The Mino (or Dahomey Amazons as they are sometimes known) were the only all-female military unit in modern history, and they were renowned for their unique military prowess.
King Houegbadja (the 3rd King of the Dahomey, reigning from 1645 to 1685) is rumoured to have started the legendary fighting force as a troupe of elephant hunters called “gbeto”. The land they used to inhabit is now part of present day Benin.
When his son, King Agaja (king from 1708 to 1732) came to the throne, he promoted them to the status of royal bodyguards. He armed them with muskets and drilled them to become some of the finest warriors in the Africa. Eventually, he saw that they had become far more powerful than he’d expected and he promoted them to the status of royal militia, and he used the women to devastating effect when he defeated the neighbouring Savi Empire in battle.
The name “Mino” was given to them by the male soldiers. It means “our mothers” in Fon, the language of the Dahomey. The alias “DahomeyAmzaons” was given to them by their European opponents, likening them to the Amazons who so famously did battle with the Ancient Greeks.
When the following ruler, King Ghezo, came to power in 1818, he began to reform the Asante army. He increased its budget allocations and turned them into a much more serious fighting force. He expanded the size of the famous female fighting unit and drafted hundreds of women into the company. Most had enlisted voluntarily, others were social outcasts, and a few were foreign captives. But once the training started, they were all the same.
The objective of the Mino was to become the world’s finest fighting force, and they introduced strict rules to ensure that its incumbents were professional and disciplined. Women were not allowed to have children or get married during service in order to maintain physical fitness (only the king’s wives were allowed to be married – to him of course). The regiment upheld several religious norms and many of its members were young virgin women. Women who gained respect in the Mino units rose to places of power in the Dahomey society, and were respected just as much as any men.
They used Danish fire-arms and were subject to arduous physical training. By the mid-1800s, they formed almost 30% of the entire Dahomey army and numbered up to 6,000. Officers in the ranks were women as well, and they were often used as shock regiments to compliment the men’s companies, and were deemed by most observers to be far superior to the male soldiers. They also carried clubs and knives, and the finest fighters amongst them carried huge razors, almost a metre long. These fearsome weapons were operated with two hands, and were often kept sharp enough to slice a person’s limbs clean.
Their training was similar to Shaka Zulu’s shock troops – walking on thorns barefoot. The most powerful amongst them wore belts of acacia thorns around their waists, to show their immense tolerance for pain. They were truly fearsome sights.
Their training resembled Spartan regimes, as they were often sent into the forest with minimal rations for several days in order to grow tougher. They wrestled each other very often in order to stay at thepeak of their powers.
Apart from their military and physical prowess, the Mino women were incredibly steadfast and disciplined. They were all drilled to fight to the death and never retreat unless a commanding officer directly ordered them to do so, and became notorious amongst European troops for taking lives even when heavily outnumbered and surrounded.
In their society, they were held in the highest regard, and were often heralded by servant-girls clanging a bell that warned people not to look them straight in the eye, and most of all, to avoid touching them; to do so would mean death.
Basically, these women were Terminators.
By 1890, French invaders had become extremely bold and were conducting raids and forays deep into Dahomey territory. People were being murdered, raped and kidnapped to be sold as slaves. King Behanzin decided to end the terrorism and ordered his troops to defeat the invaders.
When the French troops – so used to the derision of women as incapable fighters – came face-to-face with the Minos, they made the fatal mistake of vacillating before the all-female fighters. They were heavily punished and suffered countless casualties.
After taking such heavy losses, the French had to call for assistance from the French Foreign Legion, and armed with machine guns and cavalry units, the Dahomey could not defeat them. They suffered their greatest defeat since the failed siege of Abeokuta, capital of the Egba Empire.
23 battles were fought between the French and the Dahomeans, and the Mino featured heavily in all of them.
By the time they were beaten in 1892, the Mino had become renowned fighters who were famous for never backing down and having no pity. Their last act of punishment for the French colonialists of their country was a surreptitious one – they substituted themselves with captive slave women. Once they found themselves in the French camps, they slit their throats.
The Dahomey Amazons have gained fame as the most ruthless and talented female fighting unit, and they stand as one of the few examples in history of women being capable of turning into all-conquering fighters.