Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh of Dahomey

Female Guards

Elite troops of women soldiers contributed to the military power of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The troops were dissolved following the fall of King Behanzin (Gbêhanzin), during French colonial expansion at the end of the nineteenth century.

Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh (meaning, “God Speaks true”) was a warrior and the leader of the Dahomey Amazons. The Dahomey Amazons or N’Nonmiton, which means “our mothers” in Fon, were a Fon all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the present-day Republic of Benin which lasted until the end of the 19th century.

Seh Dong Hong Beh

King Houegbadja (who ruled from 1645 to 1685), the third King of Dahomey, is said to have originally started the group which would become the Amazons as a corps of elephant hunters called the gbeto

Houegbadja’s son King Agaja (ruled from 1708 to 1732) established a female bodyguard armed with muskets. European merchants recorded their presence. According to tradition, Agaja developed the bodyguard into a militia and successfully used them in Dahomey’s defeat of the neighbouring kingdom of Savi in 1727. They were organized around the year 1729 to fill out the army and make it look larger in battle, armed only with banners. The women reportedly behaved so courageously they became a permanent corps. The group of female warriors was referred to as N’Nonmiton, meaning “Our Mothers” in the Fon language, by the male army of Dahomey.

The Ahosi
The Ahosi (King’s Wives)

From the time of King Ghezo (ruling from 1818 to 1858), Dahomey became increasingly militaristic. Ghezo placed great importance on the army, increasing its budget and formalizing its structure from ceremonial to a serious military. While European narratives refer to the women soldiers as “Amazons,” they called themselves Ahosi (king’s wives) or N’Nonmiton (our mothers). Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh, the fiercest of them all, a gallant warrior and a leader. In 1851, she led an all-female army consisting of 6,000 warriors against the Egba fortress of Abeokuta. Though they were defeated in the two furious assaults on the town, in 1851 and 1864 which was the first time they tasted defeats. They failed dismally, partially because of Dahomean overconfidence, but mostly because Abeokuta was a formidable target — a huge town ringed with mud-brick walls and harboring a population of 50,000.  In about 1889, Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh and her female troops were involved in an incident that resulted in a full-scale war. When the french annexed Porto-Novo, a part of the Abomey kingdom which had not been concessioned to the French.

Dahomey Amazons Female officers (1851)
Dahomey Female Officers 1851

According to local oral histories, the spark came when the Dahomeans attacked a village under French suzerainty whose chief tried to avert panic by assuring the inhabitants that the tricolor would protect them. “So you like this flag?” the Dahomean general asked when the settlement had been overrun. “Eh bien, it will serve you.” At the general’s signal, one of the women warriors (Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh) beheaded the chief with one blow of her cutlass and carried his head back to her new king, Béhanzin, wrapped in the French standard.

She was also part of Béhanzin’s larger army that took part in the First Franco-Dahomean War, which ensued in 1890, resulted in two major battles, one of which took place in heavy rain at dawn outside Cotonou, on the Bight of Benin.

It would be noted that following the defeat of the kingdom of Abomey to the French legion, and eventual surrender and exile of King Behanzin in 1894, Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh and the women were the last to surrender, and even then —at least the Amazons burned fields, villages and cities rather than let them fall to the French. And according to rumors common in the French army of occupation — the survivors took their revenge on the French by covertly substituting themselves for Dahomean women who were taken into the enemy stockade. Each allowed herself to be seduced by French officer, waited for him to fall asleep, and then cut his throat with his own bayonet.

Seh Dong Hong Beh 1
Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh

Not so much was told about Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh, her birth, her death or her career as a military women; as the french dissolved the Amazon troops and crushed every structure that may lead to formation of another Amazon army.

Note: Research is being done to uncover more of her story and we have more, we will surely update the page but in the mean time… We’ll like to hear your comments.

References

Dash, Mike. “Dahomey’s Women Warriors.” Smithsonian. 9/23/2011. 

Alpern, Stanley B. “Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey.” New York University Press. 1998.

Edgerton, Robert B. “Warrior Women: The Amazons of Dahomey and the Nature of War.” Westview Press. 2000

Disclaimer: Africa Heritages claims no credits to none of the images used in this write up.

3 thoughts on “Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh of Dahomey

  1. Great, however I would like to point out a few things.
    The name used Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh means absolutely nothing in Fongbé. It is a retranscription from a colonial era European (with I would say a thick ear). According to some family chants, depending on the sources and that is if they are talking of the same individual as there seem to be a prononciation deviance. Her name was most likely Sèh Dô Houn Gbé (that is a warrior’s name) as it would translate as the “the Spirit commands Blood”. The term “Seh” was often translated as god in colonial era however it does not bear that meaning. “Seh” means spirit in Gbé languages.
    There is an alternative option for Sèh Dô Hangbé by definition another Minon whose name translates as “The Spirit That sings”. Those two people lived in different Era. If Sèh Dô Houn Gbé was notably in Abeoukuta it was unlikely that she would have been involved in the Attack of Porto-Novo in 1889. As she served under Ghezo it is improbable for to have served under Glele and then Gbehanzin. She must have been at her prime to General Ghezo’s Army in Abeokuta ( late twenties minimum, mid thirties) the fight against porto-Novo occured thirty years later, making her an old woman in her sixties if not older.
    The only options are that she was buried alive with Ghezo, as his wives did, or retired with honors in order to have a family of her own.
    The picture chosen is probably not Sèh Dô Hou gbé either. There is a tentative drawing of her if not an interpretation of her but as she lived in the mid 19th century, that picture is too modern for her era in Africa.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s