MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it were in the brave days, 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 a 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.”
Excerpt from speech by Nana Yaa Asantewaa Queen Mother of Ejisu, Ashanti Empire, Ghana April 1900
Nana Yaa Asantewaa is credited with rousing the traditional leaders of the Ashanti people to do battle with the British in what was the final Ashanti-British War. In his 2003 book, Yaa Asantewaa and the Asante-British War of 1900-1, A. Adu Boahen, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Ghana, asserts that it was Nana Yaa Asantewaa who rallied Asante resistance with “her fiery and provocative speeches and gender-conscious challenges.”
The war that lasted a year from 1900 to 1901 is sometimes called the Yaa Asantewaa War in honour of this uncompromisingly brave woman who was in her 60s when she rallied her people into taking up arms against the arrogant White men who sought to subjugate the proud Ashanti. For almost the entire 19th century, the covetous British interlopers had been trying to gain dominance over the Ashanti Empire. There were several wars and minor skirmishes between the two nations, some the Ashanti won and others the British won. 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 G. Edgerton, a White anthropology professor who has written several books on African history, 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 (frenzy),’ 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.”
From 1823, with the first Ashanti-British War which lasted eight years until 1831, it was on! There were victories and defeat on both sides during the eight years and in 1831 a treaty was signed which resulted in a 30-year period of peace.
In 1863 war broke out again between the two nations and lasted for a year during which the British were soundly thrashed by the Ashanti. The third Ashanti-British War also lasted a year from 1873 to 1874 during which British armament manufacturers did brisk trade with the Ashanti and the British. The Africans were not sold the same weapons as the British so the victory went to the British in that round of fighting. It says a lot for the bravery and tenacity of the Ashanti that they could withstand the constant aggression of the White men whose country enjoying relative peace and prosperity could afford to keep sending young and healthy men into battle.
The Africans, on the other hand, had to deal with the White men who occupied their land and the constant harassment of these avaricious alien people. This unsettled environment would of course affect the entire community and especially the men who had to keep defending their land.
The fact that the Ashanti continued to resist British domination for close to 100 years is a testament to their fortitude.
The fourth period of British aggression against the Ashanti lasted from December 1895 to February 1896. It is said that the Asantehene (king) ordered the Ashanti not to resist when the British forces arrived in Kumasi (the capital) in 1896. The Asantehene, Agyeman Prempeh I, was enstooled (crowned) in 1888 when he was 16 years old and was only 23 years old when the British attacked in 1895. In 1896 the British kidnapped the young Asantehene, his parents, younger brother and several members of his court and exiled them to the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.
The insult to the Ashanti people which led to the last Ashanti-British hostilities in April 1900 was the British demand to own the sacred Golden Stool of the Ashanti. The arrogant White man who represented the British government in Ghana met with the leaders of the Ashanti in April 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 them that the Asantehene would not be returned to Ghana and that 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 Fall of the Asante Empire, 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.”
When the Ashanti leaders met in secret following their meeting with the representative of the British government, Nana Yaa Asantewaa made her now famous speech and the battle was on.
Several books have been written about Yaa Asantewaa by Africans, including The struggle between two great queens, 1900-1901: Yaa Asantewaa of Edweso, Asante and Victoria of Great Britain”, by Asirifi-Danquah which was published in 2007; Yaa Asantewaa: an African queen who led an army to fight the British, also by Asirifi-Danquah published 2002 and Yaa Asantewaa: the heroism of an African queen, by Ivor Agyeman-Duah published 1999.
Many of the books available from the Toronto Public Library system written about Africa and Africans were 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.”