My mother gave me this book for Christmas 2010, I think after hearing about it on the radio? I’ve had great intentions of reading it since then, of course, but until now they have gone the way of many other good intentions. The other day, though – at least partly inspired by Tansy’s post about ‘Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy’ (which also appeared over at Tor.com, although be warned that one of the first comments is ‘most readers of SF are men’ and…I don’t even) – I decided it was time to read it. (There’s also been a bunch of great stuff written about the historical position of powerful women, as queens and warriors etc recently, calling out people who say women have had basically no part in the Great Historical Narrative That Is Mankind.)
This is a book of history. It appears to be thoroughly researched and meticulously end-noted. Alpern constantly refers to his sources, comparing the differences in their perspectives and attempting to explain them based on time, possible prejudice, and other aspects. This is particularly relevant and important because the sources come from a span of two centuries or so, sometimes using second-hand sources, and occasionally coming long after the actual events.
The book is about genuinely documented, real-life warrior women, who were pretty much automatically called Amazons by European observers, in the kingdom of Dahomey, on Africa’s western coast. And these are not from some far-off misty time; no, they date from the late 1700s at the very latest, and last saw action against the dastardly French when those colonisers decided to fight against and take Dahomey… in 1892. They were experts at the use of muskets and spears and – my favourite – the giant razor: said to have weighed 20 pounds or more, it had a blade 24-36 inches long that folded into a wooden handle. It was wielded with both hands and was particularly good for decapitations.
It’s not quite the book I was expecting. I think I was anticipating that was more narrative-driven, but only the last quarter or so fits that bill. The first three quarters read more like a catalogue: the recruitment, training, weapons, and everyday life of these women. The narrative comes when Alpern documents the battles that the ‘warrioresses’ took part in – first against other local tribes for a variety of reasons, then in two set of skirmishes/pitched battles with the French.
There are a lot of fascinating parts to this book – like the fact that the women as warriors may have originated in them being elephant hunters, and the fact that Dahomey had a lot of symmetry going on with women having parallel offices etc to the male hierarchy. One awesome, somewhat incidental bit – and this is for the fabric fetishists – is that the warrior women may have been involved in creating a gigantic patchwork, along with other palace women. It was composed of samples of every type of fabric imported into the kingdom or made locally. At one stage it was apparently up to 400 yards by 10 feet, and exactly it was intended for is unclear. The other mighty fact in the story is that pretty much everyone acknowledges that the women were mighty warriors, as good or better than their male counterparts, and generally even fiercer in actual battle: like, they were the last to retreat, and on a couple of occasions it was only women who got past the enemy’s barricades. And before anyone even thinks it, apparently the enemy generally did not realise that they were facing women, at least in the early battles, so no it’s not because they let the women in (besides, they were CARRYING MUSKETS or other guns – who would be stupid to let in anyone carrying a GUN? (hmm, perhaps this is a little close to the bone today)).
A very interesting read, and a fascinating period of history in general and in specific.