The Story of Nana Yaa Asantewaa
by Tutuwa Ahwoi
There is a long history of independent thinking in Ghana, one that can be traced back over four hundred years. One of the stories I love is the story of Nana Yaa Asantewaa, Queen Mother of the Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire. She is a favorite of mine, having led the Ashanti people against the British Empire in the War of the Golden Stool of 1900, while also being the epitome of courageous female leadership that resonates through Ghana to this day.
Yaa Asantewaa may not be as widely known as Scotland's William Wallace ("Braveheart"), but she is a powerful, female historical figure worth knowing. During the Ashanti-British War of the Golden Stool of 1900, Yaa Asantewaa commanded an army of 5,000 against a British Empire at the very height of its imperial powers. It was the only time in Ashanti history that a woman had led men in war. It was also the last conflict in Africa in which one of the sides was commanded by a woman.
As of 1900, for over one hundred years, the Ashanti Empire, a confederation of various Ashanti families and tribes, had been resisting the British takeover of the region that was the nation's largest source of gold, diamonds, and other minerals. The Ashanti remained the sole holdout of all the various tribes that comprised what was termed Gold Coast and is now modern-day Ghana. All other tribes and kingdoms had been vanquished or had settled with the British.
In 1896, after various disagreements and skirmishes, Yaa Asantewaa's grandson, the Ejisuhene (King of Ejisu), along with the Asantehene (King of the Ashanti), King Nana Prempeh I, and other Ashanti royal members, were exiled by the British to the Seychelles Islands. Yaa Asantewaa consequently became regent of the Ejisu-Juaben District. Nonetheless, there was still general unrest and disobedience amongst the Ashanti, who considered themselves autonomous of the British rulers.
In 1900, the British Governor-General of the Gold Coast, Frederick Hodgson, trying to decisively crush the Ashanti spirit, demanded they present him with the Golden Stool, the sacred symbol of the Ashanti Empire. In Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti Kingdom, Hodgson assembled all the Ashanti rulers and demanded:
"Where is the Gold Stool? Why am I not sitting on the Golden Stool at this moment? I am the representative of the paramount power; why have you relegated me to this ordinary chair?" [source]
If the Golden Stool was not surrendered, Hodgson continued, the British Colonial Army would launch an expedition to find and capture it by all means necessary.
The Golden Stool is not a throne. It represents the power of the Ashanti King, the Ashanti people, and is the soul of the Ashanti nation. This demand was outrageous. The remaining Ashanti rulers and chiefs convened a meeting to discuss the Governor's demands and how to have the exiles returned to the homeland. There was a lot of disagreement; many were fearful and debated whether to surrender to the Governor and relinquish the Golden Stool.
It is alleged that at this meeting, Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa rose and addressed the men:
"Now I see that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our King. If it were in the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opoku Ware, leaders would not sit down to see their King taken away without firing a shot.
No white man could have dared to speak to a leader of the Ashanti in the way the Governor spoke to you this morning.
Is it true that the bravery of the Ashanti is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be!
I must say this, if you the men of Ashanti 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."--- Queen Mother Nana Yaa Asantewaa
This speech so stirred the remaining rulers and chiefs that they swore the Great Oath of Ashanti to fight the British until King Prempeh I was returned from exile, and the Golden Stool kept out of British possession. And, with that oath, and led by Queen Mother Nana Yaa Asantewaa (who would have been around 60 years old at the time), the Ashanti launched the War of the Golden Stool.
The war raged on for several months, with the Ashanti almost emerging victorious until reinforcements were sent in via the British Expeditionary Forces and from neighboring West African nations. The defeat of the Ashanti in the War of The Golden Stool marked the end of the Ashanti rebellion, and on January 1, 1902, after almost one hundred years of various skirmishes and battles, the British finally and formally annexed the Ashanti Empire as a British protectorate. Yaa Asantewaa and some of her advisors were captured by the British and exiled to Seychelles Island, where she died in 1921. In 1924, the Asantehene, Prempeh I, and other exiled Ashantis were returned to their home in the Gold Coast, and Yaa Asantewaa's remains were returned to the Gold Coast (now modern-day Ghana), where she was buried with full royal honors.
Oftentimes, we are quick to dismiss movements as failures because they do not achieve their immediate or stated goals. But, as Rebecca Solnit writes, "This is how epochal change often begins, with efforts that fail in their direct aims but succeed in shifting the conversation and opening space for further action". Although the Ashanti ultimately lost the battle against the British, Yaa Asantewaa's courage and defiance awakened a nationwide movement for the return of King Prempeh I and, eventually, for Ghana's full independence.
It is a spirit of independent and free thinking that reverberates through time and presents itself in modern day Ghana - through its free press, its boisterous young democracy, its education of both men and women, and the unquestioned celebration of women as leaders in business and in government.
And, in the end, "the British never did capture The Golden Stool."
Further Reading: The role of Nana Yaa Asantewaa in the 1900 Asante War of Resistance, 2000, Arhin, Brempong, Le Griot, Vol. VII
About the author: Tutuwa Ahwoi is from Ghana, and is a current resident of New York. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, fine dining, and exploring things that are new to her. She also enjoys talking about herself in the third person. You can read more of her work in her newsletter, "The Invitation," where she writes about what she's reading, listening to, or talks about her current fascinations.