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Yaa Nana Asantewaa was born in 1840 as Asona royalty in Besease, then Ashanti Empire in present-day Ghana . She was also of the Edweso stool line. Yaa Asantewaa was an influential Ashanti queen at the beginning of the twentieth century who remains a powerful symbol today. She died in exile on the Seychelles on 17th October 1921.
Before the 20th century, the Asante political structure was critically explicated by the occupancy of royal stools (an equivalent of thrones). In Asante culture, there are conventional stools (sese dwa) occupied by chiefs or district rulers, and there is the Golden Stool (Asikadwa).
The Golden Stool is the most sanctified object in Asante culture. According to folklore, the stool harbors the sunsum (soul) of all Asante—living or deceased. Its people believe that the stool had descended from heaven in a cloud of white dust and bestowed to Osei Tutu—the pioneer Asantehene (King of Asante) around the late 1600s. The stool is so important to the Asante that the unity of the kingdom is believed to depend on the safety of the Golden Stool.
The stools are intimately connected with women, especially the Queen Mothers. The Queen Mothers are sometimes as authoritative as the King himself, who is usually the grandson or son of the Queen Mother.
Some Queen Mothers even served as regent in the absence or minority of the King or even advised kings in making public policies. Thus is the second highest position within the empire, she fulfills the role of guarding the Golden Stool.
Yaa Nana Asantewaa was a skilled farmer (especially in the town of Boankra) before ascending to the title Queen Mother in the 1880s. It is believed that she was selected for this title due to the matrilineal aspect of the Ashanti culture and that her elder brother Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpase, who was a powerful ruler at the time, assigned her to the role.
Yaa Asantewaa married Owusu Kwabena—one of the grandsons of Osei Yaw Akoto, the seventh King of Asante who reigned from 1824 till 1834.
Since the Queen Mother is elected to be the mother of the reigning king, she presents candidates for when the occupant of the Stool (the chiefdom) becomes vacant, in turn protecting the establishment of authority.
Yaa Asantewaa’s endowment to the independence struggle of the Asante confederacy against the British was influential to the nationalist agitations of the early 20th century that led to the independence of Ghana in 1957, the first independent Sub‐Saharan African country in the post‐colonial era.
The Arrival of The British On The Gold Coast
In consideration of the Portuguese first setting foot on the shores of West Africa in the 15th century, the relationship between the kingdoms of Africa and the Europeans circled around trade.
It was not until the later part of the 16th century that other Europeans reached the Gold Coast.
In the Gold Coast, the trade in ivory and gold were of special interest to the Europeans up to the mid‐17th century. Nevertheless due to the demand for labor across European plantations in the Americas in the 18th‐century, trade interests in places like the Gold Coast changed from commodities like ivory and gold to include the booming demand for African slaves.
Throughout the 19th century, the relationship between the British and the Asante was conflicted.
What was Yaa Asantewaa Eminent for?
She inspired and reinforced what is today known as the War of the Golden Stool. The Golden Stool was the Asante nation’s most sacred possession, and the British representative at the time, Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson, demanded for it to be brought for him to sit on, in the name of Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom.
“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. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls on the battlefield. If you chiefs will not fight, you should exchange your loin cloths for my undergarment.” Was her remark regarding the British representative’s demand towards the Asante men’s stagger.
She was at the war front at different times to give advice and refresh supplies for the Asante fighters – at the age of 60. As she was nominated by a number of regional Asante kings to be the war-leader of the Asante fighting force – as the first and only woman in Asante history.
The Golden stool War
In 1896, the Ashanti people began to rebel against the British presence in their lands and the British attempt to construct the “Gold Coast” colony. To fight against the Ashanti, the British captured and exiled Asantehene Prempeh I, King of the Ashanti, and Asantewaa’s grandson Kofi Tene, who was also a powerful leader. The British removed the king and other Ashanti leaders including his mother (the Asantehemaa or Queen Mother), his father (the Apebiakyerehene), his brother (Adumhene), some chiefs, and kings of Offinsu, to the Seychelles Islands in an effort to acquire the Golden Stool.
While remaining leaders within the community debated and struggled on how to best respond to the British threat and to unite following the arrests, Nana Yaa Asantewaa held her ground and rallied the troops.
While the Asantehene and other Kings remained on the Indian Ocean island of Seychelles, British Governor Sir Frederick Hodgson was still powerless and couldn’t bring the whole Asante nation under his control. Hodgson soon realized that the Asante confederates would only acknowledge the authority of someone sitting on the Golden Stool.
Then came March 1900, Hodgson demanded that the sacred Golden Stool be brought to him as the Queen of England’s representative on the Gold Coast, arguing that the Queen, after the deposition of the Asantehene, was the rightful ruler of Asante.
The chiefs were horrified and disgusted by the sheer audacity and disrespect of Hodgson’s claim, but they had no way to resist as most of its powerful kings were banished.
After holding a couple of meetings secretly, Yaa Asantewaa ended up leading the rebellion (became an image of strength and resistance) which resulted in the death of 1,000 British and allied African soldiers and 2,000 Ashanti. Both totals were higher that the deaths from all previous wars between the Ashanti and the British combined.
The Asante, led by Nana Yaa Asantewaa, put up an inspiring fight against the superior firepower of the British and kept them from marching beyond the Kumasi Fort. Unfortunately, she was captured during the rebellion and exiled to Seychelles, where she died in 1921.
Most women who go into professions that were previously dominated by men are often nicknamed Yaa Asantewaa as a way of encouragement and support since she is a very important role model and an inspiration to girls and women in Ghana and throughout Africa.