Nana Yaa Asantewaa led her people against British oppression

By Murphy Browne Wednesday March 25 2015 in Opinion
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By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)

On March 28, 1900, a White British colonizer in Ghana demanded that the Akan/Ashanti people surrender their sacred “Golden Stool” so that he might sit on it. This was the insult to the Ashanti people that led to the last Ashanti-British hostilities, which lasted from April 1900 to March 1901.


The arrogant White man who represented the British government in Ghana met with the leaders of the Ashanti on March 28, 1900, four years after the exile of the Ashanti royal family, during which the British had provoked the proud Ashanti people by heaping untold assaults on their dignity. At that meeting he told the Ashanti that the Asantehene (monarch) would not be returned to Ghana because the British intended to hold him hostage forever and that the Golden Stool, sacred to the Ashanti, rightfully belonged to Victoria, the British monarch.


In the 1995 book, The Fall of the Asante Empire: The Hundred-Year War for Africa’s Gold Coast, White American author, Robert B. Edgerton, explains the British government representative’s attitude: “He firmly believed that only if the Asante knew their king would never return and the Queen of England possessed the Golden Stool would they submit to British rule. But because he had no understanding of the meaning of the Golden Stool for the Asante, his tough talk would start a war.”


The Ashanti leaders met in secret following their meeting with the representative of the British government, whose sacrilegious demand for the Golden Stool was roundly condemned by Nana Yaa Asantewaa in her now famous speech: 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, the days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opoku Ware, chiefs would not sit down to see their king taken away without firing a shot. No White man could have dared to speak to chief of the Ashanti in the way the Governor spoke to you chiefs 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.”

After that rousing and inspiring speech, the battle was on.


Several books have been written about Yaa Asantewa by Africans including Yaa Asantewaa: the heroism of an African queen, by Ivor Agyeman-Duah, published 1999; Yaa Asantewaa: an African queen who led an army to fight the British, by Asirifi-Danquah, published 2002 and The struggle between two great queens, 1900-1901: Yaa Asantewaa of Edweso, Asante and Victoria of Great Britain, by Asirifi-Danquah, published 2007. Many of the books available from the Toronto Public Library system written about Africa and Africans are not written by Africans so it is important when reading to keep in mind the African proverb: “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”


The Yaa Asantewaa War of 1900 was not the first British attempt to subdue the Ashanti by invading the country. In the first Ashanti/British war in 1823, the British were soundly thrashed by the Ashanti warriors. Keeping in mind that there was no invasion of Britain by the Ashanti or any other African nation, the British were at an advantage because they could keep importing soldiers from a country where people lived in virtual peace while the Ashanti and other African nations were in a constant state of turmoil with Europeans invading their territories, slaughtering, kidnapping and enslaving their citizens.


The British, driven to extreme greed by the knowledge of gold in the Ashanti Empire (which they later named the Gold Coast) attacked the Ashanti in 1826, 1873, 1893-1894 and 1895-1896. Following the scramble for Africa, where members of 14 White tribes decided to carve up the African continent to colonize and exploit the people living in those places (Ethiopia being the sole African country they were unsuccessful in colonizing), the British were successful in subduing the Ashanti nation of Ghana.


The European “Scramble for Africa”, from November 15, 1884 to February 26, 1885, was of great help to the British in subduing the Ashanti. During the three months of meetings in Berlin, Germany, representatives from 13 European countries and the United States planned on supporting each other in their bid to colonize the African continent. This led to 30 years (1884-1914) of European massacre of Africans and theft of their land as armed conflict resulted when Africans tried to protect themselves as the Europeans annexed territory from existing African nations, states and peoples.


In 1896, the British government annexed the territories of the Ashanti after the 24-year-old Asantehene (King) Prempeh I, supposedly directed his people not to resist, which is hardly surprising since by this time the Ashanti had been resisting British attacks for 73 years. The British and other White people were seeking to exploit the richness of the African continent and after witnessing the extraordinary wealth of the Ashanti Empire, there was no stopping the rapacious horde of British in their determination to possess that wealth.


In his 1995 book, The Fall of the Asante Empire: The Hundred Year War for Africa’s Gold Coast, Robert Edgerton described the impetus for the expression of British greed: “In 1817, the first British envoy to meet the king of the Asante of West Africa was dazzled by his reception. A group of 5,000 Asante soldiers, many wearing immense caps topped with three foot eagle feathers and gold ram’s horns, engulfed him with a ‘zeal bordering on phrensy,’ shooting muskets into the air. The envoy was escorted, as no fewer than 100 bands played, to the Asante king’s palace and greeted by a tremendous throng of 30,000 noblemen and soldiers, bedecked with so much gold that his party had to avert their eyes to avoid the blinding glare. Some Asante elders wore gold ornaments so massive they had to be supported by attendants. This first encounter set the stage for one of the longest and fiercest wars in all the European conquest of Africa. At its height, the Asante empire, on the Gold Coast of Africa in present-day Ghana, comprised three million people and had its own highly sophisticated social, political, and military institutions.”

Born around 1830, Yaa Asantewaa was Queen Mother of the Edweso region, part of the former Asante Empire that is now modern-day Ghana. When the Asante refused to surrender the Golden Stool to the British, C.H. Armitage, a British military captain, was sent out to coerce the Asante into surrendering the sacred item. Armitage went from village to village, brutalizing Ashanti men, women and children in the hopes of obtaining the stool. As the leader of the resistance, Yaa Asantewaa assembled an army of more than 4,000 soldiers. As an able strategist, for three months, Yaa Asantewaa was able to lay siege to the British fort at Kumasi. British reinforcements from Nigeria arrived to rescue the besieged British in Kumasi. Armed with machine guns and supported by other superior weapons, using scorched land tactics and bribing traitors, the British found and arrested the Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa on March 3, 1901. She was sent into exile and eventually transitioned at age 90 on the Seychelles Island, where she was imprisoned.


In the 2008 book, Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture Volume 1, African-Trinidadian historian, Dr. Carol Elizabeth Boyce Davies, writes: “Yaa Asantewaa was in her early 70s when she led the war. Her leadership of the war has made her an iconic figure cited regularly in African historiography and among gender activists.”


Nana Yaa Asantewaa is of great historic significance not only in Ghana but to all Africans. She is an African freedom fighter who led her people in resistance to the oppression of the colonizing British. Because of freedom fighters like Yaa Asantewaa the British never owned the Golden Stool, Ghana gained its independence on March 6, 1957 and celebrated 58 years of independence from British rule on March 6, 2015.

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