History is rife with tales of fighting women. More often than not, these stories prove more legend than history. Dating back to the Amazons of ancient Asia Minor, myths of fierce, autonomous women of martial excellence abound. And yet, the only thoroughly documented Amazons in world history are the women warriors of Dahomey, an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western African kingdom. Once dubbed a "small black Sparta," residents of Dahomey shared with the Spartans an intense militarism and sense of collectivism. Moreover, the women of both kingdoms prided themselves on bodies hardened from childhood by rigorous physical exercise. But Spartan women kept in shape to breed male warriors, Dahomean Amazons to kill them. 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 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 6,000. The Amazons served under female officers and had their own bands, flags and insignia: they outdrilled, outshot and outfought men, became frontline troops and fought tenaciously and with great valour till the kingdom's defeat by France in 1892. The product of meticulous archival research, Amazons of Black Sparta is defined by Alpern's gift for narrative and will stand as the most comprehensive and accessible account of the woman warriors of Dahomey.
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.