Way back in they day I did a series of “Badass Women” posts about understudied nineteenth-century hellions, including Isabella Bird, Mary Fields, Mother Jones, Mary Kingsley, Belle Starr, Belle Boyd, Si Mahoud, Mrs. Cheng, and others. I’ve decided that since I’m going to be cutting way back on my weekly posts, I might as well make an effort to blog about something I enjoy! So for the next few weeks, I’ll do a few of these. A new one out every Friday.
Today we’re going to talk about Yaa Asantewaa, the nineteenth-century queen mother of the Ashanti Confederacy, an extremely sophisticated kingdom in what is present-day Ghana. She’s famous for many things, including leading a mass revolt against British colonialism. The war in question is named after her, Yaa Asantewaa’s War, also known as the War of the Golden Stool.
Born in 1840 in central Ghana, Yaa Asantewaa led a pretty normal life, with the exception that her brother, Afrane Panin, was the chief of a community called Edweso. During his reign, she and Afrane saw a lot of turmoil, including four wars between their people and the British. Her brother named her ‘Queen Mother’, and she inherited a matrilineal throne from her grandmother and mother, as well. When her brother, died she used that power to nominate her own grandson to take over after Afrane.
The British then demanded not only the total surrender of the Asante Confederacy, but also their Golden Stool, the symbol of the Asante people and the throne of the Confederacy. This latter demand was apparently made by British governor Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson, who didn’t quite realize the significance of the object.
Unsurprisingly, it caused a flipping uproar. That night, Yaa Asantewaa declared that they would no longer be paying the British taxes and, brandishing a gun and firing it in the air, vowed to rebel against imperialism in any way she could.
The British exiled her grandson/king pretty much immediately, along with some other local rulers. In their absence, she became the regent for the area. Participating in a secret council, whose goal it was to try to bring the rulers back, Yaa Asantewaa gave her famous speech:
‘Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it were the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye and Opuku Ware I, chiefs would not sit down to see their king taken without firing a shot. No white man could have dared to speak to the Chief of Asante in the way the governor spoke to you chiefs 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. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls on the battlefield.‘
Apparently the men were too cowardly, because they elected her the war leader of their fighting force. This is the first and only time a woman was given that role in the entire Asante history.
She also urged women to refuse sex with their husbands until they joined the fight and to march around everywhere and participate in victory ceremonies to build morale. It worked.
In 1900, she raised troops and led them to siege a fortress where the British had sought refuge. Her battles and skirmishes were extremely clever. She used a great number of decoys to trap the British, and also fed them bad information about the state of the Asante military.
She also used talking drums to her benefit (which, if you’ve ever read any Victorian or Edwardian imperial literature, were considered very scary by the British; drums were an efficient way of communicating great distances, whereas the British and other imperial forces had the arduous task of setting up telegraph poles and stations to achieve anything comparable). She used one beat on the drum to say, ‘Prepare to die‘, three beats to say, ‘Cut the head off‘, and four beats to say, ‘The head is off‘. It freaked the British the hell out.
The siege went on for several months and finally caused British military leaders to send a force of 1,400 soldiers to break the siege. During this time, Yaa Asantewaa and some of her advisors were captured and sent into exile, the siege was broken, and the Asante empire was made a protectorate of the British crown.
Yaa Asantewaa became known (at least in the west) as Africa’s Joan of Arc. She died in exile about twenty years later, and her body was returned to its homeland.