Black History Month: Female warriors in Cardiff
Last year, the action film The Woman King starring Viola Davies was released to great acclaim, telling the story of the all-female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey (now Southern Benin Republic) during the 17th-19th centuries.
While the storyline is fictional, it is based on the real Dahomey warrior women.
Western society was fascinated with the idea of warrior women and much was written about them, so when they visited Cardiff, they created a sensation.
They had been on an international tour and in January 1894 could be found at the Empire Theatre of Varieties in Queen Street.
Journalists were keen to interview the women, and while their articles have the usual patronising approach to people from other countries, it does allow us a glimpse of real women particularly in the sketches done by the illustrators.
There were 15 men and 33 women in the company, with journalists often referring to the women as Amazons, the female warriors from ancient Greece whose name had become a generic description for warrior women.
The South Wales Daily News published an interview with the leader of the troupe, Princess Gumma, described as “a gracefully-formed and stalwart young woman, of perhaps five and twenty, made her appearance in military attire.
“A white cap of cotton cloth, with an elephant worked on the front, and with a tuft of red feathers from the side. covered her head and gave a bold and fearless look to her dark, but by no mean, unprepossessing countenance.
“A sleeveless tunic of red flannel, an extensive girdle, a short skirt reaching to between the knee and the ankle, a pair of black stockings and shoes, mads up her attire. The cuirass of cowrie shells and beads was absent, but round the waist she wore her belt and leather cartridge pouch, ornamented with two miniature death’s heads and crossbones in brass.
“She has a stately carriage of the head and a very erect bearing, while her face is full of intelligence and good humour.”
Gumma told the reporters that she was the daughter of King Behanzin, whom the French, had displaced and driven into the bush. Gumma, she said, was the name given to all the daughters of the King and was a distinctively Royal title, several touring groups were led by women called Gumma.
Asked whether she had ever fought in battle, the princess, with a ‘twinkle of the eye and a display of her glistening teeth,’ said ‘Yes,’ adding that she had fought the French on several occasions, facing their rifles with her bow and arrow. She had her body guard of female warriors and had escaped injury, but she had sent ‘several Frenchmen to their last account by her sure aim.’ Now that her father was an exile and without a throne, she did not know who reigned in Dahomey.
The Cardiff Times journalist went on to describe the women’s appearance, alongside sketches by a local artist: “Between the shoulders, on the upper part of the arms, or on the chest, according to personal choice, were fantastic marks done by a knife and the rubbing into the incision in the skin of a medicine compounded by the fetish [medicine] men.
“These marks had been very neatly executed, and stood out from the surrounding surface in even ridges, white they were blackened by the pigment that had been added when the wounds were fresh. Each woman has also a small fetish mark on each side of the face.
“The designs for the marks on the shoulders were very varied, and it was explained that the process was undergone a little at a time, one portion being allowed to heal before another was undertaken, Round the rooms were the weapons and military accoutrements of the Amazons — old, long-barrelled, muzzle-loading rifles, swords of various patterns and makes, war clubs and the like.”
The South Wales Daily News journalist ended his piece: “The Amazons and their male companions live well. Though they sleep on straw and dispense with the luxuries of the modern household, their habits in regard to personal cleanliness are such as many people might imitate with advantage.
“They have three meals a day, and their consumption of food per diem – that is for the troop – is as follows: – 351bs. of Patna rice, 120 rolls of bread, 25lbs of meat (free of fat and bone) 20lbs. of lump sugar, and 1lb. of tea.
“It is not to be wondered at that they are all in the very pink of condition and as strong and hearty and full of vitality as any beings on this earth.”
In the following decades the Dahomey Warriors made several appearances throughout the UK including Wales and if you watch The Woman King, which is certainly worth watching, spare a thought for those women who appeared in Cardiff nearly 130 years ago.
A new project to collect a minority ethnic history of Wales is being run by Glamorgan Archives and if you’d like to volunteer to uncover stories such as these, get in touch with Ophelia Dos Santos at the Archives.
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