Writing for The Herald, Garikai Chengu says: “Unbeknown to many, most of human history took place in Africa, where women were equal, if not superior, to men. For thousands of years, African societies were matriarchal and they prospered. By bringing an oppressive form of colonial Christianity to Africa, Europeans replaced millennia of prosperous matriarchy with oppressive patriarchy”.
UnCensored will bring you a series on Africa’s Queens, starting with Queen Yaa Asantewaa….
Queen Yaa Asantewaa in Batakarikese (Ceremonial war dress)
On 17 October 1921, the great Ashanti warrior queen Yaa Asantewaa passed away. Her story is that of a queen who rallied masses to fight for their independence; hers is a story of courage, determination, and stamina. Yaa Asantewaa led a rebellion against the British at a time when the men surrounding her were low in spirit, afraid, and discouraged. She arose them to fight for their independence, and for their nation. Her fight against British colonialists is a story woven throughout the history of Ghana.
Yaa Asantewaa was born in 1840 in the Gold Coast in the Kingdom of Ashanti. She was a successful farmer, mother, intellectual, politician, human right activist, Queen and leader. Yaa Asantewaa became famous for leading the Ashanti rebellion against British colonialism to defend the Golden Stool, symbol and soul of the Ashanti nation (1900–1901). She promoted women emancipation as well as gender equality. She was the sister of the Ruler of Ejisu (Ejisuhene) Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpase, an ethnic group in present-day Ghana.
During her brother’s reign, Yaa Asantewaa saw the Asante Confederacy go through a series of events that threatened its future, including civil war from 1883 to 1888. When her brother died in 1894, Yaa Asantewaa used her right as Queen Mother to nominate her own grandson as Ejisuhene. When the British exiled him in the Seychelles in 1896, along with the King of Asante Prempeh I and other members of the Asante government, Yaa Asantewaa became regent of the Ejisu-Juaben District. As seen earlier, this was the European’s way of dealing with African kings, as in Benin Kingdom. Sending a king to exile was usually followed by the looting of their land. This has led to the discovery of lots of Africa’s valued arts and crafts in Europe, which to this date have not been returned to their rightful owners.
After the deportation of Prempeh I, the British governor-general of the Gold Coast, Frederick Hodgson, demanded the Golden Stool. This request led to a secret meeting of the remaining members of the Asante government at Kumasi, to discuss how to secure the return of their king. There was a disagreement among those present on how to go about this. Yaa Asantewaa the Queen Mother of Ejisu, was at the meeting. The chiefs were discussing how they should make war on the white men and force them to bring back the Asantehene. She saw that some of the chiefs were afraid. Some said that there should be no war. They should rather go to beg the Governor to bring back the Asantehene King(Nana) Prempeh.
Disgusted by the men’s behavior, Yaa Asantewaa stood up and addressed the members of the council with these now-famous words:
“Now, I see that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it was in the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opoku Ware I, chiefs would not sit down to see their king to be taken away without firing a shot. No European could have dared speak to chiefs of Asante in the way the governor spoke to you this morning. Is it true that the bravery of Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: if you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will. We, the women, will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight! We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields.”
With this, she took on leadership of the Asante Uprising of 1900, gaining the support of some of the other Asante nobility. She led the famous war knows as the War of the Golden Stool against the British. After several months, the British Gold Coast governor eventually sent a force of 1,400 to quell the rebellion. During the course of this, Queen Yaa Asantewaa and 15 of her closest advisers were captured, and they too were sent into exile to the Seychelles. She died there on 17th of October 1921. Three years later, on 27 December 1924, Prempeh I and the other remaining members of the exiled Asante court were allowed to return to Asante Kingdom. Prempeh I made sure that the remains of Yaa Asantewaa and the other exiled Asantes were returned home for a proper royal burial. She was buried with all the honors due a queen like her.
Yaa Asantewa’s War was the last major war led by an African woman. She embodied courage and strength when faced with the injustice of the European invader. She is honored with a school named after her, ‘Yaa Asantewaa Girl’s Secondary School’ In Kumasi in 1960. Many young girls in Ghana are proudly named after her.