The warrior Queens of Africa: Nzinga and Mama Yaa Asentewaa


IN August, we continue to remember and celebrate African women’s participation in the liberation war and highlight the history of the struggle.
Among the most remarkable freedom heroes who fought against European colonialism are Queen Nzinga of Angola and Mama Asantewaa of Ghana.
Queen Nzinga Mbande lived during the period of the Atlantic slave trade and the rise of Portuguese traders.
She rose to power as the leader of the Mbundu people in what we know today as modern day Angola.
She was a great leader, ruler, military strategist and strong opponent to the slave trade.
Before she became Queen, Nzinga was the envoy for her brother, King Ngola at various peace conferences with Europeans.
In 1617, the Portuguese slave traders established a fort and settled at Luanda, deliberately encroaching on Mbundu land.
Thousands of Ndongo people were taken as prisoners.
The king then sent his sister Nzinga Mbandi to negotiate a peace treaty with the Portuguese Governor Joao Corria de Sousa in 1622 to end the hostilities with the Mbundu people.
It was at this peace signing conference that Nzinga made herself known for refusing to accept the Portuguese as more superior to her and her people.
In preparation for the conference, the Portuguese had a chair for the governor only. They placed a floor mat expecting Nzinga to sit down in subordination to him during negotiations.
The historian, Chancellor Williams in his book titled The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of Race from 4500 B.C. To 2000 AD writes: “She took in the situation at a glance with a contemptuous smile, while her attendants moved with a swiftness that seemed to suggest they had anticipated this stupid behaviour by the Portuguese.
“They quickly rolled out a beautifully designed royal carpet they had brought before Nzinga, after which one of them went on all fours and expertly formed himself into a ‘royal throne’ upon which the princess sat easily without being a strain on her devoted follower.”
Although a peace treaty was signed successfully between Princess Nzinga and the governor, the Portuguese did not honour it.
The Portuguese attacked Ndongo in 1623.
Nzinga was forced to flee when war broke out.
She moved north and took over as ruler of the nearby kingdom of Matamba, capturing Queen Mwongo Matamba and routing her army.
Nzinga then made Matamba her capital, joining it to the Kingdom of Ndongo.
In 1627, after forming alliances with former rival states, she led her army against the Portuguese, initiating a 30-year war against them.
To build up her kingdom’s martial power, Nzinga offered sanctuary to runaway slaves and Portuguese-trained African soldiers.
She also stirred up rebellion among the people still left in Ndongo, now ruled by the Portuguese.
At the age of 60 years, Queen Nzinga personally led troops in battle.
She ruled for 39 years.
Matamba was a “formidable commercial state that dealt with the Portuguese colony on an equal footing.”
Despite repeated attempts by the Portuguese and their allies to capture or kill Queen Nzinga, she died peacefully in her 80s on December 17 1661 in Matamba.
After her death, the Portuguese accelerated the occupation of the interior of South West Africa and engaged the expansion of the Portuguese slave trade.
Today Queen Nzinga is remembered in Angola for her political and diplomatic acumen, great wit and intelligence, as well as her brilliant military strategism.
She was an abolitionist, a liberator and military strategist whose name should be widely read not only in African history books, but globally.
In Ghana, we remember Yaa Asantewaa, an Ashanti Queen who lived from 1832 to October 17 1921.
She was the Queen mother of Ejisu of the Ashanti Empire which is part of modern day Ghana.
In 1900 she led the Ashanti rebellion known as the War of the Golden Stool against the British imperialists.
In March 1900 the European Governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Frederick Hodgson, demanded to sit on the Golden Stool throne.
Such a demand belittled and showed no respect for the Asante sovereignty.
The council of Asante Chiefs was outraged by the arrogance of the British Governor.
They met to oppose the British imposition on that demand.
At the same time they also called for the return of the Prempeh I, their King, who had been exiled on the island of Seychelles.
The Chiefs could not agree on the way forward.
According to Ivor Agyeman Dua, an expert on African history, Yaa Asantewaa stood up and asked the English interpreter to translate to the Governor, that “tomorrow ghost widows would get husbands”.
The Queen was angered by the weakness in the men.
The Queen then declared that if the chiefs were such cowards, then they should exchange their loin cloths with her underwear.
It was at this meeting, that she gave the now most famous words:
“Now I see that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king.
“If it (was) in the brave 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 European could have dared speak to the chiefs of Asante in the way the governor spoke to you this morning.
“Is it true that the bravery of Asante is no more?
“I must say this: If you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will.
“We, the women, will.
“I shall call upon my fellow women.
“We will fight!
“We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields.”
With this, she took on leadership of the Asante uprising of 1900, gaining the support of some of the other Asante royal family.
The Edweso War Council was formed at her palace.
She was able to mobilise all the forces together and on March 30 1900 she led the troops to fight the British in the sixth and final Asante war against British colonialism.
Nana Yaa Asantewaa might have been in her 60s when this war started.
She ordered the continued bombardment of British supporters in the capital Kumasi. As a result, the British and their supporters sought refuge in the fort.
After several months, the Gold Coast governor eventually sent a force of 1 400 to fight the resistance.
In retaliation, the British troops plundered the villages, killed many and confiscated their lands.
During the course of this, Queen Yaa Asantewaa and 15 of her closest advisers were captured.
On May 17 1901, the British Queen ordered the deportation of Yaa Asantewaa and 13 Asante’s Chiefs to the Seychelles Islands.
They lived there as political prisoners on the Islands.
The Warrior Queen Yaa Asentewaa died on October 17 1921 on the island of Seychelles.
The legacy of Queen Yaa Asantewa and Queen Nzinga remain an inspiration for us Africans across the continent.
We reclaim and celebrate their bravery in fighting colonialism and subjugation.


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