The hit theatrical act in Europe during 1892 and 1893 was the “famous Amazon Warriors of Dahomey”. These were ladies that you did not want to mess with. Part of the 6,000 or so strong female contingent of Dahomey’s (now Benin’s) army, on and off engaged in fighting the French Foreign Legion. The Legion often made the fatal mistake of not reacting swiftly and decisively when it came to facing these women. The Amazons (armed with Winchester rifles and intoxicated on gin, according to the French) were not so squeamish, usually decapitating as they went.
There is a drawing of the Amazons’ leader from 40 years previously that does not pull its punches. Seh-Dong-Hon-Beh is facing the artist. She is clad in what appears to be striped Bermuda shorts and a soft figure-hugging wrapover belted dress, set off with a white hat with a bow in it.
The fact that her belt is stuffed with clubs and knives, while in her right hand she holds a flintlock musket, goes a long way to tell you that she is one tough cookie. This no-nonsense approach is further emphasised by the fact that in her left hand she is holding by the hair the severed head of a man who was once one of her adversaries. She is not without a hint of femininity, delicately and nonchalantly holding the head away from her so as not to get his blood on her bare feet.
How the 48 warriors and ten men ended up performing in the Crystal Palace and music halls across England was a fortune, or misfortune of war. Captured in the Franco-Dahomey War by General Dodds (who, despite his Anglo name was a famous French soldier) their fate would have been death by their king if they were returned to their own side. So they elected to become a theatrical act. They toured Europe, led by 22-year old Gumma, “a fine specimen of dusky womanhood” who “possesses muscular strength in no ordinary degree.”
While the show was undoubtedly exotic to factory hand, bank clerk and spinster aunt, they were not a freak show nor a pandering to Victorian racism. Sure, there was a frisson among males in the audience, but their act was applauded by all for its skill, athleticism and discipline.
Their appearance was so engaging that even leaving the accommodation provided for them and getting into carriages to make their way to the nightly show on London’s Tottenham Court Rd caused such crowds that local traders complained in court that the Amazons were killing their business.
The same reviewer who talked so incorrectly of ‘dusky womanhood’ was a fan, but he wasn’t without some criticism : “The eternal tom-tom is rather trying to English ears, and if it constitutes the onlv form of Dahomian music there is really some excuse for King Behanzin’s barbarity. ”
There was a telling demonstration of the ‘noble savage’ philosophy then being applied to the various peoples from all over the world being corralled to entertain. When one of the troupe died on tour in Germany the funeral was described in respectful detail. At the end the correspondent made the point.”This ended the ceremony, during which the Amazons preserved a dignified quiet, which contrasted strangely with the wild horde of spectators, who broke noisily through the lines formed by the police, knocked down tombstones and trampled over graves, so that the cemetery, to the everlasting disgrace of civilisation be it said, looked more like a battlefield than the peaceful resting-place of the dead.”
When another woman named Burah became ill and died in Crystal Palace, it was reported (excuse the phraseology) “…although she had only been in the hospital two days, had by her gratitude and pleasant manners made all the staff attached to their colored patient”.
There is plenty more on the web about the Amazon regiments in Dahomey; their evolution, their exploits and their role in the wars the country fought, but I leave you with this thought. Even in old age you would not want to tangle with the veteran ladies of the Amazon regiments, the last of whom was said to have died in the 1970s. Woe betide the man who upset their granddaughter, I would guess…