Yaa Asantewaa was born October 17, 1840 and she died October 17, 1921. She was queen mother of Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire – now part of modern-day Ghana, appointed by her brother Nana Akwasi Afrane Opese, the Edwesuhene, or ruler, of Edwesu. In 1900 she led the Ashanti war known as the War of the Golden Stool, also known as the Yaa Asantewaa war, against British colonialism.
She is the first story in a new eight-part series, African Women who Changed the World, which aims to shed light on great African women whose stories deserve to be heard. This BBC Africa series has been produced using historical and iconographic research, but includes artistic interpretation.
Yaa Asantewaa became famous for leading the Ashanti rebellion against British colonialism to defend the Golden stool. She promoted women emancipation as well as gender equality.
Yaa Asantewaa was named Queen Mother of the Ejisuhene (part of the Asante or Ashanti Confederacy) by her exiled brother Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpese. Prior to European colonization, the Ashanti people developed an influential West African empire. Asantewaa was the Gatekeeper of the “Golden Stool” (Sika ‘dwa) during this powerful Ashanti Confederacy (Asanteman), an independent federation of Asanti tribal families that ruled from 1701 to 1896.
The only known account of Sir Hodgson’s speech that sparked the war is as follows:
Your King Prempeh I is in exile and will not return to Ashanti. His power and authority will be taken over by the Representative of the Queen of Britain. The terms of the 1874 Peace Treaty of Formena, which required you to pay the costs of the 1874 war, have not been forgotten. You have to pay with interest the sum of £160,000 a year. Then there is the matter of the Golden Stool of Ashanti. The Queen is entitled to the stool; she must receive it.
Where is the Golden Stool? I am the representative of the Paramount Power. Why have you relegated me to this ordinary chair? Why did you not take the opportunity of my coming to Kumasi to bring the Golden Stool for me to sit upon? However, you may be quite sure that though the Government has not received the Golden Stool at his hands it will rule over you with the same impartiality and fairness as if you had produced it.
The story of Queen Mother Nana Yaa Asantewaa is a story of the modern history of the nation of Ghana, Africa. In 1896, Asantehene (King) Prempeh I of the Asanteman federation was captured and exiled to the Seychelles islands by the British who had come to call the area the British “Gold Coast.” Asantewaa’s brother was said to be among the men exiled with Prempeh I, deported because of his opposition to British rule in West Africa. In 1900, British colonial governor Frederick Hodgson called a meeting in the city of Kumasi of the Ashantehene local rulers. At the meeting, Hodgson stated that King Prempeh I would continue to suffer an exile from his native land and that the Ashanti people were to surrender to the British their historical, ancestral Golden Stool – a dynastic symbol of the Ashanti empire. In fact, power was transferred to each Asantahene by a ceremonial crowning that involved the sacred Golden Stool. The colonial governor demanded that it be surrendered to allow Hodgson to sit on the Sika ‘dwa as a symbol of British power.
At this time, Yaa Asantewaa was the Gatekeeper of the Golden Stool. After this meetings, the Ashantehenes of the federation gathered to discuss the British development. Upon hearing some of the Ashantehenes entertain surrender to the British demands, it is reported that the Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa rose and said the following:
“Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our King. If it were in the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opoku Ware, leaders would not sit down to see their King taken away without firing a shot.No white man could have dared to speak to a leader of the Ashanti in the way the Governor spoke to you this morning. Is it true that the bravery of the Ashanti is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this, if you the men of Ashanti will not go forward, then we will. We the women will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields.”
Queen Mother Nana Yaa Asantewaa
The Ashanti-British “War of the Golden Stool” was led by Queen Mother Nana Yaa Asantewaa with an army of 5,000. While Yaa Asantewaa was captured by the British and deported, her bravery stirred a kingdom-wide movement for the return of Prempeh I and for independence.
Today, Ashanti is an administrative region in central Ghana where most of the inhabitants are Ashanti people who speak Twi, an Akan language group, similar to Fante. In 1935 the Golden Stool was used in the ceremony to crown Osei Tutu Agyeman Prempeh II (ruled 1935-1970). Independence from the British colonialist was secured in 1957. On August 3, 2000, a museum was dedicated to Queen Mother Nana Yaa Asantewaa at Kwaso in the Ejisu-Juaben District of Ghana.
History of the Golden Stool
The Golden Stool (Ashanti–Twi: Sika dwa; full title, Sika Dwa Kofi “the Golden Stool born on a Friday”) is the royal and divine throne of the Ashanti people and the ultimate symbol of power in Asante. According to legend, Okomfo Anokye, High Priest and one of the two chief founders of the Asante Confederacy, caused the stool to descend from the sky and land on the lap of the first Asante king, Osei Tutu. Such seats were traditionally symbolic of a chieftain’s leadership, but the Golden Stool is believed to house the spirit of the Asante nation—living, dead and yet to be born.
Each stool is understood to be the seat of the owner’s soul and when not in use is propped against a wall so that other souls passing by may relax on it. The Golden Stool is the royal throne and must never touch the ground; instead it is placed on a blanket. During inauguration, a new king is raised and lowered over the stool without touching it. The Golden Stool is carried to the king on a pillow, as only the Asantehene himself is allowed to handle it. During solemn occasions, the Golden Stool is seated (to king’s left) on a throne of its own, the hwedom dwa (Ashanti, throne facing the enemy)
Many wars have broken out over the ownership of the royal throne. In 1896, Asantehene Prempeh I was deported rather than risk losing both the war and the throne. In 1900, Sir Frederick Hodgson, the Governor of the Gold Coast, demanded to be allowed to sit on the Golden Stool, and ordered that a search for it be conducted. This provoked an armed rebellion known as the War of the Golden Stool, which resulted in the annexation of Ashanti to the British Empire, but preserved the sanctity of the Golden Stool. In 1921, African road workers discovered the stool and stripped some of the gold ornaments. They were taken into protective custody by the British, before being tried according to local custom and sentenced to death. The British intervened and the group was instead banished. An assurance of non-interference with the stool was then given by the British and it was brought out of hiding. In 1935 the stool was used in the ceremony to crown Osei Tutu Agyeman Prempeh II.
With the entire surface of the Golden Stool being inlaid with gold, you will now understand why the British broke war just for it, although the symbolism and cultural importance of it is why Yaa Asantewaa would much rather fight tooth and nail just as long as their sacred golden stool was kept safe, which she was successful in doing.
The bravery of and story of Yaa Asantewaa continues to inspire many.
While she and other resistance fighters were captured and exiled, they successfully defended the Golden Stool from capture.
Queen Mother Asantewaa and other fighters were exiled from the Gold Coast to the Seychelles, with the Queen Mother dying in the Seychelles on October 17, 1921. Three years later, King Prempeh I returned from exile and would give Queen Mother Asantewaa a proper Ashanti burial.
On March 6, 1957, Ghana would gain its independence from British rule and became the first sub-Saharan African country to do so.