‘Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh, An Amazon in the Dahoman Army’ Pictures of gender and violence
In 2018, the Marvel film “Black Panther” entered the cinema screens. One major thread of the film is the women’s army Dora Milaje. It is inspired by the Dahomean Mino, often referred to as Black Amazons; ‘female soldiers’ or ‘women warriors’. The kingdom of Dahomey existed from the 17th to 19th century at the Atlantic Coast in today’s Benin. Having potentially developed from the personal guard of the Dahomean king in the 17th century, the mino soldiers became part of the fighting army in the 19th century.1
A recurrent representation is one of so-called “Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh” by the English military Frederick E. Forbes of 1851. He published the picture in his Journals from a travel to the kingdom of Dahomey.2 It is interesting to have a closer look on this picture in reference to the depiction of gender, race, and violence as well as the power of significance of pictures in general.
The picture is striking in several ways. Not only contemporaries of Forbes may have been shocked looking at it, but still today, it functions as an iconic representation of a ‘bloodthirsty’, extremely violent ‘Amazon’– a memory willingly created through several reports on the kingdom by European men. These reports set the female gender of mino in European (colonial) discourse. Contrarily, the self-proclaimed gender cannot easily be called ‘female’. This analysis will use mino as a term to designate those who were understood as different from male soldiers.
For a European reader- and spectatorship, the picture was embedded in imaginations of the Greek ‘Amazons’ by its title, “An Amazon in the Dahoman Army”. This referred to ancient mythological female soldiers. The 19th century saw the evolution of increasingly dominant gender norms of ‘women’ as peaceful and certainly unarmed, contrarily to the 18th century. Even though the person in the picture is not depicted in an active battle position, the weapons and the human skull in her hand still dropping out of blood imply her Verletzungsmacht3 which rarely was normatively attributed to female gender but rather (Black) male gender. Notably the Dahomean kingdom was imagined as cruel and violent. This depiction is a diametrical opposition to the gendered European image of a ‘woman’. The Friedfertigkeit inscribed in women’s bodies in Westernised culture was challenged. The person in the picture of Forbes transgressed and still transgresses this norm.4
Moreover, the mino is masculinised: S/he wears the same uniform as other soldiers in the Dahomean army described by Forbes and is depicted in strongly muscled arms and legs, stressing proximity to Black male read gender. The person also wears arms, a difference to the Dahomean ‘women’ described by Forbes.
Let’s see what he noted about the self-perception of the mino in some of their songs:
“We were women, we are now men: Gezo has borne [sic] us again, we are his wives, his daughters, his soldiers, his sandals.
We marched against Attahpahms [sic] as against men, We came and found them women…”5
Female gender for the mino themselves seems connoted as not brave, nor strong, neither military but weak. They perceived themselves as stronger than the male soldiers. At the same time, their Dahomean designation means ‘mother’ (of the male army). The transmitted self-perception then is neither male nor female, but different. The binary categories of male/female are thus not necessarily applicable on the Dahomean perception of people.
By examining some Dahomean pictures of the mino which are unfortunately neither openly accessible nor detectable via current research machines, a further conclusion can be drawn: They do not necessarily show gender differentiations but primarily point to the ability to kill. Various pictures show them in uniforms, in the act of killing, with arms. With the songs they sung in parades and attacks, this self-staging as violent is noticeable. One assumption is that the soldiers did this to distance from ideals of Dahomean female norms and that stressing their brutality was a mean to provoke fear and humiliation in potential enemies.
Furthermore, the normative European representations of Black ‘women’ were transgressed by Forbes’ picture. These became more sexualised and racialised in the 19th century. Even though the person in the picture is definitely created as a Black person via the colour attributed to her skin, she contrasts to the racialised female bodies: The breasts are perceivable, but not naked – one of the principal means of difference between white and Black ‘women’ done by male travellers, as in Forbes’ description of Dahomean ‘women’. Another case that illustrates the intersection of racist and gender violence, is Sarah Baartman, pejoratively called the ‘Hottentot Venus’, who was transported to Europe and exposed in various countries for “scientific” reasons.
The mino’s portrayal is less sexualised and fetishized, important factors in European constructions of Black female gender.6 Forbes broke with the iconic depiction of Black women, stressing a masculinised image in which brutality and savagery could dominate: In the 19th century, Black men were more likely imagined as extremely violent. Gender is beaten up by race.
Interestingly, it seems like the sovereignty of interpretation of mino remains until today on these European male reports like Forbes’, for example in “The women soldiers of Dahomey”, an official UNESCO publication.7 The picture itself is not existent without the power hierarchies surrounding, shaping and expressing it. Figuring in actual media like this publication, the picture is coining the imagery of its spectators as a stereotyped representation of mino.
Unfortunately, it is used without reflecting on its origin: a male, European depiction of the ‘Amazon of Dahomey’ now illustrates and shapes the imagery of these soldiers. As far as the imagination is concerned, very little influence of Dahomeans themselves is perceivable.
Further analysis of depictions could contribute to a more differentiated understanding of people in arms – not only in Africa, but also elsewhere in the world. There is no gender which is more peaceful or violent than another. Films such as “Black Panther” where women are shown as powerful, active people, may contribute to a different imagery – even if this still stresses the gender binarity instead of non-gendered violence.
1 A general overview on the mino soldiers is provided by Robin Law, “The ‘Amazons’ of Dahomey,” Paideuma: Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde 39 (1993): 245–60.
2 Frederick Edwyn Forbes, Dahomey and the Dahomans; Being the Journals of Two Missions to the King of Dahomey, and Residence at His Capital, in the Year 1849 and 1850, Two Vols. (London, 1851), Vol. I, p. 22bis.
3 Cf. Klaus Latzel, Franka Maubach, and Silke Satjukow, “Soldatinnen in der Geschichte. Weibliche Verletzungsmacht als Herausforderung,” in Soldatinnen. Gewalt und Geschlecht im Krieg vom Mittelalter bis Heute, ed. Klaus Latzel, Franka Maubach, and Silke Satjukow (Paderborn, München: Schöningh, 2011), p. 11.
4 Cf. Dagmar Ellerbrock and Ulrike Weckel, “Editorial,” WerkstattGeschichte 64 (2013), p. 3.
5 Forbes, Dahomey and the Dahomans, Vol. II, pp. 27; 108. Gezo was the king of Dahomey from 1818-1858. Unfortunately, Forbes did not give the original Fon songs.
6 Cf. Charmaine Nelson, “Vénus Africaine: Race, Beauty and African-Ness,” in Black Victorians: Black People in British Art, 1800-1900, ed. Jan Marsh (Manchester / Birmingham: Lund Humphries, 2005), 46–56.
7 Cf. Sylvia Serbin, Edouard Joubeaud, and Pat Masioni, The Women Soldiers of Dahomey (Unesco, 2014).
Ellerbrock, Dagmar, and Ulrike Weckel. “Editorial.” WerkstattGeschichte 64 (2013): 3–11.
Forbes, Frederick Edwyn. Dahomey and the Dahomans; Being the Journals of Two Missions to the King of Dahomey, and Residence at His Capital, in the Year 1849 and 1850, Two Vols. London, 1851. https://archive.org/details/dahomeydahomansb00forb/page/n37 (last access: 04/05/2020).
Latzel, Klaus, Franka Maubach, and Silke Satjukow. “Soldatinnen in der Geschichte. Weibliche Verletzungsmacht als Herausforderung.” In Soldatinnen. Gewalt und Geschlecht im Krieg vom MittelalterbBis Heute, edited by Klaus Latzel, Franka Maubach, and Silke Satjukow, 11–49. Paderborn, München: Schöningh, 2011.
Law, Robin. “The ‘Amazons’ of Dahomey.” Paideuma: Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde 39 (1993): 245–60. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40341664 (last access: 04/05/2020).
Nelson, Charmaine. “Vénus Africaine: Race, Beauty and African-Ness.” In Black Victorians: Black People in British Art, 1800-1900, edited by Jan Marsh, 46–56. Manchester / Birmingham: Lund Humphries, 2005.
Serbin, Sylvia, Edouard Joubeaud, and Pat Masioni. The Women Soldiers of Dahomey. Unesco, 2014.
Forbes, Frederick Edwyn, Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh. An Amazon in the Dahoman Army. In Dahomey and the Dahomans; Being the Journals of Two Missions to the King of Dahomey, and Residence at His Capital, in the Year 1849 and 1850, Two Vols, London, 1851. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dahomey_Amazons#/media/File:Dahomey_amazon1.jpg (last access: 14/05/2020). The picture is under public domain.
De Wailly, Femme de race Bôchismanne [pl. 40]. In Illustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères, t. II edited by Huet, Jean-Baptiste; Wermer et al., Paris: 1819. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b2300295r/f41.item (last access: 14/05/2020). The picture is under public domain.
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About the Author
After her Bachelor graduation in History and French at the Universities of Bielefeld (Germany) and Paris (France), Darja Wolfmeier enrolled in the master’s programme “Global History” at the University of Bayreuth in 2019. Her main area of expertise is African History, this text was originally submitted for a class in “Introduction to African History”. A preceeding study on the famous songs of the ‘Amazons of Dahomey’ inspired her to take a closer look on the representation of African warriors and the interferences of gender and race in pictorial representations. She is currently working as a student’s assistant in the Cluster of Excellence “Africa Multiple: Reconfiguring African Studies”.