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Jul 31, 2019

African Heroes of Freedom: Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa of Ejisu

She ruled as Queen Mother, defied the British, and died in captivity, all to advance Asante freedom.

In the course of researching the philosophical foundations of African history, I have come across some recurrent historiographical mistakes. At the top of that list is the subservient view of the role of women in African politics, which—as we will see again in this article—is incorrect, or at least not ubiquitous across the continent. (I have highlighted several instances in my other articles in this publication.) Contrary to the view of a highly patriarchal ancient and medieval Africa, there are some societies that gave almost completely equal rights to men and women, including the right to assume significant monarchical authority.

The Asante nation, located in what is modern-day Ghana, is one of these egalitarian societies. Prior to the 20th century, the Asante political structure was critically defined by the occupancy of royal stools (an equivalent of thrones).[1] In Asante culture, there are conventional stools (sese dwa) occupied by chiefs or district rulers, and there is the Golden Stool (Asikadwa). The Golden Stool is the most sacred object in Asante culture. According to folklore, the stool harbors the sunsum (soul) of all Asante—living or deceased. It is also believed that the stool had descended from heaven in a cloud of white dust and bestowed to Osei Tutu—the pioneer Asantehene (King of Asante) around the late 1600s. The stool is so important to the Asante that the unity of the kingdom is believed to depend on the safety of the Golden Stool.

The stools are intimately connected with women, especially the Queen Mothers.[2] The Queen Mothers are sometimes as influential as the King himself, who is usually the son or grandson of the Queen Mother. Some Queen Mothers helped their Kings craft public policy or even served as regent in the absence or minority of the King. Perhaps the most widely remembered Asante Queen Mother is Nana Yaa Asantewaa, rightly honored for her heroics during the late 19th century in defiance of British harassment of the Asante. Yaa Asantewaa’s contribution to the independence struggle of the Asante confederacy against the British was instrumental to the nationalist agitations of the early 20th century that led to the independence of Ghana in 1957, the first independent Sub-Saharan African country in the post-colonial era. It’s a story that deserves being told in some detail. How did the British get involved in the affairs of Asante in the first place and why would a Queen Mother play so vital a role in the resistance?

British Arrival on the Gold Coast

Since the Portuguese first set foot on the shores of West Africa in the 15th century, the relationship between the Europeans and the kingdoms of Africa revolved around trade. In the Gold Coast, which constitutes the country of modern-day Ghana, the coastal Fante people[3] (different from the Asante but belonging to the same broader ethnic group) served as middlemen between the Portuguese and many inland tribes. They leased part of their land to the Portuguese since direct trading between them was on a relatively small scale. It was not until the latter part of the 16th century that other Europeans reached the Gold Coast. The Dutch came after the Portuguese and were treated the same way by the Fante. In the Gold Coast, the trade in ivory and gold were of special interest to the Europeans until the mid-17th century. But due to the demand for labor across European plantations in the Americas in the 18th-century, trade interests in places like the Gold Coast shifted from commodities like ivory and gold to include the booming demand for African slaves.

In the early 19th century, a British expedition arrived at the Gold Coast and they soon developed trade relations with the Fante. As was common in relationships between the Europeans and local African tribes, the European power provided firearms or soldiers to their African allies to aid in their fight against other rival tribes. The British provided the Fante with such military aid during the Asante-Fante War in 1806 and 1807.[4] Although the Asante leadership had prior knowledge of British presence and influence in the south, it was British support for their enemies that solidified Asante antipathy towards the British Gold Coast government. Later, in 1823, the British Governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Charles MacCarthy, formed an alliance with the Fante in support of the Denkyira tribe (also belonging to the Akan ethnic group) against an Asante advance on the Cape Coast. Although McCarthy died in the war, the coalition defeated Asante in 1826 at the Battle of Dodowa,[5] marking the end of Asante control of some states. 

Throughout the rest of the 19th century, the relationship between the British and the Asante was conflicted. For instance, to avoid more bloodshed due to territorial disputes, the two parties, along with several other coastal states, signed the Maclean Treaty in 1831. The peace treaty gave more autonomy to many southern states previously under Asante control and drastically changed the political landscape of the Gold Coast. It required that the Asantehene “renounced all right or title to any tribute homage from the kings of Dinkira, Assin and others, [who were] formerly his subject…”[6] Yet in the succeeding years, the British were well aware that many Asante traders on the coast were being badly treated by the Fante in violation of the treaty’s terms. At some point, the Fante used their control of the coastal trade routes to block trade from the coast to Asante’s inland territories. And even after the abatement of Fante oppression, the British themselves assumed control of some of the key coastal forts in 1843, which was taken to be an unprecedented trespass by Asantehene Kwaku Gua I.

British Overreach and the Yaa Asantewaa War of 1900 (War of the Golden Stool)

Nana Yaa Asantewaa was born in the 1840s as Asona royalty from the Besease clan in central Ghana and was of the Edweso stool line. Her brother was Kwasi Afrane and their parents were from the village of Ampabame in Kumasi, the ancestral home of the Asante people. Growing up, Yaa Asantewaa was a dexterous woman who had keen interests in farming (especially in the town of Boankra) and local administration. Kwasi Afrane was enthroned as the ruler of Edweso while Yaa Asantewaa married Owusu Kwabena—one of the grandsons of Osei Yaw Akoto, the seventh King of Asante who reigned from 1824 till 1834. Yaa Asantewaa was later appointed the Queen Mother of Ejisu by his brother, Edwesohene (King of Edweso) Kwasi Afrane.

In the late 1880s, the Asante confederacy was still struggling to unite; meanwhile the British were expanding their authority from the coast (predominantly Fante territories) inland into Asante territory. The animosity between the British and Asante dragged on. In 1863, Asante soldiers invaded and razed more than two dozen coastal villages to the ground in an attempt to reinstate their authority over the south, sending a warning shot to the British. The Governor of the Gold Coast, Richard Pine, counterattacked against the Asante, though the effort failed. However, the Asante were equally unable to control the coastal territories, leaving the nations locked in a stalemate. 

In 1873, the Asantehene Kofi Karikari led an Asante advancement into the southern territories once again, but the Asante were defeated this time by formidable British resistance. The two belligerents signed the Treaty of Fomena in 1874 to end hostilities, which permitted the British to declare the creation of the British-controlled Gold Coast Colony.[7] Later in 1888, Asante enstooled a new Asantehene,  Kwaku Dua III, also known as Agyeman Prempeh I, who was a thorn in the flesh of the Gold Coast puppet government. Among Agyeman Prempeh’s many goals was to rejuvenate the influence of Kumasi. But some of his policies did not settle well with the British and they attempted to bring the king under the control of the Gold Coast protectorate.

In 1894 the British sent a Resident Minister (who would have the power of indirect rule over the Asante) to Kumasi, but Prempeh rejected the overture. In defiance, he sent an Asante embassy to London to meet with the Queen of England, which implied equal standing between Asante and British royalty. The Gold Coast governor, Sir William Brandfrod Griffith, did everything possible to keep the Asante mission from reaching London. He delayed the Asante officials for four months at the coast while threatening their lives. It was eventually allowed to leave the Gold Coast in April 1895 and they reached Liverpool in May. While in London, the Asante mission gained sympathy from sections of the British media and from several Members of Parliament. The Colonial Office initially paid them no attention but instead demanded that the Asantehene paid indemnities owed to the British from the 1874 Fomena Treaty that ended one of the Anglo-Asante wars in 1873-1874. Ultimately, British colonial hardliners were furious at Prempeh’s audacity in sending the embassy and began considering ways to bring the Asantehene to his knees. 

While the Asante mission was involved in other endeavors in London, including looking for potential British investors in Asante, in 1896, the colonial government sent an official expedition to Kumasi to relay orders from Queen Victoria of England. Part of the expectations of the colonial government was for Agyeman Prempeh I to cover the cost of the British expedition, an insult given that he had not requested the expedition in the first place. As expected, the Asantehene refused to pay for the expedition and his refusal was seen as a grave dishonor to the Queen and a pretext to finally seize Kumasi and arrest Agyeman Prempeh I. The Asantehene was arrested in January 1896. Immediate relatives of Asantehene Agyeman Prempeh were also arrested including his mother (the Asantehemaa or Queen Mother), his father (the Apebiakyerehene), his brother (Adumhene), some chiefs, and kings of Offinsu, Ejisu (Kofi Tene)—who happens to be Nana Yaa Asantewaa’s grandson—and Mampong. It was almost a complete sweep of the Asante leadership. (Yaa Asantewaa’s brother Kwasi Afrane, or King of Edweso, had died in 1894 hence why he was not among those arrested.)

The Asante struggled to unite following the arrests, but Nana Yaa Asantewaa acted as regent of Ejisu Juaben. The British arranged for Prempeh and his court to be exiled to Sierra Leone and, later, to the Seychelles Island. In the aftermath of the British swoop of Asante leadership, the remaining chiefs were not united in challenging the British; some even supported them. But in 1898 a few Asante chiefs did unite and formally request that the Asantehene be released and returned to Kumasi. The request was turned down by the British citing the fact that not all Asante wanted their King back given that the petition for the release was only signed by a few and that some Asante chiefs supported the Asantehene’s destoolment.

While the Asantehene and other Kings remained on the Indian Ocean island of Seychelles, British Governor Sir Frederick Hodgson was still unable to bring the whole Asante nation under his control. Hodgson soon realized that the Asante confederates would only recognize the authority of someone sitting on the Golden Stool. In March 1900, Hodgson laid out a series of insulting demands on the Asante chiefs during a meeting at the Kumasi Fort, which Yaa Asantewaa attended on behalf of Edweso. Among his demands was that the sacred Golden Stool be brought to him as the Queen of England’s representative on the Gold Coast, arguing that the Queen, after the deposition of the Asantehene, was the rightful ruler of Asante.

The chiefs were dismayed and disgusted by the sheer audacity and disrespect of Hodgson’s claim, but they had no way to resist, especially as the Asante political structure was almost non-existent after the banishment of so many powerful Kings. They had also suffered huge losses to their army during their many confrontations with the British in the preceding decades and confronting superior British firepower once again seemed like certain suicide. Still, if Hodgson and the British were allowed to seize the Golden Stool, the future of the Asante nation would have been in the hands of their longstanding adversary.

In a secret meeting held to determine the course of action by the remaining local chiefs, at which Yaa Asantewaa was again present, the chiefs struggled to agree on a military solution. Instead, they suggested conceding to British rule. Yaa Asantewaa was left livid by the words of her fellow Asante. She was said to have responded in these words:

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 Opoku Ware I,[8] 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.[9] 

Embarrassed to have been corrected but also energized by her words, the chiefs mobilized forces to protect the stool and to engage the British armed forces until the exiled Asante chiefs were allowed to return.

The news of Asante intentions reached Hodgson. He sent a party of Hausa soldiers[10] to warn the Asante chiefs of British intolerance to any such rebellion. The Hausa soldiers never returned and were believed to have been killed by the Asante. When the Hausas did not return, Hodgson saw this as a declaration of war on the British by the Asante. Several Asante chiefs acting as administrators for the colonial government crossed over to the Asante side. Hodgson grew impatient and prepared for war.

In what was one of the finest moments of African resistance against colonialism and the last of the many Anglo-Asante wars, Nana Yaa Asantewaa gathered and commanded an army of over 5,000 Asante soldiers (sometimes estimated at around 20,000 soldiers). She made it clear that the reason the Asante attacked the British and besieged the Kumasi Fort was because of Governor William Edward Maxwell’s unlawful arrest and exile of Agyeman Prempeh I and other Asante chiefs as well as Hodgson’s demand for the Golden Stool itself. It was a fight for Asante freedom. The hostility led to the most brutal episode of the Anglo-Asante War (or War of the Golden Stool), which dragged on for months. The Asante, led by Nana Yaa Asantewaa, put up an inspiring fight against the superior firepower of the British and kept them from marching beyond the Kumasi Fort. Under siege at the Kumasi Fort for weeks, the British and their fighters gradually ran out of supplies and endured an outbreak of disease leading some to flee to the Asante side. Hodgson was forced to sue for a ceasefire.

Yaa Asantewaa and other Asante commanders weighed his proposal and responded that the Asante would only agree to end the war if the British released Agyeman Prempeh I and guaranteed that their southern allies would respect the rights of Asante traders. Hodgson accepted some of the demands but refused either to release Agyeman Prempeh I or cede significant British authority over trade in the southern coastal region. Talks failed and the Asante, realizing their advantageous position, decided not to attack the British, but instead kept the fort under siege until the enemy camp was forced to submit.

With some adroit maneuvering, however, Hodgson was able to escape the siege and alert Britain of the situation in Kumasi. London responded by mobilizing about 1,400 troops from other colonies in British West Africa, who reached Kumasi in less than twenty days. The Asante were finally outmanned and outgunned. The besiegers were now on the defensive. Many Asante commanders and chiefs, and later Nana Yaa Asantewaa herself, were captured. Like their compatriots in 1896, the captives were exiled to Seychelles as prisoners. Around 2,000 Asante and 1,007 fighters on the British side were reportedly killed in the war. However, even years after the war, the British were still unable to lay their hands on the Golden Stool, which had been the ultimate goal of the war. It is speculated that the Asante had hidden the Golden Stool in a remote forest to keep it further away from the British in case Kumasi was captured.

The Asikadwa remained lost in the forest until it was found in 1920 by a group of construction workers. Just a year after the resurfacing of the Golden Stool, its keeper, Yaa Asantewaa, died in her sleep in 1921 while still in prison in Seychelles. But the purpose of the war had been fulfilled; Hodgson never sat on the Golden Stool and the war convinced the British to release the Asantehene a few years later. Agyeman Prempeh I was released and returned to Kumasi in 1924. In 1928 he initiated efforts to exhume and return the remains of every Asante prisoner that had died in captivity. Later, in 1930, the remains of 29 Asante detainees, including those of Nana Yaa Asantewaa, were welcomed to Kumasi. Yaa Asantewaa’s remains were brought to her hometown of Edweso where she was properly interred as the Asante. The Gold Coast was inching closer to complete freedom from British rule.

The Legacy

The heroism and willing self-sacrifice of Nana Yaa Asantewa in the fight to preserve the freedom of Asante—regardless of who was victorious in the end—inspired subsequent nationalist[11] movements among the Asante and along the rest of the Gold Coast. Asante eventually won freedom as part of the independent state of Ghana in 1957 and Ghana’s independence subsequently influenced nationalist struggles in the rest of the Sub-Saharan region with neighbors Nigeria, Dahomey (now Benin Republic) Côte d’Ivoire, and Cameroon all becoming independent of British and French rule by 1960.

Besides the political contribution of Yaa Asantewaa, contemporary African feminist movements have drawn inspirations from her outlook on the social aspect of life. She never stopped her normal farming routine despite her royal status. She was a mother to her children and a guardian to her third grandchild (the ruler of Ejisu) and younger chiefs, but never relinquished her interest in politics and administration. This is evident in her role in maintaining the stability of Edweso and Ejisu following the death of her brother (Kwasi Afrane) and the imprisonment of her grandchild (Kofi Tene). It is these qualities that make Nana Yaa Asantewaa one of the central figures of African matriarchy, feminism, and freedom.

 


[1] For more scholarly analysis of the Asante Golden Stool, I recommend reading Frederick Myatt’s The Golden Stool: An Account of the Ashanti War of 1900 published in 1966 by the University of Michigan, and Robert Sutherland Rattray’s article “Ashanti,” in Oxford University’s Volume 1 of Human Relations Area Files: Twi published in 1923. Rattray’s chapter 23 of the same article carefully detailed the origin of the stool and its in judicial and ceremonial proceedings.

[2] For a detailed analysis on the role of women in Asante monarchy, see the Ph.D thesis of Catherine Meredith Hale titled Asante Stools and the Matrilineage, submitted to the Department of History of Art and Architecture in May 2013. Beverly J. Stoeltje as gave a good description of the judicial and administrative role of the Queen Mother in her chapter, “At the Queen Mother’s Court: Ethnography in Kumasi, Ghana,” Counterpoints, vol. 354, 2013, pp. 370–387. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42981178.

[3] The Fante peoples—alongside the Asante—are an Akan tribe and groups of states predominantly in the southern and coastal areas of Ghana. The origins of the Fante people dates early to the 13th century when they are believed to have separated from the Abron tribe and moved to Mankessim in the central region of present-day Ghana. The Fante moved further inland in the 17th century when groups of Fante clans. With strong Fante populations in different areas along the Cape Coast and beyond to as far as Accra, the Fante Confederacy was formed in 1868. Although the Fante belong to the same Akan ethnic group as the Asante, the arrival of British colonialism and interest in trade with the Gold Coast tribes sometimes pitch the two against one another.

[4] Most Akan scholars believe the roots of the Asante-Fante war (1806-1807) is premised on Asante’s expansionist policies. There were frequent encroachments of Fante lands by the superiorly populated Asante. The differences between the two escalated after the arrival of the British in the 19th century. At some point, the Asante were backed by the Dutch who had reached the Gold Coast and established trade relations with local tribes before the British. The British were, in contrast, close allies to the Fante. More so, the British had always aspired to bring the Asante under its control hence the alliance with Fante. Albert Adu Boahen made a better account of the background of the Asante-Fante War in his chapter, “Politics in Ghana, 1800–1874,” chapter 6 of History of West Africa, Volume Two, edited by J. F. Ade Ajayi and Michael Crowder, published in London (1974) by Longman.

[5] This is another battlebetween the Asante and some southern tribes, specifically the Akra and Dangme from the coastal towns of Ningo-Prampram and Ada in early August of 1826. It resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Asante. Renowned Ghanaian Historian, Carl Christian Reinsdorf offer a broader account of the Dodowa War in his History of the Gold Coast and Asante published in 2015 by Creative Media Partners, LLC.

[6] G.E. Metcalfe, Maclean of the Gold Coast. (London, Oxford University Press:1962) Chapter 5. See also W. F. Ward, A History of Ghana (George Allen & Unwin Ltd.; 2nd Edition edition, 1958)npp. 187-188

[7] The Treaty of Fomena resulted in significant losses for the Asante. First, the British made them withdrew and form of military presence along the southern trade route, which gave the Fante a stronger control. Second, they were made to pay huge sums in indemnity to the British and also relinquish strategic stronghold. Also in the north, towns like Brong, Gonja, and Dagomba which are under Asante domination seized the effect of the defeat on the Asante military by declaring independence. 

[8] Osei Tutu is regarded as founder of the Asante Empire alongside his chief priest, Okomfo Anokye. Opoku Ware I, was also Asantehene from 1720-1750.

[9] Venatius Chukwudum Oforka, The Bleeding Continent: How Africa Became Impoverished and Why It Remains Poor (Xlibris Corporation, 2015) pp 97.

[10] Although the Hausa are the largest ethnic group in West Africa with the majority of their population in Northern Nigeria, they only make up a fraction of the Gold Coast population. During the late 19th century, the Hausas were often hired as private militias. Today, there are less than 300,000 Hausa in out of Ghana’s 28 million population.

[11] African Nationalism is a peculiar kind of nationalism with stark differences from modern isolationist or sectarian nationalist movements. Its focus was African independence from European domination while also recognizing the need to have good relations in trade and diplomacy with every country, including former colonial masters. This goal was largely achieved in former British colonies, including Ghana. In the French and Portuguese colonies, nationalist movements often broke down into violence, which soured the hope of any friendly relations between these European powers and their former colonies.

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