One of this year’s most anticipated films, The Woman King (2022), has come under fire for its failure to address the Dahomey kingdom’s involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade, leading social media users to create #BoycottWomanKing.
Viola Davis, who plays the main character Nanisca, and other cast members have responded to the criticism by acknowledging that historical accuracy was not and cannot be the job of Hollywood, because ultimately the focus is on entertainment. So, here’s the short history lesson you didn’t get in the movie. Take notes.
Who were the Agojie and how were they involved in the slave trade?
The Dahomey kingdom in present-day Benin trafficked slaves in the 1600s and 1700s. King Ghezo, played by John Boyega in the film, had most enslaved people sent abroad while others were kept in the kingdom to serve. In 1852, the king stopped slave trading due to the British government’s disapproval after they abolished slavery in 1833. In the period during which they ceased trading, they participated in palm oil production. However, it was not earning the king nearly as much money as slave trading, so trading continued.
The Agojie women lived in the Dahomey kingdom and first emerged as an all-female group in the early 1700s to do elephant hunting. They slowly expanded into a full-fledged army well into the 19th century, possibly due to a drop in the kingdom’s male population. The Dahomey sold thousands of Africans into slavery, and people of all ages were bound to be shipped to several parts of the world. The Agojie would sneak up on surrounding kingdoms and capture people to be put in the slave trade for profit through their relationships with European merchants.
American author Zora Neale Hurston wrote the book, Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo in 1928, which is an interview with one of the last known slaves brought to the United States in 1860 via the Transatlantic slave trade. His name was Cudjoe Lewis and he was 19 years old when he was taken from his home by the Agojie women. As Lewis recounted his interaction with the Agojie he crouched down in fear, describing the terrifying event when the women killed his family and took him captive saying, “No man kin be so strong lak de woman soldiers from de Dahomey.”
The Dahomey kingdom’s reign eventually ended in 1892 due to losing a war against the French when they claimed Dahomey’s land through the Berlin Conference’s Scramble for Africa in the 1880s. Although the movie glossed over a gruesome part of the Dahomey kingdom’s history, it can be argued that Hollywood’s historical fiction films are an entry point, piquing the audience’s interest to take the time and learn this history for themselves.