Yaa Asantewaa is one of the most important figures and one of the most influential women in Ghana’s history. She is known for being the last African woman to lead a major war against the colonial powers, leading a rebellion known as The War of the Golden Stool in 1900.
In this article, we pay tribute to this brave woman who has become a symbol of bravery and unshaken faith to stand for her people and fight in the name of freedom.
Yaa Asantewa, a Ghanaian heroin
Yaa Asantewaa rose to become queen mother in the Asante Kingdom at the beginning of the 20th century and still remains a powerful symbol in modern day Ghana.
When the king was captured and exiled by the British she refused to hand over the sacred golden stool. She gave a powerful speech that inspired men and women to raise up and fight the British colonizers and was appointed head of the Asante army.
A brief history of the Asante Kingdom
In what is modern day Ghana and the Ivory Coast, in dense and humid forests, lived the Akan people. Though their land was hard to farm, it was really rich in natural resources, especially gold.
In 1701, chief Osei Tutu united several clans to form a new Kingdom, calling his people the Asante, meaning “because of war” (also referred to as Ashanti).
Osei Tutu took the role of Asantehene, meaning paramount chief. He organised the Asante union, an alliance of Akan-speaking people who were now loyal to his central authority and made Kumasi the new capital of his empire. He also created a constitution, reorganised and centralised the military, and created a new cultural festival, Odwira, which symbolised the new union.
During 50 years, the Ashanti managed to build the largest and strongest state on the Guinea Coast. They had control over two very powerful sources of wealth; gold mines, which they controlled access (reason why the Europeans called it the “Gold Coast”) and they run a very profitable slave trade.
From 1790 until 1896, the Ashanti Empire was in a perpetual state of war involving expansion or defense of its domain. In 1902, the British deposed and exiled the Asantehene and annexed the Empire into their Gold Coast colony.
Yaa Asantewaa and her role during the Asante Kingdom
Nana Yaa Asantewaa was born in the 1840s in Besease, then the Ashanti Empire. Before ascending to the title of Queen Mother in the 1880s – appointed by her brother Nana Akwasi Afrane Opese, the Edwesuhene/ruler of Edwesu – she was a skilled farmer.
The title of Queen Mother came with many responsibilities, one of those being the Gatekeeper of the Golden Stool. Being the Gatekeeper meant that she was in charge of presenting candidates for when the occupant of the Stool (the chiefdom) became vacant. In addition to this very important role, she was the main adviser to the King, thus occupying the second highest position within the empire.
In 1896, the Ashanti received a threat from the British during their attempt to rebel against their presence in their lands. To retaliate, the British captured and exiled two powerful leaders; Asantehene Prempeh I, King of the Ashanti, and Asantewaa’s grandson Kofi Tene.
They were exiled to the Seychelles Island. That is when British governor, Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson demanded that the Golden Stool should be handed over to the British.
A meeting was held by the chiefs of the Asante Kingdom where no men stood up to face the challenge and that is when Yaa Asantewaa proclaimed that if the men of the kingdom would not defend the people, then the women would rise to the challenge.
This is when the War of the Golden Stool, also known as the Yaa Asantewaa War began. Yaa Asantewaa led the rebellion which resulted in the death of 1,000 British and allied African soldiers and 2,000 Ashanti. Unfortunately the British won the war, and Yaa Asantewaa was exiled in the Seychelles where she died in 1921.
The importance of the golden stool
History says that in order to hold his new people together, Osei Tutu’s high priest called down from the heavens a golden stool (Asikadwa). The Golden Stool is the most sacred object in Asante culture.
They are understood to represent the soul of their owners and are given at important milestones in people’s lives. Some of these milestones include:
- When children learn to crawl they are given a stool as their first gift from their father.
- Young women sit on a stool as part of the right of puberty.
- When couples are married, the groom presents the bride with a stool.
- If a person dies they are bathed on a stool before burial.
- Ceremonial stools are blackened and enshrined after the death of an important leader.
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. It is said to harbor the souls of all the Asante people, living or dead. It is believed that the unity of the Asante Kingdom depends on the safety of the golden stool and is even depicted on the Asante flag.
Yaa Asantewaa’s legacy
Her role as a women leader alongside her courage, still inspires many girls and women in Ghana, and throughout Africa. A lot of women who go into professions that were previously dominated by men are often nicknamed Yaa Asantewaa as a way of encouragement and support. There is even a girls high school in Kumasi named after her – The Yaa Asantewaa Girls Senior High School (Yagshs).
In the year 2000, a museum in Ejisu was dedicated in her memory. Items of clothing that she wore were displayed, even a turtle shell in which she was said to have eaten her meals. Unfortunately, the museum was burnt in July 2004 and is still in ruins.
Check out our page about the best museums in Accra.
She had a documentary made about her journey and a radio drama which was broadcasted on BBC Radio Four’s radio magazine program Woman’s Hour.