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Amazons of Black Sparta: Women Warriors of Dahomey Hardcover – 27 Oct 1998
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Alpern does very well in assembling most of the evidence about these intimidating women whose courage impressed even the Foreign Legion. He produces a very detailed picture from a wide variety of European and African sources. -Richard Rathbone, "The Times""
Today they [the Amazons] exist as no more than footnotes to history. Only one scholarly work has been written about these women, "Amazons of Black Sparta" by Stanley B. Alpern and yet they made up a force that was the equal of every contemporary body of male elite soldiers from among the colonial powers. -Stieg Larsson, author of "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet s Nest""
-Today they [the Amazons] exist as no more than footnotes to history. Only one scholarly work has been written about these women, Amazons of Black Sparta by Stanley B. Alpern...and yet they made up a force that was the equal of every contemporary body of male elite soldiers from among the colonial powers.--Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
-Alpern does very well in assembling most of the evidence about these intimidating women whose courage impressed even the Foreign Legion. He produces a very detailed picture from a wide variety of European and African sources.--Richard Rathbone, The Times --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
From the Author
History's only thoroughly documented amazons were African.
Amazons of Black Sparta is the first book ever published in English on the only thoroughly documented amazons in world history. They were the elite troops of the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. No other group of women warriors, including those the Greeks dubbed amazons for their alleged lack of one breast, has ever been more than a myth.
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 the Paperback edition.See all Product description
Top customer reviews
For more than 200 years the kings of Dahomey (in West Africa - now Benin) used large units of women warriors, under female command, as part of their regular troops in that nation's almost continuous annual conflicts with its neighbors. Although slow reading at first because of Alpern's meticulous adherence to detail, the book fairly races at the end as it describes the battles, triumphs, and ultimate defeat of the women troops by a modern French army. The author's research is all the more remarkable because of the utter lack of indigenous written records of these illiterate people. His glimpses into the history of the Dahomean Amazons had to be painstakingly extracted from records in several languages of various European visitors to that area of West Africa from the 17th to the early part of this century.
This book dovetails neatly with both African-American and women's studies. Not only were the Amazons of Dahomey fiercely independent and strong but much of the warfare conducted by the Fon (the people of Dahomey) was for the purpose of obtaining slaves for their own use and later to sell to European buyers for transport to the Americas. Only the lucky enemies of the Amazons became slaves, however, because their usual practice was to decapitate their captives to use their heads and skulls to display as war trophies.
The short chapter format of the book is beneficial because there is much to absorb that is unfamiliar to one who is used to reading western and Asian military history. Alpern's terminology is, per force, western and the reader must try to imagine what words like king, soldier, warrior, unit, etc. mean in the indigenous African context. Alpern succeeds in helping us understand the vast differences between our two military cultures. The only addition to the book that I would suggest to the author is a chapter on the religion of the Fon. He explains that much of the warfare of the Amazons was driven by adherence to certain unfathonable animistic beliefs. Otherwise the author does a superb job of describing everything from the clothing to tactics to the weapons of the Amazons.
This book is highly readable and is an essential addition to one's library of military history.
The territory of Dahomey comprised a large part of southern Benin, including the towns of Allada and Whydah. The dominant ethnic group were the Fon, who at this time still practised their traditional religion, although Christian missionaries sometimes visited the kingdom. What made Dahomey stand out was the presence of female warriors in their army. At most, they numbered around 6000. Western visitors called them Amazons, and during the 19th century, even the Fon themselves began to refer to their female warriors in this manner. The Amazons had to be celibate, lived in the royal palace complex, and were a privileged elite within Dahomean society. When not fighting, they earned a living by pottery or embroidery. Some hunted elephants. The Amazons were definitely used in military combat, so their status wasn't simply symbolic.
Alpern points out that Dahomey wasn't a particularly pleasant society. Actually, the kingdom was deeply implicated in the transatlantic slave trade, carrying out slave raids on defenceless villages, and selling the captives to the European slave-traders for a profit. Captives from the interminable wars with other kingdoms met the same fate - if they were lucky. The Fon practiced human sacrifice! The entire kingdom was militarized and ruled in top down fashion by the royal family. One European visitor dubbed it "Black Sparta". Exactly why Dahomey, but not other West African kingdoms, employed women warriors, is unknown. Large losses of male warriors during the constant wars might have been one factor, and since the population of Dahomey was relatively small, recruiting women became a logical option.
Alpern claims that Dahomey was patriarchal, despite the Amazons. However, other descriptions of this peculiar kingdom call its gender structure "dualist". According to Dahomean religion, every male office had to have a female counterpart, and the presence of both male and female warriors in the royal palace complex might be explained by this. Alpern admits that it was sometimes possible to influence the king by petitioning the queen through one of the Amazons, but he doesn't explore this further, although he mentions the dualism several times. Alpern's notion that Dahomey was obviously patriarchal is the main weakness of the book - as if traditional patriarchy is the only alternative to modern notions of gender equality.
Otherwise, "Amazons of Black Sparta" is a well-researched book, often based on rather obscure sources. All aspects of Amazon life are covered: recruitment, training, actual battles, and the eventual downfall of Dahomey in 1892 at the hands of the French. Indeed, the book is so detailed that it often gets hard to read! Still, I give it fours stars. If a militarist society like the one in Dahomey could include thousands of women in its armed forces, there might as well have been other societies of this kind. It's a pity they have been lost to history.
i found it a pity that so little is said and apparently known about their physical training. eyewitnesses about their combat qualities are abundant but how they were turned into such good fighters is not really explained. a pity.
very well researched and written with the required seriousness makes this book worth reading for anyone with an interest in history, female subjects, ethnography, etc..