Imagine you’re a French colonizer, preparing for war as a horde of Dahomean fighters approach. You raise your weapon, and as the group comes closer, you see that a lot of them are…. women. You hesitate. At this point, you have two options:
- Don’t fire because, you know, they’re women.
- Keep fighting anyways.
Here’s a hint: no matter which option you choose, you’re probably going to get your derrière handed to you.
Many men faced that situation on the battlefield of the Franco-Dahomean war as they realized their enemy combatants were women: The N’Nonmiton warriors. Their hesitancy to fire on the women cost many their lives. But make no mistake: just because these fighters were women did not make them any less deadly. Not at all.
I remember watching Black Panther in theaters and being in awe of the sheer beauty of African culture being portrayed in such a positive light. But one of the standouts for me was definitely General Okoye and her wig-snatching badassery, not to mention the fierceness of the Dora Milaje in general.
Sis did not come to play AT ALL.
As it turns out, these fictional badasses were partly inspired by real-life legends: the N’Nonmiton.
More commonly known as the Dahomey Amazons (a term coined by foreign observers after noting the women’s strength and tenacity), the group was an all-female elite warrior unit from the Kingdom of Dahomey; what is today known as The Republic of Benin.
So how did this fierce team of warriors come about, you ask?
There are a few theories about that, but the most common speculation is that the N’Nonmiton initially started as the king’s bodyguards. Some of the women were recruited from the gbeto, elephant hunters. Others were selected from the third-rank of his ahosi, the wives. Either way, considering that only women were allowed in the palace after dark, they naturally became the prime candidates for protectors.
As Dahomey became an increasingly militarized kingdom, the role of the N’Nomiton expanded accordingly. But this wasn’t your average militarized combat unit. They were “for all intents and purposes, highly trained, killing machines.”
Think Physical Education was hard? You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Training for these warriors was intense: wrestling, target practice, simulation attacks, you name it. The process for the N’Nomiton also put heavy emphasis on discipline and mercilessness. As part of the insensitivity training, the women were instructed to throw captured prisoners over a wall to their deaths. The women were also trained to withstand a lot of pain, with drills that included scaling thorned walls.
But being an elite warrior had its perks— they had access to prized goods like alcohol and tobacco. Also, since they were technically married to the king, they had a semi-sacred status, and could not be touched by any man. In fact, whenever they left the palace, each warrior had a slave girl walk in front of them and ring a bell, alerting anyone nearby to keep their distance and avert their eyes.
As the French began making their way into kingdoms, their colonization interfered with the Dahomean activity, and surprise surprise, they were not here for it.
Cue the Franco-Dahomean Wars.
The N’Nonmiton were a key part of the battles, and in addition to them being formidable foes, the French hesitancy to attack women made it even easier to defeat them. In fact, legend has it that the reason for the lack of first-person narratives from the French is that any man who met them rarely lived to tell the tale. Eventually though, even the might of these female warriors fell under the French, who had far superior weapons. That being said, the women were the last to surrender. And there are claims that they allowed themselves to be taken as wives by some of the French, then slit the men’s throats while they were sleeping. You know, just your average housewife duties.
The name N’Nonmiton or “Mino” refers to “our mothers” in Fon, the Dahomean language. True to name, these women defended their kingdom with a fierce maternal instinct (with just a sprinkle of terrifying shenanigans). Although they are commonly referred to as “Amazons”, they actually had different names based on their role within the army. There were huntresses (gbeto), riflewomen (gulohento), reapers (nyekpholento), archers (gohento), and gunners (agbalya).
So there you have it: your typical multi-functional, if-you-come-across-them-on-the-battlefield-good-luck, extremely deadly, unit rolled up into a killing machine.
Seeing the Dora Milaje on-screen, being fierce and beautiful and intelligent Black women was so refreshing, so to know that these fictional fighters drew inspiration from real-life (albeit incredibly ruthless) warriors, is an incredible piece of forgotten history.
Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!