Curiously, the female soldiers of Dahomey resembled those of Greek legend in many ways. The basic aim of both was to make war. From an early age, both groups were trained to handle weapons, to be strong and swift and hardy, to withstand suffering. They lusted for battle, rushed into it with blood-curdling yells, reveled in it, and fought with fury and valor, seemingly immune to fear. They terrified their neighbors. Men regarded them as worthy, implacable foes. In victory they were pitiless.
Besides fighting, both groups of women hunted, danced and played musical instruments.
But there were significant differences. The amazons of Dahomey never rode horses which, in fact, couldn't last very long there because of the presence of the tsetse fly. Instead of bows, spears and axes, the main weapons of the black warrioresses were muskets, machetes and clubs, and they rarely used shields.
Their breasts were intact -- there was no thought that removal of the right one would make it easier to shoot arrows or hurl javelins.
Unlike the amazons of Greek myth, they were vowed to celibacy (as nominal wives of the king) and so did not produce their own replacements.
They lived by themselves like their legendary counterparts, but in royal palaces, not off somewhere autonomously.
They had their own officers but fought in an army with a male majority (whom they always strove to outshine) and were ultimately ruled by men. They were completely devoted to their king, and would die for him, as many did.
After obscure origins in the eighteenth century, when the amazons of Dahomey paraded and fought topless, they evolved into a uniformed standing force, the shock troops of one of Africa's most powerful states. They reached their maximum strength around 1850, when they numbered between four and six thousand.
They fought to the bitter end against the French invaders of their country in 1892, and the last surviving amazon veteran died in the 1970s.
A word about the title of my book. Dahomey has been called Black Sparta because of its militarism and subordination of the individual to the state. Sparta did not have female troops, but its women did practice sports and do other physical training like the amazons of Dahomey. The difference was that Spartan women kept in shape to breed male warriors, Dahomey's amazons to kill them.
Amazons of Black Sparta came out first in England and has been praised by three leading British Africanists. John Fage rated the book "excellent, full of quite fascinating detail." Paul Hair called it "a definitive study of this fascinating social phenomenon." Christopher Fyfe said "Stanley Alpern...has written an impressively comprehensive study covering all aspects of this extraordinary military force...He has made an important scholarly contribution to the history of nineteenth century West Africa in which the Amazon achievement has until now been scarcely mentioned." --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.