There have been great women in history, but Yaa Asantewaa was one of a kind, Cameron Duodu reminds us of the story of the ‘mere woman’ who ‘fought against the cannon’ during the British colonisation of Ghana.
I would not have believed it, but there are some people in Ghana – and indeed, Africa – who have not heard of Yaa Asantewaa.
How do I know this? The recent boast of female supporters of Kumase Asante Kotoko football club, one of the most famous clubs in Ghana, to march with their breasts bared, to the offices of the Ghana Football Association (GFA), to demand the redressing of an ‘injustice’ perpetrated against their team, has caused a lot of merry bantering on the Internet.
Many are taking it seriously, for a similar thing actually happened in Nigeria’s Ekiti State in 2007. (There are pictures of it on the Internet for those who do not mind pursuing the prurient!).
A popular governorship candidate in Ekiti, Dr Kayode Fayemi, was cheated out of an election victory he had won. But some of his female supporters were not taking it lying down. They marched to the Electoral Commission offices with bared breasts, and demanded that their man be given back the governorship seat that had been stolen from him.
How the Electoral Commission officials reacted was not recorded, though some reports claimed that they ran away, ‘with their tails’ between their legs!’ Or probably what was meant was that what was between their legs had turned tail. Ah – politics.
Anyway, the matter went to the Electoral Tribunal. In all it took forty months for the case to be decided. Nigerian courts, like some in Ghana, care very little about the democratic voice of the electorate and why it should be allowed to be heard. Tell them that ‘Vox populi’ equals ‘Vox dei’ and they will stare blankly at you without comprehending a word of that. Anyway, Dr Kayode was declared winner only in mid-October 2010, with the result that the Ekiti Governor, Mr Oni, was booted out after enjoying the office for three and a half years. So, Kayode has finally ‘breasted the tape’ (pun intended) and is now ‘on seat’, as they say in Nigeria.
Probably, the Asante Kotoko women had a premonition – as women do – that the Ekiti women’s bare-breasted campaign would eventually succeed. Who knows? No matter – someone wrote on the internet that if he were chairman of the GFA, he wouldn’t hang around for the Kotoko female marchers to catch up with him. ‘If one Asante woman could cause a whole British “expeditionary force” to cut and run, what can a bevy of them not do to mere, unarmed GFA officials?’ he wrote. Whereupon another, expressing surprise at his statement, wrote to request the name of the ‘Asante woman who caused a whole British army expedition to cut and run’.
This astonished me, for I had assumed that the Yaa Asantewaa story was known to everybody in Ghana. Since I am now a wiser man than when I read the request for information about Yaa Asantewaa, I am going to relate her story, just in case some of my readers too are people who have read other people’s history but are in the dark when it comes to our own. I mean some of us know all about 1066 and all that; about Alfred the Great and Queen Boadicea. But ask them about Okomfo Anokye or Tetteh Quarshie, and they are lost for words.
Now, there have been great women in history. And there was Yaa Asantewaa. She was one of a kind.
So great was the heroism shown by her (she was the Queen Mother of Edweso, Asante, in the year 1900) that although my grandmother lived in Akyem Abuakwa – a state that had fought many bitter wars against the Asante – she and her friends used to sing about Yaa Asantewaa when I was a child. Their song – which I can still sing – went like this:
‘Momma yenkafo no eeei,
Yaa Asantewaa eeei,
Obaa basia a oko aprem ano eeei,
Obaa Yaa eeei!’
A mere woman
Who fought against the cannon!
The Woman Yaa’)
My grandma and her friends were singing to commemorate how Yaa Asantewaa was forcibly taken away from her own people and deported to the Seychelles Islands, very far away, by the British. Her deportation happened in 1901 and it happened like this:
The British had taken the King of Asante, Otumfuor Prempeh I, captive and deported him first to Sierra Leone, and then to the Seychelles Islands, after ‘defeating’ him in a war in 1896.
In fact, the reason for Prempeh’s ‘defeat’ was that he elected not to fight the British, like many of his predecessors had successfully done before him. He could not conceive of a situation where the British queen, Victoria, having sent envoys to Asante, and signed treaties with its kings, would turn round and attack Asante. Especially when he, the ruling King of Asante, had reciprocated Victoria’s courtesy and sent envoys to her.
Poor King Prempeh I – he didn’t know that unlike him, who was a warrior-king, Queen Victoria was a only constitutional monarch, who did not have the power to stop a war if her prime minister and the parliament he controlled, decided, in the interest of businessmen anxious to get hold of Asante’s lands to mine gold on it, to use force to ‘annex’ those lands. Greedy businessmen like the infamous Cecil Rhodes, who seized the whole of Zimbabwe and Zambia and named them ‘the Rhodesias’, after himself, were very powerful – politically – in those days when Britain was as corrupt as many African countries are today.
Poor Prempeh had not heard of the double-dealing that had made some countries christen Britain as ‘perfidious Albion.’ However, perfidious the British Colonial Office indeed turned out to be, and against all the traditions of diplomacy, the envoys sent by the King of Asante to Queen Victoria were kept cooling their heels in a chilly London, waiting for honeyed promises made to them by the Colonial Office mandarins to materialise. Meanwhile, back in Ghana, Her Majesty’s forces attacked and sacked the Asante capital, Kumase.
The British stole so many wondrous artefacts, consisting of amazingly crafted ceremonial gold ornaments, from the Asantehene’s Manhyia Palace and from the Royal Mausoleum at Bantama (Kumase) that when a portion – only a portion – of the treasures was put on display by the British Museum in an exhibition entitled ‘Ashanti Kingdom of Gold’ in 1982, it took me several hours to go round seeing it all.
It left me in a state of near-depression. To imagine that few Ghanaians would ever have a chance to see any of those objects made by the people whom they had read about in books written by British writers as ‘backward people’, was most dispiriting. Yet the exhibits did not even include the most wondrous things taken – the gold ‘death masks’ of Asante Kings that had been pillaged. I saw some of them in a Los Angeles Museum in 1968, and another one, the partly cracked face of King Kofi Karikari, at the Wallace Collection in London! What else is where? Why should Asantes be denied the opportunity to see and admire them? It is a heinous crime against the cultural education of our people.
Anyway, the British expedition arrested Prempeh. They also captured his aged mother, his father, and almost his entire Council of Chiefs.
But they were not satisfied, because they had failed to nab the most precious thing of all – The Golden Stool of Asante! Everyone had heard of the ‘Golden Stool.’ Indeed, to British ears, it aroused memories of the “Golden Fleece” of Greek mythology, and they thought it would be a great trophy to have it and add it to the collection of treasures stolen from the peoples of the world and stored at the British Museum.
So the governor of the ‘Gold Coast’, Sir Frederick Hodgson, went to Kumase with a great determination to seize it.
But what the British had heard about the Golden Stool was only a garbled version of how the stool came to the Asante and what its role was in the Asante beliefs system.
Firmly established Asante oral history relates that the most powerful founder of the Asante Kingdom, Nana Osei Tutu I brought with him to Asante from Akwamu (where he had undergone training as a prospective heir to the Asante stool), a spiritual guru called Okomfo Anokye. It was this Anokye who planted two ‘Kum’ trees in two different locations – one of which died (Kumawu) and one of which thrived (Kumase) – and thereby determined that Kumase should be the Asante capital.
But having given the Asante a capital, Okomfo Anokye was not satisfied and decided to give them a permanent nation too. So, one day, gathering the major families that constituted the chiefdoms of the Asante confederacy together, he ‘commanded a Golden Stool to descend from the Heavens in a cloud of dust and mist’ – according to legend.
Okomfo Anokye then asked for the most sacred parts of the Asante human body – pubic hairs and nails – from each of the royals present. He burnt it together into ashes and mixed it with ‘mmortor’, an amalgam of potent, secretly cultivated herbs and blood. He then smeared the Golden Stool with it.
Next, turning to the crowd, he told them: ‘Your sacred souls – through your pubic hairs and your nails – have, this day been incorporated into this Golden Stool. So the day it is lost, all of you will be lost too, and there will be no more Asante Nation. So you must guard it with your very lives. Together, all the time.’
The Asantes had guarded the Golden Stool with their ‘very lives’ for over 300 years. The King of Asante himself never sat on it, for it was sacred. At public festivals, it was guarded as stringently as the person of the king himself. It had its own umbrella and a special chief who looked after it. It was the symbol supreme of Asante. The British didn’t know its spiritual significance. But they wanted it, to use as a trophy of war – a mere plaything that curious spectators would queue up to stare at.
The British governor, Frederick Hodgson, made a crass demand for the Golden Stool at a durbar at which the Asantes had gathered to courteously welcome him: ‘Where is the Golden Stool?’ he thundered at the huge assembly of astonished chiefs and people of Asante. ‘Why am I not sitting on it this moment?’
He had declared war without knowing it. He mistakenly thought that having captured Prempeh, their King, the Asantes would do everything he asked. But Queen Yaa Asantewaa rallied the Asante warriors with a rousing speech, full of choice words about how the Asante women would punish the men, if they ‘behaved like women’. The threats she made could have come straight out of the pages of a famous play by the Greek dramatist, Aristophanes, called Lysistrata, in which Greek men are denied sex by their wives until they decide to abandon their cowardice and fight to save the honour of the Greek nation. Can you see Yaa Asantewaa surreptitiously passing coded messages from house to house, to the women of Asante, telling them how to treat their men during the night, while the British insult remained unavenged?
Well, the women’s campaign worked, and the Asante nation responded. They fought the British bravely, with Yaa Asantewaa herself at the head of the Asante army, uncowed by the¨frightening booms of the British cannons. The British army was driven back into the fort of Kumase, where they faced starvation, and tried to bolster their morale by playing ‘Rule Britannia’ on a gramophone, while the Asantes were terrifying the lives out of them with the drowning sound of their atumpan and kete drums.
The British were only saved by running out of the fort at night, and linking up with reinforcements that were speeding from Lagos with even heavier guns.
Yaa Asantewaaa was eventually captured and taken to the Seychelles to join King Prempeh and his family. She died there. But Asantes remember her to this day. Not only Asantes – but, as I have demonstrated, even some Akyems, the traditional rivals of the Asantes.
That particular phenomenon – the Akyems singing about Yaa Asantewaa – never cease to amaze me, for in those days, there were no news media to tell people about things happening far away from their own backyards.
But, of course, people could sing! And they sang sweetly – about Yaa Asantewaa, ‘the mere woman who fought against the cannon gun.’ So sweetly that the song stuck in the mind of a little boy growing up in the Akyem Abuakwa town of Asiakwa – capital of the Nifa (Rightwing) Division of the Abuakwa army, no less!
Cameron Duodu is a journalist, writer and commentator.
28 October 2010, Pambuzuka