Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Nana Yaa Asantewaa and the War of The Golden Stool


The Asante People 

The Golden Stool ("Sika Dwa Kofi")

The Asante (sometimes spelled less indigenously Ashanti) are a subdivision of the Akan peoples, who make up about 45 percent of Ghana's population and are the largest of all the ethnolinguistic groups in Ghana. The Asante kingdom emerged in the seventeenth century, founded by Osei Tutu and his advisor Okomfo Anokye (pronounced ah-naw-chay), and established itself around Kumasi at the edge of the rainforest. 

Map of Ashanti Empire, 1800s, Encyclopedia of African History and Culture, Vol III, 2001

The Golden Stool

By legend, Okomfo ("priest") Anokye, who was revered for his oratorical skills, healing abilities, and magical powers, is said to have commanded a golden stool from the heavens to land in the lap of Osei Tutu, thereby enthroning him as the first king of the Asante Empire. The Golden Stool is believed to house the soul and spirit of the Asante--those living, dead, and yet to be dead. If anyone were to capture the Golden Stool, the Asante kingdom would fall.

No one, including the Asante King (Asantehene), ever sits on the Golden Stool. During the installation of a new monarch, the elders lower him onto the stool three times in succession, only allowing brief contact between the royal derriere and the surface of the stool. That will be the only time the king will make contact with the revered stool.

Asante Domination

During the 1600s, the Asante kings became the most powerful Akans and it was Osei Tutu who, in the 1670s, used the Asante capital Kumasi as his base to establish rule over the surrounding lesser chiefdoms. Much of the Asantes' dominance was due to the rich alluvial stores of gold in the region (still the case today), which they used to buy guns and ammunition. But preceding that, it was the  Denkyira (den-chih-rah) who dominated the region, being the most important inland supplier of gold and slaves to the Dutch at Elmina and the English at Cape Coast, and it was the wealthiest importer of European guns and munitions. The Denkyira clashed violently with the Asante, but in the 1699-1701 war, the Denkyira suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Feyiase. It's no surprise, then, that the Denkyirans formed an alliance with the British and the Fante, who had become a client state of Britain. The Fante had a long period of conflict with the Asante.

The Anglo-Asante Wars

The five wars between the Asante and British colonial forces comprised the Anglo-Asante wars (AAW). In the first, the Asante claimed territory from Governor Charles MacCarthy who rejected the claim and led a British army of 2500 against the 10,000-man Asante forces. The Asante crushed the British and killed MacCarthy on January 22, 1824, in the Battle of Nsamankow. Round two was later that year when the British and their Fante and Denkyira allies attacked the Asante forces again, only to be defeated once more in the Battle of Efutu. 

The second war, which involved British, African, and Indian troops against the Asante, ended in a stalemate. The third finally gave the British a victory over the Asante in the Battle of Amoaful on January 31, 1873.  The British briefly occupied Kumasi and then burned it down. The war ended in July 1874 when the Asante signed the Treaty of Fomena. The British built a fort opposite the Asantehene's palace and implemented forced labor and a mandatory tax of some £160,000.

The fourth AAW occurred from 1894-1896, ten years after the Partition of Africa, in which Britain and the other major European countries met to divide Africa up in order to avoid fighting between the Europeans. Britain wanted to be sure that neither the French nor Germans conquered the Asante Empire, so they decided to annex the Asante on the pretext that the Asante King had failed to pay 50,000 ounces in gold to the British as part of the Treaty of Fomena. Leading an army of African allies who had opposed Asante rule, Major Robert Baden-Powell arrested Asantehene Agyeman Prempeh, forced him to sign a treaty of protection, and sent Prempeh into exile when the war ended in 1896. 

Yaa Asantewaa and the War of The Golden Stool

Yaa Asantewaa (born indeterminately between 1840 and 1860) was an influential Queen Mother. It should be noted that the Asante inherit power and property in the matrilineal line. An adept farmer, Yaa Asantewaa ascended to the throne in the 1880s. Her role was as an advisor to the king, a guardian of the revered Golden Stool, and the person most responsible for presenting candidates for the kingship when it became vacant.

Nana Yaa Asantewaa

In 1896, with a weakened Asante Confederacy, the British demanded the Golden Stool and the surrender of the Asante. One must understand the kind of outrage this provoked among the Asante rulers. After about four years of back-and-forth haggling, the British governor of what was by then the Gold Coast, Sir Frederick Hodgson, demanded in typical entitled fashion that the Golden Stool be provided to him to sit upon. Bear in mind that even the Asantehene cannot sit on the stool, and therefore it was the height of hubris and arrogance for an outsider to demand it. Yaa Asantewaa's response was what I can safely imagine to be the Akan equivalent of oh, hell no. She urged the male chiefs to stand up to the British, but the chiefs feared the colonial forces would be too powerful. In incredulity, Yaa Asantewaa said to the chiefs:

How can a proud and brave people like the Ashanti sit back and look 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 [pound] 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. 

Reportedly, she grabbed a rifle and fired it into the air. The men must have been suitably impressed, because in March 1900, Yaa Asantewaa took command of the Asante forces in a battle against the British. It was unheard-of for a woman to go into battle, and by then, Yaa Asantewaa was no spring chicken, but she was seen on the battlefield wielding a rifle, even though she reportedly did not discharge it. She introduced new tactical maneuvers such as using stockades as traps for the British, a siege of the British fort in Kumasi, blockading food and ammunition from the British, merging single village armies into one central force, and setting up the British to go in the wrong direction by using a decoy.

Nevertheless, with the help of treacherous Asante chiefs who gave Yaa Asantewaa away, the British defeated Yaa Asantewaa with about two thousand Asante deaths and one thousand of the British and allied troops from the British empire after six months of fighting. Yaa Asantewaa was captured and exiled to Seychelles, where she died in October 1921.

The British never did capture the Golden Stool, even though they thought they had. The Asante duped them and gave them a replica. The genuine article was discovered in 1920 by African railroad builders, who stripped the stool of its ornaments. The Asante sentenced the thieves to death, but the British later spared them and exiled them instead. The British then agreed not to interfere with the Stool again, and it was restored to the Asantehene's Palace, where it is still used ceremonially in modern-day Ghana. 

If I could go back in time, The Notorious NYA is one badass woman I would have been awed to meet.

For a fuller appreciation of the background and circumstances of the Asante People and the War of the Golden Stool, watch this piece with BBC's Zeinab Badawi, although I have to say her pronunciation of Ghanaian names is very much off the mark in many cases.


  1. Fascinating story, Kwei. Sounds like a wonderful premise for a Lost Ark style thriller!

  2. I believe The Last Guy has his stool gold-plated every day. No, wait, different kind of stool...

  3. I've been reading a lot about the Brits in West Africa recently, particularly their destruction of the city of Benin, also in 1896. I understand there was a different morality then, but the more I learn of their tenure in the region, their lies, racism, and rewriting of history, the more disgusted I become.

  4. The wealth of epic tales coming out of Africa is endless. What land, what a history...what a future!

  5. Absolutely fascinating, Kwei!! Thank you for this slice of African history. These are stories left out of what used to be called "World History" when I was in school. It should have been called "White Men in World History." EG, China did not exist until Marco Polo went there!!!