Tears streamed down the faces of those present as Dagba “Lali” Eulalie belted out a song in her native tongue. Lali had just recounted the story of her grandmother’s abduction by slave traders. The song served as a remembrance for Lali, a remembrance of her late grandmother and the crimes committed against her.
“When they scream at you, you have to follow them immediately. And when they get angry at you, they just kill you,” Lali said of the slavers who took her Nigerian grandmother. “She was a teenager. She went with many people to fetch water. She wasn’t the only one they took.”
These weren’t white European traders Lali was talking about, mind you. Rather, the slave traders responsible for the brutality were the Agojie, the warrior women of Dahomey, the African country now known as Benin.
Lali’s interview was filmed for a 2019 documentary starring Kenyan-Mexican movie star Lupita Nyong’o. The show aired in the U.S. in March on the Smithsonian Channel.
Nyong’o had originally been cast in the role of Nawi in the much-anticipated film, “The Woman King,” featuring the Agojie. When she landed the role, Nyong’o was enthused to participate in the documentary to learn more about the warrior women. However, not long after the documentary was completed, Nyong’o backed out of the “The Woman King” production.
The reason behind her abrupt exit was never given, but many suspected that Nyong’o became disenchanted with the project after learning of the Agojie’s crimes while filming the “Warrior Women” documentary.
“The Woman King” eventually debuted on Sept. 16 with Viola Davis in the leading role and Thuso Mbedu as Nawi instead of Nyong’o. As of Sept. 25, the film had netted over $36 million at the box office and, after a strong second weekend, is set to “easily recoup” its $50 million budget, according to CNBC. A success with critics and audiences alike, the film garnered a 94 percent critics score and a 99 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Since its debut, liberal activists have showered “The Woman King” with praise for its depiction of strong black female protagonists. But their real-life counterparts, the Agojie women of African history, were not worthy of praise; their gruesome murders and brutal enslavement of innumerable countrymen certainly equal and in some cases exceed the evil deeds of those involved in American slavery.
Yet it seems unlikely that a film honoring the history of southern slave traders would receive similar fanfare.
The Crimes of the Agojie
Few Hollywood projects accurately portray the history of slavery. Take the 1977 mini-series “Roots,” for example. The show popularized the notion that white slave traders were responsible for capturing most of the Africans sold into the trans-Atlantic slave trade. As Steven Mintz pointed out in the introduction to “African American Voices: A Documentary Reader, 1619-1877,” however, this notion is a complete farce.
“While Europeans did engage in some slave raiding, the majority of people who were transported to the Americas were enslaved by other Africans,” Mintz wrote. “Most slaves in Africa were captured in wars or in surprise raids on villages. Adults were bound and gagged and infants were sometimes thrown into sacks.”
The Agojie women conducted many raids like the one in which Lali’s grandmother was abducted.
This shouldn’t come as a shock. After all, the Agojie were military operatives in one of the most notorious slave-trading nations to ever exist in African history. Indeed, historical accounts of the Agojie differ quite a bit from the glamorized depictions of the female fighters in “The Woman King.” While the movie paints them as liberators with a hesitance toward enslaving fellow Africans, history reveals the Agojie women were party to many, if not most, of the Dahomey kingdom’s crimes.
And, according to a History vs. Hollywood analysis of “The Woman King,” Dahomey was “a bloodthirsty society bent on conquest.”
“It was customary for the Dahomey to return home with the rotting heads and genitals of those they killed in battle. They conquered neighboring African states and took their citizens as slaves, selling many in the Atlantic slave trade in exchange for items like rifles, tobacco, and alcohol. Many of the slaves they sold ended up in America. They also kept some slaves for themselves to work on royal plantations. The business of slavery is what brought Dahomey most of its wealth. For them, it very much came down to either enslave others or become enslaved yourself,” History vs. Hollywood reported.
If you happen to be a descendant of slaves, there’s a good chance your ancestors were sold by Dahomey traders. In a 1989 issue of The Journal of African History, historian Robin Law pointed out that, in the 18th century, Dahomey took control of the “slave coast,” the area of Africa responsible for exporting roughly one-fifth of all slaves sold in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Many of these victims were captured by the Agojie themselves.
“The Agojie (women warriors) fought in slave raids along with the male fighters. There are accounts of Dahomey warriors conducting slave raids on villages where they cut the heads off of the elderly and rip the bottom jaw bones off others. During the raids, they’d burn the villages to the ground. Those who they let live, including the children, were taken captive and sold as slaves. The movie strategically downplays this part of Dahomey’s history, so as to not complicate the story with the truth,” History vs. Hollywood reported.
These raids the Agojie took part in weren’t necessarily brave expeditions. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the women would often attack under the cover of the night, later returning home carrying severed heads as trophies.
Witness Testimony: “The Blood Swept Past Him Like a Flood into a Large Reservoir”
History vs. Hollywood’s analysis also took note of Dahomey’s barbarous cultural traditions. Once a year, the Dahomey people would commit ritual sacrifices during a religious ceremony known as “the Annual Customs of Dahomey.”
Each year, approximately 500 slaves and prisoners were killed during the custom. In one particularly brutal year, 1727, as many as 4,000 people were sacrificed, History vs. Hollywood reported.
This isn’t even the most horrific account of ritual sacrifice in Dahomey. In an article published in 1861, The New York Times detailed a Dahomey ritual during which as many as 7,000 people were reportedly culled. A witness to the killings told the Times “the blood swept past him like a flood into a large reservoir.” In the 1861 article, the Times called Dahomey “barbaric,” and referred to the crimes committed by its people as “horrible massacres” and “a disgrace to humanity.”
In the 162 years since, The New York Times’s attitude toward Dahomey appears to have softened quite a bit. In September, the outlet produced five articles about “The Woman King,” all of which praised the film and none of which examined Dahomey’s dark past.
Multiple scenes in “The Woman King” depict the Agojie women warning their king of European conquest. While such scenes aim to evoke the evils of European colonialism, they fail to reveal the historical truth — without colonialism, the Dahomey people would have gone on enslaving and murdering other Africans.
According to a 1997 issue of The Journal of African History penned by Law, the British government imposed a naval blockade on the African nation in 1851, holding all imports hostage lest the country agreed to abolish slavery. In 1852, Dahomey’s ruler, King Gezo, relented, signing a treaty banning the export of slaves from his kingdom.
This was a larger part of Britain’s incredibly aggressive, and often violent, abolitionist movement which sought to eradicate the practice of slavery throughout the world. Prominent conservative economist and historian Thomas Sowell detailed this movement quite succinctly in “The Real History of Slavery,” the third chapter of his book, “Black Rednecks and White Liberals.”
“Slavery did not die out quietly of its own accord. It went down fighting to the bitter end–and it lost only because Europeans had gunpowder weapons first,” Sowell wrote. “The advance of European imperialism around the world marked the retreat of the slave trade and then of slavery itself. The British stamped out slavery, not only throughout the British Empire–which included one-fourth of the world, whether measured in land or people–but also by its pressures and its actions against other nations.”
It was the French that eventually defeated the murderous Dahomey and their armies in 1892. Despite numerous accounts of the Agojie’s apparent battle effectiveness, French forces decimated the contingent toward the end of the Second Franco-Dahomean War. In his book, “Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey,” Stanley Alpern estimated that, in roughly seven weeks of fighting, the Dahomey lost between 2,000 and 4,000 soldiers. Only “fifty or sixty” of the 1,200 Agojie female warriors who entered the conflict were left alive by its end.
The French side lost a mere 52 Europeans and 33 African allies.
Skin Color and Historical Accuracy
Even today, many countries exercise the practice of slavery in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. If those countries had been fully colonized by the abolitionist countries of Europe and the Americas, perhaps slavery would now be extinct.
Even Sonny Bunch, a columnist for The Washington Post, admitted that, while Hollywood may continue to whitewash the crimes of historical Africans, the film industry is unlikely to greenlight a movie featuring Europe’s courageous stand against the slave trade.
“It is hard to envision Hollywood making a film about the British Blockade of Africa, a decisive moment in the effort to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” Bunch wrote. “Any such picture would be dismissed in pre-production as a ‘White savior’ narrative or a defense of imperialism; it would be hounded for stripping agency from African abolitionists.”
In a series of tweets, Daily Wire host Matt Walsh also pointed out this double standard. “These weren’t just slave traders. The Kingdom of Dahomey built its whole society around slavery and the slave trade,” Walsh wrote. “They murdered and conquered in the pursuit of slaves. But they were black so it’s okay to glorify them in a Hollywood film.”
Simply put, Hollywood can rewrite the history of the Agojie because they were black women, the same way that Hollywood can’t acknowledge the bravery of European abolitionists because they happened to be white men.
Despite what history has to say, thanks to critical acclaim for “The Woman King,” theatergoers will continue to flock to see it this weekend. Many of these audiences will cheer and clap throughout their respective showings, totally unaware of the crimes against humanity committed by the on-screen heroes.
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