From the 18th to the early 20th century in Benin the armed forces were led by the Mino, a fierce all-female army tasked with guarding the palace, royalty and fighting for the territory of Benin, then known as Dahomey. When European colonialists and missionaries encountered these women, they swiftly gained the nickname ‘the Dahomey Amazons’.
From the time of King Ghezo (ruling from 1818 to 1858), Dahomey became increasingly militaristic. Ghezo placed great importance on the army, increasing its budget and formalizing its structure from ceremonial to a serious military. While European narratives refer to the women soldiers as “Amazons,” they called themselves ahosi (king’s wives) or N’Nonmiton (our mothers).
Ghezo recruited both men and women soldiers from foreign captives, though women soldiers were also recruited from free Dahomian women, some enrolled as young as 8 years old. Other accounts indicate that the N’Nonmiton were recruited from among the ahosi (“king’s wives”) of which there were often hundreds. Some women in Fon society became soldiers voluntarily, while others were involuntarily enrolled if their husbands or fathers complained to the king about their behavior.
Membership among the N’Nonmiton was supposed to hone any aggressive character traits for the purpose of war. During their membership they were not allowed to have children or be part of married life (though they were legally married to the king). Many of them were virgins. The regiment had a semi-sacred status, which was intertwined with the Fon belief in Vodun.
The N’Nonmiton trained with intense physical exercise. They learnt survival skills and indifference to pain and death, storming acacia-thorn defenses in military exercises and executing prisoners. Discipline was emphasized.
Serving in the N’Nonmiton offered women the opportunity to “rise to positions of command and influence” in an environment structured for individual empowerment. The N’Nonmiton were also wealthy and held high status.
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