Yaa Asantewaa (c. 1840–1921) was the queen of the Asante people at the end of the 19th century. She led Asante resistance to a British invasion, holding off technologically superior British troops for several months and inflicting heavy casualties before being finally captured and exiled.
Asantewaa's mother was a member of the Asante royal family in Ejisu, and in a society where power was often passed through maternal family lines, this was of immense significance. According to tradition, she took her large familial responsibilities seriously and was often seen worshipping at a family shrine. In addition to making clay objects and singing in musical rituals performed at family events, Asantewaa studied not only Asante traditions but also those of other nearby kingdoms. As she came of age, she took over a farm on the road between the cities of Kumasi and Accra, and she became known for her independent spirit and strong work ethic. It was said that, when the time for work came, she set out for the farm without saying goodbye to anyone, and she believed that women should work hard and not depend on men to provide for them.
Asantewaa gained a reputation for being strong, generous, pious, and protective of the rights of women and the poor. As early as 1869, and certainly by 1884, when her name begins to appear in British accounts, she was serving as queen mother of the Ejisu (also known as Edweso) people, one of the tribal groups making up the Asante kingdom. The person who appointed her as queen was the Ejisu king, who was then either her brother or her son and whom the historical record named as either Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpesi or Nana Afrane Kuma. Whatever the relationship between them, Asantewaa served as a close advisor to the monarch.
In 1884, civil war broke out in Asante lands and raged for several years. When it was resolved, Asantewaa and her family supported the new king, Prempeh I, against pretenders from rival states. Having already fought three wars against Asante, beginning in 1824, British diplomats offered military support and financial incentives to Prempeh's rivals; their reasons included not only their desire to exploit the natural resources on Asante lands but also their insistence on the abolition of slavery, which the Asante practiced. The British established control over Ghana's coast but were repelled or fought to a standstill in the West African nation's interior.
Tensions continued to build during the late 1880s and early 1890s, reaching a new level in 1891 when the Asante refused a proposal that they become a “protectorate” or subject state under British military protection. In 1894, Prempeh I was finally installed as king of all the Asante, but his reign was to be short. To undercut the king's authority, the British demanded the establishment of a resident governor in the city of Kumasi, a stipulation to which the Asante were unwilling to agree. They offered concessions involving cocoa and other Asante natural resources, but the British pursued military action. The Fourth Anglo-Asante War was short; although Prempeh I ordered his subjects not to resist, the British suffered heavy casualties from illness.
The Fourth Anglo-Asante War ended when the British demanded that Prempeh pay a large tribute in gold. He was unable or unwilling to do so, and in 1896, in a humiliating ceremony, he was exiled to the Seychelles Islands. With him, according to various accounts, was Asanteyaa's son or her grandson. Queen Asanteyaa was present at the ceremony and apparently reacted angrily; according to Sweetman, British major R.S. Baden-Powell (later the founder of the Boy Scouts) remarked that “The only ‘man’ among them was the Queen.”
Peace in the region ended when Sir Frederick Hodgson, governor of the Gold Coast—the coastal area occupied by the British—arrived in Kumasi on March 28, 1900. The atmosphere was tense as Asantewaa looked closely at the medals worn by this British officer while he asked why an agreed-upon payment for the British expedition had not been made. As the rightful ruler of the area, Hodgson asserted, the Asante Golden Stool should be brought out so that he could sit upon it.
This demand was a mortal insult to Queen Asantewaa: the Golden Stool—which still appears on the Ghanaian national flag—was a sacred icon of Asante royalty. “Only someone ignorant of the nature of the stool could have suggested such a sacrilege,” observed Sweetman. “The meeting ended in silence, a deceptive silence, for all the listeners went off prepared to defend their national honor.” According to tradition, Asantewaa then gave a stirring speech to a group of assembled Asante chiefs, lamenting the decline of Asante bravery and asserting that if male warriors would not resist, “then we will. We the women will. We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefield.”
Undeterred by the Asante queen, Governor Hodgson ordered troops to locate the Golden Stool and bring it to him. Not only were these men unsuccessful, they reported encountering rising armed resistance in the countryside around Kumasi. Finally Hodgson realized his error and called for negotiations. The Asante demanded Prempeh I's return from exile, but the governor had no authority to agree to that. Realizing the danger of his position, he tried to send a telegram requesting reinforcements, but the Asante cut the telegraph wires leading out of Kumasi. Thus began the War of the Golden Stool, also known as the Yaa Asantewaa War.
At first the war went well for the Asante. Rival African clans, fearful of Asantewaa's well-organized troops, provided the British with little support, and Hodgson's detachment of 153 men soon found themselves penned inside a British fort in Kumasi. Indeed, some clan leaders who had agreed to help the British found it impossible to prevent their warriors from joining Asantewaa, and her army eventually grew to a force estimated at between 40,000 to 50,000.
Beginning in April 1900, the Asante fighters laid siege to the Kumasi fort, and many British soldiers died of starvation during the coming months. Asantewaa built roadblocks on roads leading into the city and ordered that improvised land mines be set in the surrounding areas. Asante forces surrounding the fort used plantains to simulate the motion of humans in the thicket, thereby drawing British fire and causing them to waste ammunition. Although Asante casualties in the first months of the war were minimal, the tide turned in favor of the British when a small group of soldiers escaped from the fort and, with great difficulty, made it through the jungles to a Britishcontrolled area on the coast. Learning of Governor Hodgson's situation, a British force of 1,400 marched to Kumasi, armed with Maxim machine guns—the world's first recoiloperated automatic guns and a weapon associated with British imperial conquests all over the world.
The large Asante force was no match for rapid-firing guns. Descriptions of the time recount numerous acts of Asante bravery in the face of the relentless British attacks, but on July 15, 1900, the British broke the siege on the fort and forced Asantewaa and her 3,000 remaining fighters to gather in Eijisu and take up a position in a stockade, a fortlike space enclosed with posts. On September 30 this stockade, too, was overwhelmed by British forces.
Conquered by the British, Asantewaa walked out of a negotiating session and fled into the forest. She moved several times from place to place, with local residents helping to disguise her location, but was ultimately captured, along with a group of Asante chiefs. The British soldier who arrested her reported that Asantewaa spat in his face. Total British losses in the Yaa Asantewaa War numbered some 2,000 men.
Fearful of provoking a yet wider uprising, the British spared the lives of most of the captives. Asantewaa was sent to the Seychelles, where she joined Prempeh I in exile. Although she likely never learned so, the uprising she led created a climate of greater respect for the Asante among Ghana's British occupiers. She lived for two more decades and died in exile, perhaps on October 17, 1921.
Asantewaa remains a Ghanaian national hero, celebrated in stories, songs, and, as of 2000, a museum in Kwaso, near Ejisu. One song recounting her exploits contains these words: “Krokrohenkro Yaa Asantewaa / Obaa basia oda pramo ano/Wa ye bi egyae. / Krokrohenkro Yaa wa ye bi egyae”—“Yaa Asantewaa, a woman who fights before cannons, you have accomplished great things, and you have done well.” The current Ejisu queen is a granddaughter of Serwaa Brakatuo, Asantewaa's only daughter.
Asirifi-Danquah, The Struggle between Two Great Queens, 1900–1901: Yaa Asantewaa of Edweso, Asante and Victoria of Great Britain, privately published, 2007.
Boahen, A. Adu, Yaa Asantewaa and the Asante-British War of 1900–1, Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2003.
Sweetman, David, Women Leaders in African History, Heinemann, 1984.
Black History Heroes website, http://www.blackhistoryheroes.com/ (May, 2010), “Queen Mother Nana Yaa Asantewaa of West Africa's Ashanti Empire.”
GhanaWeb, http://www.ghanaweb.com/ (July 15, 2016), “Yaa Asantewaa.””
NYA Awards website, http://nanayaaasantewaa.de/ (July 15, 2016), “Queen Mother, Yaa Asantewaa, 1840–1921.”❑