Once upon a time there lived a brave warrior woman of the Ashanti Empire in West Africa named Queen Nana Yaa Asantewaa I. Appointed as Queen Mother of Ejisu by her brother, King Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpesi, this 60 year old grandmother became Commander-in-Chief of the Asante army who fought in the sixth and final war against British colonialists. Her fight consisted not only of the freedom of the Ashanti people from European invaders, but for the very essence and personification of their people past, present, and future: the Golden Stool of Asante. This is her true story.
Queen Asantewaa I came from a long line of powerful, militaristic, and highly disciplined people who dominated the regions of Benin and the Ivory Coast. The ancient Ashanti people migrated to the region known as Ghana today as far back as the 10th and 12th century AD. The story of the Golden Stool begins with 17th century King Osei Tutu’s efforts to consolidate various clans into a confederation to establish their independence from the powerful Denkyira nation.
Legend has it that a meeting of all the clan heads of each Ashanti settlement was called to strategize their freedom. During the gathering, the Golden Stool was said to be commanded from the heavens in the form of pure gold by the sage advisor to the King, Shaman Okomfo Anokye. It became a sacred symbol representing the spirit and soul of the people that unified the entire Ashanti Kingdom. To handle it, move it, or even to look upon it by unauthorized gazers meant trouble and was protected at all costs.
Long, Storied History
The people of this rich territory have a long history of fighting against England’s greed to control it’s land and it’s gold. It was weakened over time through the trade of human souls and other precious goods. Failure to pay taxes from the last war in 1874 was levied on the Ashanti monarch, Kwaku Dua III Asamu, and was used as a ploy to start a fifth war in 1895. The Ashanti army was defeated and they were forced to sign a treaty.
The King, his family, and a delegation of his officials were arrested and later exiled to Seychelles. Asantewaa’s grandson, Afrani I was also sent into exile. British Governor, Sir William Maxwell, demanded the Golden Stool to take back to England. Feigning obeisance, a fake stool was manufactured for Maxwell who was very happy with it, carried the prized possession to England, only to discover it was not the original. He went back to Ashanti in a fury to locate the genuine Golden Stool of Asante. He was met with disappointment.
On March 28, 1900 the new British Governor, Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson, arrived at the British fort in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti Kingdom. He called a meeting of all the kings and queens. In the infamous Golden Stool speech, he demanded to sit on the sacred artifact in honor of Queen Victoria and to honor England’s leadership in defeating the nation.
His arrogance and complete ignorance of the significance of this cherished emblem produced a firestorm of indignation in Queen Asantewaa I. Since all of the men were silent in the face of this disrespectful exchange, seemed aloof to the fact that their King was in exile, and cared little that this foreigner wanted to take possession of the Golden Stool, she bravely stood and spoke these words to Governor Hodgson: “Who are you? Who is your father? Foolish man! You cannot conceive of what it is you are asking for, the Golden Stool, our soul. Do your worst but you will never take it!”
The Golden Stool of Asante
She then addressed the Ashanti men of the assembly with this rallying charge:
“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!”
After the gathering, Queen Asantewaa I met with a loyal group of kings and queens. She was incensed at the men’s silence and cowardice and asked “if they were really going to allow this foreigner to take the King’s treasures. Do you know where he is taking it? We don’t even know where they have taken our King. How can you men just sit there and allow people not of our culture and tradition to take all our men and now the soul of the nation?”
Her courage and love for the empire compelled her to speak out against the destruction of the nation from within and from without. She would see that this destruction didn’t continue no matter what the cost. Through her words, the men finally grew a spine and agreed to invoke the spirits and oracles of their ancestors. They swore an oath of allegiance to fight as long and as hard as the invaders fought. Because they knew the war would be difficult, the Shaman and oracles of the Ashanti Empire united to prepare the fighters for war, physically and spiritually.
Declaration of War
Queen Asantewaa I declared war on the invaders. This declaration made life miserable for missionaries and British government workers not allied with the Ashanti. To avoid the onslaught, they sought refuge in the impenetrable British fort in Kumasi with their soldiers. Outgunned, Asantewaa cut off all supplies of food and weapons to the fort and held 3500 people there under siege. The plan was to wait for the British to run out of ammunition, break down the doors of the fort, and capture the Governor who wanted the Golden Stool.
As conditions deteriorated for lack of water and food, the Britain’s were forced to buy mice and rats as food for sustenance. Some of the people even tried to break out of the fort choosing to die from gunshots by their fellow countryment rather than face an excruciatingly slow death from starvation. They had no place to bury their dead and opted to throw them over the walls of the fort. Many died from yellow fever, smallpox, and other diseases. Queen Asantewaa I agreed to a truce to allow the women and the sick to leave the fort. What she didn’t know was the Governor smuggled out a note to the Cape coast, that was passed on to Nigeria and Sierra Leone where a large army was mobilized. They marched up the coast of Kumasi and broke the siege on July 11, 1900.
By January 1901, all the dignitaries and other officials associated with the war were arrested, except for Queen Asantewaa I who was the last holdout. To affect her capture, the British found the Queen’s only daughter and arrested her. When Asantewaa heard of her daughter’s arrest, she surrendered. They stripped her of everything, including her chair which was a symbol of authority as Queen Mother of the Ashanti. She didn't go into exile without a fight, though. As she left her beloved empire, her parting gesture was to spit in the face of Commander Wilcox. Queen Asantewaa I was sent into exile on Seychelles where she joined King Prempeh I and her grandson. She remained there until her death in 1921.
Although the Ashanti Kingdom remained under the authority of England, they ruled themselves during that time with little interference from any outsiders and eventually won independence on March 6, 1957. As Queen Asantewaa I prophesied, the British never gained access to the original Golden Stool. It remains in the hands of the Ashanti people in what is now known as Ghana and is displayed to the people once every five years. Because of the bravery of Queen Nana Yaa Asantewaa I, Ghanaians broke the chains of colonial imperialism and are free to rule themselves. They have prospered ever since.