Movies

The Woman King Softens the Truth of the Slave Trade

The Dahomey had fierce female fighters. They also sold people overseas.

Viola Davis in The Woman King
Viola Davis in The Woman King. Sony Pictures Entertainment

The Woman King, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Maria Bello and Dana Stevens, portrays the ancient West African Kingdom of Dahomey (today’s Republic of Benin) and its legendary all-women regiment, the Agodjie. The film, which opens this weekend, is a vision of Black female power, starring Viola Davis, Sheila Atim, Thuso Mbedu, and Lashana Lynch; its promotional material blurbs a review from Variety that calls the movie “the Gladiator of our time.” But how does The Woman King handle another part of Dahomey’s history—the kingdom’s involvement in the slave trade? At a time when the participation of African rulers and middlemen in the Atlantic slave trade gets described by Americans who want to divert attention from their own responsibility for the history of slavery as “African complicity,” this film’s task is delicate, indeed.

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It’s not the first time that Dahomey and its female military company have appeared in the big screen. In 1987, the movie Cobra Verde, by German filmmaker Werner Herzog, based on the novel The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) by Bruce Chatwin, represented the powerful West African kingdom and briefly depicted its women warriors. The new movie is also set in Dahomey, in 1823. But the central character is not a white slave trader, as in Herzog’s film, but rather Nanisca, a West African woman. Played by Davis, this woman warrior is the head of the Agodjie. These fighters were mainly recruited among the many dozens of royal wives of the king of Dahomey. European traders and travelers who visited the region as early as the 18th century referred to them as the “Amazons,” evoking the female fighters of Greek myth.

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Although the Agodjie may have emerged in the 18th century, they probably started fighting in military campaigns in the 19th century, especially during the reign of King Gezo (played in the film by John Boyega). As part of Dahomey’s army, they fought wars that (by that time in history) were waged with the main intent of producing prisoners to be sold into slavery in the Americas, especially to Brazil and Cuba.

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With its focus on the all-women regiment, The Woman King gets one thing right, by representing Dahomey as a centralized and militarized kingdom, and not a “tribe,” as popular movies tend to depict historical African states. The kingdom of Dahomey’s origins can be traced to the 17th century. But its expansion started in the 18th century, during the most intense period of the Atlantic slave trade. In 1727, Dahomey conquered the Kingdom of Hueda, who lived along the coast, and took control of the port city of Ouidah, inaugurating its active participation in the Atlantic slave trade. Historians estimated that nearly one million enslaved Africans were put on ships to the Americas in Ouidah between 1659 and 1863. The port was the second largest supplier of African captives to the trade, behind only Luanda, in today’s Angola.

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King Gezo came to power in 1818, following a coup d’état against his half-brother King Adandozan. In 1823, when the film’s action takes place, the British had already abolished their slave trade, and were putting pressure on West African states and European and American countries such as Portugal, Spain, and Brazil to end their own. Brazil had declared independence from Portugal in 1822, but continued actively importing enslaved Africans, including from Ouidah. Meanwhile, Dahomey had been paying tributes to the Kingdom of Oyo (a state located in today’s southwestern Nigeria) since 1748.* In 1823, under Gezo’s rule, Dahomey fought a war against Oyo and eventually succeeded in ridding itself of the tributes. This is the action that’s portrayed in the film.

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The first scene of the movie shows one of the raids led by the Dahomean army. The Agodjie attack a village. In the movie, the women soldiers kill the men and spare the women. In reality, more probably, the soldiers of the Dahomean army (both women and men) would take the healthy, younger villagers as prisoners and walk them to Dahomey’s capital, Abomey. The film quickly suggests the various possible fates of these prisoners, by showing that some could be kept in slavery locally, others could be offered in human sacrifices to honor Dahomean deities, and most would be transported to the coast, where they would be sold, and board slave ships sailing to the Americas, especially Brazil.

In more than one scene in The Woman King, Nanisca attempts to convince Gezo that the Europeans are trying to conquer them, and that they would not stop until the whole of Africa is theirs. But at the time the film is set, both the French and the English forts in Ouidah had already been abandoned. The city’s modest Portuguese fort São João Batista was neither like the sumptuous yellowish building represented in the movie, nor was it as big as any of the existing Gold Coast fortresses of Elmina and Cape Coast, which survive in present-day Ghana. This is an important difference because, although Europeans were allowed to build fortresses on Ouidah’s shores, Dahomey and its agents always controlled the slave trade in the region.

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A modestly sized white building.
Portuguese fort São João Batista in Ouidah, 2005.  Photo by Ana Lucia Araujo.

The Woman King portrays the Agojie as liberators. In the film, the Mahi, a people established north of Abomey and allied with the Kingdom of Oyo, are seeking to capture Dahomey’s subjects, to sell them into slavery. But the reality was quite different. The more powerful Dahomean army was often the one that attacked the Mahi. King Gezo and his predecessors led several incursions against the Mahi during the 18th and 19th centuries. King Adandozan, Gezo’s half-brother, who preceded him as the king of Dahomey from 1797 to 1818, narrated one of these wars in 1810, in correspondence addressed to the ruler of Portugal. In the missive, he tells in detail how his army killed the Mahi king and his subjects, including women. Most prisoners who escaped alive from these bloody battles were sold and sent into slavery to the Americas, especially Brazil.

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In theory, individuals born in Dahomey were protected against being sold into slavery. But as shown in The Woman King, as the Atlantic slave trade intensified, this rule was often broken, especially during the periods of succession to the throne. Take the example of Gezo’s father, King Agonglo, who was killed following a palace plot in 1797. When his son, Adandozan (Gezo’s half-brother) was enthroned, he punished several members of the royal family who participated in the conspiracy against his father by selling them into slavery. One of these family members was one of Agonglo’s wives, Na Agontimé, Gezo’s mother, who very probably was sent into slavery in Brazil. In the film, Gezo quickly mentions the true story of his mother, sold by his brother into slavery in Brazil, saying that he would not do the same. Yet, in reality, when Gezo came to power through a coup d’état against Adandozan in 1818, he punished his half-brother’s family members by selling them into slavery outside the kingdom’s borders.

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In the movie, Nanisca seems to convince Gezo to stop Dahomean participation in the Atlantic slave trade. As she seeks her daughter, taken as a captive by the Oyo’s soldiers and transported to Ouidah to be sold into slavery, a dozen Agodjie free their mates, who are chained in a slave pen on the beach. But, like their forerunners, the historical Gezo and his son and successor King Glele continued selling enslaved Africans to Brazilian and Cuban slave traders during the 1850s and 1860s.

Some of these captives were sold into slavery in the United States, as well. Take the example of Oluale Kossola (alias Cudjo Kazoola Lewis), whose village Banté (north of Abomey) was raided by the Dahomean army in 1859. With 109 other captives, Kossola was sent into slavery to Alabama on board the slave ship Clotilda, considered to be the last slave ship to land in the United States. The Woman King depicts Dahomey as the good guys, while the Kingdom of Oyo, the Mahi, and the Portuguese and the Brazilians are portrayed as the bad guys. But in reality, both Oyo and Dahomey sold into slavery the captives they made in the wars they waged during the 19th century.

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Any historical fiction is going to have its inaccuracies. The Woman King, a movie that is, in many ways, a pleasure to watch, depicts the Dahomean female fighters as powerful warriors, a (historically correct!) image that, in the era of Black Lives Matter, speaks positively to Black women who, all over the globe, have been fighting racism and white supremacy. But portraying Dahomey’s rulers and soldiers as pioneers of Pan-Africanism, who fought to end the inhumane slave trade, misleads audiences who might know little of African history and sells short the descendants of enslaved Africans who remained in West African soil or who were forcibly sent to the Americas. As one Agodjie from the Mahi country says in the film, she chose to be “hunter, not prey.” But, unlike their rulers, most African men and women were left with no choice, during the era of the Atlantic slave trade.

Correction, Sept. 17: This sentence originally stated that the kingdom of Oyo was located in what is today southeastern Nigeria. It’s located in what is today southwestern Nigeria.

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