Warrior Women: Women and Armed Resistance Throughout the Diaspora

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The Fight Against Colonialism

A leader in armed struggles against the Portuguese, Queen Nzingha of Ndongo (present day Angola) devoted her entire life to fighting Portuguese colonial powers. When Nzingha's brother, Mbandi, King of Ndongo, cooperated with Portuguese slave-hunters and sold his own people into the slave trade, Nzingha killed her brother in order to take the throne for herself and defend her people. When slavers continued to capture slaves, Nzingha declared war on the Portuguese, strengthened her ties with the Jaga an ethnic group known for their combat skills and waged guerilla warfare. Although Nzingha ultimately lost in her fight against the Portuguese, she remained committed to the cause until she died at the age of 81 (Esherick 2004).

Correspondingly, the Dahomey Amazons, an all-female military unit in the Kingdom of Dahomey (present day Benin) were active participants in the Franco-Dahomean War in the late nineteenth century, as they attempted to subvert the intrusion of European colonial powers in Africa. Trained rigorously, provided with guns and given uniforms, the regiment enjoyed sacred status throughout the Dahomey Kingdom. This group of fighters, referred to as Mino -- "our mothers" in the Fon language took advantage of French male soldiers who frequently hesitated before engaging in combat with Dahomey women. This resulted in many French casualties. However, as the war persisted, the French outnumbered the Dahomey warriors in weaponry and personnel, and continued to occupy the Dahomey Kingdom (Esherick 2004).

In the last female-led war against European colonists, Yaa Asantewaa fought against the British after they demanded the golden stool a symbol for the Asante religion following the exile of the Asantehene, King of the Asante Prempeh I. Realizing that her male counterparts were afraid to demand the release of the Asantehene, she mobilized men and women and led the Ashanti in a rebellion known as the War of the Golden Stool. Despite her efforts, British reinforcements made their way to Kumasi, captured Yaa Asantewaa, and sent her into exile. Without guidance from their leader, the Ashanti forces were unable to win their battle against colonial armies and the British remained in control of the Ashanti (Esherick 2004).

Female Fighters in the Age of Neocolonialism

It is clear that Africa experienced a surge in female engagement in armed resistance against colonial powers which later spread to the Diaspora in various liberation struggles. But while the days of colonial rule ended, the aftermath of colonialism most notably, ethnic divisions imposed by European powers and the vested interest that global superpowers have maintained in exploiting Africa's resources still characterizes most of the conflicts that occur in Africa today. It is necessary to note, then, that the lingering legacy of colonialism, in addition to the exploitative nature of the neocolonial era, has prompted a resurgence of female fighters in contemporary Africa. This is true in the Ogaden region, where ethnic Somali women in Ethiopia have inserted themselves into an irredentist war in an attempt to dismantle the ethnic divisions imposed by European powers and reconnect with their counterparts in Somalia (Van Hauwermeiren 2010). Women were also at the forefront of contemporary liberation struggles in Sierra Leone's Civil War (1991-2002) a war constituted, in part, by attempts to control diamond rich territories. During this struggle, women "figured quite prominently in leadership" despite Western representations of African women as victims in modern warfare, which "plays into the Western construction of Africa as a place needful of military and humanitarian intervention" (MacDonald, 135-136). Additionally, women played a crucial role throughout the recent Civil War in Sudan, which ultimately ended with the nations splitting into two countries: North and South Sudan. During this struggle, Sudanese females fought bravely alongside their male counterparts in a war, again, characterized by lingering colonial ethnic divisions and resource conflicts. The circumstances in the Ogaden, Sierra Leone, and Sudan are a just few of several instances where the lasting effects of colonialism and the exploitative nature of capitalist, neocolonial endeavors converge to propel African women into positions of leadership in armed resistance struggles.


Women Warriors in the Haitian Revolution

Though it is not often mentioned, women played an essential role in the time preceding and during the Haitian Revolution. Their participation included that of spies as well as active involvement in combat. Though documents prove that women actively fought, they do not reveal their specific names.

Jana Evans Braziel's article, "Remembering Defilee: Dedee Baziles as Revolutionary Lieu de Memoire," notes women's lack of acknowledgment in historical accounts, but believes though they are "hidden" and "silenced" they are still incorporated into history. Braziel writes: We need to consider how these women are mentioned and how their appearances work within the historical narrative. What happened to actual black women during Haiti's repeated revolutions, as they were mythologized by men, metaphor-ized out of life into legend? (Braziel 2005).

Concerning women's participation in the Revolution, it is important to "read between the lines" in order to see their active role in the Revolution. This includes actively interpreting many different sources, including direct accounts, religion, and folklore.
Women had a long legacy of fighting. In fact, women were involved in actual combat since the Saint-Domingue's slave revolt in 1791.Philippe Girard's article, "Rebelles with a Cause: Women in the Haitian War of Independence, 1802-04" recalls several accounts of women involvement in the Revolution: "A white manager captured by rebellious slaves in 1791 confessed to being molested by both women and men.", "A Frenchmen who was a prisoner of Dessalines during the siege of Crete a Pierrot states that black women fought alongside the garrison" ,"Dessalines (who was then fighting for the French side) boasted that he had captured many women and children among the fighters, and had given no quarter to those found with guns in their hands" ,"An ancient libre fighting for France explained that while 'hunting maroons' he had come across a camp where he found 23 guns and a prodigious quantity of women. When their camp was taken, three men, five women, and three children chose to kill themselves by jumping from a cliff." (Girard 2009).

Fighting was even more dangerous for women than for men. Girard gives the example of four male rebels who burned a sugar refinery in August 1802, all escaped, while their female accomplices who stayed behind were caught and hanged. Women fled less easily due to family obligations. Females who stayed could be killed (Girard 2009).

The only women specifically noted by name are the wives of rebel officers, such as Sanite Belair and Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniere. Sanite Belair is an important figure in the Haitian Revolution. She fought and was a sergeant in the army of Toussaint Louverture. She is sometimes thought as sacrificing the pig, to initiate the beginning of war (Girard, 2009). In addition, she is known for her bravery, and died refusing to wear a blindfold. Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniere is also named as soldier during the Haitian Revolution and fought in traditional men garments.

In addition to actively fighting, women often initiated war. Mambos (Vodum priestesses) were known to cause revolts against or poison planters. In moral tradition, a mambo, sacrificed a pig in the Vodum ceremony that led to the 1791 uprising (Girard, 2009).
Women warriors are also seen in Haitian tradition. The Vodun Iwa Marinet bwa-cheche is believed to be the Haitian Marianne who fought with Dessalines' army and lit its cannons. In addition, the Vodun Iwa of maternal love, Erzulie, believed to be based on a black slave who allegedly fought in the Haitian revolution (Girard, 2009).

(Queen) Nanny, Jamaican Maroon leader and National Hero

Jamaican National Hero, (Queen) Nanny of the Maroons, was a well-known leader of the Jamaican Maroons in the eighteenth century. Maroons were escaped slaves, forming autonomous communities in the hills of Jamaica. Nanny was most likely an Asante woman sold into slavery in the early eighteenth century and is considered to be "Situated somewhere between mystic and martyr, rebel and myth, the former slave and military leader nevertheless occupies a place of great importance and reverence in Jamaica" (Brown). The success of the Maroon population in Jamaica was a combination military know-how and the West African influenced "matrifocal system of cooperative power" (Bilby 1981). Nanny was the spiritual, cultural and military leader of the Windward Maroons and her importance stems from the fact that she guided the Maroons through the most intense period of their resistance against the British (Gabriel 2004).

Carlota of the Triumvirato sugar mill rebellion

On November 5 of 1843, the enslaved people of Triumvirato broke out in rebellion against the Spanish. Carlota, a slave woman, used a machete to lead the slave uprising facilitating Spanish troops in launching a massive hunt for Carlota and her colleagues. Although Carlota and her accomplices were captured the successful uprising at Triumvirato impacted the enslaved African population of Cuba, and aided the increase of uprisings against the Spanish. In response to these slave rebellions, the following year (1844) became known as the 'year of the lashes', due to retaliation by the Spanish (Godfried 2006).


Female Aboriginal resistance on the Australian mainland and Tasmania

The growing expansion of European settlement resulted in violence from the British which were met with resistance and retaliation by the Indigenous population(s) of Australia. Tarerenorerer of Emu Bay in Northern Tasmania educated her people to use firearms and led an Aboriginal war-band. Aborigines had established their own chain of command by the end of 1828 (Ryan 1996).
Truganini also known as Trugernanner led an Aboriginal band around 1840 drove the new settlers back from the settlements made east of the then newly founded Melbourne. Truganini raided stations for supplies and is rumored to have been an expert markswoman (Roberts 2000).

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Bilby, Kenneth, Filomena Chioma Steady. "Black Women and Survival: A Maroon Case". The Black Woman Cross-Culturally. Rochester, VT. Schenkman Books, 1981, p 452.

Braziel, Jana Evans. "Remembering Defilee: Dedee Baziles as Revolutionary Lieu de Memoire." Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, September 1, 2005. p 60.

Brown, Kimberly. http://www.yale.edu/glc/nanny.htm. Accessed March 2012.

Esherick, Joan. "Women in African History." Women in the African World. 2004, pp. 11-23.

Gabriel, Deborah. 2004. http://www.jamaicans.com/articles/primearticles/queennanny~print.shtml. Accessed March 2012.

Girard, Philippe. Rebelles with a Cause: Women in the Haitian War of Independence, 1802-04. Gender and history volume 21, issue 1, page 1-52, April 2009

Godfried, Eugene. 2006. http://www.afrocubaweb.com/carlota.htm. Accessed April 2012.

MacDonald, Alice. "New Wars, Forgotten Warriors: Why Have Girl Fighters Been Excluded From Western Representations of Conflict in Sierra Leone?." Africa Development, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, 2008, pp. 135-145.

Roberts , Jani Farrell. 2000. "The Seven Days of My Creation: Tales of Magic, Sex and Gender". iUniverse.

Ryan, Lyndall. "The Aboriginal Tasmanians". St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1996. P 149.

Van Hauwermeiren, Remco. "The Ogaden War: Somali Women's Roles and the Psychological Ramifications."