Pokou (c. 1700–c. 1760)
Pokou (c. 1700–c. 1760)
African ruler of first rank who led the Baule people, a subgroup of the Ashanti tribe, across the Comoé River near the Ivory Coast to establish a new state which became powerful in trade during the 19th century. Name variations: Abla Pokou; Aura Pokou; Awura Pokou; Queen of the Ashanti. Born Pokou sometime between 1700 and 1720; daughter of an unrecorded father (as a member of Ashanti royalty her status was inherited through her mother) and Nyakou Kosiamoa; married Tano (a warrior); children: one son.
Led a group of Ashanti to the West African Ivory Coast (c. 1750), establishing a kingdom over which she was proclaimed queen; died shortly thereafter.
Throughout African history, women have held positions of leadership. Whether they were queens like Njinga or Taytu , chiefs like Hannah Awolowo and Okwei of Osomari , or leaders of movements like Auoa Kéita , women have shaped the African continent, where female authority has been an accepted norm far longer than in Europe. When Europeans colonized what they perceived as the "dark continent," many Africans were puzzled by a people who placed judicial, military, and government authority in the hands of only one gender. Africa's oral traditions had long kept alive stories of warriors like Njinga who led troops in battle, chiefs who settled local disputes, and empresses like Taytu who governed large countries. In the eyes of many Africans, the technologically advanced society of the Europeans did not conceal what were often perceived as socially regressive attitudes.
Documenting the accomplishments of Queen Pokou, an Ashanti ruler of the Baule people in the first half of the 18th century, presents certain problems, because her life was chronicled primarily through oral history. In recent years, however, scholars have combined African oral tradition with written European accounts to flesh out the details of the life of Pokou, with remarkable results. Accounts written by G.A. Robertson in 1819, and by M. Delafosse in 1899, substantiate much of the oral tradition recounted around the campfire for generations.
The history of the Akan or Ashanti tribe can be traced back at least as far as the 12th century, when these forerunners of the Baule people began to infiltrate the forests of what is modern Ghana, eventually inhabiting most of the southern part of the region currently occupied by that country. In 1295, the oldest Akan kingdom was established under the name of Bono Mansu. In many ways, Ashanti kingdoms resembled medieval European principalities of the same period. Independent duchies, principalities, and kingdoms were founded, prospered for a time, and then disintegrated, only to reemerge in a new form. Around 1620, the kingdom of Denkyra emerged and established the ascendancy of the Ashanti tribes. In 1700, Osei Tutu began his rule and became the greatest Ashanti king, uniting several small and widely scattered small kingdoms into an even larger empire. Famous throughout western Africa, he ruled from a throne of gold until 1718.
When Europeans began to colonize Africa in the 16th century, geographical barriers combined with the fierceness of the Ashanti people to allow them to remain more independent of the invaders than many African tribes. Along the Ivory Coast, the mainland area known as the Quaqua Coast was separated from the ocean by an interconnected series of freshwater lagoons which were navigable by small craft but inaccessible to larger boats. The area was made more inaccessible by impenetrable jungle and the unhealthy climate created by high humidity and rainfall, which proved especially dangerous to colonials unaccustomed to tropical diseases.
Therefore, at the time of Pokou's birth (between 1700 and 1720), the Ashanti kingdom was still intact. She was born into royalty, the niece of the powerful Osei Tutu, and the daughter of Nyakou Kosiamoa , who was either a sister or niece of the king. Since succession to the Ashanti throne was matrilineal, a mother's identity was more important than a father's, and the identity of Pokou's father was not recorded. She herself was important to the succession since the royal heir was the child of the king's sister or his niece. When a new male heir succeeded to the throne, the queen mother shared power with her son.
In 1718, Osei Tutu was ambushed and killed, and power over the Ashanti passed to Pokou's brother, Dakon. During his reign, which lasted for almost two decades, Pokou chose a husband according to the privilege of her rank. Much to her regret, however, since she was in line to produce the next heir to the throne, she did not become pregnant.
One day when Dakon and his army were away at war from the Ashanti capital at Kumasi, enemy troops occupied the town. All the royal princesses were killed except Pokou, who arranged for the townspeople to escape. Prepared to die at her post if necessary, she was instead taken hostage, and when Dakon returned to his empty capital, he was furious. Dakon appointed a warrior, Tano, to lead the forces in freeing the royal princess, and following the rescue Tano was married to her. This marriage resulted in the birth of a baby boy, ensuring an heir to the golden Ashanti throne.
While the child was still an infant, Pokou's brother became ill. Before his death, Dakon named a successor to the throne, but the appointed heir was soon assassinated by Kwissi, Dakon's rival. Recognizing that Pokou's son was the eventual rightful heir, Kwissi sought Pokou's blessing for his reign. Kwissi perhaps even hoped to marry Pokou; certainly he believed that her support was vital to maintaining his power. But Pokou refused to give her backing to the inter-loper. Instead, she decided to leave Kumasi and found a new kingdom, and invited Ashanti families who also wanted to leave to join her. According to tradition, four groups of Ashanti of noble rank—the Warebo, the Faafew, the Nzipri, and the Sa—decided to follow Pokou. Others who joined her were the Atutu, the Nanfew, the Ngbã, and the Agba, all of whom had been conquered by the Ashanti.
Legend and fact intermingle at this point, while the story of Pokou and her people also becomes remarkably parallel to that of Moses and the Hebrews he led in their exodus out of Egypt. Like the Hebrews followed by the armies of the pharaoh, Pokou's followers were pursued by Kwissi's soldiers. They headed westward toward the Comoé River, passing through interminable jungle, where according to tradition they fought panthers, giant ants, and giant snakes. Sometimes they crossed savannas filled with belligerent elephants, and serpents seemed always to lie in wait no matter what the terrain, while illness also dogged their footsteps. After many months, still pursued by Kwissi's troops, they reached the banks of the Comoé River.
Faced with a raging torrent, with no shallow fords or places for canoes to cross, Pokou and her followers decided that a sacrifice must be made to the river spirits. At first their leader considered sacrificing a sick woman and her baby, but when they were brought to her, Pokou decided, like Abraham offering his only son Isaac up to Yahweh, that the river gods would not accept such a meager sacrifice. As Kwissi's troops drew nearer, she was convinced that nothing less than her son would please the river spirits, and threw her only child into the waters of the Comoé. According to legend, an enormous tree stretched over the waters, forming a bridge, and river animals like crocodiles and hippopotamuses rose out of the water to convey the people on their backs. No sooner had Pokou's people reached the other side than the bridge and river animals disappeared, stopping the army's pursuit. It was for this event that the migrating Ashanti became known as the "Baule," in memory of Pokou's son.
Just as no one can be certain that the waters of the Red Sea parted for the Old Testament Hebrews, the Ashanti's miraculous crossing of the Comoé cannot be documented. What is certain is that the Hebrews occupied Palestine and the Ashanti occupied much of today's Ivory Coast. The actual date of the African exodus is somewhat open to question, placed by some in 1730, although 1750 is the more likely date. Further research indicates that the Ashanti or Akan people settled in this area of what is now Ghana in several waves, after the middle of the 18th century. Among these groups, the Warebo were the ascendant people, and Pokou was a Warebo. While mythological versions claim that the Baule people conquered the area militarily in short order, it is more likely that their conquest was of an extended nature, and accomplished to a large extent through marriage and trade.
To claim her new homeland, Pokou is said to have led her meager troops against the local ruler Agpatu and his forces, and ultimately gained the upper hand. It may be that her army had guns while the enemy did not. Accounts document that she waged war only in self-defense, never simply for the sake of destruction. Declared queen by this time, she was a judicious ruler, expert at settling disputes among tribes and individuals. But, like Moses, who led his people to the promised land but did not live to enjoy it, Pokou also died not long after the establishment of new kingdom. She was succeeded by her niece, Akwabenua Bensua , who perished during her conquest of the Youre people, and then by a male ruler, Akwa Boni, who expanded Baule control.
The arrival of the Baule was not immediately noticed by the colonizing Europeans. When the French began to frequent the area in the 1760s, trade with the newcomers was still insignificant. It was the early 19th century before their existence began to be noted in European histories. T.E. Bowdich wrote in 1817, "A powerful kingdom called Bhaooree, which has hitherto successfully resisted the Ashantees, was described to be westward." Some knowledge of the Baule was acquired in Kumasi, the old capital Pokou and her people had left, indicating that the two groups remained in contact over the years.
In the 19th century, the role of the Baule as traders developed dramatically. In 1819, G.A. Robertson reported about a trading people in the African interior in his Notes on Africa:
The greater part of their trade they say comes from Weesaw (perhaps Wawsaw) and Couche, or Cotchey; the latter they represent to be governed by a female, of the extent of whose dominions and power they entertain a high opinion. They say that the queen declares war against all countries that do not pay her seeka or sicca (gold), and that she often sends troops to fight for other countries that can pay her well; but that she never commences hostilities against Cape Lahoo, as it is a place of trade.
It is possible that this account refers to Pokou's niece Akwabenua Bensua, or her descendant. One thing is certain—the tradition of female leadership in the area was well established.
The Baule differed from the many tribes who acted as intermediaries in trade between the Africans of the interior selling their ivory, gold, and slaves, and the Europeans. The Baule grew prosperous as farmers, supplying agricultural products for the European commodities markets. Europeans did not actually penetrate Baule territory until the 1890s, and then it was to map the area. The Baule remained an industrious, talented people who contributed much to modern Ghana and the Ivory Coast both culturally and economically.
In the separation of the myths surrounding Queen Pokou from fact, the outlines of a remarkable woman emerge, as a leader others were willing to follow, and one whose greatness was proved by her willingness to sacrifice her own happiness and well being for the sake of her people. In Africa, Pokou's accomplishments and her story are highly revered.
Loucou, Jean Noel, and Françoise Ligier. La Reine Pokou: Fondatrice du Royaume Baoulé. Paris: ABC, 1978.
Mundt, Robert J. Historical Dictionary of The Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire). London: Scarecrow Press, 1987.
"Queen Pokou" in Women Around the World and Through the Ages. Edited by Sabrina Mervin and Carol Prunhuber. Atomium, 1990.
Weiskel, Timothy C. "The Precolonial Baule: A Reconstruction," in Cahiers D'Études Africaines. Vol. 18, 1978, pp. 503–560.
Wilkes, I. Asante in the Nineteenth Century: The Structure and Evolution of a Political Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Karin Loewen Loewen , writer, Athens, Georgia