In Black Panther, the Dora Milaje are the personal bodyguards to the King of Wakanda: T’Challa, otherwise known as Black Panther himself. They are fierce warriors, handy with a lethal spear, and unlike most armies, are comprised entirely of women. Translated to “The Adored Ones” in English, they’re repped in the movie by Okoye (Danai Gurira), the general of the group. They are also entrusted as the gatekeepers of their country, which has famously never been colonized.
The Dora Milaje may sound like a fable or an imaginary group concocted by comics writers. But they actually resemble a group of lesser-known women from West African history. Dating back to possibly as early as the 17th century, there was a group of women warriors in Africa dubbed the Dahomey Amazons, a name [coined] by European explorers in reference to the mythical female soldiers. However, these great warrior women were known amongst their people as the Ahosi (“king’s wives”) or Mino (“our mothers”). The Dahomey women were among the only all-female documented in modern military history. And these warriors were no myth —they were the real deal and the ones entrusted with protecting the king on a daily basis.
Residing in the present-day Republic of Benin, the Dahomey were of the Fon, a large ethnic group in West Africa. According to Stanley Alpern, author of the only full-length Engish-language study about the Dahomey, they were first drafted to guard the palace doors. According to the royal dictate during King Agaja's reign (1708-1740), “No man [shall] sleeps within the walls of any of [my palaces] after sunset but myself.” Man were banned from living in the palace, so guards had to be women. A letter written by an English trader named William Snelgrave made mention of four women with muskets behind his throne.
Not exactly a feminist utopia, every Dahomey warrior woman was considered married to the king, although he rarely took up sexual relations with them. Instead, the women were seen as his sisters, daughters, and soldiers. It is said any man who saw it fit to inappropriately touch one of the women faced imprisonment or death.
The Dahomean female soldiers were known for their decapitation. They went through fierce and rigorous physical training, which consisted of arms exercises, making use of prisoner enemies as their targets for executions. The women wrestled one another, climbed walls, underwent vicious physically painful tasks, and were sent to fend for themselves for up to nine days with small rations to build and test their endurance. They were even more applauded for how their clothes stayed clean and tailored, their tools kept sharp, and their marches crisp and quiet.
Sure sounds familiar to the Dora Milaje, right? And people highly anticipating Black Panther made the comparison long before the movie even premiered in theaters. Fans pointed out similarities between T'Challa's army and the Dahomey Amazons back when all we had was a peek at the Marvel film.
The Dahomey Amazons were originally recruited from foreign captives and prisoners. Between the middle of the 18th and 19th century, the Dahomey army's numbers swelled from about 600 to about 6,000, with some estimates putting the total at about 8,000. Many observers at the time counted thousands of female warriors among the army's ranks.
The Dahomey kingdom, with the help of the Amazons, conquered neighboring nations, taking thousands as captives of war, and the land grew greatly in size up until the latter half of the 19th-century.
And what became of the Dahomey warriors? It appears that as the French began colonizing parts of Africa, the warriors fought back. But they were no match for the sheer force of the French and their firearms. According to most sources, the last of Dahomey’s women warriors passed in the 1940s. But other accounts allude that there may have been some of these soldiers alive into the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The Dora Milaje first appeared in Black Panther Vol. 3 #1 by Christopher Priest, the first widely known African-American comics writer. He helped further build the fantastic world of Wakanda, the Black Panther, Dora Milaje, and more. His imagination was largely responsible for its success, but it’s not too far-fetched to believe his inspiration was rooted in the beautiful wonders of warrior women from ancient African history.
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