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.
The army of women soldiers
Throughout its existence, the women’s army of Dahomey expanded its structure into several regiments and gradually modernized its equipment through the acquisition of firearms. The women’s army was strengthened particularly during the reign of King Ghezo (1818–1858), who instituted the principle of regular recruitment and created new regiments. His successors, Glele (1858–1889) and Behanzin (1889–1894), continued this policy of modernization.
Dahomey Amazons, around 1890.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the number of women soldiers of Dahomey was estimated at several thousand (D’Almeida-Topor, 1984), accounting for 30–40 percent of the army.
At the end of the nineteenth century, under King Behanzin, for example, the army of women soldiers was composed of the following regiments:
• Huntresses ("Gbeto" in the Fon language);
• Riflewomen ("Gulohento");
• Reapers ("Nyekplohento");
• Archers ("Gohento");
• Gunners ("Agbalya").
They were organized into several regiments, each of which had its own female commanders and specific uniform and weapons, as well as its own guardian spirits, dances, songs and military parades. The names and types of regiments varied over time under the different rulers.
The huntresses (Gbeto in the Fon language)
The oldest military unit of women soldiers, dating back to the army’s origin, was the huntresses. The Gbeto hunted all kinds of game, including elephants, the most valuable and difficult of animals to kill.
Elephants were almost completely wiped out from the area in the mid-nineteenth century. The Gbeto were then integrated into the army of women soldiers. They were dressed in brown blouses and brown and blue knee-length shorts.
Female soldiers, Dahomey, around 1890.
Around the head they wore a band of iron crowned with two antelope horns symbolizing power, strength and flexibility. They were armed with long rifles and curved daggers attached to their belts.
The riflewomen (Gulohento)
The riflewomen accounted for the largest proportion of women soldiers.
They each had a long rifle and a short sword and were formidable fighters in close combat. Some were armed with spears and short swords.
Their uniform consisted of a belt made of banana leaves equipped with cartridges. The Gulohento also wore a blue blouse tied at the waist with a belt and white and blue striped culottes.
Dahomeen weaponry, vers 1890. In Alexandre d'Albéca, La France au Dahomey, 1895.
Their headdress was a white skullcap decorated with a blue caiman.
The archers (Gohento)
The archers, who were fewer in number than the riflewomen, were experts in handling bows and arrows. Selected from the most able young girls, their hooked and poisoned arrows rarely missed their targets. They also carried a dagger in their belt.
As the women soldiers’ weapons were modernized with firearms, the archers’ role declined. In the nineteenth century, they were primarily responsible for transporting weaponry and collecting the dead and wounded, intervening in combat only on rare occasions.
The Gohento wore a short blue tunic and the same white skullcap decorated with the same blue caiman as the riflewomen.
The reapers (Nyekplohento)
The reapers were few in number but particularly feared. Their razor-sharp knives, which could slice a man in two with a single blow (Froy, 1890), inspired great terror. The weapon, which weighed some 10 kg, with a 45-cm blade and a large wooden handle, was held with both hands.
Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh, leader of the Dahomey Amazons. Drawing by Frederick Forbes, 1851.
The fearful reputation of the reapers contributed to the intimidation strategy of the Kingdom of Dahomey, giving them the psychological upper hand over adversaries.
The gunners (Agbarya))
There were a few hundred gunners in the nineteenth century, accounting for around one-fifth of all women soldiers. They were involved in the use of the army’s artillery, including old seventeenth-century iron guns and German Krupp guns sold to the Kingdom of Dahomey by Europeans.
The old guns and large calibre blunderbusses that the women used had a short range and were very loud. The artillery mainly contributed to the Kingdom of Dahomey’s intimidation strategy.
The Agbarya wore a red and blue blouse and culottes.