Viola Davis’ powerful new film The Woman King is off to a strong start at the box office. However, some prospective movie-goers may not know that the film was inspired by true events. Here’s what history knows of the real all-female army that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey for decades.
‘The Woman King’ Tells The Story Of The Agojie Warriors
In the 1840s, the West African kingdom of Dahomey struck fear into the hearts of its enemies thanks to its Agojie army. The force was comprised of 6,000 female warriors at the height of Dahomey’s power. They were called “Amazons” in Europe, referring to the all-female army in Greek myth. The women’s ferocity left historians awe-struck, and their incredible story is finally being dramatized by Hollywood.
As with almost every film inspired by true events, The Woman King picks through the story of the Agojie army, taking only what serves the most compelling narrative. The characters, for example, are largely fictionalized. Viola Davis’ Nanisca and Thuso Mbedu’s Nawi were not real people, although warriors by these names served at different points in the kingdom’s history. John Boyega’s King Ghezo is the most historically accurate character.
The Woman King‘s conflict lies in the kingdom’s reliance on the slave trade. Davis’ character, Nanisca, repeatedly urges King Ghezo to cease selling to slavers, even defying him to free slaves with the aid of the Agojie.
This is where the waters of historical accuracy get choppy. The Agojie, contrary to the film’s story, participated willingly in the slave trade. While there was once an effort to shift the kingdom’s primary export to palm oil, it couldn’t compare to the economic prosperity that the slave trade ensured. Even the Agojie warriors had slaves of their own—as many as 50 slaves to a single warrior, some sources say.
The Agojie Were Treated As Royalty
It’s unknown what led Dahomey to conscript such a large female army. Some of the Agojie were volunteers while many others were plucked from slavery. They served as the king’s third-class wives—meaning they were wed to him but did not share his bed. This meant that by tradition, the Agojie were celibate. When not at war, they served as the king’s guard and elephant hunters.
In Dahomey, men were not permitted to enter the king’s palace after nightfall. The Agojie ensured that the king would remain protected throughout the night without breaking this protocol. Historians noted that when the Agojie left the palace, they were followed by a slave girl who would ring a bell, warning men to get out of their path and to avoid eye contact. Touching an Agojie warrior was punishable by death.
The training that the Agojie warriors endured shocked European visitors. To increase pain endurance, new recruits were forced to scale thorn hedges. They were taught survival skills by being abandoned in the forest for days on end. However, most gruesome of all, the Agojie had to learn to kill without discrimination. They were the kingdom’s executioners, forced to behead and maim prisoners so that they would lose all sensitivity to the act of killing.
The main trait attributed to the Agojie across historical texts is bravery. Almost every historian came to the same conclusion: The Agojie’s ferocity was on a level that Europeans had never witnessed before. They defended the small kingdom of Dahomey for decades longer than other kingdoms of its size would have survived, and their story became legend.