The Woman King Real Story, Who is Agojie?
A new film starring Viola Davis and John Boyega explores the history of a female-African army.
Producer Maria Bello offered the idea to Viola Davis in front of an audience at an awards show, and the result was the most intense fight film in theatres in quite some time.
Bello told Vanity Fair that she had addressed the audience at the Los Angeles Skirball Cultural Center’s National Women’s History Museum, “Wouldn’t you want to see Viola Davis in part like that?” while discussing an epic historical play about an African warrior named Nanisca. There was a loud outburst of applause from the crowd. That appeared to put Davis, who was receiving an award that night, at ease, and thus The Woman King went into production.
History of Agojie
The Agojie were a clan of fierce female warriors living in the West African kingdom of Dahomey; the Europeans who encountered them dubbed them the “Dahomey Amazons” (now known as Benin).
The third monarch of Dahomey, King Houegbadja, is credited with founding the tribe as elephant hunters; but, during her reign from 1708 to 1711, his daughter, Queen Hangbe, began to utilize the tribe as female bodyguards. Their reputation as fierce warriors spread far and wide across Africa and beyond after her brother, King Agaja, used the army to fight the Savi in 1727. They came to be known as Mino, meaning Our Mothers in the Fon language.
Under the leadership of King Ghezo (John Boyega in the film), the Agojie formally organized into an actual military army by the mid-1800s. By 1864, it was recorded that over 2,000 women from the tribe were serving in the armed forces.
It has been alleged that young girls as young as eight enlisted as soldiers and were subjected to rigorous training in preparation for combat. They were “insensitively” educated to dash through thorn bushes, execute captives without flinching, and acquire other survival skills.
The Smithsonian Magazine reports on drills in which trainees were shown graphic depictions of death and given instructions to carry out executions. “walking jauntily up to [the prisoner], swinging her sword three times with both hands, then gently cutting the remaining flesh that joined the head to the trunk,” as one account has it, Nanisca was one of the young female warriors involved. After wiping her blade clean, she sucked the blood into her mouth.
Warriors were forbidden to marry while serving their kings; thus, many of them chose celibacy.
The Reason Behind Their Disperse
The Kingdom of Dahomey was attacked by several competing tribes and European immigrants in the 19th century. According to The Smithsonian Magazine, they lost at least 6,000 fatalities and maybe as many as 15,000 during only four critical wars in the second half of the 19th century. Approximately 1,500 women entered the battlefield in their very final conflicts. However, by the end, only about 50 were still physically capable of serving in the military against French forces with far better equipment.
When France took over as the protectorate of Dahomey, the forces were eventually dissolved. In 1978, a Beninese historian encountered Nawi, who claimed to have battled the French in 1892 and is believed to have been the last Agojie survivor. A year later, she passed away at well over 100 years old.
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