Underestimating the Agojie was a fatal mistake. When these 19th-century West African women invaded French ships, the foreign men onboard reflexively dropped their swords, refusing to fight a lady—and soon learned their lesson when the Agojie landed brutal kicks and hooks.
The Agojie have been underestimated in other ways too, more recently by Hollywood insiders. The Woman King was only predicted to make a few million during its opening weekend, but it exceeded expectations with a $19 million haul, along with widespread acclaim. That extra attention has also brought some controversy, however, in the form of the trending hashtag #BoycottWomanKing.
Some critics have complained that the film obscures the true history of the Agojie, or more broadly, the land they represented. The Agojie were warriors of Dahomey, an African kingdom that participated in the slave trade by bartering prisoners for European goods. Those prisoners were later sold into slavery, making any valorization of the Agojie, critics argue, morally queasy.
Were the Agojie feminist heroes, virtual slave catchers, or just supremely complicated people? Here’s what the history books have to say about the Amazons of West Africa.
The Royal Guard of Dahomey
The Agojie were an all-women troop of soldiers who functioned as the royal guard of Dahomey, a region located in present-day Benin. Historians claim they were a respected—and feared—force dating back at least to the reign of Queen Hangbe around 1718, but possibly even earlier.
According to UNESCO, the Agojie were initially selected from among the kingdom’s best huntresses and the king’s strongest wives, but by the early 1800s, Dahomey was recruiting teenage girls and conscripting women prisoners from conquered lands into its army.
Dahomey was, as the female POWs would suggest, a powerful kingdom whose leaders had an eye toward expansion. When the Agojie weren’t protecting their monarch, they were seizing nearby lands and the people who inhabited them. Those people were often sold into slavery as part of Dahomey’s trade with Europe. In exchange for human beings, Dahomey acquired better weapons, fabrics, and liquor.
Clashing With Colonialism
The Agojie honed their skills through extensive training. They climbed over thickets of thorns, sparred with one another, and learned to load a gun and twirl it with equal precision. In addition to waging war, they also led elaborate military parades. Their downtime was spent in their special quarters in the Dahomey royal palaces, which only they, the king, and select eunuch servants could access.
Descendants of the Agojie still remember their creative methods of defeating an opponent. As The Washington Post reported, some of the women could slice a man’s head off with a curved sword. Others used their long fingernails to strangle their victims. Long before their daughters and granddaughters had even reached adulthood, the Agojie taught the young women to defend themselves—whether or not they had any interest in carrying on their matriarchs’ military devotion.
Dahomey women were always ready, but there was one foe the Agojie could not beat: colonialism. The Agojie were largely stamped out when France conquered Dahomey in 1892, marking the end of a two-year-long war as well as a multi-decade power struggle in which the Agojie were frequently deployed to impede invading forces. Historians believe only 50 Agojie survived their reign, and that all of them had died by the 1970s. Their memory has lived on through war songs and stories passed down through generations, as well as popular culture. Fictionalized versions of the Agojie have appeared in HBO’s Lovecraft Country and Marvel’s Black Panther, in which Wakanda’s fierce Dora Milaje are partially based on Dahomey’s own Amazons.
History vs. Hollywood
As for The Woman King, director Gina Prince-Bythewood has defended her portrayal of history in numerous interviews, insisting the slave trade is an integral part of the story. “There’s an assumption we’re not dealing with it and we are dealing with it,” Prince-Bythewood told IndieWire. “I learned early on you cannot win an argument on Twitter. And I know all of that is going to go away once they see the film.”
In addition to depicting Dahomey’s trade with European slavers, the movie sees its central Agojie warrior Nanisca (played by Viola Davis) plead with King Ghezo (played by John Boyega) to abandon the slave trade and profit off their supply of palm oil instead. This reflects the real pressure King Ghezo faced to end the slave trade in the mid-1800s, even if Nansica is, per the director, an “amalgamation of a number of different people.” The movie implies he is eventually swayed to her side.
King Ghezo did eventually ban the exportation of slaves to appease Great Britain, which had exited the slave trade in 1807 and was pressuring other countries to follow suit, though historians stress he did not completely end slave trading in Dahomey. As is typically the case with Hollywood versions of history, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.