Yaa Asantewaa, the Great Ashanti Queen fighting for Freedom

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Queen Yaa Asantewaa in Batakarikese (Ceremonial war dress)

With the liberation of Simone Gbagbo last week, it is good to explore other strong women in African history. I would like to talk about the great queen Yaa Asantewaa who was a queen in the neighboring country of Ghana, when it was still called Gold Coast, and fought against the European colonizers. I explored her story amply in the article: Yaa Asantewaa or the Ashanti Cry for Freedom.

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The golden stool in 1935

At a time when the British exiled many of the Ashanti leaders to the Seychelles, including the King of AsantePrempeh 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 CoastFrederick Hodgson, demanded the Golden Stool. 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. Many of the men were afraid, undecided, and unwilling to take any action. Yaa Asantewaa said these strong words to them: “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 TutuOkomfo Anokyeand Opoku Ware Ichiefs 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.

The BBC recently made a very short cartoon of the story of the great Queen Yaa Asantewaa. Although I applaud the effort, it is at best a very flimsy take on such a great historical moment in Ghanaian history, and I await the day when Ghanaians and Africans will undertake to tell her story properly for all Ashanti, Ghanaian, and African children around the globe. As you watch the cartoon, remember that before the BBC, you first read her story here on Afrolegends.com! Enjoy!

Yaa Asantewaa or the Ashanti Cry for Freedom

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Queen Yaa Asantewaa in Batakarikese (Ceremonial war dress)

On 17 October 1921, the great Ashanti warrior queen Yaa Asantewaa passed away. Her story is that of a queen who rallied masses to fight for their independence; hers is a story of courage, determination, and stamina. Yaa Asantewaa led a rebellion against the British at a time when the men surrounding her were low in spirit, afraid, and discouraged. She arose them to fight for their independence, and for their nation.  Her fight against British colonialists is a story woven throughout the history of Ghana.

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Ashanti Kingdom ca 1800s

Yaa Asantewaa was born in 1840 in the Gold Coast in the Kingdom of Ashanti. She was a successful farmer, mother, intellectual, politician, human right activist, Queen and leader. Yaa Asantewaa became famous for leading the Ashanti rebellion against British colonialism to defend the Golden Stool, symbol and soul of the Ashanti nation (19001901). She promoted women emancipation as well as gender equality. She was the sister of the Ruler of Ejisu (Ejisuhene) Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpase, an ethnic group in present-day Ghana.

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January 1896: British formally annexing the Ashanti Kingdom – depiction of governor’s discussions with Prempeh I

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. As seen earlier, this was the European’s way of dealing with African kings, as in Benin Kingdom. Sending a king to exile was usually followed by the looting of their land. This has led to the discovery of lots of Africa’s valued arts and crafts in Europe, which to this date have not been returned to their rightful owners.

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Ashanti captain 1819

After the deportation of Prempeh I, the British governor-general of the Gold Coast, Frederick Hodgson, demanded the Golden Stool. 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 the Queen Mother of Ejisu, was at the meeting. The chiefs were discussing how they should make war on the white men and force them to bring back the Asantehene. She saw that some of the chiefs were afraid. Some said that there should be no war. They should rather go to beg the Governor to bring back the Asantehene King(Nana) Prempeh.

Disgusted by the men’s behavior, Yaa Asantewaa stood up 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.

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The Golden Stool in 1935

With this, she took on leadership of the Asante Uprising of 1900, gaining the support of some of the other Asante nobility. She led the famous war knows as the War of the Golden Stool against the British. After several months, the British 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. She died there on 17th of October 1921. Three years later, on 27 December 1924, Prempeh I and the other remaining members of the exiled Asante court were allowed to return to Asante Kingdom. Prempeh I made sure that the remains of Yaa Asantewaa and the other exiled Asantes were returned home for a proper royal burial. She was buried with all the honors due a queen like her.

Yaa Asantewa’s War was the last major war led by an African woman. She embodied courage and strength when faced with the injustice of the European invader. She is honored with a school named after her, ‘Yaa Asantewaa Girl’s Secondary School’ In Kumasi in 1960. Many young girls in Ghana are proudly named after her.

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Ashanti King Palace being ransacked and burnt by the British in 1874 after the 3rd Anglo-Ashanti war

She is immortalized in the song:

Koo koo hin koo

Yaa Asantewaa ee!

Obaa basia

Ogyina apremo ano ee!

Waye be egyae

Na Wabo mmode

(“Yaa Asantewaa

The woman who fights before cannons

You have accomplished great things

You have done well”)

Prempeh I: The Last Asantehene Before British Colonization

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Asantehene Prempeh I

Prempeh I was the Asantehene (King) of the Kingdom of Ashanti. He was born as Prince Kwaku Dua III Asamu of the Kingdom of Ashanti, and he took the name of Prempeh I upon ascension on the throne at the young age of 16. His reign was a troubled one as it fell during the time of British invasion/colonization of the Gold Coast. In essence, he was the last king of the Kingdom of Ashanti before the Gold Coast fell under British protectorate.

Europeans were already installed in the region and had been trading on the coast since the 15th century for gold and slaves (as we saw with the slave castles of Elmina and Cape Coast). By the beginning of the 19th century, the British government decided to formalize its control of the Gold Coast. They dispatched a force to conquer the Ashanti. They only won the war against the disciplined Ashanti because of the superiority of their artillery and rifles over the traditional muskets of the Ashanti. Once in Kumasi, the capital, the British hastily looted the royal palace and burned the town to the ground. The defeated Ashanti had already released their prisoners and subsequently were forced into agreeing to a treaty to give up claims on coastal territories, to cease the practice of human sacrifice and to pay a huge indemnity of 50,000 ounces of gold. This was known as the Wolseley’s expedition. The Gold Coast was then declared a Crown Colony.

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16th Century map of West Africa with Fort Elmina

Having lost their invincibility in war, the Ashantis were now faced with rebelling neighboring tribes, and the Ashanti confederation was descending into civil war. The Ashanti had become so weak that, in 1888, they asked the British governor to send an arbitrator from the coast to decide who, amongst rival claimants, should be the next Asantehene. The governor’s delegate decided in favor of the 16 year-old Prempeh. But Prempeh I turned out to be no puppet and refused to agree that Ashanti should become a British Protectorate.

Asantehene Prempeh I began an active campaign of the Ashanti sovereignty. The British offered to take the Kingdom of Ashanti under their protection, but Asantehene Prempeh I of the Kingdom of Ashanti refused each request. Asantehene Prempeh I stated, “My Kingdom of Ashanti will never commit itself to any such policy of protection; Ashanti people and the Kingdom of Ashanti must remain an independent sovereign state as of old, and at the same time be friends with all white men“.

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Prempeh I and his suite in the Seychelles (taken by F.A.L. Ramseyer) ca 1900-1903

Still wary of the French in Ivory Coast and alarmed by a resurgent Ashanti, the British now (1894) “remembered” that the Wolseley indemnity had never been paid. Prempeh I tried to appeal directly to a fellow sovereign, Queen Victoria, and sent an embassy to London to plead his cause. But the British government refused to give his delegates an audience for almost a year and mounted another elaborate British army expedition to Kumasi. Prempeh I refused to allow the Ashanti to fight, partly because of the memory of the Wolseley expedition and partly because of the British support for him during the succession dispute. Instead, he diplomatically greeted the troops as his guests when they marched into Kumasi, in January of 1896. The British governor arrived and coldly received Prempeh I and his chiefs. Prempeh I desperately tried to placate the invaders and to the horror of his people, he demeaned himself by prostrating himself before the governor in a sign of submission. The governor’s only response was to demand the gold promised to Wolseley. Prempeh could not provide such a huge indemnity at once but offered to pay in instalments starting with 680 ounces as a down payment. This was refused and then, to the astonishment of the Ashantis, Prempeh and some of his main chiefs were suddenly arrested.

Prempeh I’s place was looted. His throne is still displayed in the Royal Signals Museum at Blandford in England. The abducted Asantehene, Prempeh I, some of his relatives and advisors were first taken to Elmina for about a year, then to Freetown in Sierra Leone until 1900 when, upon the outbreak of Yaa Asantewaa (story for another day), the British feared proximity and sent the royal party to the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean.

Once there, Prempeh I spent time in his villa on Mahe, the largest of the Seychelles’ island in the Indian Ocean. Prempeh I’s villa, and 16 new wooden houses with sandy floors and roofed with corrugated iron-sheets were built in Seychelles and allocated to the various Asante’s nobles. The place was called the Ashanti Camp. Prempeh made an effort to educate himself in English and made sure that the children received education.

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Prempeh I reinstated in Kumasi in 1926 (Source: thekingdomofAsante.com)

On 27 December 1924, Prempeh I and the other remaining members of the exiled Ashanti court were allowed to return to Ashanti Kingdom. Upon his return, and to appease the Ashanti people, the British created for Prempeh I the official position of Kumasehene in 1926, position which he held until his death in Kumasi, Ghana, on 12 May 1931. He was succeeded by his heir apparent Prempeh II of the Kingdom of Ashanti.

Prempeh I was definitely a king caught between trying to hold the sovereignty of his people, and keeping peace, while working with the British invader peacefully. Was his approach the correct one when faced with a greedy, heartless, and treacherous opponent? For more information, please check out Kreol magazine, The Kingdom of Asante, asantekingdom.org websites which are full of great articles.

Deportation of African Heads of States

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Prempeh I of Ashanti Kingdom

History repeats itself! Over 100 years ago, African Heads of states, Emperors and Kings, were deported by European colonizers for defending their people, lives, independence, land, livelihood, and themselves. Some were killed, and others were exiled. In those days, they were deported to other territories in Africa, far from their lands. Today, 100 years later, they are being deported to the Hague or to some other African lands again. Here are a few, and I am sure you know others.

Prempeh I, Asantehene of Ashanti Kingdom deported to Seychelles in 1896 by British forces. His throne is still displayed at the Royal Signals Museum in Blandford, England. He was allowed to return after 24 years in exile.

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Yaa Asantewaa of Ashanti Kingdom

Queen Yaa Asantewa of the Ashanti Kingdom was deported to Seychelles in 1902 by the British. She arose her people to fight against the British. She died in exile.

Samori Toure, Founder and leader of the Wassoulou Empire, was deported to Gabon (on an island of the Oogoue) in 1898 by the French. He died in exile.

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Samori Touré

Behanzin, King of Dahomey,was deported to Martinique and then later Algeria by the French. He died in exile in Algeria in 1906.

The Oba of Benin Kingdom deported to Calabar by the British in 1897. He died in exile.

Gungunyane, King of Gaza in Mozambique, first sent to Lisbon, and then later to the island of Terceira on the Portuguese Azores. He died in exile in 1906.

Behanzin, the Last King of independent Dahomey
Behanzin, the Last King of independent Dahomey

Cheikh Amadou Bamba, of Senegal, deported to Gabon in 1895 by the French. He was brought back 7 years later in 1902, but deported to Mauritania in 1903 for 4 years, before being brought back to Senegal. He died in Senegal.

Nowadays, Laurent Gbagbo, President of Côte d’Ivoire, deported to the Hague in the Netherlands 2011 by the French and the Ivorian Ouattara. He is still there.

Laurent Gbagbo
Laurent Gbagbo

Charles Ble Goude, Youth Minister of Côte d’Ivoire deported to the Hague in Netherlands in 2011 by the French, and the Ivoirian Ouattara. He is still there.

Moussa Dadis Camara, President of Guinea, shot and almost left for dead, deported to Burkina Faso(let’s call the cat by its name). …

And the list goes on… How long will it last? Can we not judge our people ourselves? Is this a choice by the people for the people? Are we really independent?