Preamble: After last week’s Queen Makeda, the royal women series #wcw continues… and I have had to re-interrogate some of the information I’d previously gathered for this entry and others. But hopefully if not the full story, this and the posts to continue will provide, as accurately as possible, enough information to give a sense of the women and perhaps spur more inquiry and, where necessary, correction.
Much like Black Panther’s Dora Milaje (who were reportedly based on them), the Dahomey amazons (as they were called by the Europeans, a nod to the amazons of Greek mythology) or N’Nonmiton, or minos, (“mothers” in the language of the Fon people of Dahomey) was an all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey (then one of West Africa’s most powerful states; present day Benin). They were led, in the 19th century, by Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh.
Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh’s inclusion in this royals series is on technicality, as in the women warriors of Dahomey were technically wives of the king though he didn’t have sexual relations with them, rendering them effectively celibate for life. This – and the young age of recruitment – is an aspect of the Dora Milaje found in the Black Panther comics but scrapped from the film. There are conflicting tales of the actual beginnings of the Dahomey amazons/minos beginning, some dating back to the 17th century, but essentially they seem to have been fearless female hunters-cum-palace guards-cum-battle hardened warriors. But by the time of Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh’s leadership, they numbered in the thousands and defeat was rare (though it did happen).
Their fearsomeness – and in particular Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh’s – though is the bigger part of their legend. The stories of their training, initiation, and military activities are bloody. When in 1889 the French took control of part of the Dahomey kingdom, Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh is said by some sources to have been a key figure in instigating war during an attack on a village under French rule, when she beheaded the chief of the village with a cutlass, and presented his head, wrapped in the French flag, to her king. She was, also, according to some sources, part of the army to face France in the war that followed (the first Franco-Dahomean war, 1890). She and her amazons/n’nonmiton’s burned fields and villages rather than let them be taken by the French, and were among the last to surrender when the kingdom was defeated (in 1894); and even then, they fought, secreting themselves in the enemy camp and taking the place of women of Dahomey who had been taken custody, seducing members of the French army, and cutting the army men’s throat with their own bayonet while they slept. (Smithsonian)
Details on Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh specifically are sketchy (and the record of the Dahomey amazons themselves is not exactly fleshed out as the French did everything they could to disband the troops, their structure, and their memory, so that much of what remains is fractured oral history). She is believed to have been born in 1835 and had begun her training at age 10. By 15, she had risen to leadership and led her first raid, 6,000 warriors at her back, against the Egba fortress of Abeokuta in 1851. She reportedly returned with the spoils of war, including the head of the leader of the rival army to present to her king. This seems to have been her go-to move as the only specific mention of Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh was in the journals of British navy commander, reported abolitionist, and member of the Royal Geographical Society, Frederick E. Forbes, Dahomey and the Dahomans; being the journals of two missions to the king of Dahomey and the residence at his capital in the year 1849 and 1850. The book includes a sketch of her holding a severed head.
Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh is on record as a highly effective (i.e. lethal) and highly esteemed (i.e. treated like royalty) leader. But there are conflicting tales of her end – either she died well before or during the Franco-Dahomean war or lived long enough to train another generation of female warriors and then retire.`
Possible Cast: After the athleticism displayed in Steve McQueen’s Widows, I’m thinking Broadway alum Cynthia Erivo.
Up Next: still Africa…this time among the Zulus.