Yaa Asantewaa was the Queen-Mother of the Asante-Empire and one of Africa’s most iconic women.
The Asante Empire was a powerful kingdom that sprawled over parts of modern-day Ghana, and is one of the most famous African empires. Founded in1670, the Asante Empire was one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most influential kingdom due to its rich heritage, culture and military prowess. It stretched over much of Western Africa at its peak, and has resisted extinction throughout history. Today it exists as its own mini-state within Ghana – abiding by Ghanaian laws and regulations, but with its own monarchs and cultural heritage intact. The major symbol of the Asante Empire is the Golden Stool, which is imprinted in the centre of the empire’s flag.
Yaa Asantewaa was born in 1840 in Ejisu. She would later be appointed Queen-Mother of Ejisu by her brother and Ejisuhene (Ruler of the Ejisu) Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpese.
During his tumultuous reign – marred by British slave traders and invaders – the Asante Confederacy went through a number of issues. Civil war threatened to tear its people apart from 1883 to 1888. When he died 6 years later, Yaa Asantewa used her rights as Queen-Mother to nominate her grandson as Ejisuhene. However, the British government forced him into exile in Seychelles in 1896, along with King Prempeh I of Asante and other prominent members of the Asante government. She then became the regent of the kingdom in their absence.
To add insult to injury, the arrogant British governor-general of the Gold Coast at the time, Frederick Hodgson, demanded that the symbol and pride of the Asante – their Golden Stool – be handed to hm. He wished to crush and humiliate the Asante Empire. This was an outrageous demand, and the remaining members of the Asante government held a top-secret reunion at Kumasi to make a decision regarding this latest attack on their people and their customs.
During the meeting, some members of the tribe were advocating going to the most extreme of lengths to keep their kingdom alive – they were asking the others to surrender the Golden Stool.
Outraged, Queen-Mother Yaa Asantewaa then made the famous speech that came to define her reign and her symbolic space in every Asante heart:
“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 and Opoku Ware I, chiefs would not sit down to see their king being taken away without firing a shot. No Europeans could have dared speak to chiefs of the Asante the way the governor spoke to you this morning.
Is it true that the bravery of the Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be!
I must say this: if you 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 until the last of us falls in the battlefields.”
True to her words, the fiery queen had won over the support of some Asante nobles and prepared a revolt (that would come to be known as the Asante Uprising) in 1900.
In March 1900, the British contingent at the fort in Kumasi were astonished to see an army of 5,000 laying siege to them. For several months, the fort was completely shut off from the world as the army led by Ghana’s most iconic heroine stood firm.
However, despite their bravery and courage, the Asante soldiers were not experienced at laying siege to forts, and grew war-weary and morale was low. Thus, when the governor sent a professional fighting force of 1,400 soldiers to crush the rebellion, they were no match for them. The Queen-Mother and 15 of her closest counsellors were captured and sent to exile in Seychelles. The doors had been left wide open for the British to crush the proud African empire. That proved to be the very last resistance that the Asante Empire would make, and soon after, the Anglo-Asante War ended and the empire was annexed and made a part of the voracious British Empire. The declaration was made on the 1st of January of 1902, just months after Yaa Asantewaa had delivered her rousing speech.100 years of Asante resistance were over, and the proud empire fell prey to the power-hungry colonialists.
Yaa Asantewaa died in exile on the 17th of October 1921. 3 years after her death, on the 27 December 1924, King Prempeh I and the remnants of the Asante nobility were allowed to go home. The king solemnly ensure that the symbolic woman’s remains were given a fitting royal interment.
She was an advocate for the equality of women in her traditional society, thus being a greatly revolutionary woman in Asante history. She offered one of Ghana’s most rousing resistances to colonial rule, and her dream would finally be accomplished 36 years after her death. Ghana became independent on the 2nd of March 1957.
Queen-Mother Yaa Asantewaa has been honoured and immortalized in many ways throughout Ghanaian history; the current incumbent of her position is called Yaa Asantewaa II. She has had museum and week-long celebrations held in her name, and she sits in the pantheon for the greatest African leaders to have ever existed.