West Africa's Amazons profiled for Smithsonian's Epic Women series

The Agooji were a small but powerful fighting force of women in West Africa that steadily expanded in the 17th century against the much larger Asante and Yoruba Kingdoms. This all-female, slave-raiding regiment terrified both the local populations and the Europeans sent to conquer them.

When one thinks of Amazon warriors, the images depicted are usually of Greek women, or, in recent months, the female-led army featured in the blockbuster film, “Black Panther.” These characters have roots in real-life, as depicted in the captivating Smithsonian Channel series, “Epic Warrior Women.”

In the 19th century the Kingdom of Dahomey was a small but powerful kingdom that had a terrifying all-female fighting force known as the Agooji of West Africa.

Located in the region of modern day Benin, the West African kingdom expanded from the 17th Century, against the much larger Asante and Yoruba Kingdoms. Dahomey was feared for its annual slave raids deep into its neighbor’s territories and the ruthlessness of their women warriors.

Up to 6,000 strong, the Agooji battled to protect one of the continent’s last independent kingdoms, fighting as elite regiments against colonial male armies in the Franco-Dahomean Wars.

“The legacy of the Dahomey warriors speaks to us in particularly striking ways,” said Harvard University Professor Suzanne Blier. “There is that memory of this enormously important period, in which basically much of the power remained in the hands of women.”

The Agooji fought as elite regiments in the two Franco Dahomean wars in 1890 and 1892. They defended the kingdoms’ independence, fighting and winning against colonial male armies but they also took part in human sacrifice and supported Dahomey’s gruesome slave trade to the Americas that de-populated large areas of West Africa.

“The Agooji regiments were recruited from slaves, some of them captured as early in age as 10-years old,” explained Dr. Terri Ochiagha, Teaching Fellow in Modern African History, King’s College London. “The story of the Agooji was an extraordinary story of subversion, of empowerment and of unbridled military and social power.”

The Smithsonian Channel’s “Epic Warrior Women: Africa’s Amazons” premieres Monday, April 2 at 8 p.m.

bbooker@phillytrib.com (215) 893-5749

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