Yaa Asantewaa (c. 1850–1921)
Yaa Asantewaa (c. 1850–1921)
Queenmother of Ejisu, Ashanti, in Ghana, who resisted British colonialism and incited her people to
fight the British in a war that bore her name. Name variations: Nana Yaa Asantewaa; Yaa Asantewah; Yah Asantiwa; Yaa Asantuah; Yaa Asantewa. Pronunciation: Yaah A-san-TE-waah. Born Yaa Asantewaa between 1840 and 1850 at Besease in the Edweso (Ejisu) state, Ashanti; died in her sleep on October 5, 1921, in the Seychelles; daughter of Ataa Po and Ampomah of Ampabame (both farmers); children: daughter, Nana Ama Serwaah of Boankra.
Enstoolment as queenmother of Ejisu (about 1884, certainly by 1896); led the war against the British (April 1900); became a "wanted person" (toward the end of 1900); escaped to Ahafo, north of Ashanti; captured (late 1900); subsequently exiled to the Seychelles (1901); converted to Christianity and baptized by British in the Seychelles (1904).
The last quarter of the 19th century, the period during which Yaa Asantewaa instigated the Ashanti (Asante) nation to fight its final war against the British, was one of several upheavals that had far-reaching effects for Ashanti. Once a formidable nation, described by historian David Kimble in his Political History of Ghana as "the nearest approximation to a modern nation that was reached independently of European influence," Ashanti was annexed by the British in September 1901, and on January 1, 1902, it officially became part of the Gold Coast, the name given to the former British colony now known as the state of Ghana.
Europeans had been in contact with Africans in these coastal areas of West Africa since the late 15th century. One after the other, the Portuguese, the French, the English, the Dutch, the Swedes, the Danes, and the Brandenburgers (Germans) had arrived in search of gold and slaves. By 1874, Britain was the remaining colonial power.
Ashanti, located in the interior, was made up of several component states that formed a union or confederation, with the inland city of Kumasi as its capital. Ashanti had immense resources in gold and a long tradition of local traders who traveled to the coast for trade with the Europeans. The Ashantis also claimed supremacy over some of the coastal possessions that the British considered to be theirs. Before 1874, British involvement in wars between the Ashanti and coastal nationalities like the Fante was to protect British interests. After about 1880, the British became increasingly interested in extending their political influence inland over Ashanti and making it a British protectorate. The Ashanti people's dislike of this idea was demonstrated in 1883, whey they destooled the queenmother Afua Koba for her percieved accomodation to the British.
In 1891, the Asantehene (king of the Ashantis) Kwaku Dua III, better known as Prempeh I, was approached by the British, who proposed to make Ashanti one of their political possessions. According to historians Adu Boahen and David Kimble, the king refused politely but firmly, saying, "My kingdom of Ashanti must remain independent as of old, at the same time to be friendly with all white men." In 1896, five years after turning down the offer of protection, Prempeh I and his mother Yaa Akyaa were arrested by the British and sent into exile at the far side of the African continent, on the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. Prempeh was not repatriated until 1924, after almost 30 years.
With the arrest and subsequent removal of their king, there was a feeling of humiliation, bitterness, and much tension among the people of Ashanti. The stage was thus set for the intervention by Yaa Asantewaa which led to the war of 1900, often referred to as the Yaa Asantewaa war. Though the biographical details of her life are sparse, her action in support of her people in their resistance of British rule and her subsequent exile make her a heroine of Ghanaian history. Today, there are many Ashanti folksongs and sayings about her.
Afua Koba (fl. 1834–1884)
Asantehemaa of the Ashanti Empire. Name variations: Afua Kobi; Efua Kobiri. Married Kwasi Gyambibi (tribal chief); children: Kofi Kakari (or Kofi Karikari, asantehene, 1867–1874) and Mensa Bonsu (asantehene, 1874–1883). Enstooled as asantehemaa (1834) and held the position, naming several sons as asantehene, until the family was deposed (1884) for cooperating with British colonialists.
Drawn by lucrative trade, European colonialists governed a number of forts on the eastern coasts of Africa by the early 1700s. Colonists bordering the Ashanti Empire came in frequent and combative contact with its people. Unable to subsume them, the British government withdrew from the area in 1829 and left the forts to merchants, who found business too good to leave. Warned not to interact with local people, the remaining colonists nevertheless arranged a peace treaty with the Ashanti and co-existed in heretofore unknown cooperation. Afua Koba was chosen queenmother (asantehemaa) of Ashanti while her nation was at tentative peace with its neighbors. Reassertion of British governance in 1842 awakened old hostilities. An agricultural society which held some of its own people in forced servitude, Ashanti felt threatened when laborers were drawn away with promises of freedom and wealth. Afua Koba's son Kofi Kakari, whom she had named asantehene in 1867, marched Ashanti troops against the colonies to regain the empire's land and refugee people. European colonialists fled Africa, signing their forts over to Britain. With the arrival of heavily armed troops from Britain in the early 1870s, military tides turned and the Ashanti retreated. At one point, the British demanded Afua Koba as a hostage in exchange for their armies not advancing. Ignorant of the Ashanti culture, the British did not understand that the asantehemaa was not dictated to by the asantehene. Kofi Kakari conceded to peace and restitution only when the British took the capital of Kumasi, burning the town and destroying the royal palace. Disempowered by his submission, Kofi Kakari was replaced by his brother Mensa Bonsu in 1874. Feuding between Ashanti tribes weakened the empire, which was also ravaged by the strange European diseases of dysentery and smallpox. Reflecting the Ashanti peoples' belief that Afua Koba cooperated too much with the British (including an 1881 intervention in hopes of preventing a bloody, deadly battle), the queenmother and her son were destooled in 1883. Yaa Akyaa of the Okoyo dynasty was elected Afua Koba's successor.
Crowder, Michael, ed. West African Resistance. NY: Africana, 1971.
Jackson, Guida M. Women Who Ruled. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1990.
Crista Martin, Boston, Massachusetts
Born in Ejisu-Besease, in the Ashanti state of Ejisu, between 1840 and 1850 (the exact date is unknown), Yaa Asantewaa was one of two children of Ataa Po , a woman of royal lineage, and Ampomah of Ampabame, a village about three miles from Ejisu-Besease. It is very likely that her parents were farmers. Yaa Asantewaa's brother, Afrane Panin, became Ejisuhene (chief of Ejisu) in about 1884, and reigned from about 1884 to 1888. Yaa Asantewaa's only child was a daughter, Nana Ama Serwaah of Boankra, who gave birth to a son, Kofi Teng, also an only child. This grandson of Yaa Asantewaa later became Ejisuhene after the death of his uncle Afrane Panin, and he was one of several chiefs who were deposed and exiled to the Seychelles in 1896 with the Ashanti King Prempeh I. Yaa Asantewaa is said to have been very fond of her grandson, and his exile, according to all accounts, caused her deep sorrow.
Little is known of the childhood and adolescence of Yaa Asantewaa. According to Ashanti oral history and accounts from her descendants in Ejisu, she was a small, slight person, with small, bright eyes and a very dark complexion. The fact that she was elected queenmother by her people points to strong leadership qualities and positive traits. Queenmothers in Ashanti traditionally do not officially marry, and although they may have children, not much importance is attached to their partners. It is thus not surprising that little is known about the father of her daughter.
I am ready to exchange my sex with any man [here] who is afraid of defending the Ashanti Nation.
The queenmother is either a mother, aunt, cousin, or sometimes sister of the reigning chief or king, elected by the same people who elect the king or chief. She is the most highly placed woman of the royal lineage and rules with the chief or king. She holds prerogatives far greater than that of any man, being the only person who can reprimand the ruler to his face or in public. She holds her own court and directs and supervises all matters concerning women. She is the custodian of the consecrated stools—which are equivalent to thrones—of her predecessors and enjoys great prestige as a genealogist, responsible for maintaining traditions and preserving customs. She holds the privilege of nominating a successor to a vacant stool, and acts as the chief or king when the ruler is absent or when the stool is vacant.
The title Nana denotes her high position. Yaa Asantewaa became Nana Yaa Asantewaa, queenmother, when her brother Afrane Panin became chief of Ejisu in about 1884. She remained queenmother of Ejisu until her exile in 1901, and thus was also her grandson's queenmother. Between the period of her brother's death and her grandson's enstoolment, between 1888 and 1892, she herself became chief of Ejisu, and again after 1896, when her grandson was deposed and exiled by the British. According to Ejisu oral history, she was the 16th chief of that state.
In March 1900, the British governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Frederick Hodgson, set out for the inland city of Kumasi, with the aim of stamping British authority on the Ashanti once and for all. Oral history has it that a tense and somber atmosphere prevailed in Ashanti, especially in Kumasi, where people had become demoralized after the exile of Prempeh I. The weakening of the Ashanti kingdom was almost palpable.
On his arrival in Kumasi, Hodgson met with the remaining Ashanti chiefs and queenmothers who had not been exiled with Prempeh. Nana Yaa Asantewaa was one of those present. It was at that meeting that Governor Hodgson dropped what Kimble terms "one of the great bricks in African history." He demanded to sit on the Golden Stool, the symbol of the Ashanti nation and the sacred "throne" of the asantehene, or Ashanti king. When the Golden Stool was not produced, Hodgson mounted a search for it, which was unsuccessful.
Unwittingly, with his sacrilegious request, he was playing into the hands of Yaa Asantewaa. "She listened with the greatest attention to the Governor's speech," writes historian Agnes Akosua Aidoo . "She was heard to say, 'Good, he is calling the Ashantis to arms for me! He could not do it better than he has done it in demanding the Golden Stool!'" According to oral history, Yaa Asantewaa met that night with the other Ashanti chiefs, who were feeling dejected and seemed resigned to the turn of events. Rising from her seat, she declared dramatically that she was ready to exchange her sex with that of any man who was afraid of defending the Ashanti nation. Coming from a woman, this was a serious challenge to the men present. In response, the chiefs decided to muster their armies for war.
The Ashanti kingdom, from its beginnings, had a fixed military formation for the purposes of war. It was a square-shaped formation, with specific states positioned at the front, left, and right flanks. The asantehene or his representative was usually positioned at the rear, sandwiched between armies from various nations. In directing the 1900 war, Yaa Asantewaa changed the original Ashanti war formation by placing the Ejisu army, which traditionally served on the right flank, at the head of the united armies. She also personally directed the strategy of the war.
Driven into the fort of Kumasi, Governor Hodgson, his wife Mary Alice Young Hodgson , and escorts were held there for three months. Weakened and near death from starvation, the British managed to escape by night during July 1900. The personal army of Yaa Asantewaa continued their guerrilla tactics for another four months. According to an account by Aidoo, just when the relief force from the coast under Colonel J. Willcocks had decided that the rebellion was quelled, they discovered fresh stockades at Ejisu. Some 3,500 men had been organized to resist Willcocks, "about 2,000 of which were picked men of the Queenmother's bodyguard. After a strong resistance from Nana Yaa Asantewaa's army, the town was eventually bombarded."
Yaa Asantewaa fled to Offinso, about 15 miles away, and raised another rebellion there with the cooperation of the queenmother of Offinso, Nana Yaa Afranewaa . By the beginning of September, however, some Ashanti chiefs had started to surrender to the British. When Colonel Willcocks gave Yaa Asantewaa four days to appear in person, she sent a message to the effect that she would fight to the end. Willcocks fought on, determined to crush the queenmother and Ashanti, in a campaign lasting until the third week in November. Over 60 leaders of the uprising had been arrested, until Yaa Asantewaa remained the only "wanted person." Though she escaped to Ahafo in the north, she was betrayed by one of her own men and finally captured on a morning in November 1900, just after she had finished having her bath. Exiled to the Seychelles in 1901, she headed a list of 15 chiefs sent with her.
According to oral accounts, she did not find her grandson, the deposed Ejisu chief Kofi Teng, in the Seychelles as she had expected, which brought her great sorrow. While in exile, she converted to Christianity; some accounts say she was baptized "Josephine," others that she became "Victoria." After 20 years in the Seychelles, Yaa Asantewaa died on October 5, 1921, at about the age of 80. When King Prempeh I was repatriated in 1924, her remains were returned to Ashanti.
There are two photographs of Yaa Asantewaa available in Kumasi. One is purported to have been taken when she was captured in 1900, showing a bare-breasted, frail, despondent-looking woman; this probably confirms the account of her capture in the early hours of the morning. In the other photograph, taken with fellow exiles in the Seychelles, she looks more cheerful, smiling, with two young children sitting at her feet. An artist's impression of Yaa Asantewaa, based on the two photographs, hangs in the 4th Hall of the Armed Forces Museum in Kumasi. It presents her in a way that Ghanaians would like to remember her—a courageous and resolute woman with a penetrating gaze.
Adu Boahen, A. Topics in West African History. London: Longmans, 1968.
Aidoo, Agnes Akosua. "Women in the History and Culture of Ghana," in Research Review. NS Vol. 1, no. 1, 1985, pp. 45–48.
Kimble, David. A Political History of Ghana: The Rise of Gold Coast Nationalism 1850–1928. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.
Aidoo, Agnes Akosua. "Ashanti Queenmothers in Government and Politics in the Nineteenth Century," in Filomina C. Steady, ed., The Black Woman Cross Culturally. Rochester, VT: Schenkman, 1985.
Memorabilia located in the 4th Hall, Armed Forces Museum, Fort George (Kumasi Fort), Kumasi, Ashanti Region, Ghana.
The Ejisuhene, Nana Aboagye-Agyei II and his Elders, Ejisu, Ashanti; Nana Antwi-Bosiako, Linguist of the Asantehene Nana Otumfuo Opoku Ware II, Manyia Palace, Kumasi, Ashanti; Mrs. Jane Banning, Kumasi, Ashanti; Colonel Donkor, Curator, Armed Forces Museum, Kumasi; Nana Prempeh, Adubinsukesehene, Kumasi, Ashanti; Mr. and Mrs. C.K. Tachie, Kumasi, Ashanti.
Mansah Prah , Lecturer in Sociology, University of Cape Coast, Cape Coast, Ghana, West Africa