Nanisca and Nawi
We watched The Woman King last night. Afterwards, my husband said, there’s your mom’s blog for tomorrow and I thought, yes, it fits and is appropriate. Nawi was conceived in rape. When her mother, Nanisca, escapes she finds herself with child. However, due to her life’s career as an Agojie warrior, she cannot raise her baby. In deep grief for having to let her go, she cuts her babies arm to insert a keepsake into it, a shark’s tooth, with no real intended outcome except to “mark” her baby in some manner.
The child is given to missionaries to raise but is adopted out. Her adoptive father attempts to sell her to an older man as one of his wives but the girl rejects him because in their initial meeting, he is already beating her. So her father takes her to the king’s palace to leave her for whatever his use of her will be. She also becomes a Agojie warrior. Eventually, her mother realizes, almost to her horror, that this is her own daughter returned to her. After a rocky reunion, the two women reunite as mother and daughter. The movie is a strong statement about the bonds of fierce sisterhood and female empowerment.
Maria Bello conceived the movie after visiting Benin. It was inspired by the true story of the West African kingdom of Dahomey during the 17th to 19th centuries. The Smithsonian magazine has an article on LINK>The Real Warriors Behind ‘The Woman King’ and an image of them. The Agojie became known to Europeans, who called them Amazons, seeing in them similarities to the warrior women of Greek mythology. The Woman King is therefore based on a true story but with extensive dramatic license. Though the broad strokes of the film are historically accurate, the majority of its characters are fictional. Nanisca and Nawi share names with documented members of the Agojie but are not exact mirrors of these women. King Ghezo reigned 1818 to 1858 and his son Glele reigned from 1858 to 1889. Together they presided over what’s seen as the golden age of Dahomean history. An era of economic prosperity and political strength.
The real Ghezo did successfully free Dahomey from its tributary status in 1823. But the kingdom’s involvement in the slave trade does not end (as it does in the movie) according the historical record. Dahomey was a key player in the trafficking of West Africans between the 1680s and early 1700s by selling their captives to European traders. The presence of Europeans and their demand for slaves was also one of the reasons for the monumental scale of Dahomey’s warfare.
In truth, Ghezo only agreed to end Dahomey’s participation in the slave trade in 1852, after years of pressure by the British government, which had abolished slavery (for not wholly altruistic reasons) in its own colonies in 1833. Though Ghezo did at one point explore palm oil production as an alternative source of revenue, it proved far less lucrative, and the king soon resumed Dahomey’s participation in the slave trade.
Portraying the Agojie, through Nanisca’s actions, as critics of the slave trade makes for a nice story. It probably is not historically accurate. Though these women were symbols of strength and power. They were complicit in a problematic system. They were under the patriarchy of the king and therefore participants in the slave trade. We also recently watched Black Panther, the all-woman Dora Milaje regiment is based on the Dahomey warriors.
The first recorded mention of the Agojie dates to 1729. The unit was possibly formed earlier, toward the beginning of Dahomey’s existence at the time of King Huegbadja who reigned from 1645 to 1685. He created a corps of woman elephant hunters. Queen Hangbe ruled briefly as regent following the death of her brother in the early 18th century. Some believe she may have introduced the women warriors as part of her palace guard. The Agojie reached their peak in the 19th century under Ghezo. Due to the kingdom’s ongoing wars, Dahomey’s male population had dropped significantly. This created an opportunity for women to replace men on the battlefield. The Agojie included volunteers and forced conscripts. Regiments were recruited from slaves, some of them captured as early as 10 years old. They also included the poor and girls who were rebellious like Nawi.
All of Dahomey’s women warriors lived in the royal palace alongside the king and his other wives, inhabiting a largely woman-dominated space. Aside from eunuchs and the king himself, no men were allowed in the palace after sunset. The Agojie they were restricted from having sex with men. To become an Agojie, recruits underwent intensive training, including exercises designed to harden them to bloodshed. In 1889, a French naval officer, Jean Bayol, witnessed Nanisca while still a teenager undergo a test (her person inspired the general in The Woman King). She had not yet killed anyone but easily passed the test by walking up to a condemned prisoner, swinging her sword three times with both hands. Then she calmly cut the last flesh that attached the head to the trunk and squeezed the blood off her weapon to swallow it.
Dahomey’s women warriors upset the French men’s understanding of gender roles and what women were supposed to do in a civilized society. The women’s flaunting of ferocity, physical power and fearlessness was manipulated or corrupted as Europeans started to interpret it for their own goals. The existence of the Agojie were simply more reasons for the French to conduct their civilizing mission, seeking to impose European ideals on African countries.
After facing defeat at the Battle of Atchoupa on April 20 1890, Dahomey agreed to a peace treaty assenting to French control but the peace lasted less than two years. Over the course of seven weeks in fall 1892, Dahomey’s army fought valiantly to repel the French. The Agojie participated in 23 separate engagements during that short time span, earning the enemy’s respect for their valor and dedication to the cause. One battle brought a moment of clarity for Dahomey’s king. He now realized the inevitability of their kingdom’s destruction. The last day of fighting was one of the most murderous of the entire war, beginning with the dramatic entrance of the last Amazons as well as the elephant hunters whose special assignment was to direct their fire at the officers. The French seized the Dahomey capital of Abomey on November 17 1892. After the war, some of the surviving Agojie followed their king, Béhanzin, into exile in Martinique.
French colonization proved detrimental to women’s rights in Dahomey. The colonizers barred women from political leadership and educational opportunities. Nawi, the last known surviving Agojie with battlefield experience, died in 1979 at an age well over 100 years old.
Below is the movie trailer –