This is truly a gem of a book for history buffs. It treats a heretofore unexplored topic in enlightening and fascinating detail. For professional historians also, Alpern's well-referenced history of the world's only known all-female fighting units is a singular contribution to the documentation of this unique combat force. Military aficionados should also consider this book essential reading for a more complete knowledge of the history of the world's fighting forces. 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 idea that men are aggressive while women are coy and nurturing "by nature" cannot stand up to closer scrutiny. For instance, female rulers and warriors have always existed. Unfortunately, there is only one well-documented example of a society where a substantial portion of the troops were women: the West African kingdom of Dahomey during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Stanley Alpern's book "Amazons of Black Sparta" tells the story.
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.
interesting book about a region i don't know much about. above all the uniqueness of the female warriororesses makes it very interesting to read. maybe the amazons in antiquity were not only based on myth?
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..