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Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women's Regiment of Dahomey [Paperback]

Stanley B. Alpern
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

December 1998
This volume examines the "Amazons", whose existence has been verified via documents and eye-witness accounts from battles for the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th centuries. Originally palace guards, the Amazons had evolved by the 1760s into professional troops armed mainly with muskets, machetes and clubs. Theoretically wives of the king and quartered in his palaces, they were actually sworn to celibacy on pain of death. In compensation they enjoyed a semi-sacred status and numerous privileges, including the right to own slaves. By the 1840s their numbers had grown to 6000. The Amazons served under female officers and had their own bands, flags and insignia: they outdrilled, outshot and outfought men, became frontline shock troops and fought with ferocity and fearlessness till the kingdom's final defeat by France in 1892. This text is based on years of detailed archival research and includes more than 20 line drawings and photographs.
--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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'...and 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.' -- Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 'Alpern has written an impressively comprehensive study covering all aspects of this extraordinary military force - he describes them in fascinating detail - Altogether 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.' -- Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

About the Author

Stanley B. Alpern worked as a sub-editor for the New York Herald Tribune and then as a foreign service officer of the United States Information Agency for twenty-two years. He lives on the French Riviera. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not just Amazons... Jan. 25 2003
Format:Paperback
We are talking about female soldiers with their own officers and uniforms, formed into units and trained to fight with muskets, machetes and their bare teeth. The first part of the book covers these subjects, plus the physical and insensitivity training they had to help them overcome pain and increase discipline.
The second part deals with their history in battle from their first use against other tribes to their last battles against the French before the kingdom's downfall.
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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
51 of 52 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A gem of a book for history buffs Sept. 5 1999
By Albert Burckard (atlantis@visi.net) - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
38 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A touch of history, a touch of war April 3 2001
By Bill Belli - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Amazons of Black Sparta is good reading whether your interest is military or ethnographic.
The first half of the book is arranged topically, laying a groundwork for the campaigns that follow. Each chapter presents an aspect of Amazon life and the culture that produced it. The chapters stand alone, although the topics build on one another to give a well-rounded image of this unique fighting force.
I found the cultural descriptions fascinating and, for the most part, well-researched particularly because I live and work among a people that were once a part of the Dahomey kingdom. Many of the things Alpern describes are still a part of daily life in rural Benin (formerly Dahomey); others have disappeared with history. The memory of the Amazons, however, is still very alive and elders still tell stories of the women who tore trees out of the ground to use as clubs. Alpern has done a good job drawing from a variety of sources to separate fact from fiction and to produce believable yet amazing history.
The second half of the book will be more interesting to the military-minded. The chapters are arranged more chronologically and give accounts of battles, tactics, and the eventual downfall of Dahomey as an independent kingdom. Many of these places are easy to find today and the oral tradition lives on, although there are no battlefield markers or museums to commemorate them.
Stanley Alpern's style is smooth, easy reading, neither too technical nor too simplistic. For those who want a taste of the culture and a good understanding of the Amazons this is an excellent introduction. For those interested in an unusual military phenomenon and an account of military cultures colliding, this will spice up your library.
In any case, this book was well worth the price and the time it took to read.
34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The best-documented amazon warriors Nov. 5 2000
By Chapulina R - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The mythical Amazons of Greek legend were probably inspired by eye-witness reports of female cavalry soldiers of the ancient Russian steppe. But most historical record of those fierce Sarmatian, Sauromatean, and Scythian civilizations, except for some recently excavated kurgans, has been lost to time. Over a million women fought in the Soviet armed forces in World War ll. And Eritrean women have been fully integrated in combat for the past thirty years in that impoverished nation's civil war with Ethiopia. Most women warriors have fought in gender-integrated regiments under male command. None have been so thoroughly documented as the all-female regiments of Dahomey amazons. Author Alpern has done a remarkable job of translating those documents for a comprehensive history of this once-splendid African kingdom. As early as 1729, European traders recorded existence of the fighting-women of the Fon (Dahomey people) and their neighbors the Ashanti. Originally retained as an elite royal guard, Dahomey amazons held semi-sacred status as celibate warrior "wives" of the King. They prided themselves on their hardened physiques and highly-trained martial skills, and constantly strove to outperform their male counterparts. During two centuries of raids and wars against neighboring kingdoms, Dahomeyan women increased their reputation as merciless undefeatable opponants. By 1890 they comprised over 30 percent of the Dahomey fighting force. With considerable bloodshed, and at cost of some 2000 amazons' lives, the Fon were finally defeated by the French Foreign Legion in 1892. The commanders of the Legionaires wrote admiringly of the "incredible courage and audacity" of the amazons, who did not flinch from superior French firepower and made the "ulimate sacrifice for their King". The last surviving veteran of the female regiments died in 1979, four years after Dahomey achieved independence and changed its name to Benin. Mr. Alpern's fascinating book has rekindled interest in the amazons, who otherwise might have faded into obscurity. Recently the bimonthly magazine "Military History" published an article, apparently based on material from the book, about the final battle between the Dahomey amazons and their French conquerers.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars On the trail of the Black Amazons April 25 2009
By Ashtar Command - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What A Pleasant Surprise Nov. 3 2009
By Karen Tracie Newkirk - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I've always been leery of ordering anything online. You know the usual fears of your private information being on the net or getting an item that's not up to par. However while visiting and surfing on amazon, I found a book that I was just captivated by and had to purchase. The name of the book is:Amazons Of Black Sparta,The Women Warriors Of Dahomey. I find the subject matter in the book facsinating although the book itself reads a little bit like and encyclopedia. However the book consists of a lot of dates and historical facts that one might find interesting. And the history of African Women Warriors in a kindom empire called Dahomey is a history that I know many people aren't familiar with. So for that alone this book is a little treasure. The book although slightly used arrived on time and in good condition and I am well pleased with those facts.
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