‘Woman King’s Official Historian Leonard Wantchekon Talks Controversy and History

Princeton professor Leonard Wantchekon is the official film historian for The female king, which has now grossed $83 million worldwide since its premiere in early September. The Economist was asked to help director Gina Prince-Bythewood illustrate and confirm the nuances and layers of historical record surrounding the story of King Ghezo of the Kingdom of Dahomey, the female warriors known as Agojie and the economic impact of the intra-African slave trade which is referenced in the film alongside the transatlantic slave trade. (Ghezo was portrayed by John Beyega and Viola Davis portrayed General Nanisca de l’Agojie.)

The film illustrates the layered politics and diverse views expressed on trade – human and palm oil – at the time, in the early 1800s. The Beninese government asked Wantchekon to help verify these facts, but it is also related to a woman who – in her youth – was an Agojie warrior. The stories surrounding these women are one that was not known to the whole world until now.

Wantchekon spoke to me about his research, why such stories have been buried for far too long, and why this film shines a light on a part of history that deserves more shine.

Here’s what else Wantchekon had to say.

Tell me how you came to work out The female king?

Wantchekon: I started following them, from the last cohorts. Who fought in the 1890-1894 war against the French. A lot of them, you know, died in the 1940s and 1960s. Even one died in the 1970s. I tried to find them, to go to the places where they were born, the places where they settled after doing their military service and, to make sure that their descendants, children or grandchildren speak to us so that we can have a profile of them. So I have a total of 50 or 51. The Washington Post wrote an article about the search, and that’s how they contacted me.

Tell me about your family ties with the Agojie?

Wantchekon: My hometown is about 35 kilometers from the capital of Dahomey. I later realized that one of my extended family members was also one of those female warriors. So I realized that my extended family was really part of the kingdom’s history. So that makes me even more determined to participate [with the film].

Why is it important for the world to see this story?

This is important because then you can debunk some of the myths about them. Because if you know the personal story of a sample of them, then you can say it’s real. It’s not just imagined.

What else is remarkable, historically speaking, regarding the women of Dahomey?

Part of the story is that what we see is not just a king proposing the idea that women should fight in the military, [but that ] these are the results of the social norms of the time. Women were raised to do anything and interacted with boys. These social norms are therefore one of the reasons why the institution [of the Agojie] exist. Because even if the king has the idea to do something like this, we have to find the girls who match the profile of the hat. And that’s important. And then something that came out of the film was how all the institutions were gender-inclusive, because the government [had] some of the key positions like Prime Minister and Ministry of Religions – all these key positions have female and male officers.

It’s a shame we weren’t told about it at school. I wonder why?

Let me put it this way. Many Europeans who wrote about it were very selective in what they wrote about government, they focused only on the slave trade. If you read the things written about them, it’s extremely selective. There is less attention to detail from the institution. You have to read between the lines, for example. The kingdom has a national assembly, you know, it’s like every year for a week. There are representative regional governments. They come to a place to hold a general session, like a convention. The kingdom has a medical convention, every three years, where all the traditional healers exchange ideas… So I feel like [European historians]instead of reporting what they see, they have a better interest in perpetuating the distorted visions they have of the country.

Some people were upset that the film raised the nuances of how some West Africans were kidnapped and sold as slaves or entered into intra-African conflict. How do you respond to this criticism?

When Ghezo was in power, you know, the [slave] trade was greatly reduced. And the involvement of Ghezo himself was limited, according to the data I have. Even if before, or even at this time, there was some level of involvement, that should not take away the fact that there were major institutional innovations at the time, particularly at court, female warriors , military units – things of great importance that even today we can learn from. The movie was right not to over-emphasize this, because at that time it became a very fringe activity, mostly run by non-state actors, not the king himself and his palace.

Despite the criticism, many fans are still in awe of the story. What do you hope others take away from the film?

It’s not like 6’5 or 7′ women do that. I think the profound lesson of the film is that these are girls who were raised to do what they did and they did it.

This interview is part of a series of interviews that delve into the history of the story of The female king. You can read my interview with the film’s head of makeup and prosthetics, Babalwa Mtshiselwa here.