Chantal Korsah is a London-born Ghanaian emerging writer and playwright, who has had several poems and short stories published in literary blogs and anthologies and is currently working on her first novel and on producing her first written play, a biographical play about Yaa Asantewaa, the famed Ashanti Queen Mother.
Obaabasia oko premo ano
Waye be egyae
krokrohenkro yaa waye be egyae
A woman who fights before cannons
You have accomplished great things
You have done well
So goes the refrain sung by the residents of the village of Edweso in the Ashanti Confederacy (now the Ashanti region in Ghana, Africa), praising their former Queen Mother, Nana Yaa Asantewaa, who was the leader and commander-in-Chief of the fifth and final Anglo-Ashanti War, which lasted from 1900-1901.
To most Western scholars, she is known as Africa’s Joan of Arc. But what were the circumstances that led to her extraordinary decision to become the most dangerous woman in that region of Africa, and commandeer the entire Ashanti army against the greatest colonial power at the time, the British?
The Ashanti Confederacy was one of the most sophisticated Kingdoms in Africa at the time in terms of its influence, wealth and organisation; it was established in 1701 by the first Asantehene (King), Osei Tutu, who led an army and defeated the regional power at that time, and united the individual Village-States into a united Confederacy. This Ashanti State establishment also has some mythology attached; Asantehene Osei Tutu’s right hand man and High Priest Okomfo Anokye, was said to have called forth the Golden Stool, the symbol of the Ashanti throne, from the sky, and it was reputed to have fallen into Osei Tutu’s lap, confirming his ascendency to the throne.
The Confederacy’s great defender, Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa, was born in 1840, in the village of Besease, near Edweso, the village that she eventually grew up to rule, into the Asona matrilineal royal clan of Edweso. She was the oldest of two children, the second being her brother Afrane Panin, who eventually became the Edwesohene (Chief of Edweso). Her childhood passed without major incident, and she was said to have been a major farmer, and cultivated many crops in her farms in Boankra village. She married a man from Kumasi, and was the first wife in a traditional polygamous marriage, and had one daughter with him. Yaa Asantewaa would have ascended to the throne sometime in the 1880s, inheriting the throne from her mother or grandmother, as throne inheritance is matrilineal and not patrilineal in Ashanti culture.
During this time, the Ashanti Confederacy had seen major upheaval, with no less than four wars having been fought between the British and the Ashanti. The last war, fought in the 1870s, had brought about great destabilisation in the Ashanti; the capital state Kumasi had been set on fire and ransacked, the British had set up a fort opposite the Manhyira (Ashanti Palace) and had implemented forced labour and a compulsory tax of around £160,000. The Confederacy had then been plunged into a civil war after the last Asantehene had been de-stooled, (deposed from office) and several successors had emerged, and fought until one was crowned.
Against this backdrop, Yaa Asantewaa’s brother died, and her grandson, Kofi Tene, her daughter’s son inherited the throne, and became a strong ally of the Asantehene eventually crowned in 1888, Prempeh I. In 1896, the British demanded the Golden Stool and complete surrender of the Ashanti Confederacy to them. When Prempeh refused, he and other chiefs including Kofi Tene, were forcibly arrested and deported to Sierra Leone. After four years of constant negotiations and refusals by the British to release the Asantehene and the chiefs, the last straw came when the British Governor at the time, Frederick Hodgson, demanded the Golden Stool as a symbol of sovereignty of the British of the Ashantis. That night, Yaa Asantewaa goaded the chiefs to war by refusing to pay Edweso’s share of the tax, and when several chiefs protested that the British were too powerful to take on, she gave a rallying speech:
How can a proud and brave people like the Ashanti sit back and look while white men take away their king and chiefs, and humiliate them with demand for the Golden Stool? The Golden Stool only means money to the white man; they have searched and dug everywhere for it. I shall not pay one predwan to the Governor. If you, the chiefs of Ashanti, are going to behave like cowards and not fight, you should exchange your loincloths for my undergarments.
She then grabbed a gun and fired a shot into the air, and that evening, she and all the chiefs “drank the gods” (i.e. libations, drinks poured out as an offering) and took a solemn oath to rid the Ashanti of British rule.
With this fiery speech and strong will, Yaa Asantewaa was appointed leader and commander-in-chief of the Ashanti forces, a role only held by men previously, and the tactics she employed in this war were the most impressive of all Anglo-Ashanti Wars fought previously, so much so that it is primarily known as the Yaa Asantewaa War.
In the beginning, she turned her Village State, Edweso, into the headquarters of the resistance, as the British had established themselves in Kumasi. As there was much fear of the British initially, many of the Ashanti men refused to join their State armies. To overcome this, she enlisted the help of their wives by ordering them to withhold sex from their men until they joined. To encourage them further, she also ordered the wives to march every day around their villages and perform victory rituals in a show of support and solidarity.
This War also marked the first time that the Ashantis used stockades, with them building one outside each village, and using them as traps against the British. They had much early success with this tactic. Yaa Asantewaa also made it a point to send out generals and troops to monitor strategic points in and around Kumasi. She also ordered a siege of the British fort in Kumasi, preventing food and ammunition supplies from reaching the British that resided in the fort, including the Governor, so they could not fight from the inside. She managed to regain control of Kumasi this way.
Yaa Asantewaa also subverted the common view of the Ashanti women not being allowed on the battlefield, and in the early days of the War, was often viewed on the battlefields holding a gun, though she did not fire herself. Another powerful psychological strategy Yaa Asantewaa employed was the use of the Ashanti talking drums to convey to the British several messages during warfare; one beat was reported to mean “prepare to die”, three beats meant “cut the head off”, and four beats meant “the head is off”. This was said to have caused much fear among the British.
The British however, fought back by destroying many stockades and conquering several villages, forcing Yaa Asantewaa to change her tactics. She merged the single village-state armies into one central army, and when they were closing in on Edweso, her own village and the headquarters for the resistance, she fed information to the British that the current general had been changed, thus providing a decoy and leading the British in a different direction, while she was able to escape and set up a new headquarters in Offinso, the village of her friend and fellow Warrior Queen Mother Nana Afrenewaa.
Eventually though, the British proved victorious, by conquering Ashanti villages one-by-one, with the help of Hausa and Sikh armies that they recruited and imported into Ghana from their vast colonial empire, and the help of several treacherous Ashanti chiefs and everyday men who revealed her tactics and hideouts to them, for rewards. Yaa Asantewaa was finally forced into surrender when she received word that her daughter and some of her grandchildren had been captured by the British and were being held in the British fort in Kumasi. This brave Queen Mother was exiled to Seychelles by the British along with her most prominent generals, and died there in 1921.
Her legacy though, as a patriotic defender and a strategic leader of the Ashanti Confederacy army in the fifth Anglo-Ashanti War, lives on and cements her place in history as a dangerous woman.
Boahen, A.Adu (2003) Yaa Asantewaa and the Asante-British War of 1900-01, James Currey Publishers.
Nana Pokua Wiafe Mensah (2010) The Queen Mother of Ejisu: The Unsung Heroine of Feminism in Ghana, dissertation thesis, University of Toronto.