The ‘Esplanade des Amazones’ is a public square located in Cotonou, Benin. It is home to the ‘Amazon’, a 30metre high statue built in homage to the world’s only all-female army. These Amazons belonged to the Kingdom of Dahomey, a West African empire that existed from 1625 to 1894. How they came to be or what their original purpose was, is an unresolved quandary. Some sources claim that they were elephant hunters whose might was redirected to fighting neighbouring tribes and eventually the French. Other sources state that they served as royal guards to the almost erased Queen Tassi Hangbe.
According to historian Bienvenu Akoha, who ascribes to the latter version of events, she was the first Amazon. After being “silently installed” as the head of the military following the death of her twin brother King Akaba, she was publicly proclaimed Queen of Dahomey once she returned from her military campaigns. In her short reign (before she was ousted by her brother), Queen Hangbe empowered women to participate in activities they were traditionally barred from, including hunting. Over time she built an all-women battalion. The Dahomey Amazons were recruited and trained from a young age making them ruthless and “more efficient warriors” than men.
These warriors went on to serve the Kings that came after Queen Hangbe. One of them, King Gezo, who ruled over Dahomey from 1818 to 1858 officially integrated the Amazons into his army and installed Seh Dong Hong Beh as their leader. She is known for leading 6,000 female warriors in a war against the Egba fortress of Abeokuta in 1851. She not only took the fortress but also obtained slaves and decapitated the leader for refusing to acknowledge her because she was a female warrior. In 1882, Seh-Dong and the Amazons fought against French colonists over trading rights and won, despite having fewer arms. According to UNESCO, the Dahomey women’s army only became defunct when the Dahomey Kingdom fell at the end of the 19th century.
Cotonou’s Amazon Statue
This rich and unique history that was once on the brink of erasure has been immortalised in a bronze 30metre statue in Cotonou, the economic hub of Benin. The Amazon in the statue wields a machete and a rifle reminiscent of their alleged motto, “Win or Die.”
As a way of reclaiming its past, and correcting biased historic accounts, Benin has used the example of Senegal’s Renaissance monument to pay homage and engrave the memory of the fearless women that protected and served their native land.
“The French made sure this history wasn’t known,” said Beninese economist Leonard Wantchekon, a professor of international affairs at Princeton University, to the Washington Post. “They said we were backward, that they needed to ‘civilize us,’ but they destroyed opportunities for women that existed nowhere else in the world.”
Alongside the restitution of historical treasures and the creation of Africa’s longest graffiti mural (a visual spectacle over 940 meters long that celebrates the rich history of Benin from the year 1150 to date), the statue is another valorisation of Benin’s history and culture and a tourism attraction that is true to the country’s identity.
On the other side of the pond…
American actor Viola Davis (a disappointing casting decision on account of her nationality, not her acting chops) is set to give what will hopefully be a stirring performance in “The Woman King.” Sony’s upcoming historical action epic was inspired by the events of the Kingdom of Dahomey and the legacies of the actual Dahomey Amazons. While Davis is likely to make us cringe with Hollywood’s standardised ‘African accent’, we are looking forward to watching the actual Africans in the ensemble, Thuso Mbedu (South Africa), Masali Baduza (South African), Chioma Antoinette Umeala (Nigeria), Makgotso Monyemorathoe (South Africa), Thando Dlomo (South Africa), Jimmy Odukoya (Nigeria), Tuks TAD Lungu (Zimbabwe), Sivuyile Ngesi (South African) and the Legend Angélique Kidjo.