Were Black Panther's Dora Milaje Real?: Discovering Africa's Real Amazon Warriors
"If you the men will not go forward then we will....we will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefield." - Yaa Asantewaa
In a few weeks the world is about to be introduced to the Dora Milaje. The Dora Milaje are the fictional women warriors who act as the personal bodyguards for protagonist and hero Ta'Challa the King of Wakanda in Marvel's latest blockbuster movie titled Black Panther. Based on the upcoming trailer for the movie one is not sure who will steal the show will it be The Black Panther or the Dora Milaje. The concept of women warriors has been on everyones mind as of late especially after the success of DC Comics blockbuster movie Wonder Woman which was partly based on Greek mythology. At one time the Greek stories of Amazon warriors was viewed as pure myth, but new research has proven that the Amazon warriors were indeed real though they may not have been Greek. Recent excavation in graves in Asia and Asia Minor have yielded some interesting evidence of female skeletons buried with swords and other weapons that apparently died from battle wounds. This has all been pretty well documented in Adrienne Mayor's book The Amazons: Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across The Ancient World. My interest though was squarely on the continent of Africa. Did Africa have its own glorious stories of Amazon warriors too, or were people like Iowa Congressmen Steve King and President Donald Trump right about Africa being an uncivilized "sh*thole" with nothing valuable to offer the world. What I discovered throughout my research would literally blow my mind.
What I discovered was that the story of the fictional Dora Milaje were in fact very much based in reality. Located to the south of Egypt in the modern day country known as the Sudan there once was an ancient civilization known as Nubia. Nubia was a contemporary to Egypt a rival if you will, and it was known by many names. In the historical records Nubia is sometimes called Kush it was also known as the kingdom of Ta-Seti. The word Ta-Seti was interesting because it literally translates as the land of the bow. This speaks to the military prowess that the Nubians were known for, as well as their skill as archers. In fact Nubia at one time conquered Egypt and ruled over it. This period of Nubian rule is today known by historians as the 25th Dynasty. The Egyptians were not the only ones the Nubians defeated in combat, but there are stories of how the Nubians even turned away the legendary conqueror Alexander The Great, as well as battles against the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar.
The Romans record that they fought against Nubian women on the battlefield after the Nubians sacked one of their outpost on the border of Egypt and Nubia. The Romans say that the Nubian's were lead by a woman warrior by the name of Queen Candace, but Candace was only a title for a Nubian queen. The real person who lead that battle against the Romans was the African Queen Amanishakheto. She not only destroyed the Roman outpost on the border, but knocked down a statue of Augustus Caesar and brought it back to Nubia as loot. Most scholars thought the story was legend that was until they actually excavated an old Nubian Temple with the head from a statue of Augustus Caesar found under the steps. Today the head of Augustus is known as the Meroe Head because it was found in Meroe Nubia.
If it is documented that Nubian women fought on the battlefield then it is equally documented that Nubian women also ruled over their country as heads of state. There are more Nubian pyramid tombs dedicated to the Queens than there are dedicated to the Kings. It is also interesting to take note that Nubia is the true "land of the pyramids" not Egypt because there are actually more pyramids built in Nubia than in Egypt. Egypt has about 138 pyramids Nubia has about 255.
Nubia was not the only African country with a woman head of state. There is the famous case of the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut who ruled over all of Egypt as a regent because the young prince Thutmose III was too young to run the country. Women are often stereotyped as being overly emotional, but it was Hatshepsut who as a master of diplomacy traded with her neighbors in nearby Punt (Somalia) instead of waging war. Statues of Hatshepsut tend to throw people off because the Queen is shown with a beard. The beard was just a fake ornament for symbolic purposes. All Egyptians shaved their hair what you see in paintings or on bas reliefs are wigs, they viewed hair as a sign of uncleanliness. Hatshepsut like all pharaohs before her went by the title Horus the fake pharaonic beard as well as the crook and flail that pharaoh's held in their hands were all signs and symbols of royalty.
Queen Hatshepsut with ceremonial beard
In West Africa the persona of the woman warrior can be found in many nations as well. There is the famous freedom fighter Queen Yaa Asantewaa of Ghana. Queen Yaa Asantewaa lead her people in a war against the British Empire who were trying to colonize her country. The British had the advantage when they held the Ashanti King and his family as captives. As a way of further insulting the Ashanti they demanded the Ashanti's famous golden stool which stood as a symbol for the power of the throne and independence of the Ashanti Empire. When the men refused to fight Yaa Asantewaa encouraged her women to take up arms with prose that seem as if they were taken right out of a movie:
"Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our King.
If it were in the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opoku Ware, leaders would not sit down to see their King taken away without firing a shot.
No white man could have dared to speak to a leader of the Ashanti in the way the Governor spoke to you this morning.
Is it true that the bravery of the Ashanti is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be!
I must say this, if you the men of Ashanti will not go forward, then we will. We the women will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields."
One of many statues of Yaa Asantewaa, this one located at the Yaa Asantewaa Girl's School at Kumasi Ghana.
The Ashanti Flag with symbol of stool at the center.
Equally as famous as Ghana's Yaa Asantewaa her somewhat of a contemporary can be found in the nation of Angola. In Angola we encounter a Queen Nzinga/Njinga who in the 17th century waged a war against the Portuguese. Very much like the British did in Ghana the Portuguese coveted the rich lands of Angola. The Portuguese coveted the land and they came to enslave the people. When her brother committed suicide under the pressure of Portuguese encroachment Nzinga took up arms waging a war against the Portuguese where she saw more than one victory on the battlefield. There is a famous story often told about Nzinga being called into a meeting to negotiate with the Portuguese soldiers. In order to embarrass Nzinga and show off their power the Portuguese sat in elevated chairs while only offering Nzinga the floor.
At that moment Nzinga turned the tide of the negotiation by having one of her guards position himself on the ground as Queen Nzinga used his back as a throne. Though Nzinga was eventually defeated this African Amazon warrior is credited with slowing down the process of slavery in Angola. The trade in slaves picked up speed after her defeat.
Queen Nzinga shows off her power in negotiation with the Portuguese
Statue of Queen Nzinga in Luanda Angola
Statue of Queen Nzinga at Jamestown, Virginia, U.S.A. The first Africans to arrive in Virginia were slaves from Angola. This was the same slavery Nzinga was fighting against.
In Ethiopia we have records of a black Jewish queen named Judith who also fought on the battlefield, and was clearly not to be trifled with. Judith waged a war against the black Christian kings of the Solomonid Dynasty, and she even laid waste to the famous city of Axum.
The black Christians of Ethiopia were so desperate that they even wrote a letter to Alexandria, Egypt requesting help from their fellow Christian brethren before all was lost. There is also a record found in the Kano Chronicles of a Nigerian woman named Queen Amina who also fought in battles. Queen Amina was a true empress she is famous for commanding armies and cavalry on horseback. Amina would conquer lands and then force the people to offer tribute. This brings me to my final example of Africa's Amazon warriors, and this example is the one that most resembles the mythical King Ta'Challa's (Black Panther) adored Dora Milaji. Replace King Ta'Challa with the very real King Gezo and replace the Dora Milaji with the very real Dahomey Amazons and fiction becomes fact. When King Gezo was almost captured by a rival tribe he created the Dahomey Amazons out of what was once formidable female elephant hunters. These female warriors armed with knives and blades were known to decapitate foes. The king thankful for his protection spoiled his 6,000 or so personal bodyguards with their own living quarters, tobacco, alcohol, and very own personal servants. 50 servants for each female warrior only hint at the kings gratitude. It is said that when the Dahomey Amazons walked men were too scared to be caught gazing in their direction. So as we get ready for Marvels next big splash The Black Panther, which is perfectly timed during the month of February. This of course perfectly coincides with Black History Month. Just know that what you are watching on the screen may indeed be fiction, but it is rooted and gets its inspiration from a very real history.
King Gezo of Dahomey had over 6000 female warriors
What we have repeatedly seen is when one looks throughout the continent of Africa you see real documented evidence of women warriors taking the battlefield and fighting against men. These men were usually European outsiders who wanted to colonize their nation. What I found even more amazing was that in many African nations especially when you go back to the time of B.C. you find African women who actually ruled their countries as the head of state with the same power as a President or King. This all may come as a surprise, and the reason for this is because most likely we have all pretty much been socialized to be sexist toward women especially when it comes to gender segregated occupations. We are taught at an early age that men take out the trash women do laundry. It is ok for girls to cry and show emotion, but never for boys. Rough and tumble boys play sports, while girls cheer. I personally have been guilty of many of these myself. No wonder then when we are confronted with stories about Amazons we are so quick to write it off as myth, legend, and folklore because it goes against everything we have been taught. Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop has pointed out in his book The Cultural Unity of Black Africa: The Domains of Patriarchy and Matriarchy in Classical Antiquity, that Africa was very unlike Europe especially before invasions and colonialism. In Africa you had political systems where power to the throne was matrilineal not patrilineal. Before the age of DNA and paternity test the bloodline of a woman was trusted much more than the bloodline of a man. The way to the throne was through the female, her status was therefore elevated and unquestioned. In cultural systems like this then it is no surprise to see African women ruling a country as a matriarch, leading armies on the battlefield, or even being worshipped as a goddess. The evidence is all there, so let the historical records speak for themselves. Its not so ironic then that the United States who views itself as a "beacon of light" and a leader for the rest of the world has not had a woman president yet. This is quite shocking, or maybe not so shocking when it is many of America's allies like England, India, and Liberia who have all already had women as heads of state.
It was not until 2016 that the United States military allowed women to serve in combat roles. This in spite of the fact that history has proven women to be more than capable of doing the job. Recently two female aspirants have tried out for the ultra elite special operations unit known as the Navy SEALs. I'm sure skeptics probably had a big laugh when they discovered that both women failed to complete the program. Their laughing would have probably stopped when they realized that most men who try out for the Navy SEALs also fail to complete the program. The SEALs program is one of the most grueling programs in the world with about a 60% dropout rate. Basically based on the numbers those guys that laughed would not have completed the SEALs program either. If history is as good a reference as one can get it has shown us what women are capable of on the battlefield as well as in positions of leadership. I for one am as pumped up as anyone else to see Ta'Challa the Black Panther take it to the villains Killmonger and Klaw, but I am equally psyched to see the look on my niece's face who happens to be from Africa (Ethiopia) as well as the look on the faces of countless other black girls, as they watch in amazement as the Dora Milaje do their thing.
Ivan Van Sertima. Black Women of Antiquity. Transaction Publishers. 1998.
Linda M. Heywood. Njinga of Angola: Africa's Warrior Queen. Harvard University Press. 2017.
Adrienne Mayor. The Amazons: Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across The Ancient World. Princeton University Press. 2014.
Cheikh Anta Diop. The Cultural Unity of Black Africa: The Domains of Matriarchy and Patriarchy in Classical Antiquity. Karnak House. 1989.
Merlin Stone. When God Was a Woman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 1976.