Who was Yaa Asantewaa?
Yaa Asantewaa was queen mother of Ejisu in the Ashanti/Asante Empire (presently in modern-day Ghana). Inducted queen mother by her brother, Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpese, the ruler of Edwesu, she nominated her grandson as Ruler of Ejisu following her brother’s demise. The King of the Ashanti Prempeh I and grandson of Yaa Asantewaa were exiled to Seychelles in 1896 by the British. British governor, Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson demanded that the Golden Stool, the royal and divine throne of the Ashanti people be handed over to the British. A conference of the chiefs of the Asante kingdom was held. Disgusted with attitude of some chiefs who were scared to fight the British, Yaa Asantewaa, Gatekeeper of the Golden Stool, asserted that if the men doesn’t come forward, then women will fight. This charged up the men initiating the War of the Golden Stool, also known as the Yaa Asantewaa War that marked last war in a series of Anglo-Ashanti Wars. The British won the war and Yaa Asantewaa was exiled in the Seychelles where she died after two decades.
She was born in c.1840 in Besease, Ashanti Empire as the elder of two children of Ataa Po and Ampomah of Ampabame. Her parents were farmers. Her brother, Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpese became the Edwesuhene that is ruler of Edwesu.
She grew up as other children of her community and cultivated crops around Bonankra, presently a town in south-central Ghana.
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Events Leading to the Ashanti Uprising
Yaa Asantewaa had witnessed several events including civil war from 1883 to 1888 during her brother’s rule that posed threat to the future of the Ashanti Confederacy. She was inducted queen mother of Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire by her brother and following his death in 1894, she used such right and nominated her own grandson as Ejisuhene.
In 1896, the King of Asante Prempeh I, other members of the Asante government as also Yaa Asantewaa’s grandson were exiled by the British to the Seychelles following which she became regent of the Ejisu–Juaben district.
British colonial administrator Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson, the then governor-general of the Gold Coast, made a political error by demanding to sit on the royal and divine throne of the Ashanti people, the Golden Stool. He did not understand the significance of the Golden Stool that is the very symbol of the Ashanti people, living, dead, and yet to be born. Moreover he also commanded a search for the stool.
This led the rest of the members of Asante government to hold a confidential meeting at Kumasi to find out a solution to secure the king’s return.
Yaa Asantewaa was also present in the meeting. She was disgusted to see that some of the members of the council were fearful of getting into war with the British and were suggesting to earnestly requesting Hodgson to free the king rather than fight for the king’s return and dignity.
She addressed the council members reminding them of the gallantry days of their legends Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye and Opuku Ware I. She said if it were those days, the chiefs would not have let the king be captured and taken away without a combat and the white men would have never dared to speak to the Chief of Asante the way Hodgson did in the present day.
She then said that if the men of the Asante cannot come forward to wage war against the British then she will call her fellow women and fight the British till the last of them fall on the warfront. Such courageous and motivating words by her led to the initiation of the Ashanti Uprising. Many of the regional Asante kings selected her as war-leader of the Asante fighting force thus making her the first and only woman in history of Asante to play such a role.
Death of Yaa Asantewaa & Legacy
On October 17, 1921, Yaa Asantewaa died in the Seychelles during her exile and three years later on December 27, 1924, King Prempeh I and the other Ashanti court members were permitted to return from exile. The king travelled in a special train to Kumasi. He ensured that Yaa Asantewaa’s remains as also those of other Asante people exiled were brought back to the Ashanti Empire for a befitting royal burial.
The courageous and leadership role played by Yaa Asantewaa in confronting British colonial rule has evolved her as a much revered and inspirational figure in the history of both Ashanti and Ghana.
The Yaa Asantewaa Girl's Senior High School (Yagshs), located in Kumasi is named after her. The school established by the first President of Ghana Dr. Kwame Nkrumah in 1951 started with funds from the Ghana Education Trust in 1960.
Meanwhile on March 6, 1957, the Ashanti protectorate garnered freedom as part of Ghana thus realising the dream of Yaa Asantewaa for an Ashanti free of colonial ruling.
In 1986, an African-Caribbean arts and community centre located in Maida Vale, west London, was named after her as the Yaa Asantewaa Centre.
A centenary celebration was held in Ghana for a week in 2000 acknowledging her achievements. On August 3, a museum was dedicated to her at Kwaso in the Ejisu–Juaben District as part of the celebration.
In 2001 a TV documentary ‘Yaa Asantewaa – The Exile of King Prempeh and the Heroism of An African Queen’ by Ivor Agyeman–Duah was released in Ghana.
Margaret Busby written and Geraldine Connor directed stage show ‘Yaa Asantewaa: Warrior Queen’ that featured an all African cast including master drummer Kofi Ghanaba was staged across the UK and Ghana during 2001-02.
A Margaret Busby written radio drama on Yaa Asantewaa was also broadcast on BBC Radio Four's radio magazine program Woman's Hour from October 13 to 17 in 2003.
In an unfortunate incident of fire that took place on July 23, 2004, her sandals and battle dress (batakarikese) along with many other ancient items were destroyed. Another festival on her was held from August 1 to 5 in 2006 in Ejisu.
She got into a polygamous marriage with a Kumasi man and had a daughter from the marriage called Nana Ama Serwaah of Boankra.