A year ago, we published a feature on the 18th and 19th century West African women warriors who called themselves N’Nonmiton. With the revelation that the Dora Milaje warriors in Black Panther were inspired by these real-life soldiers, we're resharing our piece.
Conquer Or Die
For over a century, an army of fierce female soldiers redefined what it meant to be a warrior and struck fear into the hearts of all their adversaries.
BY JOHANNA GOHMANN
Imagine the most terrifying, capable, badass woman you know. Now, imagine thousands of other women just like her, give them all machetes, and you’re starting to get an idea of what a fearful force the Dahomey Amazon warriors must have been. Never heard of them? Well, buckle up. Because once you learn about these ladies (and by “ladies,” I mean women capable of tearing out an enemy’s larynx with their teeth), you won’t soon forget them.
Known to each other as the N’Nonmiton, which means “our mothers,” the female warriors of Dahomey – a coastal West African kingdom now known as the Republic of Benin, bordered by Togo and Nigeria – were one of the first professional female combat units ever. Renowned for their ferocity and imperviousness to pain, they fought to expand the borders of Dahomey and protect their home from enemies like the Yoruba, from approximately the early 18th century through the 19th century. When visiting Europeans stumbled across the Dahomey in their tropical nation bordering the northernmost portion of the Atlantic Ocean in the Gulf of Guinea, the visitors were so stunned by the women’s skills and strong physiques that they were dubbed “Amazons,” after the female warriors of Greek mythology. “Such was the size of the female skeleton and the muscular development of the frame, that in many cases, femininity could be detected only by the bosom,” wrote astonished British explorer Richard Burton upon arriving in Dahomey in 1863.
At the height of their power, the N’Nonmiton were 6,000 women strong, and wielded three-inch razors and muskets. Many were capable of decapitating their enemies with a single blow, and were known to bring the heads of their victims home where they would boil the skin off the skulls, then display them as trophies.
There are a number of theories surrounding how these fierce female fighters likely came to be. In one story, reported by historian Stanley Alpern in his book The Amazons of Black Sparta, the Dahomey women were such fearless hunters, they were known to attack entire herds of elephants, with many ending up gored and trampled. King Gezo, who ruled Dahomey from 1818 to 1858, was so impressed with their bravery, he enlisted the women into his army to fight alongside the men.
A more likely origin story put forth by Alpern, however, is that the N’Nonmiton army was born from the ranks of female palace guards. For centuries, only women were permitted inside after dark, and these women were all considered the wives of the king they served. However, some were deemed “third-tier” wives, meaning the king didn't find them hot enough to actually take to bed. These women became royal bodyguards, and they did such an excellent job, they were eventually expanded into a full-blown battalion. The first known female regiment called themselves “The Elephant Destroyers.” The second, more ominously, called themselves “The Reapers.”
Yet another theory suggests the female warriors sprang up out of sheer necessity. Commodore Arthur Wilmot, a British naval officer, visited Dahomey in 1862, and he noted that so many of the men had been kidnapped into slavery or died in battle, that there were far more female villagers than men. The king had no choice but to train the women to fight.
A N’Nonmiton’s military training was – in a word – intense. While they were, of course, taught to fight, they were also trained to face pain with a ruthless stoicism. They scaled walls covered in massive thorns, and even strapped on big branches of thorns to wear as belts. Oh, and trainees were also dropped into the middle of the jungle with only a machete and left to fend for themselves for up to ten days.
But in order to be true killing machines, Dahomey women also had to desensitize themselves emotionally. One way this was achieved was to have new recruits participate in a brutal form of execution: the women would climb to the top of a 16-foot platform and be given a prisoner of war bound and gagged inside a basket. It was then each woman’s duty to grab the basket and hurl the human inside down to his or her death.
Once Dahomey women passed this initiation rite and became warriors, they considered themselves male, declaring, according to Burton, “We are men, not women.” Burton further noted, that if a soldier was disgraced, they would be referred to as “a woman” – a term synonymous with being weak and ill-equipped.
To become a N’Nonmiton meant transforming into a cold-blooded executioner – someone who could gut a man and then lick his blood from the weapon. But becoming a warrior also afforded women a freedom and lifestyle they never could have experienced otherwise. A typical woman’s life in Dahomey was one of submission and servitude. Becoming a N’Nonmiton, however, put a woman in a different category altogether. It meant rising to the ranks of the elite, and living in the royal palace. A French observer once wrote, “The Amazons are lodged in the palaces of the King, who supports them sumptuously, and they pass their time there drinking, smoking, and dancing.”
So who were the women willing to make this bargain? Well, some were ladies who joined up to escape the drudgery of day-to-day domestic work. (And really, who among us, when faced with endless afternoons of cleaning the toilet and Swiffering wouldn’t be at least a little tempted to heave someone from a basket?) And some were rambunctious teenagers and women whom disgusted husbands and fathers deemed unmanageable, while others were female prisoners the Dahomey had captured in battle.
Once made a N’Nonmiton, a woman was considered untouchable, in more ways than one. They were all considered to be wives of the King, which meant no man could go near them. When a N’Nonmiton went outside the palace walls, a slave girl walked ahead of her ringing a bell, which alerted everyone to back off. Men had to move a certain distance away, and avert their eyes. Touching a N’Nonmiton was punishable by death. It’s also a fairly safe bet they weren’t subjected to a lot of catcalling.
Which brings us to another aspect of N’Nonmiton life: their sexuality. In yet another show of extreme self-discipline, female soldiers undertook a vow of celibacy. As “wives of the King,” they were not allowed to have relations with anyone else, under punishment of death. The main purpose of this celibacy was to keep the soldiers from becoming pregnant, as they would then become unfit for battle.
For a foreign-born N’Nonmiton (a prisoner who was captured elsewhere in battle and later brought into the military) a life without sex might not have been that big a deal – many came from communities that practiced female genital mutilation. But for a native Dahomey woman, celibacy would have been an emotionally traumatic choice. Dahomey women were primed for sex and marriage from a very early age, and rather than perform FGM, they practiced a massaging ritual wherein they attempted to elongate and thicken their labia. (They did this partly because a “thin-lipped” vagina wasn’t considered as attractive, and partly because they believed the practice would increase a woman’s pleasure). For a Dahomey woman to turn her back on motherhood and a husband went against all cultural and social mores. But for many women, it was still well worth it. As Alpern writes, “They left behind a life of ceaseless toil and second-class citizenship and instantly acquired semi-sacred status.”
When the N’Nonmiton went into battle, the majority of their fighting involved raiding nearby villages and conquering new land. The Dahomey actually seized what is now considered present-day Benin. They also captured many port towns, where they would set up their own trade routes with Europeans. The Europeans would give them muskets and bullets, and in return, the N’Nonmiton would hand over their prisoners to be sold as slaves.
The N’Nonmiton were always prepared to fight to the death. And many did die. It’s estimated that in the latter half of the 19th century, they may have lost as many as 15,000 women. Even so, they were considered astounding warriors, and the colonizing Europeans who faced them in battle spoke of them with an awestruck reverence. “Their appearance is more martial than the generality of men,” wrote British explorer John Duncan. “And if undertaking a campaign, I should prefer the female soldiers to the male soldiers of this country.”
By the late 1870s, the N’Nonmiton forces had been whittled down considerably to around 1,500 soldiers. Then in 1887, they became embroiled in an incident that would ultimately bring about their demise. Around this time, the Europeans were all fighting to snatch up their own little slices of Africa, and there was a strong French presence near the Dahomey kingdom. One day, the Dahomey decided to attack a port town that was a French protectorate. The governor of the town, in a panic, waved the French flag in hopes that the N’Nonmiton might understand he was untouchable. But that plan didn’t work so well. A N’Nonmiton lopped his head off, then wrapped it in the very flag he’d been waving.
As a result, the French staged a full-on war on Dahomey. The N’Nonmiton, fierce as they were, were no match for France’s modernized firepower, and in 1892 the French declared victory. The male soldiers of Dahomey fought the French alongside the N’Nonmiton, but it was the women who were the last to surrender. And even then, they didn’t go down quietly. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “There was a rumor that the survivors took their revenge on the French by covertly substituting themselves for [civilian] Dahomean women who were taken into the enemy stockade. Each allowed herself to be seduced by a French officer, waited for him to fall asleep, and then cut his throat with his own bayonet.”
Only about 50 N’Nonmiton survived that war, and it’s believed some of them sailed to America and joined “ethnographic showcases,” such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Amazingly, the last known N’Nonmiton died in 1979. She was living in a village in Kinta, Benin, and she was estimated to be around 103.
In 2015, French street artist YZ began pasting large-scale photographs of the N’Nonmiton on various huts and homes in Senegal. She says she wanted to remind people of this story of astounding female strength. And YZ is right, their story is well worth remembering – perhaps now, more than ever. The N’Nonmiton serve to remind us of exactly how powerful women truly can be.
Perhaps it would help those of us who have been active in the #resistance since November to learn one of the many N’Nonmiton songs they sang together to build morale – songs of battle and bravery like this one:
If one day we meet/ An audacious army/ We’ll fear nothing/ We’ll resemble the buffalo/ Who knows his way/ In the midst of sheep.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2017 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe here!
More from BUST