surrounded by armed women (D’Almeida-Topor, 1984).

In battle they were the last line of defence between the enemy and the King, and were prepared to sacrifice their lives to protect him.

Music, song and dance

At military parades, the women soldiers performed every movement to songs and dances before, during and after the drill. On such occasions, weapons were used as props.

The music was produced by different kinds of drums, flutes, whistles and iron hand-bells, and was punctuated by the war cries of the women soldiers. The lyrics of their songs spoke of their devotion to the King, their superiority over men and their exploits in battle.

"We were created to defend Dahomey,
the honey pot Object of desire. Can the country where so much courage flourishes
Give up its wealth to foreigners?
As long as we live, how mad the people
Who would try to impose their law on us.
Song in Les récades des rois du Dahomey" (Adandé, 1962)

Music instruments: pesi, hong, asassan, guitare. In "La France au Dahomey", by Alexandre d'Albéca, 1895.