One of the most heroic attributes of a citizenry is their ability to reclaim their history after the treasures, artifacts, and all things sacred have long been hauled away to fill the coffers and landfills of those who would enslave them. Subverting attempts of thievery at the onset can be considered an equally epic act. In 1900, the Ashanti people of Ghana would rise up and prevent the loss of their history with dauntless courage. The leader of their uprising was a sixty year old grandmother by the name of NanaYaa Asantewaa.
The Ashanti (Asante; Asa means war, nte means because of) was a tribe in modern day Ghana founded in the 17th century when, tradition indicates, a priest by the name of Okomfo Anoykye brought a golden stool down from heaven and anointed Osei Tutu as asantehene (king) of the kingdom. Osei Tutu rallied the forces of the neighboring chiefdoms against their mutual enemy, Denkyira, and these rallied forces formed the Ashanti, the ruling power of the region. The Golden Stool not only became a symbol of the king of the Ashanti people, it was also believed to hold all the souls of the Ashanti; past, present, and future.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the Ashanti developed strong trade relations with the Europeans, exchanging slaves and gold for guns and ammunition. They had always used many slaves themselves and their land was rife with gold. They soon became far better armed than the neighboring villages they fought against and greatly increased the size of their empire.
The Berlin conference of 1884 formalized the colonization of Africa and set the Europeans scrambling to seize West Africa’s many natural resources. As they carved up the continent among themselves, Ghana came under British rule and in 1886 the Ashanti rebelled against them. In 1896, like a classic move in a game of chess, the British took the King of the Ashante, Prempeh 1, and exiled him along with other powerful leaders such as Kofi Tene to Seychelles. The British had been attempting to make the region a protectorate in three previous wars, 1824 where the Ashanti were the victors, 1863 again the British lost to the Ashanti, but the 1874 war saw the Ashanti lose ground along the coast to the British, who eventually named the area the Gold Coast. With the blessing of the Berlin conference, the British were emboldened to accomplish the subjugation of the Ashanti people.
On March 28, 1900, to prove his dominance and superiority over the Ashanti, the British governor spoke at Kumasi, the Capital. “Your King, Prempeh 1, is in exile and will not return to Ashanti. “ He continued to tell them of the Queen’s authority, his power as the queen’s representative, and the amount of taxation the Ashante will be required to pay as a colony under British rule, as per the 1874 peace treaty, which the Ashante had yet to pay one iota. He also requested they forfeit their Golden Stool.
“What must I do to the man, whoever he is, who has failed to give to the Queen, who is the paramount power in the country, the stool to which she is entitled? Where is the Golden Stool? Why am I not sitting on the Golden Stool at this moment? I am the representative of the paramount power in this country; why have you relegated me to this chair? Why did you not take the opportunity of my coming to Kumasi to bring the Golden Stool and give it to me to sit upon?”
Kofi Tene’s grandmother, Nana Yaa Asantawaa,was the Queen Mother of the Ashanti. Nana signified her high position after she became Queen Mother when her brother Afrane Panin became chief of Ejisu around 1884. With the exile of so many leaders, Nana Yaa Asantewaa assumed the position of Chief. She was a courageous woman with a strong sense of integrity, and justice who did not take kindly to the governor’s proclamation that he should be brought the sacred stool, a golden representation of Ashanti strength.
Yaa Asantewaa gathered the leaders together and they hid the stool away from the invaders. The governor’s demand for the stool and payment for his self proclaimed overlordship was the last straw, she wanted to fight them and send them away from her home. While the British searched everywhere for the Golden Stool, Yaa Asantewaa noticed the solemn faces and weak wills of the fellow chiefs who seemed ready to meet the demands of the British. She stood to summon their solidarity in order to keep the stool from falling into enemy hands.
“How can a proud and brave people like the Ashanti sit back and watch while white men take away their king and chiefs, and humiliate them with demand for the Golden Stool? The Golden Stool only means money to the white man; they have searched and dug everywhere for it. I shall not pay one predwan to the Governor. If you, the chiefs of Ashanti, are going to behave like cowards and not fight, you should exchange your loincloths for my undergarments.”
With a rally cry sure to motivate even the most fearful of men toward action, Yaa Asantewaa was able to organize an army of 5,000 soldiers to confront the would-be thieves. She led a strong charge against the soldiers, killing many before all the British throughout the Ashanti kingdom, including missionaries and government employees, retreated to their heavily fortified fort in Kumasi.
As Commander in Chief of the Ashanti Army, Yaa Asantewaa ordered the cutting of the Fort’s telegraph wires and the blocking of shipments of food, weapons, and supplies. For three months they kept the captors captive. Approximately 3,500 people were living within the close confines of the fort. So many grouped together encouraged the spread of diseases such as small pox and yellow fever. With no way to leave the fort, the living were forced to drop the dead from the windows, which created an even more putrid and infectious environment.
Yaa Asantewaa made a truce to allow the women and children to leave the compound. One of the women who was released carried with her a message to the Cape Coast. A strong enforcement team was mobilized to march to Kumasi where they overtook the Ashanti on July 11th 1900.
With the capture of Yaa Asantawaa in September, the Yaa Asantewaa war, or the war of the Golden Stool, was officially concluded. Asantawaa was exiled to Seychelles where she lived until 1921. She passed away at the age of 81 surely taking pride in having won the battle, though she’d lost the war. The sacred Golden Stool never left its rightful place.
The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history. George Orwell.
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