African Women Heroes: Yaa Asantewaa, the Queen Who Fought the British

The role of women in African society is a hotly debated issue and has been so since the turn of the 20th century. This debate is often carried out in reductionist terms by people from various sides of the debating position. While Western Institutions and policy think tanks and opinion shapers like the Brookings Institute often appear to champion the need to and the importance of empowering African women, it is often done with neoimperialist tones and with the broader goal of depicting Africa as the dark continent and Africans as culturally in the dark ages. It must be said that it is not just think tanks that do this, but Western leaders as well in their so-called culture wars. Recently, French president Emmanuel Macron said Africa is held back by civilizational problems instead of the reality of the many factors, including French stranglehold on Africa’s resources since the colonial and slavery days that continue to leave Arica poor. On the other side of this debate are ardent Afrocentrists who argue that Africa’s women are not oppressed and use powerful women like the glorious Yaa Asantewaa of blessed memory to show that African women have had power all along. With this squad, they argue this not in service of advancing the leadership and more public engagement of current African women but just as an us against them rhetorical trick towards these neoimperialist propaganda by Western institutions and leaders.

What this article aims to do is to offer a third way, something that African Women scholars have argued over the years in service of further engagement of African women in the public sphere and impressing upon everyone African Women’s rights and qualifications to lead. The life of Yaa Asantewaa is an inspiration to all African children but much more so to African girls. As a young man looking to get married soon, I wish to leave some of these videos I am making about strong African women to my daughters to show them that the sky is their limit and they can do whatever they set their minds to unhindered by the accident of their sex. So, let’s dive into the life of Yaa Asantewaa. But first some historical context. This will help explain how she became a star and inspiration to every child in Ghana.

Yaa Asantewaa was born between 1832-40 in the heart of the Asante empire in what is now present day central Ghana. She had an elder brother who would later become Ejisuhene (that is Ejisu Chief), a divisional chiefdom under the king of the Asante empire. So, the family chiefdom was among the kingmakers and top aristocrats of the Asante empire. At the time of her childhood, the British and the French were carving out Africa for themselves in the now infamous Berlin conference of 1880. The British got what they greedily called the Gold Coast or modern-day Ghana.  The British, after Berlin started their campaign to take over Ghana including the Gold-rich Asante empire to which Yaa Asantewaa belonged. This is the historical backdrop from which arose our African warrior queen.

Unlike Europe where almost every single tribe is organized patriarchaly around the man or family patriarch, a significant number of African ethnic groups are organized matrilinealy. The Asante is one such society in Africa where family descent is traced through the mother rather than the father. Whereas a child belongs to the father in patrilineal societies like Europe, among the Asante, a child belongs to the mother’s family. This gives Asante women, especially those from aristocratic families, immense influence in the community if they so choose to use it. And there have been a number of strong and influential such women among the Asante, and Yaa Asantewaa is one of them. The eldest woman in the family often assume the role of queen mother and Yaa Asantewaa was the Queen mother of Ejisu at the time of repeated British colonial insults on the Asante. As Queen mother of a powerful aristocratic family, she had immense power and influence and was among the most important leaders and elders of the Asante empire. Traditionally, the Asante Queen mother chose the king and was consulted on major decisions regarding the fate of the kingdom.

When Yaa Asantewaa’s brother died, in 1894, she nominated her grandson to the post of Ejisuhene. In the ensuing battle for supremacy between the invading British and the Asante empire, the British resorted to stealthily capturing the chiefs and kings of the Asante empire and transporting them to island prisons as exiles. In 1986, her grandson the Ejisuhene was exiled along with the Asante King Prempeh I and other members of the Asante government to the Seychelles island in order to pacify the Asante and deprive them of leadership. This was all done in order to allow the British to steal the immense raw gold and golden ornaments and artifacts of the empire.

Having exiled the king and his government, the British now thought they were in charge and they’d be no more rebellion, much less instigated by a woman. Remember the British, with their arcane Biblical and European patriarchy and misogyny couldn’t fathom a woman actually instigating a war. Even their Queens are mere figureheads stripped of any real political power. So, either by ignorance or stupidity, the British governor in the Gold Coast Frederick Hodgson demanded that he be allowed to sit on the Golden Stool: the most important artifact of the Asante kingdom. This foolish British civil servant believed that as nominal leader of the Gold Cost and therefore the Asante, he had the right to sit on the most important artifact of the Asante people. The stool is said to have been conjured from the heavens by a spiritual man for the Asante kingdom and holds not just a ceremonial place in the hearts of every Asante but a spiritual one.

These uncultured British, who were in the habit of looting and stealing African artifacts and sending it back to Britain didn’t care about or were foolish enough not to understand the enormity of what he was asking. But he did so because he felt they had decimated the power of the kingdom by kidnapping the Asante government. But he was about to realize that African warriors aren’t just the men. When push comes to shove, African women will step up to the plate. African women had many active roles during war. Some of which include providing food at war camps, singing war sings and encouraging men to become brave, performing spiritual rituals to fortify warriors of the tribe and acted as nurses and healers during war. But when the men fell, African women can and have historically taken up arms themselves. But to the British who were used to gender segregation and lack of power for women, they didn’t see this coming.

Yaa Asantewaa who had grown up very industrious and decent woman and later became Queen Mother was one such brave African woman after the falling of the male royalty. Historians describe her as highly spiritual and a no nonsense serious person which won her fame and love by her people. She loved peace and avoided tribal clashes. But she was principled. Justice, equality, and fairness were qualities she possessed and desired. So, when her grandson was exiled from Ejisu, she became regent of the town as well as maintaining her status as Queen mother.

By 1986 when the King Prempeh 1 was kidnapped, the British had won a number of wars against the Asante. After these wins, the British demanded many things even though the Asante requested friendship treaty with them. It was the refusal of the Asante to accept to be under the British that led to the kidnapping of the king and his court. But when he was kidnapped, elements of the court smuggled the Golden stool out of the palace so the British looters could not lay their hands on it. They instigated some treacherous Asante chiefs to steal the Golden stool for them but this resulted in a civil war that led to the stool remaining in Asante hands. After the exile of the king, the governor left Cape Coast to come to Kumasi to formalize his control as leader of the Asante. The defeated chiefs held a durbar for him and after they treated him well, he demanded they give him the stool to sit on. They told him they couldn’t find it, to which he arrogantly said this at a meeting with the Chiefs:

What must I do to the man, whoever he is, who failed to give to the Queen, who is the paramount power in the country, the stool to which she was entitled? Where is the Golden Stool? Why am I not sitting on the Golden Stool at this moment? I am the representative of the paramount power; why have you relegated me to this chair? Why did you not take the opportunity of my coming to Kumasi to bring the Golden Stool and give it to me to sit upon? However, you may be quite sure that although I have not received the Golden Stool, I will rule over you with the same impartiality and the same firmness as if you had produced it.

None of the male chiefs spoke up regarding this impudence by the British white man. But Yaa Asantewaa reacted angrily. She is reported to have uttered these words of courage and fire and resistance:

Foolish White man! Who are you to demand the Golden Stool? The Golden Stool is the property of the King of Asante and not for people like you: Do you belong to the royal family? Where is our King? Go and bring him to show you where the Golden Stool is kept. He is the sole custodian and he knows where it is hidden.

After that, the meeting dissolved and Yaa Asantewaa went home to prepare for war. In her preparation, another woman who has received less attention needs be mentioned. The Queen mother of Offinso, Nana Afranewaa, cousin of Yaa Asantewaa was a constant collaborator and advisor to her, so it was not just one woman. I am saying this to show that Yaa Asantewaa was not an aberration. She had other women like her on her side. At a war council meeting where the men were dragging their feet, Yaa Asantewaa gave the following speech:

How can a proud and brave people like the Asante sit back and look while white men take away their king and chiefs, and humiliate them with the demand for the Golden Stool. The Golden Stool only means money to the white man; they searched and dug everywhere for it. I shall not pay one cent to the Governor. If you, the chiefs of Asante, are going to behave like cowards and not fight, you should exchange your loincloths for my undergarments.

Yaa Asantewaa is said to have grabbed a gun and fired it in front of the chiefs at this meeting thereby formalizing her challenge to them about being brave. She was made commander in chief of the entire Asante army and she went ahead to gather troops from various parts of the empire to fight the British. She gave the following speech before her assembled warriors:

Brave men of Asante, we are now faced with a serious confrontation by the Governor‘s extremely provocative request for the Golden Stool, which is the religious symbol of unity of the Asante nation. Not quite long ago the white man came and unilaterally occupied our God-given land and by force of arms has declared Asante Kingdom a British protectorate. We should also not forget that during the reign of King Karikari, the aggressors waged a senseless war on us, destroyed the seat of the Asante monarch and burnt our palace after looting all the treasures bequeathed to us by our fore father. Taking our brave men for a ride, the governor arbitrarily arrested and deported our King together with some prominent Chiefs of Asante without you men raising a finger. Today, he has come again to demand the Golden Stool. Gallant youth and men of our fatherland, shall we sit down to be dehumanized all the time by these rogues? We should rise and defend our heritage; it is better to perish than to look on sheepishly while the white man whose sole business in our country is to steal, kill and destroy, threatens to rob us of our Golden Stool. Arise men! And defend the Golden Stool from being captured by foreigners. It is more honorable to perish in defense of the Golden Stool than to remain in perpetual slavery. I am prepared and ready to lead you to war against the white man.

After this speech, she went on to prepare for war in various ways. They used various Danish guns as their primary weapons of war against the British. Unlike today’s presidents, Yaa Asantewaa was intimately involved in daily preparation of the war’s various strategies like “forming units and building of camps, stockades and ambush. She appointed generals over various troops and positioned them at vantage points in and around Kumasi. She made camps placing generals and troops along a major road linking Kumasi and other major cities in the Gold Coast.” (Wiafe Mensah 56). Other strategies included banning women from sleeping with cowards who refused to fight, deception tactics through drums, starvation of the besieged British, road blocks, improvised mines, covered traps, mounting of stockades, and movement detectors.

These strategies led to the Yaa Asantewaa and the Asante winning the early battles of the war thereby forcing the British to negotiate. They were able to ambush the governor and trap him in his fort in Kumasi. The British initially thought they will crush the Asante army within days but this failed and led to months of fighting. When the British offered to negotiate, Yaa Asantewaa accepted because she was only interested in peace and justice and not war. So she demanded the release and return of the king, a refusal of the governor’s indemnity, and a refusal to hand over the golden stool. The governor accepted these terms but betrayed the Asante by detaining one of the chiefs who went to deliver the terms. They killed the detained chief afterwards which led to the Asante resuming the war. The intensity of Yaa Asantewaa’s angry assault led to the governor escaping and fleeing to Cape Coast far from the Asante mainland. There he requested troops and reinforcements from Nigeria, a much bigger colony of the British. This massive reinforcement led to the eventual defeat of Yaa Asantewaa’s forces. In all, the Asante forces fought from April 1900 to March 1901 when Yaa Asantewaa surrendered and was imprisoned because the British had kidnapped her children and grandchildren.  After the war, she along with about 45 other war generals were kidnapped and exiled to the Seychelles island as well. She later died in old age on the island.

The revolutionary importance of Yaa Asantewaa’s story is beyond measure. I have painstakingly taken you through her story to show you that the role of African women has not always been relegated to the domestic arena. African women, when they showed immense leadership qualities have had the opportunity to lead whole kingdoms and massive armies. Today’s Africa is not the Africa of old. In traditional Africa, women had the opportunity to rise through the ranks to claim public leadership roles. What we have today in Africa regarding the role of women, especially in the public sphere are remnants of European and Arab colonial heritage. Unlike European Christianity and Arab Islam which details women’s subservience to men and delineates domestic roles as women’s own, African traditional religion does not do that. Women have the spiritual, religious, and social freedoms to be whoever they can be to the best of their abilities.

Unlike America, we have already had about 30 women prime ministers and presidents from African countries in the motherland and in the diaspora. America has yet to have a vice president who is a woman. France and Britain have had just one. So women leadership is nothing new to the continent. If we throw off the yoke of European Christianity and Arab Islam on the society in general, and women in particular, and if we look forward with inspiration from our past African values, African women will play an equal and positive role in the development of our continent through taking up badly needed leadership the continent needs. In our quest to see the future, brave African women and queens like Yaa Asantewaa provide a leading light in our quest to progress. Women’s role is not in the Kitchen. It is everywhere and Yaa Asantewaa proved it. And We will be wise to encourage our own 21st century Yaa Asantewaas from among ourselves.

Yaa Asantwaa was not an aberration as you will see in our next batch of women covered as they spread across the entire length and breadth of Mother Africa. We will discuss Queen Nzinga of the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms of Angola next in this series of African women heroes. Enjoy and remember to share this with your friends to educate our kids about their history. Leave comments and suggestions as well. Support this channel anyway you can. See you next time.

 

 

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