Visible Women

Black Panther’s all-female army was inspired by these real-life warrior women

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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Known as “the most feared women in the world”, the 18th century Dahomey Amazon warriors are believed to have inspired Marvel’s latest blockbuster.

Whether you’ve already paid a visit to Wakanda (aka your local cinema) or not, it’s been almost impossible to miss the buzz surrounding Black Panther. The blockbuster, which stars an almost exclusively black cast, is dominating at the box office, having just smashed records for the biggest February debut ever in North America.

One of the most awe-inspiring aspects of the critically-acclaimed Marvel adventure is the fearsome all-female army, the Dora Milaje. Made up of Wakanda’s most skilled warriors, the Dora Milaje (meaning ‘The Adored Ones’ in Wakandan) are women who have pledged their lives to the throne and the protection of the Black Panther, otherwise known as King T’Challa.

Now, it seems that the fictional super-soldiers may have been inspired by real-life warrior women.

One alert Twitter user spotted that the Dora Milaje bear a striking similarity to the Dahomey Amazons, a female militia that operated in what is now Benin in West Africa throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. 

As detailed in a 2011 book by Stanley B Alpern, the Dahomey Amazons – alternatively referred to as the N’Nonmition – served the King of Dahomey for two centuries. Over time, their role expanded from that of palace guards and wives into a fully-fledged fighting force, numbering up to 6000.

Armed with muskets and machetes from the 1760s, the Amazons were regarded as ruthless and experts in battle. A French legionnaire named Bern is recorded as praising them as: “Warrioresses [who] fight with extreme valour, always ahead of the other troops. They are outstandingly brave […] well trained for combat and very disciplined.”

In an alternate 1889 account, another Frenchman by the name of Jean Bayol recounts seeing a young Amazon named Nanisca coolly decapitating a prisoner in a test of her mettle. She reportedly followed the kill by “[squeezing] the blood off her weapon and then [swallowing] it.” 

If the N’Nonmiton sound wonderfully emancipated, take a moment. Despite their reputations and positions of power, Dahomey Amazon women were still bound by traditional chains: as members of the regiment they were regarded as the king’s ‘wives,’ and forced to remain celibate.

They were also subject to horrific violence in the battle for control of the region, and as French colonists invaded Dahomey, they found themselves fighting a losing battle against modern weapons.

But the Amazons refused to bow out quietly. When the French emerged victorious in the final seven-week conflict for conquest, they took Dahomean civilian women as prisoners. As an act of revenge, female soldiers who’d survived the battle snuck into the French camp and substituted themselves for the hostages. They then seduced their captors; when the French men fell asleep, they cut their throats.

Historians now think several Dahomey Amazons survived well into the 20th century, with several sharing their stories to disbelieving younger relatives. Now, thanks to Black Panther and the Dora Milaje, a new generation will discover the fantastical truth that’s even more impressive than cinematic fiction. 

Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of important women past and present with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.  

Main image: Marvel 


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Moya Lothian-McLean

Moya Lothian-McLean is a freelance writer with an excessive amount of opinions. She tweets @moya_lm.