The Woman King Softens the Truth of the Slave Trade

The Woman King Softens the Truth of the Slave Trade
The Dahomey had fierce female fighters. They also sold people overseas.

The Woman King, a film by Gina Prince-Bythewood and scripted by Maria Bello and Dana Stevens, tells the story of the famous all-female regiment known as the Agodjie that served in the legendary West African kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Republic of Benin).

This weekend’s release of the movie, which stars Viola Davis, Sheila Atim, Thuso Mbedu, and Lashana Lynch, is a vision of Black female power; in its advertising material, it is referred to as “the Gladiator of our time.” However, how does The Woman King treat another chapter of Dahomey’s past—the nation’s participation in the slave trade? At a time when Americans who seek to deflect attention from their own role for the history of slavery recount how African monarchs and middlemen participated in the Atlantic slave trade,

The Woman King
This image released by Sony Pictures shows Viola Davis in “The Woman King.” (Sony Pictures via AP)

Dahomey and its female military company had previously made an appearance on the big screen. The potent West African kingdom was dramatized in 1987’s Cobra Verde, a film by German director Werner Herzog based on Bruce Chatwin’s 1980 book The Viceroy of Ouidah, which briefly showed its female warriors. The latest film likewise takes place in Dahomey in 1823.

The main character, however, is a West African woman named Nanisca, not a white slave trader like in Herzog’s movie. The leader of the Agodjie is a female warrior who is portrayed by Davis. The vast majority of these fighters were chosen from among the king of Dahomey’s numerous royal wives.

As early as the 18th century, European traders and visitors to the area called them the “Amazons,” recalling the female warriors of Greek myth.

The Agodjie may have first appeared in the 18th century, although it is more likely that they began participating in military operations in the 19th century, particularly under the reign of King Gezo (played in the film by John Boyega).

They served in Dahomey’s army and participated in conflicts that, at the time, had as their primary goal the capture of people to be sold into slavery in the Americas, particularly in Brazil and Cuba.

The Woman King does one thing right by portraying Dahomey as a militarized, centralized kingdom rather than a “tribe,” as popular movies about historical African states typically do.

This is done by focusing on the all-female regiment. The history of the kingdom of Dahomey begins in the seventeenth century.

However, its growth began in the 18th century, at the height of the Atlantic slave trade. Dahomey began actively participating in the Atlantic slave trade in 1727 when it overthrew the coastal Kingdom of Hueda and seized control of the port city of Ouidah. Between 1659 and 1863, approximately a million enslaved Africans were reportedly loaded onto ships bound for the Americas in Ouidah, according to historians. The port ranked as the no. 2 supplier.

In 1818, King Gezo overthrew his half-brother King Adandozan in a coup d’état. The British were pressuring West African states and European and American nations like Portugal, Spain, and Brazil to end their own slave trade in 1823, when the action of the movie takes place. The British had already abolished their own slave trade. Brazil had separated from Portugal in 1822, but it continued to actively import Africans who had been held as slaves, including those from Ouidah. Since 1748, Dahomey has been paying homage to the Kingdom of Oyo, a state that is now in southwest Nigeria. Under Gezo’s authority, Dahomey engaged in a conflict with Oyo in 1823 and eventually won the right to be free of tribute payments. This is the event that the movie depicts.

Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu star in THE WOMAN KING

One of the raids carried out by the Dahomean army is shown in the opening sequence of the film. A village is attacked by Agodjie. The woman warriors in the film kill the men while protecting the women. In reality, it is more likely that the Dahomean army’s soldiers—both women and men—would kidnap the young, healthy villagers as prisoners and transport them on foot to Dahomey’s capital, Abomey. The movie quickly hints at the various possible outcomes for these detainees by demonstrating that some might be kept in local slavery, others might be sacrificed to Dahomean gods, and the majority would be brought to the coast, where they would be sold, and board slave ships bound for the Americas, particularly Brazil.

The Woman King features several scenes in which Nanisca tries to persuade Gezo that the Europeans are out to conquer them and won’t give up until they have control of all of Africa.

However, both the French and the English forts of Ouidah had already been abandoned at the time the movie takes place.

The tiny Portuguese fort So Joo Batista in the city was neither as grand as the opulent yellowish structure depicted in the film nor was it as large as any of the remaining forts from the Gold Coast, Elmina and Cape Coast, which are still standing in modern-day Ghana. This is a significant distinction because Dahomey and its agents always had authority over the slave trade in the area, even if Europeans were permitted to construct forts on Ouidah’s coasts.

A white structure of average size.
S. Joao Batista Portuguese fort in Ouidah, 2005. Ana Lucia Araujo took the picture.
The Agojie are portrayed as liberators in The Woman King. In the movie, the Mahi, a group of people who have settled north of Abomey and are associated with the Kingdom of Oyo, attempt to seize Dahomey’s subjects in order to sell them as slaves. However, the truth was far different. The Dahomean army, which was more formidable, frequently assaulted the Mahi. In the 18th and 19th centuries, King Gezo and his forebears organized many raids against the Mahi. In a letter written to the ruler of Portugal in 1810, King Adandozan, Gezo’s half-brother and the monarch of Dahomey from 1797 to 1818, described one of these conflicts.

One of these family members was Na Agontimé, Gezo’s mother, who was most likely sold into slavery in Brazil. She was one of Agonglo’s wives. The real-life incident of Gezo’s mother being sold by his brother into slavery in Brazil is briefly brought up in the movie, and he declares that he would not do the same. However, in actuality, when Gezo overthrew Adandozan in 1818, he punished his half-family brother’s by selling them as slaves outside the boundaries of the kingdom.

In the film, Nanisca appears to persuade Gezo to forego Dahomean involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. Twelve Agodjie liberate their friends who are chained in a slave enclosure on the beach while she searches for her daughter, who was captured as a prisoner by the Oyo’s army and sent to Ouidah to be sold into slavery. But during the 1850s and 1860s, the historical Gezo and King Glele, his son and successor, continued selling enslaved Africans to Brazilian and Cuban slave dealers.

Additionally, some of these captives were bought and sold into slavery in the United States. Consider Oluale Kossola (also known as Cudjo Kazoola Lewis), whose village of Banté was raided by the Dahomean army in 1859. Banté is located north of Abomey.

On the slave ship Clotilda, widely regarded as the last slave ship to set foot in the United States, Kossola was transported as a slave along with 109 other captives to Alabama.

The Kingdom of Oyo, the Mahi, the Portuguese, and the Brazilians are portrayed as the bad people in The Woman King, whereas Dahomey is shown as the good men.

In actuality, however, both Oyo and Dahomey sold the slaves they captured during their respective conflicts in the 19th century.

Any historical fiction work will always contain errors. The Woman King, a film that is enjoyable to see in many ways, portrays the Dahomean female combatants as strong warriors, a (historically accurate!) image that speaks well of Black women who have been fighting racism and white supremacy around the world.

However, portraying Dahomey’s leaders and soldiers as forerunners of Pan-Africanism who fought to put an end to the cruel slave trade misleads audiences who may not be familiar with African history and insults the descendants of enslaved Africans who remained in West African territory or who were forcibly transported to the Americas.

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She decided to be a “hunter, not victim,” as one Agodjie from the Mahi nation explains in the movie.

But at the time of the Atlantic slave trade, the majority of African men and women had no choice—unlike their overlords.

Updated on September 17: The original version of this sentence said that the kingdom of Oyo was situated in what is now southeast Nigeria. It can be found in what is currently southwest Nigeria.

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