My journey to the royal palaces of Abomey

“If soldiers go to war they should conquer or die.”

Amazons Of Dahomey

By Sesede Simeon

“Somethings never change,” I thought to myself the moment I spotted petrol displayed in glass and plastic bottles for sale by road sides. I smile at the familiarity of it all: it has always been this way since I was a little girl living in Kontogbe before my parents moved the family to Badagry in the 1990s (we still returned every now and then to visit our cousins for years afterwards).

My host had picked me up at Owode-Apa border with his car on a Saturday morning. The moment we got into Cotonou–the commercial capital of Benin Republic–I began to look out for the statue of the virgin Mary, which I used to see on the Cotonou river. I did not find it.

Maybe I did not look hard enough, or the statue of Mary was no longer there.

It could also be that we had driven past Maria Tokpa (Mary’s Marina)–as I recall the name from childhood–and I did not notice. I did not let that stop me from enjoying the coastal view of a country I had not visited in years.

Africa’s Venice

As we moved into the interior of the country, the view became more scenic.

“That road leads to Ganvie,” my host said, pointing to the turning on the left side of the road.

Ganvie is a beautiful floating village that has been dubbed the Venice of Africa, but it was not on my itin​er​ary: this trip was strictly for my Amazons, whose exploits centuries ago have been preserved to some extent in Abomey.

Somehow, I slept for most of the journey. “We are there,” the voice of my host woke me up. I stepped out of the car and took in the surroundings. The rays of the late morning sun reflected on the remains of the ancient walls, of what used to be one of the most powerful kingdoms in Africa, a kingdom that extended as far as Kumasi, the capital of Ashanti Kingdom in the 18th Century.

Visitors hoping to see the king of Dahomey would be kept here until he was ready to see them. Photo by Sesede Simeon

A rusty sign showed that I was stepping into a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had no idea it was one until this trip, and that realisation made the visit all the more worth the effort. And it so happened that this would be the first of such sites I’ll be visiting. My excitement and expectations rose several notches.

At the gate, visitors didn’t pay to get into the village — they were expected to make donations. My host and I joined a group of tourists about to take the tour. Our tour guide introduced himself to us in French and Fon, the dialect of the Ogu language spoken by Dahomians. He went on to interpret same in English.

I speak Alladah, another dialect of Ogu. But I could not speak Fon and my understanding of the dialect is limited. I was grateful our guide could interpret in English, however limited that was.

“At the beginning this land belonged to the Old Oyo Empire,” he started, getting our undivided attention. “The people who founded Dahomey migrated from Togo in the year 1300. With Oyo’s permission, they settled in Abomey.

Sesede Simeon poses with a statue of Gbehanzin, the last king of independent Abomey.

“After a war between Dahomey and Oyo in the 1700s, Oyo requested an annual tribute, as part of a peace agreement: this was to be 41 able-bodied women, 41 able-bodied men, destined for slavery or death. The demand also included cloth, guns, animals and pearls.

“Dahomey paid it for 130 years. King Ghezo put an end to the yearly tribute which, then led to a war between the Oyo Empire and the people of Dahomey. The war went on for many years.”

Our guide walked ahead of us. After a short walk, he motioned for us to stop in front of a block of mud houses.

“Centuries back, this was where visitors who came to visit the king were housed, sometimes for several months before seeing the king. While they waited, they would be fed and taken care of. A test would be carried out to determine their intentions. If their intentions were believed to be pure, they were cleared to see the king.”

As he explained the goings-on on these grounds, I wondered what would have happened to those whose intentions were not pure. Without a doubt, they won’t get medals.

The war room

“This room is called Adandeho — it is the king’s weapons room. Soldiers have to pass through this room to pick up their weapons before going to war. The soldiers were made up of both men and women. The soldiers were also given a potion to drink and it was believed the potion gave them strength to fight the enemies.”

At this time, we had walked further away from the first block of mud houses, and stopped at another.

“In the beginning in Dahomey, only men went to war. But Queen Tassi Hangbé, the only woman to rule the Kingdom of Dahomey, was the first ruler to recruit women as bodyguards,” the guide went on.

Entrance to the Archaeological Park in Bohicon, believed to have served the Amazons as a base and training camp. Picture by Sesede Simeon

These women, whose strength, resilience and resolve to die for king and country inspired me to be no ordinary woman. I was euphoric walking on the same soil that thousands of Amazons walked on in their lifetime, with their heads held high.

Our guide’s account of the formation of the Amazons has been highly contested by some historians who believe that Tassi Hangbé never existed and no time in the history of Dahomey did a woman rule.

But Dahomians still pass on the title Hangbe to a woman who is believed to be a descendant of Tassi Hangbe, who they credit with the formation of the Amazons.

Women of war

According to oral tradition, Hangbe assumed the throne in the early 18th Century after the sudden death of her twin brother, Akaba, who ruled from 1685 to 1708. After a short rule, she was forcibly deposed by her ambitious younger brother, Agaja. It is believed that as soon as Agaja became King, he erased all traces of her reign because he believed that only men should ascend the throne.

Our guide told us what qualities a potential Amazon needed to have.

“To be drafted into training as a warrior, a girl must meet certain criteria–she must be between the ages of 12 and 14; she must be beautiful and strong, tall and aggressive. All the girls who met these criteria would then be drafted for military training lasting 10 years. They graduated from the academy at age 22 or 24, becoming Agoodjie. It is what Europeans called Amazons.

“Their male counterparts in the army referred to them as N’nominton or Mino, which means our mothers. The women’s army were regarded as superior to their male counterparts. And the women’s army included a number of regiments: huntresses, rifle-women, reapers, archers, and gunners. Each regiment had different uniforms, weapons, and commanders.

“The Amazons lived in the king’s palace during the reign of King Gezo, who expanded the military budget. During Gezo’s reign, the Amazons were given uniforms and they increased in number to about 6,000.

“Recruitment was either voluntary, or forced–husbands whose wife were thought to be headstrong and fathers whose daughters were stubborn brought them to be recruited. Female slaves were also recruited after capture.”

Time-honoured tradition: Blacksmiths in Dahomey have been making these bracelets and decorative items from time immemorial. Photo by Sesede Simeon.

“Cannon Girls”

I smiled to myself knowing I would have made the cut on account of my stubbornness. If my father was kind enough not to drop me off, my older brother–who I always went into physical fights with at least once every week–would have done the honour. I would have loved it anyway.

“When amazons walked on the streets, a slave girl walked in front of them, ringing a bell. The sound is a warning for every male to get out of their way, move far off and look the other way. They were celibate, because sex meant death.”

Soon, we reached a set of cannon guns and our guide stopped, pointing to them.

“These cannons are some of the weapons used by the Amazons and their male counterparts to fight wars. Some 15 able-bodied men were exchanged for 1 Cannon from the Portuguese, or 21 very beautiful girls–with clean teeth and strong pointed breast–were exchanged for 1 cannon. Girls who met these

qualifications were called Fille de Cannon, meaning Cannon girls.

All this talk of valiant women and their wartime exploits brought their counterparts in Nigeria to my mind: Queen Amina of Zazzau and Queen Moremi, to mention just two.

House of Skulls

Our guide then led us into a room with showcases, and pointed to one with two skulls placed underneath a wooden structure.

“This is the throne of the king, the skulls beneath it were used by the king as a step to climb his throne. These skulls are the heads of Yoruba people from Oyo who were beheaded by the Amazons.”

Shivers streamed through my spine.

I had seen this throne illustrated in one of the journals written by Frederick B. Forbes, a commander of the British Royal Navy, of the account of his visit to Gezo in 1849 and 1950. I hope this is not a replica, and the real one was not sitting in a museum in Britain or France.

He pointed to a slippers in another showcase: “these represent the slippers of the king and he was the only one that could wear one.”

Properties that belonged to some of the kings that ruled the ancient kingdom of Dahomey at different times were also exhibited in the room. In one of the showcases, a horse’s tail springs from a human skull –a trophy brought back by an Amazon for her monarch to use as a fly swatter.

Our guide showed us a building he called Jeho, a house built for dead kings to protect their spirits. “These houses were built using the blood of 41 humans, and 41 of all types of animals,” he explained. “When a king died, he was buried in his palace and it became a mausoleum. The new king builds a new place for himself.”

Gbehanzin, the last king of independent Dahomey, burnt the palaces before French troops arrived and after the French defeated the Amazons in 1892. One of the first decrees announced after Dahomey formally became a French colony was that the women of Dahomey would be prohibited from serving in the military or from bearing army.

Looms and weavers welcome visitors to Dahomey. These local fabrics, used for a number of souvenirs, are on sale. Photo by Sesede Simeon

Rivers of blood

My next stop was an archaeological park in a town called Bohicon. The site was a war camp built 10m below the earth surface for the Dahomey army. Some sources also claim that it served as a training ground for the Amazons.

Sadly, the site was temporarily closed for tours because of Covid-19. But on hearing that I came all the way from Nigeria, the guard opened the gate and allowed me look around (I was not allowed to go into the underground camp itself, though).

So on my next visit to Benin my first stop will be this archaeological park, before I proceed to another village with a horrific history: it’s about the king who killed hundreds of people, just to ride his canoe in their blood. As unsettling as it sounds, it is part of our history as Africans — just like the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is.

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