The Woman King: a film based on Dahomey’s Women Warriors

THE must-see movie of the fall is here!

The Woman King—starring Viola Davis as General Nanisca, a stellar supporting cast, and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood—is a story based on true events.

General Nanisca is the powerful leader of a group of female warriors known as the Agojie; soldiers tasked with defending their home, the African Kingdom of Dahomey.


Read through to find the official movie trailer at the end of this post!


Image credit Chris Hellier/Getty Images

Little has been written about these warrior women, and what has been recorded was mostly from visiting European travelers and missionaries. Which means accurate accounts of the Agojie have largely been pieced together. What we do know for certain, is that the Dahomey women are among the only all-female soldiers documented in modern military history. But, why the Dahomey recruited female solders is where accounts begin to differ.

One theory, written about by Stanley Alpern, author of the only full-length English language study about the Dahomey, states: They were first drafted to guard the palace doors. According to the royal dictate during King Agaja’s reign (1708-1740), “No man [shall] sleeps within the walls of any of [my palaces] after sunset but myself.”

And since men were banned from living in the palace, that meant the king’s bodyguards had to be women. It’s further thought that the first of these warrior women, Alpern says, were from among the king’s “third-class” wives—those considered insufficiently beautiful to share his bed and who had not borne children. This doesn’t exactly explain while this all-woman soldier group arose only in Dahomey, but we can say that it wasn’t because the Fon viewed men and women as equals. Historian Robin Law, of the University of Sterling, dismisses that idea, telling us: women fully trained as warriors were thought to “become” men—usually at the moment they disemboweled their first enemy.

This fierce all-female army was so ruthless that European colonists called them the Amazons after the merciless warriors of Greek mythology.

To illustrate the ferocity of these ladies, Smithsonian Magazine tells us about an account of these warrior women on display:

It is noon on a humid Saturday in the fall of 1861, and a missionary by the name of Francesco Borghero has been summoned to a parade ground in Abomey, the capital of the small West African state of Dahomey. He is seated on one side of a huge, open square right in the center of the town–Dahomey is renowned as a “Black Sparta,” a fiercely militaristic society bent on conquest, whose soldiers strike fear into their enemies all along what is still known as the Slave Coast. The maneuvers begin in the face of a looming downpour, but King Glele is eager to show off the finest unit in his army to his European guest.

As Father Borghero fans himself, 3,000 heavily armed soldiers march into the square and begin a mock assault on a series of defenses designed to represent an enemy capital. The Dahomean troops are a fearsome sight, barefoot and bristling with clubs and knives. A few, known as Reapers, are armed with gleaming three-foot-long straight razors, each wielded two-handed and capable, the priest is told, of slicing a man clean in two.

The soldiers advance in silence, reconnoitering. Their first obstacle is a wall—huge piles of acacia branches bristling with needle-sharp thorns, forming a barricade that stretches nearly 440 yards. The troops rush it furiously, ignoring the wounds that the two-inch-long thorns inflict. After scrambling to the top, they mime hand-to-hand combat with imaginary defenders, fall back, scale the thorn wall a second time, then storm a group of huts and drag a group of cringing “prisoners” to where Glele stands, assessing their performance. The bravest are presented with belts made from acacia thorns. Proud to show themselves impervious to pain, the warriors strap their trophies around their waists.The general who led the assault appears and gives a lengthy speech, comparing the valor of Dahomey’s warrior elite to that of European troops and suggesting that such equally brave peoples should never be enemies. Borghero listens, but his mind is wandering. He finds the general captivating: “slender but shapely, proud of bearing, but without affectation.” Not too tall, perhaps, nor excessively muscular. But then, of course, the general is a woman, as are all 3,000 of her troops. Father Borghero has been watching the King of Dahomey’s famed corps of “amazons,” as contemporary writers termed them—the only female soldiers in the world who then routinely served as combat troops.

Despite the ruggedness required, finding women to join the Dahomean army was not as difficult as one would imagine. In contrast to the lives most West African women of the time lived, these female troops lived in the king’s compound and were supplied with tobacco, alcohol, and slaves (as many as 50 to each warrior). Noted traveler, Sir Richard Burton, wrote of an observed account in 1860: “when amazons walked out of the palace, they were preceded by a slave girl carrying a bell. The sound told every male to get out of their path, retire a certain distance, and look the other way.”

And yes, these women were as brutal and hardcore as we’re imaging. But it wasn’t only staged maneuvers on parade grounds that brought in visitors. There was the highly curious aspect of the women’s training called—”insensitivity training.”

One such record of this military custom, from Smithsonian Magazine, states: At one annual ceremony, new recruits of both sexes were required to mount a platform 16 feet high, pick up baskets containing bound and gagged prisoners of war, and hurl them over the parapet to a baying mob below. There are also accounts of female soldiers being ordered to carry out executions.

Jean Bayol, a French naval officer who visited Abomey in December 1889, watched as a teenage recruit, a girl named Nanisca “who had not yet killed anyone,” was tested. She was brought before a young prisoner who sat bound in a basket and …

walked jauntily up to [the prisoner], swung her sword three times with both hands, then calmly cut the last flesh that attached the head to the trunk … She then squeezed the blood off her weapon and swallowed it.

There is of course, as with all accounts of history, more than meets the eye here, and more to these women than what the brutal nature of their training would show us. Not only were Dahomey’s women warriors unique for being female, they also fought with a fierceness devoted to love. They fought, and often died, for their king and country.


Don’t forget to head back here and tell us what you thought, once you’ve watched this movie. I, for one, cannot wait to see it!