Nana Yaa Asantewaa – The Joan of Arc of Africa

By Noahalorwu - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Nana Yaa Asantewaa’s story is one of courage and valour. She was a fearless queen who bravely fought against the British rule. Her story has inspired countless others, and she has remained adored by the Ghanaian people. Yaa Asantewaa is a reminder of Ghana’s desire for independence. She was a just queen, but also an astute general. She gave her people hope and reminded them to stand up for injustice. She was known to the West as Africa’s Joan of Arc.[1] The Ghanaian people celebrate her memory and follow her role. This article not only emphasises Yaa Asantewaa’s accomplishments but also shows the heart of the Ghanaian people. This is her story.

Yaa Asantewaa was born around 1841 at Besease in the Edweso state in central Ghana.[2] She was the daughter of Ataa Po and Ampomah of Ampabame, who were both farmers. She was the older sister of Afrane Panin, who later became the Chief of Edweso. Through her mother’s line, she was a member of the Asona royal clan.[3] Nana Yaa Asantewaa was known to be a farmer. She grew plantains, cocoyams, groundnuts and onions in her village.[4] She married a man outside of Edweso in Kumasi. She was the first wife in a polygamous marriage. She only had one daughter by him. It was said that even though Nana Yaa Asantewaa had competed with other wives, she was not biased towards the stepchildren.[5] She raised her stepchildren as her own.

Because the throne was passed through the mother and not through the father, Nana Yaa Asantewaa inherited the throne of Asante. She was invested as the “Queen Mother of Ejisu”.[6] Yaa Asantewaa was praised for being fair and objective. She promoted peace during her reign. She was also a stern advocate for women’s rights. She was against rape, domestic abuse, and crime.[7] She was known for her generosity and made sure her people were well cared for.  This won her the love of her constituents. “The Queen who fends for both the mother and the child; the mighty tree with big branches laden with fruits and from which children find their satisfaction for their hunger.”[8] Her four years of reign enjoyed a period of tranquillity. However, because of her generosity, they were poor economically compared to the other states.[9]

 However, her claim to fame was as a warrior queen. During this period, the British had taken over the Asante gold mines and made them pay high taxes.[10] In 1888, Yaa Asantewaa’s grandson, Nana Prempeh I became king. The British demanded that the Asante people should hand over the Golden Stool. The Golden Stool was seen as a sacred symbol to the Asante people. The British wanted the Golden Stool because it would represent the authority of the British over the Asante people.[11] The people refused to give it to them. In order to punish the people’s defiance, the British took Nana Prempeh I, his brother Afrani II, Chief of Edweso, and several other chiefs as hostages.[12] They eventually exiled them to the Seychelles in 1900.[13] 

The remaining chiefs held a community meeting. They were at a loss about what to do. The chiefs were afraid to confront the British and ask them to release the king and the other chiefs.[14] However, Yaa Asantewaa bravely spoke her infamous speech:

“Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it were the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye and Opuku Ware I, chiefs would not sit down to see their king taken without firing a shot. No white man could have dared to speak to the Chief of Asante in the way the governor spoke to you chiefs this morning. Is it true that the bravery of Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: if you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls on the battlefield!”[15]

  After she said her famous speech, she seized a gun and fired it in front of the chiefs. This meant that she was challenging the chiefs that they were ready for battle.[16]

In April of 1900, Yaa Asantewaa led a three-month siege of a British garrison located in Kumasi. This became known as “The War of the Golden Stool”.[17] The challenge was to raise a large army. She inspired people to follow her. To recruit the unwilling, she used sex as a tool.[18] She encouraged the women to refuse sex with their husbands until they joined her army. This tactic proved highly successful in getting the men to recruit.[19]

Yaa Asantewaa also blocked all routes that led to Kumasi so that it would halt the British from getting reinforcements.[20] They also destroyed telephone poles leaving the British unable to make any communications. This laid the groundwork for Yaa Asantewaa and her army to attack the Kumasi Fort because the governor and his men were trapped inside.[21]

The people in the fort were suffering from starvation and disease. It was said that at 30 to 50 inhabitants died every day.[22] Sometimes, Yaa Asantewaa allowed food supplies to be sent to the fort to help her suffering enemies.[23] The governor tried to make negotiations with the Queen-Mother. However, he refused to agree to her terms. One of those terms was returning the royal exiles.[24] Eventually, the governor managed to escape. The British eventually called for reinforcements, and 1,400 soldiers joined their army.[25] The British ultimately defeated the Asantes. Yaa Asantewaa was now on the “wanted” list.[26] She hid in SresoTimpomu, which was 130 km from Kumasi.[27] There she was betrayed and captured in late 1900. In 1901, she was exiled to the Seychelles. In 1904, she converted to Christianity and was baptised by the British.[28] She died on 5 October 1921.

Nana Yaa Asantewaa is a beloved figure in Ghana. There is a song that the residents of the Edweso village sing to praise her:

“Yaa Asantewaa

A woman who fights before cannons

You have accomplished great things

You have done well”[29]

 There is also a festival held in her honour called the Yaa Asantewaa festival that takes place every other year in August.[30] Many educational institutions have been named in her honour. Women continue to recall her legacy by naming their children after her. In fact, one of the girls named after her is the Queen-mother of Ejisu, who is known as Yaa Asantewaa II.[31] Though Yaa Asantewaa suffered a tragic ending, as long as the people of Ghana remember her good deeds, she will never be forgotten. She became a cultural symbol in the minds and hearts of the Ghanaian people.

Sources:

Korsah, Chantal. “Yaa Asantewaa.” Dangerous Women Project, 21 July 2016, dangerouswomenproject.org/2016/07/22/yaa-asantewaa/.

Laing, George F. Ghana: Yaa Asantewaa Festival in August. IC Publications Ltd, England, 2006.

Oforka, Venatius Chukwudum. The Bleeding Continent How Africa Became Impoverished and Why It Remains Poor. Xlibris Corp, 2015.

Pokua, Wiafe Mensah Nana. Nana Yaa Asantewaa, The Queen Mother of Ejisu: the Unsung Heroine of Feminism in GhanaUniversity of Toronto, 2010, tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/25684/3/WiafeMensah_Nana_P_201011_MAThesis.pdf.

“The Life and Afterlife of Yaa Asantewaa.” Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 77, no. 2, 2007, pp. 151-179.

“Yaa Asantewaa (c. 1850–1921).” Dictionary of Women Worldwide: 25,000 Women Through the Ages, edited by Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer, vol. 2, Yorkin Publications, 2007, p. 2040.


[1] Mensah, p. 66

[2] “Yaa Asantewaa (c. 1850–1921)”, para. 1

[3] Mensah, p. 41

[4] Laing, para. 10

[5] Mensah, p. 43

[6] Mensah, p.p. 43-44

[7] Laing, para. 12

[8] Mensah, p. 44

[9] Mensah pp. 44-45

[10]Oforka, p. 96

[11] Korsah, para. 8

[12] Oforka, p. 96

[13] Oforka, p. 96

[14] Oforka, p. 96

[15] Oforka, p. 97

[16] Mensah, p. 54

[17] Oforka, p. 97

[18] Laing, para. 14

[19] Laing, para. 14

[20] Laing, para. 15

[21] Laing, para. 15

[22] Laing, para. 17

[23] Laing, para. 17

[24] Laing, para. 16

[25] Oforka, p. 97

[26] “Yaa Asantewaa (c. 1850–1921).” para. 2

[27] Laing, para. 18

[28] “Yaa Asantewaa (c. 1850–1921).” para. 2

[29] Korah, para. 3

[30] Laing, para. 20

[31] McCaskie, p. 165



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