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Pet Sins March 2003

Book Review: Amazons of Black Sparta

Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey presents the history of a remarkable army of female soldiers in Benin. These were women of the Fon Kingdom of Dahomey. Author Stanley B. Alpern brings together both African and European sources to reconstruct the world of the "amazons".

Alpern begins his book with an excellent introduction to the topic of fighting women, naming well-known women warriors from Africa, Asia and Europe. He places the subject of his book in the context of world history presenting us with a list of cultures which had utilized women warriors - Native American, aboriginal Australia, Polynesian, Asian, African and European.

Amazons of Black Sparta does not attempt to sanitize the image of the African amazon for the Western reader. Alpern devotes 2 chapters to the amazons' role in the Franco-Dahomean wars. France and its African allies invaded Dahomey in 1890 and 1892. The condescending attitude of the Europeans, who described individual amazons as "ravishing" or "almost pretty", is contrasted sharply with the actual 'business' mentality of the amazons:

The chief gunner in the stockade, apparently a white sergeant, was killed and decapitated by an amazon aged about sixteen, who was then slain... Another amazon was said to have beheaded a Senegalese corporal and then fallen dead over his body. And according to Fon tradition, another tirailleur possibly Gabonese, disarmed a woman soldier who then tore his throat open with her teeth...

Although Dahomey lost the war of 1892 with disproportionate casualties compared to the French, French military men had to admit their respect for the amazons. Some amazons continued their covert resistance against the French even after defeat. Certain French officers who sought "the repose of warrioirs" in the arms of royal or ministerial wives were slain by women soldiers who "cleverly substituted themselves."

Amazons of Black Sparta is fascinating reading for the reader interested in women's history or West African history. Amazons of Black Sparta was first published in 1998 by New York University of Press.