Yaa Asantewaa (c. 1840–17 October 1921) (pronounced YAA A-san-TE-WAA) was appointed queen mother of Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire—now part of modern-day Ghana—by her brother Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpese, the Ejisuhene—or ruler of Ejisu. In 1900, she led the Ashanti rebellion known as the War of the Golden Stool, also known as the Yaa Asantewaa war.
Prelude to rebellion
During her brother’s reign, Yaa Asantewaa saw the Asante Confederacy go through a series of events that threatened its future, including civil war from 1883 to 1888. When her brother died in 1894, Yaa Asantewaa used her right as Queen Mother to nominate her own grandson as Ejisuhene. When the British exiled him in the Seychelles in 1896, along with the King of Asante Prempeh I and other members of the Asante government, Yaa Asantewaa became regent of the Ejisu-Juaben District. After the deportation of Prempeh I, the British governor-general of the Gold Coast, Frederick Hodgson, demanded the Golden Stool, the symbol of the Asante nation. This request led to a secret meeting of the remaining members of the Asante government at Kumasi, to discuss how to secure the return of their king. There was a disagreement among those present on how to go about this. Yaa Asantewaa, who was present at this meeting, stood and addressed the members of the council with these now-famous words:
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, Okomfo Anokye, and Opoku Ware I, chiefs would not sit down to see their king to be taken away without firing a shot. No European could have dared speak to chiefs of Asante in the way the governor spoke to you 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. We, the women, will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight! We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields.
With this, she took on leadership of the Asante Uprising of 1900, gaining the support of some of the other Asante nobility.
The rebellion and its aftermath
Beginning in March 1900, the rebellion laid siege to the fort at Kumasi where the British had sought refuge. The fort still stands today as the Kumasi Fort and Military Museum. After several months, the Gold Coast governor eventually sent a force of 1,400 to quell the rebellion. During the course of this, Queen Yaa Asantewaa and 15 of her closest advisers were captured, and they too were sent into exile to the Seychelles. The rebellion represented the final war in the Anglo-Asante series of wars that lasted throughout the 19th century. On 1 January 1902, the British were finally able to accomplish what the Asante army had denied them for almost a century, and the Asante empire was made a protectorate of the British crown.
Yaa Asantewaa died in exile in the Seychelles on 17 October 1921. Three years after her death, on 27 December 1924, Prempeh I and the other remaining members of the exiled Asante court were allowed to return to Asante. Prempeh I made sure that the remains of Yaa Asantewaa and the other exiled Asantes were returned for a proper royal burial. Yaa Asantewaa’s dream for an Asante free of British rule was realized on 6 March 1957, when the Asante protectorate gained independence as part of Ghana, the first African nation in Subsaharan Africa to achieve this feat.
Social roles of Asante women
The confrontation of a woman, serving as political and military head of an empire, was foreign to British colonial troops in 19th century Africa. Yaa Asantewaa’s call upon the women of the Asante Empire is based upon the political obligations of the Akan women and their respective roles in legislative and judicial processes. The hierarchy of male stools among the Akan people were complimented by female counterparts. Within the village, elders known as (mpanyimfo) heads of the matrilineages, constituted with the village council known as the ôdekuro. These women known as the mpanyinfo referred to aberewaor ɔbaa panyin, to look after women’s affairs. For every ɔdekuro, an ɔbaa panyin acted as the responsible party for the affairs of the women of the village and served as a member of the village council. The head of a division, the ɔhene and the head of the autonomous political community, the ɔmanhene, had their female counterparts known as the ɔhemma: a female ruler who sat on their councils. T
he ɔhemmaa nd ɔhene were all of the same mogya, blood or localized matrilineage. The occupant of the female stool in the Kumasi state, the Asantehemma, and therefore, the united Asante, since her male counterpart was ex officio of the Asanthene, was a member of the Kɔtɔkɔ Council, the Executive Committee or Cabinet of the Asanteman Nhyiamu, General Assembly of Asante rulers. Female stool occupants participated in not only the judicial and legislative processes, but also in the making and unmaking of war, and the distribution of land.
Legacy and Honour
Yaa Asantewaa remains a much-loved figure in the history of Ghana (and Black History) as a whole for her role in confronting the colonialism of the British. She is immortalized in song as follows:
Koo koo hin koo
Yaa Asantewaa ee!
Ogyina apremo ano ee!
Wayɛ bi egyae
Na Wabo mmode
The woman who fights before cannons
You have accomplished great things
You have done well”)
To highlight the importance of encouraging more female leaders in Ghanaian society, the Yaa Asantewaa Girls’ Secondary School was established at Kumasi in 1960 with funds from the Ghana Educational Trust.
In 2000, week-long centenary celebrations were held in Ghana to acknowledge Yaa Asantewaa’s accomplishments. As part of these celebrations, a museum was dedicated to her at Kwaso in the Ejisu-Juaben District on 3 August 2000. Unfortunately, a fire there on 23 July 2004, destroyed several historical items, including her sandals and battle dress (batakarikɛse) seen in the photograph above. The current Queen-mother of Ejisu is Yaa Asantewaa II. A second Yaa Asantewaa festival was held 1–5 August 2006, in Ejisu.
A television documentary by Ivor Agyeman-Duah entitled Yaa Asantewaa – The Exile of King Prempeh and the Heroism of An African Queen was premiered in Ghana in 2001.