I loved “The Woman King”—which I saw recently—starring the outstanding Viola Davis, with an excellent cast. The movie opened No. 1 at the box office with $19 million. As of October 10, it’d earned $64.8 million globally ($54.8 million domestically) eclipsing the $50 million production cost. “Woman King” Critics Wrong! Dahomey Did Fight European Slavers
It’s about an all-female army, the “Agojie” led by Gen. Nanisca (Davis) that guarded the Dahomey empire during the reign of King Ghezo who ruled from 1818 to 1859. Some critics called for a boycott, over allegations that the film glossed over Dahomey’s role in slavery. Part of this criticism could have been deflected had the film’s director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, included in the preface script, some of the information I now share.
The Dahomey kingdom fought European slavers for years under Agaja Trudo; he was described as the empire’s “greatest king” by the late Walter Rodney, one of the most celebrated historians of Africa. “Between 1724 and 1726, he looted and burned European forts and slave camps; and he reduced the trade …to a mere trickle, by blocking the paths leading to sources of supply in the interior,” Rodney wrote of Agaja, in his classic work “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” which celebrated its 50th year in print this year. “European slave dealers were very bitter, and they tried to sponsor some African collaborators against Agaja Trudo.”
Agaja wasn’t the exception, and many African leaders—until they were weakened by the invaders’ superior weapons—fought the European slavers who came searching for labor for the mines and plantations in the New World, where they were busy exterminating indigenous people, considered unfit for hard labor.
Matamba, in present-day Angola, resisted Portuguese slavers for decades beginning in the 1630s under Queen Nzinga. Portugal worked with African collaborators in neighboring territories to attack Matamba, isolating it from commerce with the outside world. In 1656, her empire diminished through warfare, Queen Nzinga yielded and allowed slaving.
Tomba, leader of the Baga people who inhabit parts of modern Guinea, resisted European slavers in the 1720s until he too was vanquished. “The Woman King’s” setting is the reign of King Ghezo, beginning in 1818. The film errs by not recalling King Agaja’s heroism in the 18th century. To its credit, the film does depict King Ghezo’s dilemma; should he resist the deplorable slave trade like Agaja or face economic ruin?
I suspect some of the critics haven’t seen the film. After I praised it in an Instagram post, a social media friend responded: “I’m very surprised to see that you supported this film, professor. Are you aware of the history? Would be interested in your perspective if so.” When I asked if she’d seen the film, she posted: “I personally can’t support the film, although I adore Viola Davis, the revisionist history the film poses…is extremely problematic.”
There’s no “revisionist” history. But why would many people denounce the film and presume that it wasn’t transparent about Dahomey’s role in the enslavement of Africans? Because the role of some African leaders—the collaborators—is rarely discussed.
“Many guilty consciences have been created by the slave trade,” Rodney wrote. “Europeans know that they carried on the slave trade, and Africans are aware that the trade would have been impossible if certain Africans did not cooperate with the slave ships.”
Even on the plantations in the New World, enslaved Africans were betrayed by collaborators, so-called “house negros.” Nat Turner, who led one of the most serious slave rebellions, was also betrayed by enslaved Africans. In our modern era, we have people like Ugandan dictator Gen. Yoweri Museveni, who once told the Atlantic magazine, “I have never blamed whites for colonizing Africa; I have never blamed these whites for taking slaves. If you are stupid, you should be taken a slave.” He would have likely sided with the European slavers had he lived between the 16th and 19th centuries.
In many African societies, the captives, or their descendants, became integrated into the society. Some became political or military leaders. The subjugation came from warfare. Africans didn’t go to inspect and purchase other Africans on auction blocks. (Africans enslaved in the Arab world in north Africa and the Indian ocean island of Zanzibar were subjected to the auctions).
“The trade in human beings from Africa was a response to external factors,” Rodney wrote. To ignore the outside stimulus for the Atlantic Slave trade is preposterous. It would be as if “without European demand there would have been captives sitting on the beach by the millions!” Rodney wrote.
“The Woman King’s” celebration of Dahomey’s female soldiers could spark major studio interest in other epic stories from Africa: Queen Nzinga’s brave anti-slavery resistance is an obvious candidate.
Another one happens to be the subject of my recently completed dramatic-history graphic book, “Adwa: Empress Taytu and Empress Menelik In Love and War.” The book chronicles Ethiopia’s March 1, 1896 victory over an invading Italian army seeking to colonize it.
Before setting off to battle Gen. Oreste Baratieri had vowed to Italy’s King Umberto that he’d return with Menelik II in a cage. The Ethiopians—to the astonishment of European nations who didn’t believe an African army could defeat a white one—annihilated the Italian army in a mere six hours at the Battle of Adwa. Empress Taytu was one of the war heroes; she had 6,000 men under her command.
With the box office success of “The Woman King” hopefully the studios will now finance similar productions instead of the past Tarzan-saves-Africans “jungle” narratives.