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Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey Paperback – Apr 11 2011
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Alpern does very well in assembling most of the evidence about these intimidating women whose courage impressed even the Foreign Legion. He produces a very detailed picture from a wide variety of European and African sources. -Richard Rathbone, "The Times""
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 and yet they made up a force that was the equal of every contemporary body of male elite soldiers from among the colonial powers. -Stieg Larsson, author of "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet s Nest""
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, two of which were spent in West Africa. He lives on the French Riviera.
Top Customer Reviews
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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 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.
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.
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