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 Oct. 29, it’d earned $83.5 million globally ($63.5 million domestically) eclipsing the $50 million cost.
It’s about an all-female army, the “Agojie” led by Gen. Nanisca, played by 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 own 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 will now discuss.
The Dahomey kingdom fought European slavers for years under Agaja Trudo, who 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 firearms—fought the European slavers who came searching for enslaved 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. “Once trade in slaves had been started in any given part of Africa, it soon became clear that it was beyond the capacity of any single African state to change the situation,” Rodney wrote.
“The Woman King’s” setting is the reign of King Ghezo, beginning in 1818. The film erred 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 some 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 Rodney wrote about—is rarely discussed.
“Many guilty consciences have been created by the slave trade,” Rodney wrote. “Europeans know that they 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 sometimes 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.
Another question sometimes posed is whether slavery existed in Africa prior to contact with the outside world. Historically, in Africa, as with other parts of the world, people vanquished in wars were subjugated. These captives became foot soldiers, or they engaged in other aspects of economic production such as agriculture or artisanal production.
In many African societies the captives, or their descendants, became integrated into the community. Some became political or military leaders. The subjugation came from warfare. Africans didn’t go to inspect and purchase other Africans on auction blocks. Yes, Africans enslaved in the Arab world in north Africa and the Indian ocean island of Zanzibar were indeed subjected to the auctions.
European slavers, strictly in search of labor, introduced a strictly commercial element. With African collaborators they sparked a new kind of war—attacks by Africans against other Africans strictly for the purpose of captives for Europeans.
“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 impact of slavery has been devastating to African descendants in the New World; and to the African continent as well. The depopulation retarded development. Rodney notes that between 1650 and 1850—a period which overlaps the Atlantic Slave Trade— there was no increase in Africa’s population, which remained about 100 million. During the same time frame, Europe’s increased from 103 million to 274 million, or by 166%; Asia’s rose from 257 million to 656 million, or by 155%. “African economic activity was affected both directly and indirectly by population loss,” as a result of the new slave-raiding wars and the disruptions in agricultural production and dislocations.
“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 for the big screen.
Another excellent project could be one which happens to be the subject of my recently completed dramatic-history graphic book, “Adwa: Empress Taytu and Emperor Menelik In Love and War,” with beautiful drawings in color by Ugandan artist Obedirwoth. The book chronicles Ethiopia’s March 1, 1896 victory over an invading Italian army seeking to colonize it.
This was during a period referred to as “The Scramble for Africa” between 1880 and 1900 when European powers—with England, France and Belgium at the forefront— were rushing for colonies in Africa. Europe had industrialized in the previous century and there was desperate demand for: natural and mineral resources; cheap or slave labor to produce them in Africa; and captive markets for Europe’s factory-manufactured products.
The Europeans met at the Berlin Conference from November 15, 1884 to February 26, 1885 and divided up the African continent. Africans had no knowledge such a meeting was taking place. To take control of its designated territory, Italy prepared for war on Ethiopia. Before setting off to battle Gen. Oreste Baratieri, the commander, 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. The Ethiopians killed about 3,000 Italian soldiers and captured an almost equal number—They marched them back to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital and put them to work building and cleaning the City, and some were sent on farms, all under the supervision of Africans. The tables had been momentarily turned.
Ethiopia remained the only African country not colonized by a European power in the 19th century as a result of the victory.
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.
As some of you know, I launched a Kickstarter to fund my graphic book. I’m happy to announce that the campaign is nearing its goal.
As of today October 29, 2022 the campaign has raised $12,445 or 79% of the target which is $15,750. Thanks to the 74 backers who’ve supported the project.
The campaign ends in a few hours after midnight of October 31st, so any support is still welcome.