"The Woman King" Softens Truths of the Slave TradeRoundup
tags: film, slavery, African history, womens history, Dahomey
Ana Lucia Araujo is a historian and professor of history at Howard University. She is the author or editor of 13 books about the history and memory of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade, and a member of the International Scientific Committee of the Slave Route Project.
The Woman King, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Maria Bello and Dana Stevens, portrays the ancient West African Kingdom of Dahomey (today’s Republic of Benin) and its legendary all-women regiment, the Agodjie. The film, which opens this weekend, is a vision of Black female power, starring Viola Davis, Sheila Atim, Thuso Mbedu, and Lashana Lynch; its promotional material blurbs a review from Variety that calls the movie “the Gladiator of our time.” But how does The Woman King handle another part of Dahomey’s history—the kingdom’s involvement in the slave trade? At a time when the participation of African rulers and middlemen in the Atlantic slave trade gets described by Americans who want to divert attention from their own responsibility for the history of slavery as “African complicity,” this film’s task is delicate, indeed.
It’s not the first time that Dahomey and its female military company have appeared in the big screen. In 1987, the movie Cobra Verde, by German filmmaker Werner Herzog, based on the novel The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) by Bruce Chatwin, represented the powerful West African kingdom and briefly depicted its women warriors. The new movie is also set in Dahomey, in 1823. But the central character is not a white slave trader, as in Herzog’s film, but rather Nanisca, a West African woman. Played by Davis, this woman warrior is the head of the Agodjie. These fighters were mainly recruited among the many dozens of royal wives of the king of Dahomey. European traders and travelers who visited the region as early as the 18th century referred to them as the “Amazons,” evoking the female fighters of Greek myth.
Although the Agodjie may have emerged in the 18th century, they probably started fighting in military campaigns in the 19th century, especially during the reign of King Gezo (played in the film by John Boyega). As part of Dahomey’s army, they fought wars that (by that time in history) were waged with the main intent of producing prisoners to be sold into slavery in the Americas, especially to Brazil and Cuba.
With its focus on the all-women regiment, The Woman King gets one thing right, by representing Dahomey as a centralized and militarized kingdom, and not a “tribe,” as popular movies tend to depict historical African states. The kingdom of Dahomey’s origins can be traced to the 17th century. But its expansion started in the 18th century, during the most intense period of the Atlantic slave trade. In 1727, Dahomey conquered the Kingdom of Hueda, who lived along the coast, and took control of the port city of Ouidah, inaugurating its active participation in the Atlantic slave trade. Historians estimated that nearly one million enslaved Africans were put on ships to the Americas in Ouidah between 1659 and 1863. The port was the second largest supplier of African captives to the trade, behind only Luanda, in today’s Angola.