Yaa Asantewaa was many things. She was a woman, a farmer, a Queen, a rebel leader, a mother and a historical figure. She led troops against British Expansion and colonisation in the Ashanti Empire, having grown up in what is modern Ghana. She ruled over her tribe for her brother, and cultivated various crops in her area. I was inspired to look into her life after seeing her doodle on Google’s home page a few weeks ago. So today we will travel to 19th century Africa.
Yaa was born in Besase, a town in southern Ghana. At the time it was part of the Ashanti (or Asante) Empire. The Empire had existed for over 300 years, only ending in 1957. They were known for their military prowess, architecture, wealth and culture. Their unifying symbol was the Golden Stool of Asante, which would feature in Yaa’s life as she resisted British colonization of the area. Even today, the Ashanti Empire is represented within Ghana as a proto state, still retaining a King (currently Otumfuo Osei Tutu II Asantehene). Its home to the Nation’s only lake and trades several agricultural products which include cocoa and yams.
Yaa was born into an aristocratic family around 1840. By the time she was born, Ashanti had already been at war with Great Britain and its colonization forces. There were five major conflicts and several minor skirmishes from 1824 till 1901. So Yaa grew up knowing the threat of encroaching British colonization. The British had been involved in earlier conflicts, but it was in 1823 that war was formally declared between the Ashanti empire and Britain. Britain had started to settle a colony along the coast of the golf of New Guinea, and had also started supporting a rival group. The Ashanti held out for 8 years, but eventually signed a treaty adjusting their borders. Remarkably, the peace held for thirty years.
Yaa grew upduring the time of peace and was the oldest of two children. Her brother was Afrane Panin who would later be elected as a chief of a nearby community . She had an uneventful childhood and spent her early adult years working on cultivating various crops in the town of Boankra, located in southwest Ghana. She married into a polygamous marriage, and had one daughter.
While her life was peaceful, the Ashanti Empire was looking at an uncertain future. There were continuing skirmishes against the British settlements along the golf coast, including a skirmish in 1853 when Yaa was 13 years old. When she was 23, the second Anglo-Ashanti war broke out and ended the thirty years of relative peace. War would continue to plague the Ashanti for the remainder of the century, eventually leading to the Empire’s inclusion as a colony of Great Britain in the early 1900s.
Ashanti government style was a mix of democratic principles used in a theocracy. Their leaders were elected, usually nominated by the region’s Queen Mother (as they were matrilineal) and confirmed by-election by the population and the region’s elders. Women like Yaa were often involved in the politics of the region. The empire was ruled by a king or the Asantehaune. Each territorial division of the empire was then ruled by a chief and several elders.
Yaa’s brother, Afrane, was elected the chief of the Ejisu or Edwesu, known as the Edwesuhene. While he was in office, he appointed his older sister as the Queen Mother. Their family had been the royal clan of the area, and she most likely inherited the role from a female relative like a grandmother. Her duties as Queen Mother included nominating men for the roles of elder or chief in her region. When her brother died, she used her position to nominate her grandson for the position. He got the job – but it would end up not being the one she really wanted for him.
While Yaa was dealing with the politics of her region, Ashanti as a whole was facing another war with Great Britain. In 1873 the third war occurred, and then in 1895, the Fourth Anglo-Ashanti War occurred. Great Britain, for many reasons, wanted the Ashanti region as part of its overseas property. They had tried to negotiate the Kingdom into becoming a protectorate, but the Asantehene declined. The fourth war used the third war and money as a reason to begin, and this time the British were victorious. The war itself was short – lasting only three months, but it had a lasting toll on the Ashanti Empire and its people.
The Asantehene Prempeh I was exiled, along with several chiefs from the region. This included Yaa’s grandson. Yaa herself was left as regent on behalf of her son in the region of Ejisu. The Empire effectively became British property as a protectorate, though the official change would happen years later. For the time being, however, they were allowed to rule themselves, despite the exile of their senior leadership.
Things came to a head in 1900 for Yaa and many of her compatriots. In March, the representative from Briton, Fredrick Mitchell Hodgson insisted on sitting upon the Golden Stool. The Golden Stool was very important to the Ashanti people, a throne for their King/Asantehene but also with religious significance. His insistence was found offensive by the Ashanti. Many of the leaders that remained gathered in Kumasi to figure out how to respond, and how to regain their king. Yaa attended, and gave a speech which rallied her fellow Ashanti to fight back against the British.
The British secured themselves inside a fort, and managed to hold off the revolt. Yaa herself was chosen to lead the war force. While female participation in political leadership was far from unusual, military leadership was. She would inspect troops armed, and generally made no excuse as to why a woman should not lead an army. She was sixty, almost seventy years old depending on the birthdate sourced. Yaa’s army was also unusual. At first, it was made up of women. She set up the headquarters of the rebellion in the capital of her home district, and made a network of intelligence. They were successful in smaller engagements, and held off for nearly a year.Ultimately they lost when the British received reinforcements. This war, though it lasted less than a year, has gained several names. The Fourth Anglo-Ashanti War. The Second Ashanti Expedition. The War of the Golden Stool. The Yaa Asantewaa war. It was the final battle in a long history of wars between the Ashanti and the British Colonizers.
Yaa was sent into exile to the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Asantehene Prempeh and the others had been sent there years earlier. Ashanti Empire became part of the Gold Coast Colony. This agreement was made under the condition that the Golden Stool would not be violated by any non-Akan (Ashanti) person. The Ashanti Empire would remain a colony until 1957 when it, and surrounding territories, gained independence as the nation of Ghana. Ghana was one of the first african nations to regain their independence.
Yaa died in 1921 in the Seychelles. She would never see her country independent of its colonizers. In 1924, Asantehene Prempeh I and the others exiled were allowed to come home. Those who had died in exile were brought with them for a proper Ashanti burial back home.
Seychelles, her home in exile, became an independent nation in 1976.
Yaa has many legacies, both internationally as a feminist heroine, but also to the people of her own home. She stood up for what she believed in, fought to keep her country alive, She took on several roles in her life, and she achieved, for the most part, what she wanted to achieve.
I found her story very interesting, and I may return to her one day to give a more indepth look.
The Queen Mother of Ejisu: The Unsung Heroine of Feminism in Ghana – Nana Pokua Wiafe Mensah (found online, but not used specificly in the Essay) (downloadable PDF)