Yaa Asantewaa was queen mother of Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire – now part of modern-day Ghana, appointed by her brother Nana Akwasi Afrane Opese, the Edwesuhene, or ruler, of Edwesu. In 1900 she led the Ashanti war known as the War of the Golden Stool, also known as the Yaa Asantewaa war, against British colonialism.
During her brother’s reign, Yaa Asantewaa saw the Ashanti Confederacy go through a series of events that threatened its future, including civil war from 1883 to 1888. When her brother died in 1894, Yaa Asantewaa used her right as Queen Mother to nominate her own grandson as Ejisuhene. When the British exiled him to the Seychelles in 1896, along with the King of Asante Prempeh I and other members of the Asante government, Yaa Asantewaa became regent of the Ejisu–Juaben district. After the deportation of Prempeh I, the British governor-general of the Gold Coast, Frederick Hodgson, demanded the Golden Stool, the symbol of the Asante nation. This request led to a secret meeting of the remaining members of the Asante government at Kumasi, to discuss how to secure the return of their king. There was a disagreement among those present on how to go about this. Yaa Asantewaa, who was present at this meeting, stood and addressed the members of the council with these now-famous words:
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.
Yaa Asantewaa was chosen by a number of regional Asante kings to be the war-leader of the Asante fighting force. This is the first and only example for a woman to be given that role in Asante history.
Yaa Asantewaa died in exile in the Seychelles on 17 October 1921. Three years after her death, on 27 December 1924, Prempeh I and the other remaining members of the exiled Asante court were allowed to return to Asante. Prempeh I made sure that the remains of Yaa Asantewaa and the other exiled Asantes were returned for a proper royal burial. Yaa Asantewaa’s dream for an Asante free of British rule was realized on 6 March 1957, when the Asante protectorate gained independence as part of Ghana, the first African nation in Sub-Saharan Africa to achieve this feat.