QUEEN TASSI HANGBÈ of the Dahomey Kingdom
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Ruler of the Kingdom of Dahomey, in present-day Benin, for a brief period around 1716-18.
Hangbè was born into the royal family of the Dahomey, to King Houegbadja. She had a twin brother, Akaba, who became king around 1685, and Hangbè became an important part of the royal family. What little we know of her life is based primarily on oral histories, and there are disparate versions of when and for how long she became regent.
The oral histories recount that Akaba died in military combat in 1716. We know that Hangbè’s younger brother, Agaba, was made king in 1718. It is generally considered that Hangbè acted as the regent of Dahomey in the time between the reigns of Akaba and Agaba, as King Akaba’s oldest son, Agbo Sassa, was still too young to become king. Some say that, upon the death of her twin, she donned her brother’s armour and continued leading the army in the Ouémé River valley. Some reports indicate that she led several military expeditions.
The Dahomey society was deeply patriarchal, and a woman was not considered suitable for the role of ruler. In 1718, Hangbè supported the claim of Agbo Sassa to the throne. Her younger brother, Agaba, contested this claim, and was successful in his fight to rule. It is thought that the court preferred Agaja in order to avoid a split dynasty, as children of Akaba and Hangbè would have equal rights to the throne. Because Hangbè supported Agaba’s rival, and the prevailing patriarchy of the time, Queen Tassi Hangbè was excluded from the court king lists for the Kingdom of Dahomey, and written records of her brief leadership were destroyed.
However, Hangbè is remembered as being a driving force behind the formation of the female army called Agojie, or Minon or the Dahomey Amazons. Author Torild Skard writes about the Dahomey warriors: “(They) were renowned for their zeal and ferocity. The most fearsome were armed with rifles. There were also archers, hunters and spies. They exercised regularly to be physically and mentally fit for combat… When not in combat, they guarded the royal palaces in Abomen and grew fruit and vegetables. They could also go out and take captives to sell as slaves.” Historian Toler describes the female warriors as follows: “By the 1800s, contemporary accounts of them is that their uniforms were so similar to their male counterparts, people fighting against them don’t realize they’re women until they’re up close in hand-to-hand combat… They most likely wore long shorts, a tunic and a cap, not the sexualised almost bathing suits you’d see in modern-day depictions of female warriors.” He adds, “By all accounts, they were fearsome, excellent marksmen.They were skilled with hand-to-hand fighting, using weapons that were a lot like machetes. And there was absolutely nobody there to tell them that they shouldn’t be involved in combat, or that they didn’t have the upper body strength as you heard in European and North American history until recently.” The reapers (Nyekplohento) were a small, specialised group of Agodjie, that fought with razor-sharp knives, that could slice a man in two with a single blow (Froy, 1890). Weighing some 10kg, the sword was wielded with both hands, and was useful in decapitating enemies, the heads of which were displayed as trophies around the military compounds.
The Agojie comprised about 30 to 40% of the total Dahomey army. They were given special privileges denied to the ordinary women of the time. They were forbidden to marry or raise children, and lived within the confines of the royal palace. A women warrior was permitted to own land and to earn an income trading slaves, thereby becoming fully independent, while the average Dahomey woman was the property of her family or husband.
The fact that Hangbè amassed a squadron of women willing to die protecting her and their kingdom was an impressive feat in the deeply patriarchal Dahomey society.